Mental and Emotional Illness and the Church

When tragic circumstances occur in a family or community, many turn to their pastor, leaders, or church connections. This circle of support is important. We can address this suffering with encouragement and hope for things we see with our eyes. It is right to do so. Yet, there is a segment of the church and public I feel are overlooked. There are people who suffer in ways we cannot see, which go beyond familiar experience. I am referring to those with mental and emotional issues, whether temporary trials or long-term disorders. In church settings, support for physical illness or misfortune is available, with little awareness of dealing with emotional and mental distress as an illness. In addition, the observable traumatic hardship and events we readily understand can lead to complications of emotional turmoil. If we turn to the faith community for help with this aspect, there is not much practical outreach, though equally vital.

The Problem
Some mean well, but have never encountered these difficulties themselves. Having not engaged with anyone on this level, they are ill equipped to deal with these issues. Others react with indifference and disinterest. What does this have to do with most people’s lives? Then there are those with the subtle-and not so subtle-attitude that the ordeals or disorders are due to being a weak-minded Christian or the fault of the individual who is suffering. It is the last two attitudes I wish to explore: What does any of this have to do with most ordinary folks and is it just a lack of faith?

The reality is mental and emotional damage is no longer “the fringe”. It can sometimes be hard to see due to its nature and the fact that many with these concerns feel shame and vulnerability. There are things you do not share with just anyone. Overall, however, the problem is growing. Mental or emotional disorders have affected individuals and families to such a degree that most everyone knows someone who struggles. It is now impacting “ordinary folks” in a real way. We are a broken people.

Biblical Figures Who Suffered
Those who address these problems with blame and harsh exhorting, or have theological issues with psychology and counseling, are ignoring a great deal of Scripture. This is where we get our truth, is it not? There is a lot to discover there. I am not here to debate the issue of psychology, but instead seek an understanding of the human experience. Setting aside the fact that the Psalms are full of every extreme emotion a person can have, such as fear, anxiety, depression, and feeling alone, here are a few examples of those who struggled:
  • At a point in his life, Elijah was so depressed he wanted to die. Yet God used this prophet  mightily and met him in his need. "And he requested for himself that he might die, and said, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take my life", 1 kings 19:4. After this prayer, an Angel of the Lord ministered to him.
  • God also used Jeremiah, who struggled deeply. The prophet openly expressed this torment to God. Jeremiah 15:8 is one example: "Why has my pain been perpetual and my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?" In addition, the book of Lamentations highlights Jeremiah's struggle.
  • From Scripture accounts we see Gideon suffered from anxiety or timidity. God dealt with him on a level of patience beyond many other figures in the Bible. Examples are the Angel of the Lord appearing to him while he was hiding in the wine press and Gideon doing what God asked of him at night out of fear. God specifically addressed his fear in Judges 7:10-11, "But if you are afraid to go down, go with Purah your servant down to the camp, and you will hear what they say; and afterward your hands will be strengthened".
  • Job was a godly man who suffered tremendously. He experienced depression, hopelessness, turmoil, even bitterness. He came through whole, with a greater understanding of himself and God, though his questions were not answered.
  • From church history we have the example of Marin Luther, a man God used to open the floodgates of the truth of unmerited grace and Scripture alone as our authority, igniting the Reformation. Luther may have suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (see Ian Osborne MD's book and He admittedly had dark periods of depression and oppression. In his later years, some would say he was unbalanced in behavior.
While these biblical examples may not portray extreme clinical forms of disorders we know today, the point is clear. As humans, we can suffer from troubled minds, our brains and emotions are complicated, and there are those who are deeply hurt. In a fallen world, getting darker by the day, it can affect anyone in their life. Scripture reveals God understands our weakness. If God so knows us and seeks our good, should we do less for each other? If we are one who struggles, we have a sure hope in the grace and loving-kindness of Christ.

What is the Bottom Line?
Am I saying if we have a few problems with nerves or are sad we should label ourselves with disorders and feel sorry for ourselves? That those with true clinical realities should clamor for victim status mentality? Am I providing excuses for destructive behavior with no call to healing and allowing God to enable us in His strength to cope? No, far from this. There are sanctification and growth questions, with many proactive avenues of mental health care to explore. What I am asserting is we can not afford to ignore this issue, it is not going away. Stigmatization and indifference is not serving those in deep need. We fail to minister to the Lord’s body by dismissing people with a “just praise the Lord” or taking them to task for their anguish before we take the time to understand their pain. To accomplish this, we must enter into their lives on an interpersonal level, beyond abstract, vague, concern.

As Christians we are called to come alongside one another, lifting and encouraging, in empathy. "Weep with those who weep", Romans 12:15b. The purpose is not to wallow in misery, as today's emotion driven culture sometimes exhibits, but to strengthen each another. 2 Corinthians 1:4 states it this way: "Who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God".

We are missing a growing necessity in the church and a ministry field to our communities. So many people who do not have the glorious hope of Christ are in pain. Surely, these fields too are ripe for harvest?

What Can We Do?
How do we reach out to someone we know is struggling? How can our church minister to those with emotional or mental problems? These concerns cannot be solved with band aid cures or a few dismissive words. We need solutions with a long haul view for troubled people, knowing there are no easy answers for the most severe mental/emotional afflictions. Are we willing to do this hard work of compassion? Ignoring the problem will serve no one, least of all ourselves when it ends up in our own life or a loved one. In addition, as David A. Seamands stated in his book Healing for Damaged Emotions, those who struggle can become healed helpers serving others. Who better to reach another than someone who has been there?

God Calls the Wounded to Himself
In Luke 5:12-13 we read of a man who is an outcast, a leper, considered by all in his society as unclean and to be avoided. He lives a lonely, shamed life. As he fell to Jesus' feet for mercy, the Lord not only healed him, He touched him to do so. What a picture of compassion. Jesus is our example to others and the answer to our own suffering. What about you? Have you ever felt alone with your problems, that no one understands or wants to take the time to do so?

As someone who has severe social anxiety, a once extreme form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and experienced profound depression, I can say to those who suffer, you have permission to be different. Sometimes we need to hear that. It is OK to be you, the real here and now you. An emotional illness, disorder, or mental problem does not diminish your worth in God's eyes. In fact, you have an opportunity to allow this pain to be the door which opens to a wonderful Savior. Without Him we are lost and walk alone. When we receive Jesus, our sins are wiped clean, we have a new born-again nature, and He will be intimately with you over the long term of recovery. God is calling you to Himself, just as he did with those biblical figures mentioned. This is what Job discovered in his ordeal. Not one of his questions were answered, the answer is God Himself. His transforming light and grace bring joy amid suffering. Our Father is faithful, no matter how long the valley has been. My recovery took over thirty years and still continues. No obstacle is too big for God.

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