Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers understand what sin is, how serious sin is, and how great the grace of God, who offers redemption to sinners from sin and new life in Christ.
- Today David Dunham opens our series on sin with a look at sin and biochecmical brokenness.
“Who sinned?” It was a harmless question on the part of the disciples, but it assumed a great deal about the physical ailments of the man born blind (John 9:1-10). Jesus informs the disciples that personal sin was not the cause of this man’s impairment, but one can imagine that the man born blind had encountered plenty who disagreed. The way he was treated probably suggested that it was in fact his own fault. The Church today can have the same attitude and response towards those who suffer from different forms of mental illness. We can compound the problems of the mentally ill by treating them as if personal sin is the cause of their brokenness.
The term “mental illness” is tricky. It’s tricky because there is not universal agreement on how to define it, what causes it, or even which diseases and disorders constitute mental illness. Some professionals disagree about the usefulness of the classification Bi-Polar Disorder II, along with the legitimacy of Dissociative Identity Disorder. There’s disagreement over the diagnosis of depression today and over its description in the DSM. To use the term “mental illness” is not always helpful, for it has different meanings to different people, both in the professional world and the popular culture. But no one contests the reality that there are in fact some real mental disorders. Psycho-biological and biochemical brokenness is a real thing, even among believers. The Church must acknowledge this and be prepared to minister to our brothers and sisters in these conditions.
The Church has often responded with blame in the presence of biochemical brokenness. There is, of course, the more extreme word-of-faith response that blames all illness on a lack of faith, but there are often more subtle forms of blame that arise too. For instance, the strong opposition to medication by some Christians can lead to shaming those who are prescribed medications to help alleviate symptoms or control manic episodes. Shaming people for medication use can simply be another way of blaming them for their disorder. In other cases counsel may urge actions upon the mentally ill that they are not immediately able to perform, especially apart from the help of some medication. Not infrequently counselors may become frustrated with those they seek to help and assume they are being lazy, self-indulgent, or irresponsible. In such cases, the blame may move from the front end of the disorder to the back end, but it is still laying blame where it perhaps should not be laid. We need to recognize that not all brokenness is a result of personal sin.
A holistic theology of the Fall reminds us that the world is broken and sin is not merely a personal rebellion issue. Cornelius Plantinga, in his brilliant book Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be, writes:
The story of the fall tells us that sin corrupts: it puts asunder what God had joined together and joins together what God had put asunder. Like some devastating twister, corruption both explodes and implodes creation, pushing it back toward the “formless void” from which it came.
Creation itself, the whole world in which we live, is being pushed back toward the formless void. The world is broken. Plantinga calls sin the “vandalizing of shalom.” He adds:
Sin is disruption of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony….God hates sin not just because it violates his law but, more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be. (Indeed, that is why God has laws against a good deal of sin.) God is for shalom and therefore against sin. In fact, we may safely describe evil as any spoiling of shalom, whether physically (e.g., by disease), morally, spiritually, or otherwise.
This more comprehensive picture of sin as the “vandalizing of shalom” can help us to think carefully about those struggling with mental illness. By blaming all people for their own infirmities, we not only discourage and condemn them, but we may also perpetuate bad theology – not unlike the friends of Job. A holistic doctrine of the Fall gives us pause. Like the man born blind, we live in a broken world.
Biochemical brokenness is a part of the fallen world we live in. There is no promise that all biochemical brokenness will be healed in this life. As the Church reminds itself of this reality, it will be better equipped to serve those who struggle in this manner.
To outline a thorough care plan for the Church as it relates to those who suffer from mental illness is beyond the scope of this single article. Yet we may speak of three simple things that the Church can do to minister to those among us who are diagnosed with mental illness: personalize, normalize, and socialize. Let us briefly look at each point.
The mentally ill person is first and foremost just that: a person. They are made in the image of God and have worth and value as such. David Powlison answers the question “What should we call people who struggle with mental illness,” saying, “how about, one of us, a fellow sufferer.” Don’t treat people as a problem, an issue to be confronted or treated. If some in the world look at the mentally ill as biological machines that need to be fixed, the Church should value them as people. Those suffering from a mental illness should be engaged as people, invited into small groups, and welcomed to serve in the Church.
The Church should also seek to normalize mental illness. That is to say none of us is perfectly whole as a human being. We can each find ourselves on a spectrum; “we are all troubled and we are all troublesome,” as Powlison says. Though mental illness has some unique manifestations, we can all relate to different aspects of a disorder. We can all relate to highs and lows, to mood swings and paranoid thoughts. We might not encounter the extremes that some others do, but we should not think them so unique that we create distance. Normalize the abnormal. Normalize, even, the prolonged nature of their struggle. No one will ever be perfectly cured this side of heaven. We all await the consummation of all things in Christ.
Finally, we should socialize with those suffering from mental illness. Mental illness isolates people, the gospel of Jesus invites them into community. Spend time with those who suffer. Love them as people. Care for them. Invite them to get involved in service and care for others. Welcome them into your home, into your small group, into your Sunday school class. Socialization can go a long way in helping to alleviate some symptoms of mental illness. Isolation can go a long way in exacerbating those same symptoms. So the Church should not fear, but love – for true love drives out fear (1 John 4:18).
There is much more than can and should be said about the Church’s care for those suffering from mental illness. Understanding the reality of sin in our world from a holistic Christian perspective is a good starting place. Not all brokenness is personal sin, remembering this allows God’s people to better serve one another in the midst of such brokenness.