Let me start with a disclaimer: Don’t hear what I’m NOT saying!
This is a weighty question and I would resist a broad-stroke response to this. Different Churches look at psychological illness differently. There are some, especially in the West that are very perceptive and understanding. The urban churches in India are trying hard to grapple with this (which is a big relief for most sufferers). But there are miles to go, for some churches. According to a LifeWay research finding in America, about 50 % of Evangelical Christians who participated, felt that Bible Study and Prayer alone can reverse psychological illness and restore wellness.2
In an honour-shame eastern culture, psychological challenges are taboo. Shame, stigma l scandal are three words that capture in essence the common man’s outlook on psychological illness, here.
The Church is not entirely immune to this popular perception.
Here are a couple of cursory observations;
- The Spiritual-attack narrative
Some Churches simplistically attribute psychological ill-health to Spiritual attack (oppression or possession by spirits and Satan)
Spiritual attack is common-talk among many Christians today and in a victimhood culture, it is a very hot-selling narrative, which is gaining easy and much dangerous ground. Anything from delayed promotions to financial loss, conflicts at work and home, physical ailments and almost everything away from the super-successful, super-sorted, super-duper Christian stereotype, could well be the Devil and his minions attacking us! Needless to say, Psychological illness, clearly tops the chart of this kind of thinking and adds another ugly burden on these ‘victims’ that are already drowning under the weight of their struggles.
As Christians, we will do well to understand that Psychological ill-health is not only a spiritual issue, it’s a natural illness from the brokenness of the whole person that ensued from the Fall.
- Sin – Spiritual Slackness narrative
Some Churches weigh-in heavily on ‘Personal Sins’ as the chief cause of psychological ill-health. As we have discussed elsewhere, personal unconfessed-unforgiven sin can lead to unresolved guilt and can psychologically disturb a sensitive person, leading to ill-health. While this is true, we also need to recognize that there are many sinful people, who are callous and insensitive, but not showing any signs of psychological distress. Two inferences emerge;
- First, all sinful people are not psychologically ill
- Second, all psychologically ill are not living in unconfessed-unforgiven sin
- Third, some people, living in sin, may be prone to psychological ill-health.
Other Churches, propose ‘Spiritual Slackness’ to be the key cause. Sure enough, when spiritual guards drop down, we give a foot-hold to the enemy and sin seeps in and we could become vulnerable to attacks. So the sufferer is motivated to re-work his spiritual disciplines and rightly so. Golden advice, if the person in question is really spiritually slack. But the problem is spiritual slackness is a relative-subjective category. When we misattribute spiritual slackness to the wrong people and suggest Bible reading and prayer as antidote to one who is already actively doing so, we over-burden them, in attempting to unburden them and innocently prod them towards legalism.
When the suffering doesn’t go away through reading the Bible or prayer, the person affected may despair of his or her spiritual ability or maturity. The very thing that should provide unshakable confidence, that should strengthen our faith in Christ, becomes a source of shame if our faith isn’t “strong enough” to beat the illness. As a result, many of our Christian churches, homes, and institutions spread an aura of mistrust, guilt, and shame2, needlessly.
- The hyper-faith narrative
There are some Churches that make such bad enemies of Scripture and medication. Scripture and medications/counselling are neither enemies nor mutually exclusive.2 Scriptural authority is never challenged by the efficacy of medical science, they can co-exist after all. When one equates the use of medicines/therapy to a lack of faith, we would be adding insult to harm and inflict our own, twice over in attempting to help them.
God can instantly, miraculously right a bio-chemical imbalance in the brain. God can absolutely do the same for a broken leg, too. Yet, almost none of us hesitate to rush to the doctor, to have it fixed! There are certain psychological illnesses (ex. Bipolar disorder), that respond so well to medical treatment (amply supported by research evidence), to the point of total cure.
Scripture and medications/therapy are enemies that were never meant to be!
I don’t intend to belittle the Spiritual causes behind Psychological ill-health. I do agree that all of the above could variably contribute in part or whole to initiate, influence, and perpetuate psychological ill-health, but considering the whole gamut of causes (bio-chemical, genetic, microbial, social, volitional, etc.,) and the wide variety of presentations, the above at best, as sole contributors, is indeed very narrow and simplistic.
As Christian Psychologist Brad Hambrick poignantly notes, Christians who say faith-only, doctors who say medication-only, and counselors who say therapy-only are equally wrong about and equally hurtful to those who struggle with psychological illness.
The bottom-line is that “we make it more difficult for our own” because “we struggle with how to struggle.”1
Towards a Christian Perspective on Mental Illness by Brad Hambrick.