The false gospel and mental illness

Bad theology hurts people. Through my experience working with families as a child and adolescent psychiatrist and my involvement with Key Ministry, I've come across far too many stories of those who have been hurt badly by the advice and counsel they've received from pastors, church leaders and fellow attendees at church.

Mike Vonderau is one of the pastors at the church I attend. He was preaching earlier today from 1 John 4:1-6 on the threats of false teaching. He pointed out that false teaching may not overtly deny adds to the story of Christ or detracts from it. Sometimes, the message is compelling or the motivations of the teacher is good.

Most of his message addressed what he referred to as the "gospel of self-sufficiency." This particular false gospel is often responsible for intensifying the distress experienced by persons with mental illness and their families from teaching or advice they received from church. To paraphrase Mike, we burden people with the Gospel of self-sufficiency by making them the solution to life's casting them back upon themselves. The problem with that perspective is that Jesus says that he is the vine and that we are the branches, and as such, we're totally dependent upon him.

We like to assume responsibility for identifying the solutions to all our problems, because when we do so, we feel as if we're in control of our circumstances. When people come for counseling, we want them to begin to accept responsibility as part of the process. But what do we want them to be responsible for? And what is God's responsibility according to Scripture?

All too often, when someone in the church is struggling with mental illness they are encouraged to do the following...

  • If you pray enough...
  • If you study the Bible enough...
  • If you identify patterns of sin in your life and confess them...

Or, if a child has significant difficulties managing their emotions or behavior, we in the church assume that the problems will get better if the parent(s)...

  • Pray enough
  • Are sufficiently dedicated to parenting and discipline
  • Loves their child enough

All of these actions are good (and appropriate) things. But what happens when things don't work out? We assume that the fault lies with the individual and often fail to recognize that other purposes may be in play. Consider the story of Job and his well-meaning friends. But that thinking reflects a perspective that we're ultimately responsible for our health and well-being as opposed to God, and leads us to depend less upon God. The enemy also uses that type of distorted thinking to shame us into withdrawing from God and withdrawing from one another.

We fail to recognize that it may be OK with God if we struggle or suffer so long as it accomplishes HIS purposes. Guiding us into a deeper relationship with him and a greater dependency upon him would certainly fall under that category.

Do we need to be wise stewards of the resources God has given us when we find ourselves or a family member struggling with symptoms of mental illness? Should we take advantage of the wisdom of counselors or the benefit of prescription medication when offered? Absolutely. Should we listen when someone with spiritual discernment who knows us well suggests we commit ourselves to prayer, study or a process of self-examination? Yes.

At the same time, we need to reject the false gospel that the outcome of our efforts to obtain relief from the burden of mental illness for ourselves or our loved ones hinges not on our efforts to heal ourselves, but on God's mercy and grace. We also need to recognize that the ongoing presence of mental illness in ourselves, our friends and our family members may not be a barometer of faithfulness so much as a necessary step in the fulfillment of God's purposes.