This Spotlight article looks at mental illness and Christianity, in particular, depression. Can a Christian suffer from depression? What does it mean when you don’t experience the joy of the Lord as your strength? The article is an excerpt from a book ‘A.S.K.’ by former pastor David Robertson.
This A.S.K question is one of the most important issues we can discuss. I was asked it from every single continent. It is a vital issue for teenagers and not just teenagers.
That was brought home to me here in Australia when I was speaking at a school and a teenage girl approached me afterwards and asked if (as she had been told by her church) mental illness was demon possession. I asked her if I could answer her question in front of all the class. She agreed and we had a profound and emotional time. She and others were just so glad to get the answer below…If you think this is helpful please feel free to pass it on to any teenagers or others…
BIBLE READING: Isaiah 42:1-17
TEXT: A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out (Isaiah 43:a).
This is another question that is increasingly asked by teenagers. I suspect because there is a growing awareness of mental health issues. It may also be the case that because of various societal factors there is an actual increase in those who suffer from serious mental health problems. Around one in four adults will experience real mental health issues in their lifetime.
By mental health issues we do not mean just the normal feeling blue, or forgetfulness or other emotional and mental factors. We use it to mean issues that affect the mind which end up being debilitating to such an extent that they can change and harm our lifestyles. As the dictionary puts it; “a condition which causes serious disorder in a person’s behaviour or thinking.”
Some Christians have a particular difficulty with experiencing and dealing with mental health illness. They don’t recognize it as an illness. Although they would accept that Christians can get physically sick, they seem to think that Christians should not get mentally ill. But they seem to forget that all human beings, since the Fall, are living in a broken world, with decaying bodies, trapped wills and disturbed minds. There is no more reason for a Christian to think they will never experience mental illness than there is to think that we will never get sick.
Is it wrong for a Christian to get depressed? Isn’t the joy of the Lord supposed to be our strength? How can we sing about peace and joy if at the same time we are feeling so depressed? Does that not indicate something wrong with our Christianity? Not at all. Not unless you want to dismiss the Bible. Jesus was overcome with sorrow, Paul knew what it was to struggle against the ‘fightings within’, and we even have a book of songs (the Psalms) that frequently express the deepest sorrow, angst, and fears.
When I asked a student why she came to our church she said, “Because you let me be depressed”. I joked, “That’s a great advertising slogan – The Free Church – the Church that lets you be depressed.” But rightly she rebuked me and said, “I’m serious. I suffer from depression and it’s dreadful when you go to a church and they try to cast out the demons or worse, cheer you up! I was just so happy to come here and you let me be depressed and even let me sing songs about it.” She was of course referring to the Psalms.
What can we do to help? Accepting the fact of mental illness does not mean that we do nothing – or we are just stoical about it. We will do what we can to avail ourselves of help and to help those who are struggling. Mental illness hits teenagers in many different forms. Eating disorders, depression, bi-polar, and personality disorders amongst others. We should make use of the medical help and professionals that we have available.
However we also have two great advantages that others do not have. Firstly, we have the church. Our churches should be places where the mentally ill are welcome and where they find and receive support. The community of the Lord’s people can be a great help. We should follow the example of Jesus Christ in his strong, kind, gentleness. The bruised reed he does not break. The smouldering wick he does not snuff out. Churches should be refuges, places of healing which offer hope, peace, and restoration – whether in this life or in the life to come.
Then we have the great advantage of prayer. We come to One who was broken for us – who was tempted in every way just as we are. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). A Scottish theologian from the 19th Century, ‘Rabbi Duncan’, put it beautifully – “There is no pit so deep that Christ has not gone deeper still”. One of the greatest problems we have when we suffer from mental illness is that we feel we are alone, and that well meaning as they are, others cannot understand our situation because they have not experienced it. Christ has.
One other thought – if mental illness is “a condition which causes serious disorder in a person’s behaviour or thinking” is there not a sense in which all of us suffer to some degree from mental illness? Whilst it is not technically mental illness, it is nonetheless the case that sin has caused disorder in every single person’s behaviour and thinking. We all need to be renewed in our minds and healed in our spirits.
CONSIDER: What is mental illness? Do you think it is wrong to seek help from mental health professionals? How do you think the Church can help those who suffer from mental illness?
PRAYER: Lord, I thank you that you are my shepherd. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4). I thank you that you are close to the broken-hearted and save those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). O Lord deliver us from evil. Restore, renew and heal. In the name of Jesus – Amen.