In this series, we’ve looked at the origins of some common attitudes and perceptions among church leaders regarding the causes of mental illness and the treatment approaches used by the mental health profession, approaches for addressing believers with mental illness within the reformed/evangelical tradition and research examining reactions of church attendees after seeking help for themselves or for family members with mental illness from pastors or church staff.
As the series comes to a close today, I’d like to toss out a suggestion to all in positions of leadership within the church, based on 29 years of experience interacting with families impacted by mental illness in my “day job.”
We need to treat persons with mental illness and their families with the same sensitivity and grace we would show to any vulnerable believer.
I’ll pick what seems to be a rather odd section of Scripture to support my point.
Paul shared some principles in 1 Corinthians 8 (ESV) that may be relevant to our discussion…
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
As church leaders, we may recognize situations in which symptoms associated with a mental health condition may be exacerbated by patterns of thought or behavior that can be characterized as sin. We may also see evidence in those struggling with mental illness of an absence of coping strategies available to those with more mature faith. But we’re clearly guilty of a lack of sensitivity in how we communicate with and care for our brothers and sisters with mental health condition as well as parents of kids with emotional, behavioral or social challenges.
Why the need for such sensitivity?
- Compared to others, persons impacted by a mental health condition are more likely to misperceive how they’re viewed by others in an inappropriately negative way. One reason many struggle with depression or anxiety is that they make incorrect assumptions about what others think of them. Because of these cognitive distortions or “thinking errors,” they may fear the judgment of pastors, counselors or other church leaders and demonstrate exquisite sensitivity to the words or actions of those in leadership.
- People with mental illness who experience “cognitive rigidity” or are prone to obsessiveness or perseveration in thinking have a much more difficult time than others getting past a hurtful experience.
What good does it do for us as church to push people away through our words and actions who might have what Paul describes as a “weak conscience” from the way their brains are hard-wired who we might otherwise influence to grow in faith through relationship? Are we causing our brothers and sisters to stumble?
And as we’ve discussed previously, there’s an enormous population living within the shadows of our steeples who struggle as a result of their (or their spouse’s) experience with mental illness or the experience of raising kids impacted by mental illness. People who need to experience the love of Christ with gifts and talents intended for use in expanding the Kingdom.
Miss any of the posts in this series on Sin, Mental Illness and the Church? Here are links to the earlier posts in the series…
The elephant in the living room…Sin, mental illness and the church. (January 16)
The evangelical understanding of mental illness…How Freud, Skinner, Rogers and Ellis led to Jay Adams. (January 25)
Jay Adams and the foundations of a movement… (January 28)
Unintended consequences…Sin, mental illness and the church (February 5)
Why many in the church don’t see ADHD as a disability… (February 11)
What if medication is a tool that helps us resist sin? (March 1)
Are you less likely to be referred to a psychiatrist if your physician is a Christian? (March 8)
Was Elijah Depressed? (March 24)