October 28, 2020

The Christian and Mental Illness VI: What Does The Gospel Say?

I come to my last post in this series: What does the Gospel say to the mentally ill? What does it say to all human beings about the mentally ill? What does their presence among us tell us about ourselves? How is mental illness related to “true humanity?”

As I have grown in my own understanding of the implications of Jesus, I have found myself taking a new and deeper look at human beings. You will note that I have categorized these posts as “Christian Humanism”, which is how I describe my own theological position. I believe that the incarnation of Jesus reveals God; I believe that incarnation reveals God to us as a human person. This “two-sided” aspect of the incarnation is essential Christianity. In this revelation, we see and experience the truth about ourselves as well as the truth about God. This transforms human life in every dimension, for God meets us not only “descending” from grace, but “incarnationally” in human nature.

For the Christian, God is revealed in Jesus, and in the image of God in human beings. The revelation of God in scripture carries authority, but the revelation of God in humanity also carries truth. While one can be exegeted and outlined, the other is a real and powerful, constant reminder of the incarnated God we know in Jesus.

Jesus himself took the extraordinary step of identifying with human beings in their continuing brokenness:

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:34-40

This extraordinary passage of scripture is an incarnational revelation of Jesus in those persons whom Jesus was most known to identify with during his ministry. To read this passage in its eschatological setting is to hear quite a different kind of “Good News” than we typically hear in our American churches.

The irony of this passage is that those who are being addressed did not realize they were “with Jesus” when they were with the poor, the hungry and the imprisoned. The point of the parable is to remedy this. We are to take from this teaching a radical and reorienting sensitivity to the presence of Christ in the broken humanity that surrounds us.

Further, to insulate ourselves from such broken and hurting people is to insulate ourselves from the presence of Christ now, as well as the commendation of Jesus later. If the church is a continuation of Jesus’ kingdom movement, then this encounter with such persons is a “trueness” to Jesus that is essential to authentic Jesus-life.

I say this to respond to what I see as the primary issue with mental illness and the Gospel: the dehumanization of the mentally ill.

Many years ago, I was part of a Baptist church where we had quite a controversy over a mother’s request to baptize her son. He was 12- I believe- and had severe cerebral palsy. It seemed to me, at the time, utterly impossible to ascertain whether the young man understood enough of the Gospel to be baptized, and I opposed the baptism.

I’ve come to believe that was a mistake. Not because I am somehow more sure of the young man’s profession of faith, but because I am quite sure that he belonged to Jesus, and was, in fact an incarnation of the presence of Jesus among us. His baptism was a recognition that he, too, was included in the community formed in and through the person of Jesus. If that baptism was an error, it was a good error, because it erred in seeing what Jesus taught in Matthew 25: in such persons, Christ is present, and where Jesus is present, there is the good news.

My struggle, I now realize, was at the place of seeing this boy not as a “victim” of cerebral palsy, but as a manifestation of Christ, humanly present in this young man. A sacrament of a broken and bent humanity; a humanity warped and ruined by the fall, but redeemed in the suffering and resurrection of Jesus.

So with mental illness. The good news is for the mentally ill, and the good news is the inclusion and the acceptance of mental illness as part of that humanity in which Jesus came to us. Mentally ill persons are made in God’s image. They are fallen sinners. They are loved by God. They are saved by grace, through God’s faithful promise and the gift of faith. They are called to follow Jesus Christ, to live, die and be resurrected in him.

In this, the mentally ill are exactly like ourselves. Their humanity is another way in which Christ is present to all of us who seek to know Christ and to serve him faithfully in our generation.

Christians desperately need to see the humanity of others as God sees it. We are on a trajectory from birth to death and beyond. We all have been dependent infants, innocent children, erring teenagers; we will all be mid-life adults, fearful seniors and re-infantized elderly. Many of us will know seasons of mental and emotional illness. Our lives will contain our share of human suffering. This is humanity in time, and destined for eternity. In Christ, it is humanity that will be raised, glorified and exalted to a new universe.

My mother sits near me. She is 82 and blind. She is frequently depressed and angry at what has happened to her. Her dependence on us has taken away much of her life as she valued it. The challenge of seeing my mother as a human person in whom Christ is present is sometimes hard. It is far easier to summarize her life as “a blind widow.” But it is in such persons that Christ invites me to see both myself and my savior.

Mental illness does not present us with the challenge of providing or promising a cure. It is not our calling to “cure” anyone, though we are certainly commissioned to provide concrete kinds of care and help. It is our calling to live lives centered around Jesus; to worship and exalt him; to be signposts of his reality, his gospel.

My challenge to the church is to invite the mentally ill to Christ, and to find Christ in the mentally ill who are with us. I invite each one of us to consider that the lines between ourselves, the mentally ill and Jesus are largely irrelevant. When we see them, we see ourselves, and we come face to face with Jesus Christ.

I think of the many demon possessed persons whose lives were profoundly changed by Jesus. He did not act as if their humanity was lost, but was there to be restored. The compassion of Christ is in seeking those lost sheep at all, for these were persons whose communities had abandoned them or despaired of any hope for them. Yet Jesus travelled across the sea to restore one man’s humanity; to leave him clothed and in his right mind. Such was the good news.

What if we must be more patient? What if our prayers do not restore the mentally ill to their rightness, with a good testimony and no shadows ever again? Is there any doubt what the Good News means in the interim between the brokenness of humanity and the resurrection? Is there any doubt what this means for the Christian community’s own encounters with the mentally ill?

Thanks to all who have read this series. May God bless you this Christmas season.


  1. In reading your series, two words kept creeping into my mind as I thought about the words and experiences that you shared. One is overspiritualization.

    I get so frustrated with much of what could be called charasmatic in todays Christian circle because there is such an emphasis on everything being a spiritual problem. No Christian would really argue against that, but the problem lies in the definition of “spiritual”. It just becomes a game of addition and subtraction (take away the booze and the sex and add Bible study and prayer), or even multiplication, be baptized in the Holy Ghost and God will “multiply” you faith. So spiritual gets defined away from any and all real experience as a human, as one who is “poor in spirit” etc…

    The other word is underspiritualization. In short, the Holy Spirit is quenched and becomes an impotent force at best.

    All this to confusingly say, I agree mostly with your synopsis of the issues regarding mental illness and the Christian life.

  2. Your posts drew me to Is 58. The full chapter should be read, and though the subject is what qualifies as a true fast, the passage can, without loss, be generalized to include our dealings with one another. The complaint of God is in vs. 1-5, the corrective is vs. 6-8 of which I have included the following from The New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update, (La Habra, California: The Lockman Foundation) 1996. The blessing promised to those who obey is in vs 9-12. Think about those when you consider the state of American Christianity.

    “Is this not the fast which I choose,
    To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
    To undo the bands of the yoke,
    And to let the oppressed go free
    And break every yoke?
    “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
    And bring the homeless poor into the house;
    When you see the naked, to cover him;
    And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

    That last phrase is a killer isn’t it? I really do not want to see the hurting, diseased, mentally unstable, etc, etc. Kind of like in the George C. Scott version of the Christmas Carol where Scrooge tells the spirit of Christmas present to hide the dirty starving street urchins. God help me, I’ve done similar things.

    “My own flesh”. Or in the parable of the prodigal, “this brother of yours (mine)”.

    Damn. Sometimes I hate the kind of upper middle class Christianity I tend to embrace. What is the solution? Is 58 gives us a good starting place. There are other places as well.

    Keep up your postings Mike. I need the reality checks.

    Mort Chien

    PS If it matters, I’ve been through those lovely “exorcisims” (twice) – no real help. Prosac did some good for depression. Been off it for a number of years now. Believe it or not, getting involved with Reformed Christianity has been a good help. And, yes, I’ve been a very serious student of the Scriptures. But I still have bad days, weeks, even months.

  3. I’m a new poster here, so I’ll make this brief. Just wanted to make a comment anent mental illness and a Christian worldview. I do tend to read the biblical passages regarding demon possession literally. To do otherwise, to my mind, does an injustice to the biblical text. Having said that, let me also say that my own experience has borne out the usefulness of modern psychotropic medication. For years, I struggled with depression. Well, that’s probably too strong a word for my condition. Probably, chronic dysthymia is the proper clinical term. But about two years ago, it began to seriously impair my functional abilities. After lots of soul searching and the help of a compassionate Christian doctor, I sought chemical relief. I found that a certain drug, an SSNRI to be specific, really, dare I say “physically,” changed things for the better for me–and in a way that older SSRIs (like Paxil and Prozac) just didn’t do. The chronic dysthymia, on medication, is, by and large, gone now. I still have acute depressive episodes (who doesn’t?), but I’m now able to function much better than before. I have a family history of depression, so it is not surprising that I have a tendency that way as well. I praise God for the modern drug that has radically changed the functioning of my brain. And I still believe that my condition is primarily a consequence of the Fall. I don’t see a radical tension between modern psychiatric practice and a thorough-going biblical worldview, but that’s just my own non-professional opinion.

  4. Believing that mental illness – not to be confused with spinal and brain illnesses – is behavioral and spiritual is not “charismatic.” I worked as a chaplain in a large mental institute and conducted various studies with the “mentally ill,” and have concluded with confidence that so-called mental illnesses are spiritual. There is no proof or evidence of “chemical imbalances.” Most mental problems have a root problem of ‘memory.’ When I speak of memory, I am referring to the actual conclusions the person has drawn while encountering the tragic experiences such as: drug abuse, sexual abuse, bullying, or even milder things that lead the people to draw conclusions about themselves.’ The memories must be confronted with Gospel therapy, not drug therapy or even the so-called talk-therapy. These are band-aids, that, when removed, will allow the strange behavior to resurge. There is room for an argument of “legalized band-aids,” where drugs are used to physically stop the person from hurting themselves or others, then slowly wean them off while giving them Gospel counsel. This, though, is dangerous to the brain, as most of these psychiatric drugs actually cause far more memory loss than what is necessary, giving a person a loss of personal identity. What happens in these mental institutes and counseling centers is very, very sad. Many of those people know inside that what is being done to them is wrong and so they get even more disturbed, thus getting trapped in the vicious circle of the psychiatric industry; an industry created, not to heal but to gain as many permanent clients it can. Many of them become “lifers” in the institutes and many others simply kill themselves’ for a quick escape. And the very grieving part of all this is that most Christians will not even get near a mental institute or, for that matter, a mental person.


    Mike Spreng

    [MODERATOR NOTE: I have approved this comment, but I find its assertions- esp that there are no chemical imbalances- to be totally contrary to what I believe personally. This is as open a forum as I can maintain, and I realize this is an offensive post to many who will read it. I publish it because the auther is Reformed, and I think this view is common in Reformed groups.- MSpencer]

  5. Michael

    The most moving confirmation I have ever seen came this spring when a young man named Aaron Barg, who has Trisomy 13, was confirmed in our church. (He had been baptized as an infant.) Aaron can’t speak or talk, is confined to a wheelchair which he can move but can’t steer much, and is not “capable” of the kind of intellectual activity that confirmation requires. Because his vision and hearing and limited, in order to get Aaron’s attention, you have to stand right in front of him and stare right into his eyes.

    Here’s what our pastor said about Aaron during his sermon that Sunday:

    This is what Aaron teaches us about knowing God and letting God be our teacher. First, it does not work to shout a greeting to God as we rush by him, in a hurry to be busy. If you want to know God, to be taught by him, to follow Christ, you must touch him. Some of you said that you like camp because you get rid of all the distractions and you feel you can really listen to God, you can understand the messages. That is true anywhere. To follow God you have to come into his presence, you have to quiet your mind and heart. You touch God by singing a song of praise or by reading a Psalm or praying with praise and thanks.

    Next, we must draw close to God. You can’t have a relationship with God when you are always distant from him. There must be a way to draw close, to listen to what God is saying. Sometimes he uses a quiet voice–you may have to come closer than is comfortable for you. We draw close to God by listening to his Word, by receiving the sacraments, by engaging in worship. That is when we receive his blessing.

    Finally, if Jesus is to be our teacher, then we must be willing to be guided by him. Aaron likes to wander around, to wheel all over, kind of randomly. Much of the time that is OK, he is pretty good at it really. But he also needs someone to push him where he needs to be, and he needs some protection. Often that is Steve or Susan, sometimes it is people in the church who take him for walks, sometimes it is the fact that his companion dog Sandy is right by him, giving some protection.

    You are much like Aaron. We all are. We like to wheel around on our own, exploring whatever seems interesting. We often need guidance and protection. When we actually do God’s will, we are being guided by him. When we give our lives in service to Christ, when we bear witness to Christ, when we are involved in Mission, when we use the gifts of the Holy Spirit in ministry, that is when we are in fact following Jesus. That is the direction that leads to life.