Question: I’ve been diagnosed with mental illness and am frightened to tell my very ‘religious’ Christian friends. Please help me.
Theologian Dr Jim McClure responds: ‘Interestingly I actually started to write about mental illness just before the sad news of the death of Robin Williams at the age of 63.’
For nearly 40 years Williams’ unique brand of humour brought much joy to millions of people, but he suffered from depression that led him finally to take his own life. This article therefore is timely and will indeed help you – and others with this illness.
Many people in all walks of life suffer from that same debilitating illness of depression which takes from the sufferer the ability freely to live to his and her potential, and, sadly, many respond to the burden of this mental illness by taking the same route as Robin Williams.
Death encouraging illness
I have a psychiatrist friend whom I asked one day, ‘Why have you followed this particular medical speciality of mental illness when you are fully qualified to work in another?’ He replied with some vehemence, ‘Because I hate this illness!’
When I then asked him why he felt so strongly about it, he replied, ‘Because when people suffer other illnesses they want to live, but many who suffer mental illness want to die!’
One of the main problems with this illness is that you cannot see the evidence of its presence in the same way as you can with other physical medical issues. For example, the presence of cancer is revealed through scans, measles is revealed through spots on the skin, a broken leg is revealed by X-ray. But there is no visible evidence of, say, depression, apart from the effect it has on the sufferer.
Mental illness, including such sicknesses as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, costs Australia tens of billions of dollars every year. When the hidden, or indirect, costs of mental illness (social care, social security, housing and such) are included, the cost of mental illness to our society is phenomenal.
Yet there are some who claim that there is no such thing mental illness!
Misleading ‘religious’ beliefs
For example, Heath Lambert, assistant professor of biblical counselling at the respected Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. He refers to mental illness as a ‘construct’ which he understands as including such emotional problems as worry and sorrow. He then states: ‘The definition of mental illness can be changed so easily because mental illness does not really exist.’ Is he right? Are psychiatrists making money under false pretences? Have those who suffer from various forms of mental illness such as depression deluded themselves?’
Let’s consider some ‘religious’ beliefs about mental illness, particularly about depression.
• It exists only in the imagination
The cult Church of Christ, Scientist (or Christian Science) promotes the belief that mental illness (in common with all illnesses) is an illusion, a self-deception that may be healed by correcting one’s perception of reality which is an entirely spiritual thing. ‘When entertaining the Christ in one’s thought – that is, willingly seeking to understand God’s power to see his creation as he knows it – healing must result.’ (The Christian Science Monitor – July 29, 2008)
• It is a matter of choice
By ‘choice’ I mean that it is often believed by some that all the person suffering from depression has to do is to decide that he or she need to ‘get a grip’ on themselves, ‘give themselves a shake’ and stop ‘feeling sorry for themselves.’ With this attitude mentally ill people are twice victimised – first because they suffer the illness, and secondly because they are judged as displaying an inflated degree of self-pity!
• It is demonic
Those who believe that mental illness is a spiritual condition that has a demonic source will argue that freedom for this infliction will only come from driving out the demons that possess (or oppress) the sufferer. Consequently the demonic influence is attacked by using various rituals and techniques – some more bizarre than others. If healing does not follow the sufferer is to blame for not co-operating with the person who is, theoretically, working to drive out the demonic entities.
• It is caused by suppressed memories
Some ‘ministries’ such as Theophostic Prayer Ministry and Sozo Ministry (see my July article about Sozo Prayer) claim that inner healing can be obtained by recalling and dealing with those memories. Using psycho/spiritual deliverance and inner healing methodology they attempt to ‘heal’ the debilitating memories of the patient.
• It demonstrates lack of faith
If those who suffer from depression were truly to put more trust in God, their problem would disappear. Mental illness is seen as a type of faith-in-God barometer – more trust less psychological issues!
• It rejects God-given joy
Closely allied to the above is the idea that depression is overcome by joy. A favourite verse in this respect is part of Nehemiah 8:10, ‘… the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ God-given joy is the perfect antidote to depression.
• It is a physiological disorder
As the brain is a physical organ, it is as susceptible to illness as any other part of the body. Mental illness, therefore, is biologically caused and is therefore in the same category as cancer, diabetes, cholesterol or heart disease.
The fact is that everyone has felt unhappy, sad or depressed at some time! This is inevitable because of the problems and pressures we encounter in life. No one is immune. Feeling depressed is a normal experience of living in a world in which we encounter disappointments, grief or failure.
However, although they bear some resemblances, feeling depressed and suffering clinical depression are not the same. There is an intensity in depression that is accompanied by a sense of feeling without hope, help, love and value – even if that perception is untrue! Depression incapacitates in a way that ‘feeling depressed’ never does. Nevertheless, because of the stigma that is often attached to mental illness, people suffering from depression often conceal it from others by appearing to be cheerful, yet the pain remains.
Unfortunately because of lack of teaching or bad teaching on the subject from a Christian perspective, many Christians, who suffer from depression, try to keep the illness hidden from other Christians for fear of being judged; some even condemn themselves. We need to understand that depression does not indicate weak character or inadequate faith.
Some important points need to be made
- God is able directly to heal any sickness, disease or injury! And many can testify to his power to heal from many different illnesses. Depression is not beyond God’s ability to make whole! But reality shows us that, despite many prayers from many people, God does not always heal.
- Demonic possession/oppression is real – but not all instances of mental illness are caused by demonic activity.
- There is a distinction between demonisation and mental illness.
What can we say about this illness from a biblical perspective? Matthew 4:24 sheds some light on this matter, ‘News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralysed, and he healed them”’ (NIV).
There are three categories of illness mentioned in this verse – spiritual, mental and physical. Let’s consider the New Testament Greek words that are actually used in this verse.
1. Spiritual – ‘demon-possessed’
The Greek word is daimonizomenous that means ‘being demonised’. Those in this category were people in whom demonic powers had destructive control of their lives. In Matthew 5 we read about Jesus ministering to one such man – Jesus said, ‘Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!’ (verse 8)
2. Mental – ‘seizures’
This is an inadequate translation of the Greek word selēniazomenous. The first part of this word, selēn, refers to the moon, and may quite appropriately be translated as ‘moonstruck’ which refers to behaving in an unbalanced way. (The KJV uses the word ‘lunatic’ which in contemporary usage is a loaded term and some other translations use the word ‘epileptic’ and seizures‘)
3. Physical – ‘paralysed’
The Greek word is paralytikous. This word refers to a loss of physical ability.
The ‘dark dogs’ of Elijah, Christian leaders and hymnwriters
Elijah, who has often been considered as the greatest of the prophets, faced what Winston Churchill described as the ‘dark dog’ of depression. Following his courageous and faith-filled contest on Mount Carmel against ‘… the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table,’ (1 Kings 18:19) in which the lordship of Almighty God was powerfully demonstrated, Jezebel threatened to have him killed.
Then, surprisingly, Elijah sank into depression. Chapter 19 is like a case study on clinical depression. Elijah’s depression, which was not the result of lack of faith or being demonised, was real! It is interesting to note that God did not rebuke Elijah, rather, in gentleness God ministered to him.
Many prominent Christians throughout the years have suffered from depression, including Martin Luther, John Bunyan, John Knox, Charles Spurgeon and CS Lewis. Some well-known hymnwriters, who hymns have blessed generations of Christians, have also suffered from depression, for example,
William Cowper wrote:
‘O for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame,
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!’
He also wrote:
‘There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains; lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.’
Hymnwriter Joseph Scriven, who also suffered from depression, wrote the hymn, What a Friend we Have in Jesus –
‘What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.
Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.’
Depression – not something to be ashamed of or hidden!
Depression – or any aspect of mental illness – is not something of which we should be ashamed. Nor should it be kept hidden.
Those who suffer from this terrible, crushing, illness need not only the help of God, but also that of family and friends and, unquestionably, psychiatric help and the medication that may be prescribed.
Christians generally, I believe, need to be better informed about this illness so that they may refrain from insensitive and uninformed judgment of sufferers. On the positive side, those suffering from depression, and who are part of a church, should be able to receive the love, understanding, support, prayer and encouragement from their fellow believers, including caring and understanding ministers. As do the partners and family of those who suffer – their needs are often forgotten.
A loving, non-judgmental Christian fellowship may just help prevent the tragedy that befell Robin Williams.
Dr Jim McClure is a noted theologian and author of Grace Revisited and other informative book. Orders and enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org (See also Resources)
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