question seems simple, it really can be complicated. I am writing about it today because once again the question has made the news.
It comes this week because of the unspeakable tragedy that came to the Warren family in the death of their son.
Warren and his wife had the opportunity to share their experience on CNN. My continued response has been to pray for them. And, I am not writing about them or their interview.
Ed Stetzer wrote about the interview and the state of thought among Christians in his part of the Church and said the
“So, what can we do as people of faith to address issues of mental illness? Churches need to stop hiding mental illness. The congregation should be a safe place for those who struggle. We should not be afraid of medicine. We need to end the shame.”
“The fact is, mental illness is real. And it's a real illness.”
“It is also important that we recognize that prayer changes things. In fact, the gospel impacts every area of our lives
and God can—and does at times—supernaturally heal every kind of illness. Yet, God often chooses to do so through an approach that includes prayer, study, Christian community, and medical intervention.”
“Medicine is not the answer to everything, and we live in an overmedicated world, but we need to treat character problems like character problems—and illnesses like illness.”[i]
I appreciate the effort that Lifeway and Stetzer have gone to in order to help people who struggle with their emotions.
But, in the article, churches and their members appear to be criticized for contributing to the problems of those who struggle by refusing to recognize the reality of their illnesses. I said illnesses on purpose because I believe that at the heart of this article is a simple problem. Mental Illness is not a simple term. It includes hundreds of diagnoses with multiple variations. Many of them are controversial. Some of them are not. But, what happens when you lump them altogether and then ask survey questions? Here is an example from the article.
“Thirty-five percent agree with the statement, "With just Bible study and prayer, ALONE, people with serious mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia could overcome mental illness."[ii]
The problem with the question and the conclusion is that depression and bipolar disorder are not homogeneous problems. Some researchers believe that up to 90 % of those who are diagnosed with depression may be suffering with normal sadness over loss.[iii] More researchers are very concerned about the validity of the current criteria being used to make the diagnosis.[iv] A growing number believe that many of those diagnosed with depression would be better cared for by simply talking to a skilled helper instead of being cared for medically.[v]
So I would suggest that we should not ask the Church to change its attitude towards “mental illness” on the basis of surveys that ask general questions about a complicated matter. Instead, I think what we really need to have is a conversation about what mental illness is and what it isn’t. If we are going to change the attitudes of the church body toward those who struggle with their emotions, it will require us to stop using the generic term “mental illness” expecting everyone to respond to it in a defined way. We will need to look at the objective scientific evidence for each specific diagnosis and behavior in the light of scripture. And, no Christian in medicine or counseling should be afraid of that. Then maybe we can separate the character problems from the illnesses. And respond to them the way James told us in his letter.
"So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (Jam 2:12-13 NASB)
[i] Mental Illness and the Church: New Research on Mental Health from LifeWay Research. Ed Stetzer Blog at Christianity Today 9 17 2013.
[ii] Half of evangelicals believe prayer can heal mental illness. Blog at Lifeway.com Bob Smietana. 9/ 7/13.
[iii] Good Mood Bad Mood, Shepherd Press, 2012, 61-68
[iv] Good Mood Bad Mood, 23-31
[v] Good Mood Bad Mood, 69.