“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.