A Fallen World and Mental Illness

I get emails sent to me every day about what is happening in Christianity: sermons, news stories, analysis, blogs and bible readings all end up in my inbox. I regularly ignore these emails. Mostly they are unhelpful, unintelligent evangelicalism and Catholic whinging. That seems a little harsh to say, but it is generally true. Evangelicals try to convert me and Catholics want my money. So I ignore all of these, except on the rare occasion when a title catches my eye and happens to be relevant to me. Today, the title that caught my attention was “Is Mental Illness Actually Biblical?” So I opened it up and read a sermon.

It All Started So Well…

The pastor who wrote this sermon is one of those young hipster pastors who primarily work with youth. They know what’s what, are hip to all the younger generation’s likes and dislikes, and generally try to bridge a gap between modernity and an outdated mode of faith. They are the pastors of the future! And on the whole they have a very difficult job. How do you make a form of religion based in antiquated thinking appeal to the young who are keen to notice inconsistency, patronizing tones and general stupidity? That is the quest of the youth pastor. 

One of the ways youth pastors like to appeal to youth is to talk about a very modern problem. In this case, the YP (I’m sick of typing “youth pastor” all the time) decided to talk about mental illness. This is a solid strategy. The National Institute for Mental Health (or, quite literarily, NIMH) reports that 46 percent of 13 to 18-year-olds will experience mental illness. This could be depression, anxiety, ADHD, an eating disorder or something else. But overwhelmingly, the likelihood that a youth pastor is talking to a kid who has experienced mental illness is quite high.

In this case, the YP’s job is to make kids who are suffering understand what his religion can offer them (not Christ exactly, which I’ll explain in a minute). But he has to be careful of their well-calibrated bullshit meter. In the case of this particular sermon, his strategy was to show that he is not like all those other pastors. He’s one of the good ones.

“I recently read two articles by a well known Christian author who is also closely connected to a Christian counseling foundation. The articles essentially argued that mental illness was a social construct created by secular doctors and psychiatrists, and therefore, is not biblical. So, when a person is depressed, he is really just experiencing sadness, and to try to treat it medically is to short circuit the power of God. When a person is anxious, she is really just experiencing worry, and to treat it medically is a secular answer to a spiritual problem. You get the idea.

The desire behind the article was good: the author was trying to demonstrate that Jesus is sufficient for every facet of life. However, I believe that treating mental illness as only (or even primarily) a spiritual problem is both profoundly unbiblical and incredibly hurtful to those who struggle with mental illness.”

The youth pastor does a good job here of representing the argument he thinks is wrong and then differentiating himself from it. He also aligns the Bible with his belief, giving it the weight of an authority that many people have hope in. It’s all going so well for the YP at this point. He just sounds so… cool.

Skin Deep

“The Bible teaches that every human being is totally depraved.” Um, what? “Total depravity simply means that sin has affected every facet of my being.” Okay… how is that supposed to make me feel better, again?

That is the very first sentence after his thesis statement (with an explanation he gave a sentence or two after). This sounds like a really bad thing to tell a person with mental illness. “I’m totally depraved? Well, that can’t be good. Doesn’t that mean that nothing I do will get me closer to God? After all, we’re taught that he cannot abide evil. If I’m evil, will he be able to care for me? And if I can’t do anything without God, am I doomed to be depraved forever?”

This is a surprisingly cogent thought process, but I’ve offered it in detail for two very good reasons. One is that some form of this thought process pervades peoples’ thinking about sin and their relationship with God. Usually it is not conscious. But if you watch how people act, you can see that they have had the thought. Even if they are staunch Christians, they still doubt that God can love them. The afraid that they are unlovable and they keep searching for someone to love them even after having been told that God truly does.

The second reason is that this thought process almost exactly is my thought process. Every day that I struggled to believe that God loved me, this was what I thought. The fact that I have mental illness (consistent depression and periodic episodes of high anxiety) means that this thought process gets magnified. It is not a simple doubt for me. It is a cause of despair and anxiety, no matter how much I hear that God loves me. I know all too well the teachings of Christian religion. I was raised with the idea that I am “totally depraved.” When I came out, religion told me that I was “intrinsically disordered.” All my life I’ve hear that I am broken, sinful, incapable of change and essentially unlovable. I’m the youth that pastor would be talking to.

It has taken years for me to understand that the protest youth pastors like this one give to their audience is complete bunk. The essence of what YPs and other Christians believe is not that physical, secular treatment can help anyone. Instead, it is that there is no help for anyone. Their image is only skin deep. Their caring for me and others with mental illness is shallow and, more importantly, it has nothing to do with their faith at all.

Part and Parcel

“Mental illness is not something invented by secular psychiatrists,” says this youth pastor. “Rather, it is part and parcel with living in [a] fallen, sinful world.”

I’m not entirely sure that youth pastors have ever thought about the outcome of this belief. Essentially, Christians do not believe what God said in Genesis: that the world is good. God created everything and everyone to be good. Original sin sullied that goodness, but it did not take it completely away. Nothing can change the essence of what God has created. We are still good. We’re just dirty.

Christ’s death and resurrection was a bath for our souls. He wiped away our sin, as evangelicals are fond of saying. More importantly, he provided a means for everyone to do away with the total depravity that sin imparts to us. Initially, baptism takes away original sin making us clean. But because the world still has traces of sin in it, we can still get dirty. We are like children who take baths and then go outside and play in muddy puddles. When we get dirty again, when we sin again, God has given us a path to his forgiveness, to another bath. There is hope, there is love and there is always a relationship between us and God.

But when you teach “total depravity,” that is not what you’re saying. This teaching does not offer hope. Instead, it is a negative and depressing teaching. Anyone suffering from mental illness does not need that kind of idea put in their heads. It’s already there. Making the connection between mental illness and inherent depravity is not helpful. But it is what the Christian religion overwhelmingly teaches. It is, sadly, part and parcel of the Christian teachings.

Hope in a Fallen World

Christians who believe in “total depravity” are in direct opposition to what God actually says. We are created good. We can be redeemed in the here and now. And because of his act of redemption on the cross we need not fear that we will always be cut off from him. We can sin again, but we can always be forgiven.

That is the hope of living in a fallen world. Mental illness does not happen because we are sinful. It is a physical malady. It is a fact of being human. The sermon given by this particular YP talks about waiting to be redeemed and receiving resurrected bodies that do not have all the problems that ours do right now. We are already redeemed. Everything else we deal with is just life.

The real hope of living in a fallen world is that we can do things to make ourselves better, healthier and happier. Sometimes it is pills to treat the physical cause of our illness. But it is not because we are totally depraved. But that is what Christian pastors are teaching and it is not helpful at all. Just because it sounds hip does not mean it is a good thing. The more we let pastors teach this message of hopelessness without examining it closely and fighting back against it, the more people will suffer.

Trust me, I know. I have been suffering for years. My comfort in all of this is that I know they’re wrong. I wish more people knew that, too.

“Is Mental Illness Actually Biblical?” 
National Institute of Mental Health
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