This last week, I had one of my seminary students come to me and disclose that they had been hospitalized for a mental illness. And part of their fear was how people were going to deal with the fact that they had this mental illness and the stigmas involved. It shows a great disconnect between the need to get help and the fact that so many stigmas still exist in the Christian community.

In light of this, I recently made the mistake of looking up what some prominent pastors in the United States had to say about mental illness. The results, to me, were quite staggering and very disappointing. They really reinforced my belief and experience that the church does not take mental illness seriously or have any real hope of helping those with mental illness.

Now, I’m going to be critical of Christianity and the church and its approach to helping those with mental illness. I think that is completely justified. But I also want to issue a caveat. There are pastors and churches trying to combat the issues associated with mental illness. One such is a place called ChurchTherapy.com and they are a great resource for pastors and church leaders on mental illness. There are also pastors like Perry Noble who are open and admit that they have had struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. I appreciate their ministries and those like them; however, the honest truth is they are too few and quite far apart. (After I originally wrote this piece, Perry Noble was fired from the church he founded, NewSpring Church in Anderson, SC, for overuse of alcohol and other problems. Noble said that he was now under “psychiatric care.” The fact that the church, the one he founded, could not come alongside him and make sure he got the help he needed while also continuing to serve as pastor – for example, by placing him on leave for 6 months while he worked through the issues – speaks volumes of where the church in general is in its ability to deal with mental illness, even those like addiction disorders. The church is far too quick to simply cast aside than bring in through love).

Before we get into what the pastors actually said, let me briefly see where we are. Lifeway Research, a conservative-evangelical polling group, conducted polling on views of mental illness in the church and in America in general. A caveat is that Lifeway’s work tends to make the church look “better” or not be as critical as some others: they performed this polling with Focus on the Family, a very conservative and “Christian” group. They are Christians and are biased to make sure the church looks ok. And even with that in mind, they were quite astonished at the results. First, 35% of Americans in general (so, non-Christians/non-churchgoing) believe that people should be able to pray and think their way out of mental illness: THIS IS TERRIBLE (could you imagine saying this about diabetes or cancer?). This number jumps, though, when we come to Christians, 48% of whom believe that prayer and Scripture reading should cure one’s mental illness. That is nearly 50% of Christians and this is completely unacceptable for the church. I would argue that these views come from a pastoral leadership that does not understand nor does it seem to care about mental illness.

(By the way, I would not go to Focus on the Family’s work on mental illness as a good or reliable resource. Their research is meant to fit a specific narrative they have about mental health: namely, that it is a learned behavior instead of having a very genetic component. For example, their discussion of bipolar disorder never mentions bipolar 2 and, while briefly mentioning genetics as a factor, spends much more time saying it can be environmental. Almost all of the evidence on bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and major depressive disorder and other mental illnesses is the exact opposite, lying much more in a person’s genetic makeup than in their environmental circumstances).

PROSPERITY GOSPEL AND MENTAL ILLNESS: JOEL OSTEEN AND HIS ILK

The folks who preach a prosperity gospel, like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Rod Parsley, Benny Hinn, TBN channel, etc., all preach a gospel detrimental to the mentally ill. And, there are two basic reasons why. The first is that the prosperity gospel is defined by the fact that God will heal someone if that someone makes a leap of faith. This can be costly to the mentally ill on multiple fronts, not the least of which is the false hope that one day one could be healed (this is something a therapist or psychiatrist can say, not a pastor who does not know you). Similarly, second, there is a “power-of-positive-thinking” motif that runs through the prosperity gospel: that if you believe it it can happen. The theology cannot account for suffering or pain apart from unfaithfulness. All of this does damage to the mentally ill, who are not going to be healed through thinking rightly and who experience pain and suffering while still being quite faithful. 

RICK WARREN AND MENTAL ILLNESS

Can I say, before I begin the section on Rick Warren, that Warren is trying to deal with the issue of mental illness, and for very good reason. Warren’s son died by suicide and it was crushing to he and his wife, obviously. Since his son’s death, Warren has worked very hard at setting up materials and conferences and has spoken out on the issue. But, I find that these are still lacking, at times. As well, Warren’s work has never disavowed some of his earlier thought on mental illness, before his son’s tragic suicide.

One such example comes from a talk that Warren gave at John Piper’s church on the mind. In the talk, Warren makes a number of problematic moves. The most major is that he continually talks about the need for a renewing of the mind and that this renewing of the mind will lead to strengthening in our Christian life. He says that the need for a renewal of our mind is to guard us from the attacks of Satan and the enemy. However, for Warren (and, really, for the entire conference), the mind is not anything close to the holistic notion that we get in Scripture. The mind is the place where we think instead of the integrated entity that is symbiotic with the body. Modern psychiatry embraces this very early Christian notion of an integrated self, but Christians like Warren do not: and it has consequences for mental illness because treatment for mental illness is not just a “renewing” of our thinking but a total renewal that takes the whole self. Warren and those like him miss this.

As well, for Warren, humans are preconditioned to misunderstand the things of God (which begs the question if Jesus was preconditioned to misunderstand the things of God and, if not, then if he was fully human, but I digress). Thus, the reason for immature and ineffective Christians is that they have not overcome this precondition to misunderstanding and renewed their mind. However, what about those with mental illness, who cannot overcome their thinking, which is caused by biological preconditions? What do they do? Can they be close to God or understand the things of God even though their mind is always in some state of problem? Warren seems to suggest that the answer to all of these is in the negative. 



ALBERT MOHLER AND MENTAL ILLNESS

At the same conference that Rick Warren delivered his speech, Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also delivered a paper/speech. His paper is mostly about critiquing what he terms postmodernism and setting the order for doing epistemology correctly. However, within his paper, he makes multiple comments to the effect that if people have right thinking, thinking that is concerned with the True God, then everything will work out. This poses a major problem for the person with mental illness in that “right” thinking is an impossibility at times. Thus, either God has literally forsaken the mentally ill because they cannot do this right thinking or the mentally ill are damned to Hell.

As well, Mohler makes two throwaway statements that are quite disruptive to what the mentally ill and their loved ones need. First, he talks about the fact that screwed up thinking is like ADHD in that it just jumps around and never lands on anything. Again, very hurtful to those with ADHD as they try to navigate life and Christianity. Similarly, Mohler says that the DSM-IV, the manual used to diagnose and describe mental illness in the United States, is really just a big book that describes everybody because everybody can fit into some place in the book. Anyone who has done any work with the DSM-IV knows it is a tool to diagnose and is very useful to those who know what they are doing. But Mohler would rather undercut good psychology and help for the mentally ill than give up his worldview.

JOHN PIPER AND MENTAL ILLNESS

Another quick caveat: for a long time I have not liked John Piper‘s theology. I find it, to say the least, problematic. So, when I ran across his writings on mental illness I was even more concerned and reread them to make sure I wasn’t being too hard. I don’t think I am.

Let’s start with a piece Piper wrote about the nature of self-worth. For him, self-worth is a dirty term that is not in the bible nor is the concept found in Scripture. He says that the glory of God is found in the bible and that any worth that a person derives is only because God has glory. Now, this is problematic on a number of fronts, the first being that Jesus obviously encourages self-worth in the second greatest commandment, saying “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It’s hard to love the self when the self has no worth or value. And, so, his position actually devalues people’s worth by saying the self is essentially a modern myth and we do not need to really value (i.e., take care of the self) outside of glorifying God (again, though, the greatest commandment would say our self-worth is found in God’s loving us: Piper actually turns God into something that needs our glory instead of a deity that gives of its own self). Similarly, his thought would be more acceptable if the glory of God acted as something that gave people worth instead of something that makes people realize their lack.: it would also be more biblical.

The next piece I want to point out of John Piper’s is a set of thoughts on anxiety: it’s actually a pseudo-podcast. The title of this podcast is “Anxiety: Sin, Disorder, or Both.” That title should really tell us all that we need to know. The fact that the title of the piece does not include anything that is not viewed as negative should raise our eyebrows: all the people with anxiety and panic disorders are already lumped into a negative category. As well, this only reinforces the stigma that people with anxiety disorders feel. But, Piper goes further, essentially equating the type of anxiety found in Jesus and Paul’s commandment to not worry with modern-day anxiety disorders. He argues anxiety is a essentially a trust issue with God, which it can be for some people. However, for a lot of people, anxiety is a mental illness that can be debilitating. He says that these people should find wise counsel and work with natural remedies before ever seeking out a doctor or meds. He has no concept that a person could be mentally ill and still be in the love and grace and glory of God.

(By the way, I had a pastor that bought into this idea that he could overcome anxiety through natural ways. He couldn’t though and it made working with him near impossible, and that’s coming from a bipolar person. He forgot, was angry, irritable, threw people under the proverbial bus, and also pointed out over and over that he controlled his anxiety through natural means and other people, who were implied to be weaker, could use meds but should really try the natural. This was considered forward-thinking).

That Piper has a hard time seeing mental illness as able to be part of God’s love and grace is found in the last piece I want to look at, which deals with the idea of psychiatric medications. Piper says that people taking medications for psychiatric disorders/mental illnesses is a “gray area.” This is really problematic considering that he exhorts people to stay away from gray areas over and over again. The gray is a bad place for Piper. And, thus, in the context of Piper’s thought, medications for mental illness are bad. He reinstates the stigma that all people with mental illness already feel. But he goes further. He says that the only reason that people should take medications is so that they can read the bible, learning to read it for the first time essentially. This sentiment discounts a couple of things: first, those with mental illness are not incapable of thinking or learning or reading, even though Piper implies that they are. Second, the bible is not the goal, but God is. The bible is a means to find the full enjoyment we only find in God (Piper makes the bible an idol, which the bible warns against). 

QUICK CONCLUSION

I want to conclude quickly by saying that I think the problem with these thinkers is that they do not understand mental illness apart from a sinful construct: that the only reason there is mental illness is because there is sin. However, what if mental illness simply is, is simply part of God’s good creation and, with sin, it started to have negative consequences? 

So, in the next few weeks, I’ll be working out some implications of mental illness for a Christian spirituality and for Christian theology. I hope this will begin to turn the ship a little in regards to what it means to be mentally ill and Christian.