When someone asks me what I do for a living and I tell them I’m a therapist, it’s usually met with one of three responses; a nervous laugh, the “can you tell me about my dream?” question (for the record, no, dream analysis has been widely discredited and only God can interpret dreams), or, when they find out I’m a Christian, a blank stare.
For many people, the idea of counseling is unsettling and some Christians believe that getting counseling suggests they have failed, their faith is not strong enough, or counseling cannot possibly be Christ-based. They may think the counselor will be judgmental and find all sorts of flaws, they may feel exposed and wonder about sharing such personal information, or may assume a counselor will want them to take medication that makes them feel “zoned out.” Fortunately, none of this is necessarily true.
Christian counseling is a growing field and practitioners want to teach people biblically sound methods of overcoming issues including depression, alcohol and drug abuse, anxiety, schizophrenia, and family problems. Pastors may find it helpful to be well-versed in premarital counseling and pre-engagement counseling. The apostle Paul pointed out that not all members of the body have the same function (Romans 12:4–6) and the New Testament is filled with references to help and build up “one another” (Romans 12:10, 1 Corinthians 12:25, 16:20).
While God counsels us, the Holy Spirit comforts and guides us, God also teaches that gaining insight into our heart issue is important. Consider His question to Cain; “Why are you angry and why is your face downcast?” (Genesis 4:6). Christian counseling aims at helping someone uncover mistaken assumptions, unhealthy patterns and mental health issues in order to grow closer to God, build their faith, experience healing and fully use their giftings.
Mental illness. The term unsettles many, scares some and is inconsequential to others. Mental illnesses are shrouded in stigma and misunderstanding. For centuries, those with disabilities and mental illnesses were ignored, isolated and imprisoned in asylums or in unthinkable captivity such as being made to be jesters in the medieval era. In 1601 in Britain the Poor Laws began revolutionary care, including building almshouses which took in many who were homeless. In the 1960s in America, John F. Kennedy made strides by calling for community based housing and programs. Today, although there are services, group homes and community based programs, the church can feel disconnected from those with mental illness.
Did you know the brain emits chemicals including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine? Did you know every evening you have a drop in a brain chemical that helps you fall asleep? And enough serotonin helps you manage daily stress without crumbling? When levels of brain chemicals are out of balance, a person may experience depression, mania, anxiety and a number of other emotional issues. Depression can involve many symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, loss of enjoyment in activity, change in appetite and a sadness that persists. Anxiety has a worry that is hard to control and can include panic attacks that are terrifying. Mania is a part of bipolar disorder that includes periods of time without sleep, lots of energy, nonstop talking as though run by an internal motor, and lots of new plans or projects.
Television shows and movies have used the term “psychotic” as a punchline, misrepresenting and insulting those who experience symptoms. Psychotic illnesses (e.g. schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder) simply mean that a person experiences hallucinations such as hearing voices, seeing things, may have delusional thoughts which would be considered unusual given the person’s social, family, and religious background, have confusing speech that is hard to follow, or any combination of these. Delusions are considered false beliefs, such as internal organs have been replaced to the belief of someone following, monitoring or plotting against the individual. Bizarre behaviors and speech can also be symptoms. PET scans of twins, when one had schizophrenia, found that a part of the brain was different in both function and structure. Also, neuropsychological tests have suggested that those with schizophrenia have differences in how parts of their brains work.1
Medications are intended to help level brain chemicals, improve mood and functioning for a variety of mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. However, people are often concerned about side effects and not without cause. Some side effects are very dangerous. On the other hand, with chronic conditions that lead a person to act in ways that are dangerous to themselves or others, medications can help the person live safely and enable them to receive wise counsel, comprehend sermons and fellowship with the believers. After all, I have a prescription for contact lenses and without them I cannot read Scripture or drive safely. Medication that clears thinking works in the same way.
If we believe “all things work for the good of those who love God” (Romans 8:28, emphasis added), and if someone with schizophrenia (or any other illness) loves God, then we must believe He will work all things for their good.
How the Church Can Help
Those with mental illness may have misconceptions or even previous negative experiences with religion. I have seen believers feeling guilty that they did not have enough faith to be healed from depression, anxiety or other illnesses. Worse, some have been told their illness is a sin or the result of sin in their lives. Some people believe a mental illness is the result of demonic possession, yet Scripture bears out that demons are independent entities, with a personality, thoughts and desires, such as when the demon asked Jesus not to torment them (Matthew 8:29). We must be equipped to confront demonic activity, but only with the Holy Ghost’s discernment and anointing. It is also important to remember that those healed in Scripture had an evident, noticeable healing. When God heals, it is complete and there is no doubt that the healing occurred. However, some have been lead to stop taking medication or participating in treatment simply because they or someone believed they had been healed. When a person has not been healed by God and stops taking medication or participating in treatment, not only can they get sick again but often they may not fully recover.
God allows us to be His hands and feet, but if we seek to orchestrate immediate healing we may overlook that many people are healed through a process, such as therapy and medication. This does not make the healing less real, just ask the person who is feeling better! Just as surgery, physical therapy and chemotherapy are processes for healing, so is counseling. We want others to be well but God orchestrates healing in many ways and one way is no more valid than another.
So what can the church do? It may sound overly simple, but reflect Christ’s love. The woman with the issue of blood in Luke 8:43-48 was an outcast in society and considered “untouchable”, and people with mental illnesses are treated much the same today. When we love people as they are, they feel safe to approach God. Jesus said in John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (ESV). When we lift up Jesus and show love to those who struggle with psychological or behavioral issues, they will have room to encounter Jesus, the same Jesus who came to “proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18 ESV).
1 Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology, Fourth Edition, Kolb, B., Whishaw, I. 1998.