Black Dog

“I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” – Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

At the height of World War II, one of the world’s foremost leaders and the champion of Britain’s campaign against the Nazis struggled with a black dog whose appearance could never be predicted, and whose mastery was never guaranteed. When the “black dog” of his depression appeared, there was little but a gleam of discernible hope preventing Winston Churchill from acting on those drops of desperation. Charismatic, popular, and brilliant with a seeming inability to comprehend impossibility of circumstance, Churchill was later speculated to have been living with bipolar disorder.

He shared the plight of mental illness in common with some of the world’s most luminous minds, including Van Gogh, Beethoven, Handel, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Sylvia Plath, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Frida Khalo, and Edgar Allen Poe.

I won’t bother to bore you with a more contemporary list of celebrities suffering from mental illness, or more specifically, from bipolar disorder (and there are many). I will only reference a young man with bipolar disorder – Matthew Warren – who rose to ultimate celebrity through his untimely death. At the risk of over-elucidating the need for public awareness and acceptance of those suffering from mental illness, I cite Matt because it seems that within the Church, there are blocks of brethren that persist in wrongheaded notions about mental illness and, beyond that, how to treat their brothers and sisters when tragedy strikes. To quote Frank Viola (Christian Post guest contributor) in his blog likewise referencing the Matt Warren tragedy, Christians tend to fall in one of three camps where mental illness is concerned:

“1. Mental illness is demonic in origin. So the antidote is to cast out the demons that are causing it.
2. Mental illness is psychobabble. There’s no such thing as a “mental disorder.” All so-called mental illnesses are just sinful behaviors. So the antidote is for person to repent and get right with God.
3. Mental illness is a physiological disorder. The brain is a physical organ just like the heart, the thyroid, the joints, etc. Thus if someone has panic attacks or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or chronic depression or ADHD, they have a chemical imbalance in the brain, not dissimilar to a hyperthyroidism or high blood pressure or arthritis.”

My blogs are traditionally long, so I’m going to respond to these philosophies in as little time as possible. Mostly, because I’m trying to remain civil.

1. To say mental illness is demonic in origin shows a patent disregard for Scripture and a misunderstanding of Christ’s mission on earth. Matt Warren had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The Word is clear that one cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24) – a concurrent occupation by both the Holy Spirit and a demon would be impossible. Further, Christ’s mission was not to interfere with the aggregate of human knowledge about the world and to further confuse us in our path to the Father, but to redeem those lost to sin. It would have made no sense for Jesus to actively collude with a primitive misunderstanding of the nature of mental illness by calling it “demon possession,” instead. In Luke 9:1-2, we’re told that Jesus gave the disciples “power and authority to drive out all demons AND to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God AND to heal the sick” (emphasis added). The Bible distinguishes these activities, separating demons FROM illness and disease.

2. To say mental illness is psychobabble – that “mental illness” is just the consequence of sin – is ridiculous. If you sin by cheating the government on tax day, you will feel sadness or guilt. These emotions are proof of a quickened conscience, evidence of the Holy Spirit’s conviction. These emotions actually support the premise that the sufferer has a proximity to God sufficient to elicit them (contrasted with the “seared conscience” referenced in 1 Timothy 4:2 of the one who is unaware or apathetic toward his sin). Even Christ himself experienced sadness – and is described as a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3) So if sadness = sin, then was the entirety of the New Testament wrong about Christ’s freedom from sin? Also, what a cruel Savior we would serve if He brought “mental illness” on everyone who sinned! What of the criminals who’ve done awful things but maintained their sanity? Where is their mental illness? And what of the separate classes of mental illness? The cognitive disorders, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, and the developmental disabilities, such as autism and ADHD, are included among these. Does it make sense to conclude that these patients are all in sin when (a) their illness would prevent them from even UNDERSTANDING they were in sin? And/or (b) their illnesses (in the case of developmental disabilities) were present from birth? How do you explain the “sin” for the child born with autism? How much sin was my Noah in when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 5? And if you’re trying to pass those developmental disorders off on the parents’ sin, that’s not going to fly.

“His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” (John 9:2-3)

3. Mental illness is an actual physiological disorder. And the weight of medical, biological, and neuro-scientific evidence agrees with me. If it wasn’t, then the (a) medication used to treat it wouldn’t work, and (b) the MRI’s, FMRI’s, SPECT’s, PET’s, EEG’s and MRS’s used to view structure, electrical impulses and connectivity within the brain would show nothing different for the neurotypical, than for the mentally ill. The last time I checked, demon possession and un-confessed sin weren’t reparable through modern medicine.

It’s because mental illness is an actual, physiological disorder that I was utterly shocked by some Christians across the web, who posted comments after Matt Warren’s death such as: “Suicide happens soon after your [sic] stupid enough to read ‘The Purpose Driven Life;’” and “Poor Matthew denies God’s love with suicide.”

“Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11)

Did the authors of comments like those above read that passage from James?

I hope I haven’t come across too stridently. But my heart is so wounded for the Warren family, and I am so shocked by the pervasive ignorance and cruelty of some people in the Body that reigning in my tongue proved challenging. The bottom line is that those living with mental illness are struggling with challenges the rest of you – you 75%’ers, you neurotypicals – cannot possibly comprehend. We are told – commanded! – to love the “least of these,” to love our neighbors as ourselves. How much MORE SO ought this to be in the case of the Body of Christ? We who are separate from the world – in the world, but not of it? I urge those who are uneducated about the nature of mental illness to do their research. I urge you to pray for the mentally ill. I urge you to stop your hateful diatribes and lift up in prayer those whose lives are marred by a pain you do not know.

And now, finally, I’ll sign off.

I have to let out the dog.

– Sarah



  1. Valerie Vanover says:

    Sarah, thankyou for using your God-given gift of mind and words to shine a beam of light into a dark, shadowy place of confusion and injury, especially in God’s family. He says we each are a necessary part (eye, ear, nose, etc) of the Body of Christ….and that being true, in this blog you have just fulfilled (at least one of) your role/functions necessarily, beautifully, powerfully, and right on time! Thankyou.

  2. Thank you!!

  3. Thank you. Thank you. As a sufferer of OCD and MDD and a Christian I have felt so misunderstood for so long. Told my faith was lacking, which is why my obsessions haunted me and I just needed to pray them away. It just isnt that simple. So glad to see this conversation has finally started.

    • Jen – Praise God this could encourage you. I think the Church has shied away from an accurate analysis and candid discussion of mental illness in the church. To quote Ann Voskamp, (roughly) mental is a disease just like cancer is a disease, and you don’t SHAME cancer, you TREAT cancer. I hope you are finding more peace at this stage in your walk….

  4. Stephanie says:

    Thank you Sarah for sharing this and your candidness.
    We lost our youngest to suicide less than 2 yrs ago. It is truly unbelievable not only what people (particularly Christians) think, but that they feel it their obligation to tell you. Even though my husband and I knew scripture and believe we (as believers) can’t be snatched out of God’s hand, it was a very trying time to come to grips with what he had done. We are very thankful for our pastors who helped walk beside us through this process, bringing scripture to the forefront. They knew our son, had baptized him & saw fruit over his years. Bottom line he was diagnosed with some mental illness in his early 20s along with the depression. It all got the best of him when his girlfriend broke up with him. By no means do we blame her for it. We realize how hard it is to deal with someone with these kinds of issues and they both needed out of the unhealthy relationship.
    I know we are more sensitive to help others now who are going through this, or the lost of a child from other factors. Since people close to the person who committed the suicide are likely to become depressed themselves and may look at suicide as an option, they don’t need people beating them up or putting there loved one down or shaming them. My prayer is that more Christians would pray for discernment & when in question side with love and caution. And one question I would have for them is if they want to be held accountable for causing another to stumble. In these circumstances it is better to listen than speak, unless of course the person is talking signs of suicide themselves. Then get them help from Crisis Prevention hotline or similar.
    Not a day goes by we don’t think of our son. However, I believe without any doubt that our son is in heaven. I also realize God had a much better plan than the one he chose. That is not my burden to bear. It is between him & God. However from it, I do have the struggle not getting overwhelmed by it all. I must keep my eyes focused on God to do what He wants me to do, which is harder some days than others, especially in the company of ignorant people. Thank you for letting me share too.

    • Oh Stephanie – I can’t imagine the pain you’ve had to bear through the loss of your son. My specific prayer for you is that the Lord heals your heart over time, and that you might even eventually rejoice in the fact that your sweet boy is having the time of his life with his Savior right now. No more heartache. No more depression. He is utterly and completely healed. And yes, you are right in that no one – NOTHING! – can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus! Neither death nor life! We are His when we accept Him, and just as we cannot “un-child” ourselves from our earthly parents, so, too are we ALWAYS the Lord’s when we answer His call. I also pray that the Lord might use your specific situation to provide encouragement to others. The Matt Warren tragedy has begun the discussion, and I pray that the shame of mental illness might no longer prevent its accurate addressing by the Church; that the scales might fall from the eyes who so obviously do not understand it. God bless you and your family, always.

  5. Stephanie says:

    Thank you Sarah! God has been healing us. We have seen him work in amazing ways already. Actually, He was specifically preparing me the day before it would happen -I just didn’t know what was coming. Without going into detail & the unbelievably unique tragedy that surrounded his death, looking back I know there is no way we could have made it without HIS help. He has been with us, picking us up & carrying us when we had no strength and helping us forgive so many. He is present in it all, not desiring it, but there helping in big & little ways that only His children can see.
    We have met some great people through it all. Although there will always be the absence of our son and the pain that brings, many of my tears now are because of the gratitude I have for God’s tremendous, never-ending love.

Speak Your Mind