Why the church doesn't "get" mental illness

Editor's Note: May 1st-7th has been designated as Children's Mental Health Awareness Week, and Thursday, May 4th is Children's Mental Health Awareness Day. In today's post, Dr. G looks at why far too many churches overlook or deliberately ignore the needs of families impacted by mental illness during a time when intentional ministry with persons with disabilities and families

Why does the church struggle so much to minister with persons with common mental illnesses and their families? I suspect that mental illness isn’t easily compartmentalized into the understanding held by many church leaders of body, mind and soul.

Scripture very clearly instructs us to be intentional in serving persons with disabilities and including them in the life of the church.

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

 Luke 14:13-14 (NIV)

In recent years, the church has made great strides in growing ministry with persons with physical disabilities. The Bible is very clear teaching that disease and bodily decay is a consequence of living in a fallen world. Healing the sick was so central to Jesus' earthly ministry that he found himself continually monitoring the potential for his healing to become a distraction from his teaching.  

Jesus challenged the prevailing view of disability in his day and made clear that disability can and is as means through with Christ seeks to build his kingdom.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

John 9:1-3 (NIV)

I suspect that much of the church's struggle to "get" mental illness, and in turn to minister effectively and compassionately with persons with mental illness is rooted in our understanding of how much control we have over our thoughts and our behavior.

From the founding of the church, pastors and theologians have wrestled with the concept of free will – the extent to which we are able to make choices free of coercion. The Apostle Paul struggles with this idea in Romans 7.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[d] a slave to the law of sin.

Romans 7:14-25

Mental illness forces us to wrestle with the concept of moral agency - an individual's ability to make moral judgments based on some notion of right and wrong and to be held accountable for these actions. Most children and adults with common mental health conditions have the capacity to know right from wrong and are fully responsible for their choices, but they may need to devote significantly more cognitive resources and intentionality to managing their words and behaviors than persons without an identified mental health diagnosis.

Special needs ministry has experienced dramatic growth in the past two decades. The explosion of children and teens identified with autism has been one catalyst to growth. Improvements in medical science have resulted in the survival of many children with severe developmental disabilities and genetic disorders who wouldn’t have survived twenty or thirty years ago. But I’d argue that churches have an easier time embracing ministry to children and adults with severe intellectual or developmental disabilities because church leaders recognize their limited capacity for moral agency.

When someone appears to possess the capacity to know right from wrong and exhibits actions or behaviors that the Bible clearly recognizes as sin and carries with them a mental health diagnosis, many church leaders are all too often inclined to view their mental health condition as a rationalization as opposed to a disability. This is especially true when the persons affected appear to have some capacity for controlling their words and actions.

We are all too quick to forget Paul's teaching. All of us fall short of God's standard. While it is undeniably true that through the power of the Holy Spirit within those who have come to faith in Christ are a new creation and available evidence suggests that spiritual practices common to the Christian life help to enhance self-control, none of us will be perfected on this side of Heaven.

Do some mental health conditions result in a greater predisposition to sinful thoughts, speech and behavior? Unquestionably. Is anyone with a human brain and a human mind -  a mind that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think and feel - capable of living a sinless life and saving themselves. Nope. Do children and adults with mental illness need Jesus any more or any less than anyone reading this blog? Nope.

The truth is that we're all "disabled" when it comes to our ability to avoid sinful thoughts and actions. The sooner we embrace that reality, the sooner we can be about the work of sharing the love of Christ and making disciples among children, adults and families impacted by mental illness.

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Key Ministry encourages our readers to check out the resources we've developed to help pastors, church leaders, volunteers and families on mental health-related topics, including series on the impact of ADHDanxiety and Asperger's Disorder on spiritual development in kids, depression in children and teenspediatric bipolar disorder, and ten strategies for promoting mental health inclusion at church.