Gospel hope for mental health
Posted by Emma Scrivener, 7 May 2020
Emma Scrivener's article for the Summer 2018 edition of Crossway offers wonderful gospel hope for those struggling with mental ill-health.
Twice in my life I’ve had life-threatening anorexia – once as a teenager and again as an adult. Both times I’d have said I was a Christian. Both times I sought help from medical professionals and the Christian community. Yet still, I nearly died.
Christians helped me more than anyone else. Yet Christians also did most damage with some of the things they said:
“If you had more faith you wouldn’t be sick.”
“You just need to repent.”
“Your problems are too much. ”
If church is for shiny, happy people who are better than everyone else, then I don’t belong. But I’m not alone. 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem every year; and Christians are not immune.
Depression. Stress. Eating disorders. Self-harm. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Schizophrenia. Borderline Personality Disorder.
What are we saying to these people? What are we saying as these people? Are we offering gospel hope? Or is our message – spoken or unspoken, “Come back when you’re better?”
The sickness we share
Jesus tells us that the kingdom is not a realm for the strong, or a reward for the righteous, but a hospital for sinners. Everyone qualifies for treatment, but there’s one condition: we must admit to our sickness.
“It’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Luke 5:31-32
As we acknowledge this, we can move forward. Yet the Doctor offers a surprising cure. Instead of removing us from our troubles, He joins us in them.
We sometimes feel that suffering is wrong, or evidence that we’re not living the Christian life “properly.” But we follow a Saviour who is broken and crucified for us. At the cross He enters our darkness. The God who is content, peaceful, patient, pure, compassionate and full of hope is the God who enters into our hunger, anxiety, control, shame, anger and despair.
We’re sometimes told that religion is ‘bad’ for our mental health. It condemns sickness as sin; it calls us to perfection; it loads us with expectation and guilt. But as Jesus reminds the Pharisees, He has not come to make good people better. He has come to raise the dead to life – and we’re all corpses.
I write and speak on faith and mental health and I’ve heard from many Christians who feel that they are “too much” for God, “too much” for the church and “too broken” to change. But the opposite is true. The gospel tells me that everyone is broken, whatever we look like on the outside. So church should not be somewhere I’m scared to be real; but the one refuge in a judgemental world. Here, I don’t need to wear a mask. Here, I can afford to be honest. Here I meet other messy people, and I am not ashamed.
When it comes to the Christian life, struggle is not an anomaly, but part of following a crucified Lord. Sickness is an inescapable feature of a fallen world and just as our bodies are prone to illness, so our brains don’t work the way they should. This means that as believers we’re not surprised when we feel depressed or anxious. Nor are we taken aback when those we love are caught in addictions or compulsive behaviours. Church is not a community of perfection, but a rag-tag mixture of sick sinners gathered around a beautiful Doctor. So what hope can we offer one another? German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, puts this beautifully:
Anybody who has once been horrified by the dreadfulness of his own sin that nailed Jesus to the Cross will no longer be horrified by even the rankest sins of a brother ... Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it also does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner.
Nothing is more powerful than seeing myself in the face of another. Nothing is more powerful than hearing the words: “Me too”. But as we share our scars, we point to the light outside of us. We say to one another, “Don’t despair. I’m also a sinner. But look, isn’t he beautiful? He will heal us. He will take away our sin”.
Why Jesus is for the Mentally Ill:
1. Jesus comes for the sick. Time and time again, He reaches out to all those who know themselves to be weak…weak in body, weak in spirit, weak in mind. He goes to those who cut themselves off from others and harm themselves; whether promiscuity (the woman at the well), or addiction or self-harm (the man who cut himself in the caves) or workaholism, (Martha). He offers them grace and truth. Grace for the ways they’re enslaved to their behaviours; truth for the choices that keep them enslaved.
2. Jesus doesn’t deal with us according to labels. He deals with people as individuals and He never pigeonholes us, or our problems.
3. With mental health struggles, we can easily lose our sense of self. But Jesus not only sees us as we are, but as we can be – as we were made to be.
4. When our brains are broken, it raises all sorts of questions. Why am I here? What am I worth? What does the future hold? Christ answers these things; and our church and faith gives us ground to walk on as we explore them.
5. If you’re struggling with mental health, your feelings and self-perceptions are constantly changing. In the gospel your identity is based on an unchanging Person – Jesus and His life and teachings. This is vital, especially when life is full of fear and anxiety.
6. Our struggles don’t disqualify us from Christianity: in fact, they can be evidence of it. As believers we should expect suffering; and mental health can be a part of this. We can speak with truth, grace and empathy to others who also face challenges. We can be a blessing to the church because of our struggles.
The community of the cross
A community gathered around the cross is a community marked by honesty, humility, empathy and profound solidarity. It’s a community that allows me to be real about my problems and offers a theology to understand them. It’s a community that stands with me in my struggles, and refuses to define me by them.
This community teaches me that I have a loving Father who promises to keep me to the end; a Spirit who helps me in my pain and a Saviour who loves me - to death. Every day He carries me; every day He meets me with fresh mercy and grace. In Him, I can change my old patterns. In Him, I can live out of a new identity. In Him, even my suffering can be redeemed.
As they point to Christ, His people teach me that I am more than my feelings. I have hope; even in despair. I have comfort, even in suffering. I have peace, even when my world is shaking.
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging…
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
How churches can help:
• Expect struggle: both in our pews and our ministry teams.
• Don’t assume that mental health is necessarily a spiritual issue
• Invite testimonies from those struggling with mental health issues. Include those who aren’t necessarily free from struggles, but are working them through.
• Be open about mental health and teach about it from the Bible.
• Be flexible about church: e.g. providing seats near the back, services outside of Sunday, quiet space for those who struggle in groups.
• Have a clear pastoral support policy and structure.
• Be aware that many mental illnesses are chronic: provide long-term support and allow room for answered prayer in different ways and over time.
• Care for carers as well as sufferers
• Provide training on mental health issues for clergy and church
Emma Scrivener is the author of several books, including A New Name, and A New Day (IVP). She blogs about identity, faith, and mental health at emmascrivener.net.
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