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When Sickness is Called Sin

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Imagine a woman crawling down the aisle of your church, her legs clearly broken and dragging painfully behind her.  Her eyes scan the congregation, desperately searching for someone who will help her.  Upon reaching the altar, she is counseled to stop sinning and pray more.  A scene like this is almost incomprehensible.  But what if the illness was not so easily identifiable at first glance?

Statistically, one in four adults in America will suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder this year—conditions ranging from depression to schizophrenia.  And when those people look for help in their local church community, this is the advice many will receive.  In his new book, Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness, author Dr. Matthew Stanford advocates a far different response, presenting both the scientific evidence and the biblical truths that should shape the Christian view of mental illness.

As both a church leader and a professor of psychology and neuroscience, Dr. Stanford has seen far too many mentally ill brothers and sisters damaged by well-meaning believers who respond to them out of fear or misinformation rather than out of grace. 

“Mental health research and practice have made significant strides in relieving the mental and physical suffering of those afflicted with mental illness,” he said.  “Yet there continues to be a high level of suspicion, distrust, and even fear in the church when it comes to psychology and psychiatry.  The simple fact is that Christians develop mental illness at the same rates seen in the general population, and the tendency to equate the condition with demonic possession, weak faith, and generational sin has been inadequate to deal with the problem.”

Grace for the Afflicted takes on several hot topics including the role of psychology and psychiatry in the life of the believer, the use of prescription drugs treatments, and the root causes of common mental disorders.  Describing each disorder, Dr. Stanford asks, “What does science say and what does the Bible say about this illness?”  Mental illnesses addressed in the book include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders, and substance use disorders.

Stanford recently discussed the book.

Why is it so important for Christians to understand both the scientific facts and the scriptural truths related to mental illness?

Science and faith have had a long and tense relationship.  A dangerous and damaging battle—a battle between faith and psychiatry/psychology—is being waged daily in churches throughout the world.  And lives are being destroyed.  Mental illness is a frightening experience, not only for the afflicted but also for those who witness an individual struggling with strange thoughts and behaviors, particularly their family members.  Centuries of tension between the church and the scientific community have made pastors and laypeople alike wary of adopting scientific explanations for behaviors and thoughts that, on the surface, may appear sinful.  Statistically, one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.  These people often turn to the church for much needed support, only to be told they need to simply pray more and turn from their sin.  Mental illness is equated with demon possession, weak faith, and generational sin.  The underlying cause of this stain is a lack of knowledge both of basic brain function and biblical truth.  I wrote Grace for the Afflicted to help correct the misinformation often passed along in the Christian community and, hopefully, to inspire compassion for those afflicted by mental illness.

What are mental disorders?

Mental disorders are real disorders that have their origins in faulty biological processes.  The Bible even supports this by listing madness along with physical problems like boils, tumors, scabs, and blindness ( ).  These biological vulnerabilities are often magnified by psychological and environmental factors.  Mental disorders include mood disorders (i.e., depression and bipolar disorder), anxiety disorders (i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder), schizophrenia, eating disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, substance use disorder, and several others.  Mental disorders do not discriminate according to faith, but rather affect believers and nonbelievers alike.

In Grace for the Afflicted, you declare your belief that the Bible is the source of all truth—yet you point out that the Bible alone is not always sufficient to treat many forms of mental illness.  Isn’t this a contradiction?

God’s revealed Word, not psychology, is the final authority on truth, but it was never meant to be an encyclopedia of all factual knowledge.  For instance, it doesn’t tell us how our heart or liver works.  While the truths of the Scriptures go beyond the theological (e.g., to include historical facts), as a colleague of mine once accurately but flippantly said, “The Bible is not a science book, nor is it a manual on how to fix your car.”  It does instruct us in the most important truths: there is a God who loves us completely and sacrificed Himself for us.  St. Augustine said, “All truth is God’s truth.”  This statement has often been misused and abused by those who would hold man’s “truth” to be equal with God’s.  His majesty is reflected in how our brain cells function, the biological and environmental factors that affect the formation of our personalities, the mechanism by which memories are brought to our minds, and the precise balance of brain chemicals that are the foundation of our thoughts and behaviors.

In each chapter, as you deal with a different mental disorder, you have included the story of someone you know who is really living with the condition.  Why was it so important to include these stories?

I included all these stories in Grace for the Afflicted to put a personal face on mental illness and to give readers a better understanding of just how devastating it is.  When we discuss mental illness, we are talking, in the broader sense, about wounded people with damaged lives, precious children of God whom we have been called to love and whose burdens we have been called to carry.

Many people would be surprised to find out that individuals experiencing psychological distress are likely to seek help from religious leaders more than from any other professional.  What level of involvement should we expect from pastors?

While pastors may have extensive training in interpreting the Scriptures, typically they have no formal training in the causes and treatment of psychiatric illnesses.  In addition, many pastors have little if any training in individual counseling.  The time available for them to provide long-term counseling is limited.  However, the involvement of the pastoral staff in ministering to the mentally ill in the fellowship is critical.  Much like the pastor and congregational leaders set the course for the local church, they should play that same role in ministering to mentally ill congregants.  This is done simply by meeting with them (perhaps several times) and directing them to programs, services, and individuals in the church that will then do the lion’s share of the pastoral care.  The pastoral staff should give serious thought to this issue prior to someone seeking help from them by developing ministries, training lay counselors, and screening community services (e.g., psychiatrists, psychologists, and Christian counselors) so they can facilitate the person getting effective Christ-centered treatment.



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