As I listened to one of my favorite podcasts, I heard a revered theologian—a completely rational man—talk about the significant spiritual warfare that had come against him in recent years, as well as at the time he became a follower of Christ. In the same week, I had an online interaction with a fellow Christian blogger who asked about Key Ministry’s approach to discussions of mental illness and spiritual matters.
From a human perspective, the issue of mental health and spiritual health appear completely intertwined. I think the inherent difficulty in distinguishing a spiritual issue from a mental health issue is a primary reason why the Church has been slow to discuss mental illness, much less become a supportive partner.
For people like me who have long history with depression and anxiety, a biblical understanding of life is very important for my hope tank—hat tip to Brad Hoefs—to be full. I own my own sin, and routinely drag it to the foot of the cross. In the past, my sinful choices made my depression and anxiety worse, but overall sin did not create my depression and anxiety. Having a place to go with my sin—the foot of the Cross—is actually a very freeing release.
My genetics determine that my natural bent in thinking and emotions is towards anxiety and depression, and my humanity determines that I have an inherent sin nature. This sin nature means that my choices are naturally bent away from God. But when a relationship with Christ comes into the picture, I am able to draw on His resources and strength to change my natural reactions that are destructive both to my spirit, my relationships and the part of my mental health I can change.
I know my life experience, and I’m a researcher of the physical realities of mental illness. I’m also a Christ-follower and a student of His Word. This rest of this post isn’t going to attempt to delineate more clearly where lines can be drawn between genetics and sin nature. Rather, this post is shared as a reminder of several important truths about spiritual struggles as noted in God’s Word.
We live in the midst of spiritual warfare that impacts our thoughts, feelings, decisions.
In my Bible, Ephesians 6:10 - 20 has the heading ‘the armor of God.’ The passage describes both the battle and the available weapons. Some of the weapons described are for protection, while some are offensive gear. Both types of spiritual weapons are available to every believer, but they are only available when we are strong in the Lord, not strong in our own might.
Difficult times will come, especially if we are in ministry, but God does amazing things when we let Him be our primary strength. He even promises to go before us, and fight for us. A week before Dr. Grcevich was scheduled to speak at a ministry conference organized by my fledgling mental health ministry, my family experienced a severe and difficult shock. But somehow, all of the planning for the event came off without a hitch, even though I had little time for last minute preparations in the week leading up to the event.
I’ve been in ministry long enough to know that the prayers and time spent seeking God determine the outcome. Yes, I am prone to depression and anxiety, and yes, the difficult days that we experienced that fall and following year cast me into a season of depression and sadness. But I wore the armor of God, leaning not on my own understanding, knowing that His ways are not my ways. And fortunately, seasons do not last forever.
Darkness can’t stand the light. Satan notices whenever people shake the spiritual kingdom, and forces will come against efforts to draw others to the light of Christ.
Everyone working in the space of special needs or mental health ministry needs to stay prayed up, in God’s Word, for guidance, wisdom, and protection. Make no mistake, the work of all special needs ministry, including ministry to and with people whose disability is revealed in behavior, is very much intertwined with the battle over whose life holds value. Anyone working in this space is on the front line of the battle between darkness and light.
In addition to the family trauma mentioned above, several days before this same ministry event, a mental health advocate who does not hold a biblical perspective contacted my church, mocked my church’s ministries and the upcoming conference, and argued with the staff about whether or not we had a rightful place in mental health ministry. She then sent me a pages-long social media message, detailing the phone conversation with employees of my church, reiterating that she would never consider attending anything at our location.
As you can guess, the other side of the conversation was quite different than the perspective of this advocate. It’s important to point out that neither I nor anyone else from my church had ever spoken with, met, or interacted with this woman prior to this confrontation.
For whatever reason, the notion that churches and individuals with a biblical perspective would seek to minister to and with individuals living with mental illness was threatening. The people she interacted with from my church were not confrontational in return, but spoke the truth in love. There’s something about the darkness in her, that sin nature that has not yielded to Christ, that reacted angrily and viscerally to the idea that biblical teaching and mental health ministry can and should be joined together.
Churches need to have a sure foundation before launching special needs ministry of any kind, but in particular mental health ministry. That sure foundation starts with a theology of disability ministry.
Scripture is very clear that every human is made imago Dei, or in the image of God. From this understanding, scripture clearly directs us on how to live in our own relationship with God, and how we are to treat others, with Christ as the ultimate example of servant-leader. I have seen repeatedly the impact of sacrificial love towards those that most people deem either unlovable or not valued. The sacrificial love offered to a disabled child or to a dying elderly relative—people who can give you nothing tangible in return—is a profound witness to the value of Christ’s sacrifice for people like me who can offer Him nothing in return.
If those of us who work in this realm try to do this work solely in our own ideas and strength, we can easily succumb to discouragement. Without a strong rooting in who God says I am and the power that is available through His strength and His spirit, discouragement can become a weapon used against us. Ephesians 6:10 commands us to be strong in the Lord, devoted to seeking Him as the premier posture of our heart and mind. Verses 18 - 19 encourage prayer at all times. Christ Himself suffered great discouragement at the end of HIs earthly life. How did He combat it? By prayer so intense that He sweat drops of blood. But those prayers allowed Him to lean into where God was leading, even though it was a place of suffering. His season of suffering didn’t last forever either.
If you want to start a mental health ministry, make sure mature believers are praying for ministry development even before the first plans are made. Enlist family and friends to pray for you. Ministry is filled with unseen battles, especially when your ministry values the lives our culture and even some ministries do not. And seek to fight the good fight of faith, because God surely rewards and guides those who diligently seek Him.
Forewarned is forearmed. Be prepared for a long battle, a marathon, fought on many fronts. And let God’s kingdom spread to those whose hope is a dim flicker of light.
Catherine Boyle is the Director of Mental Health Ministry for Key Ministry.