A Christian's response to Mental Illness and Suffering
As someone who has worked in the field of counselling in both aged care and in youth, with people going through a variety of mental health issues and emotional sufferings, I have learned that the brain, like any other organ, is subject to the fall, and subject to sickness, that none of us are immune from emotional suffering from time to time. I have worked with elderly people so riddled with Parkinson’s that they cannot walk. I once worked with a woman who at one time was a teacher, incredibly intelligent, who was reduced to being unable to speak or walk after a serious nervous breakdown. I worked with a young autistic boy who was unable to speak. I worked with Vietnam veterans whose PTSD was so severe that they lived in caves that they had dug out a hillside away from the public so that they could avoid noises and stress. I’ve worked with young people some as young as 10 who suffered anxiety and depression after experiencing some of the most horrific abuse that you wouldn’t ever want to imagine. Mental illness and emotional suffering happen, the questions is, how do we respond as Christians?
1: Pray. It is often that we say, “All we can do now is pray?”, as if prayer is our last resort. If you know a believer who is struggling with mental illness pray with them. God hears our prayer and he is a God who, we know by numerous examples, has the power to heal and does heal. Don’t just pray, for God to act, but pray with the person as Jesus taught us to pray. Pray while reminding them that his name is Holy, that his kingdom will come, pray acknowledging the power and goodness of God and pray for healing with them, encourage them to keep praying. Remembering that prayer might not come easy for them, so “bear with them” and encourage them to talk to God, and talk to God with them.
2: Be slow to speak and quick to listen. This can be one of the most difficult things we can do as human beings. We have a natural tendency to want to be fixers and problem solvers. How can we solve a problem if we don’t actually know what the problem is? One of them most damaging things Christians do, is to claim to be listening to God without listening to the person who suffers. I have seen it happen where in a momentarily interaction, a Christian will approach someone, whom they barely know, other than that they are suffering, and they will say “God gave me a word about you”, and they will “Prophecy” over that person (the “quotes” are very intentional). They will say “God told me he will deliver you, that you will be…this or that…” It is a most dangerous thing for both you and the person you are speaking to say “God says” when God didn’t say. Even if we are well intentioned, thinking that we understand the gist of what God “would say”, it is entirely wrong to give a person a promise from God when God never spoke that promise (Deuteronomy 18:22). If you are someone who has received such prophecy, when someone has told you that God will do this or that, and it didn’t happen, the Bible says to avoid that person, as they are dangerous. The reason it is dangerous is because it is unfaithful, presumptuous, arrogant, and misleading to those who hear. To the person suffering this can cause further anxiety. Which is why the Bible call us to be people who are slow to speak and quick to listen. That we not be presumptuous and opinionated. Listening, shows the person you are speaking to that you actually care about their situation, that you will “bear with them” (again as scripture commands us to do with one another), not just that you will fire off some opinions and some generic prophecies, but that you actually want to know them, and that you love them. Listening will help you understand what is behind the suffering they are experiencing and it will allow you to know how to pray for them.
3. Don’t Diagnose: Unfortunately, the popularity of Dr. Phil, Oprah, and countless books, you tube videos, and online content, have made Mental Health information a popular and financially beneficial (to some) commodity. Look at it this way…watching antiques road show does not make you an antiquities appraiser. Just because you watch Dr. Phil and read popular books about mental health, does not make you able to diagnosis someone’s struggles. I have a BA in family counselling, and I am not qualified to make diagnosis. That is not your Job. It can be like convincing someone who has hay fever that they are dying of pneumonia. It can cause a good deal more stress and harm than help. Just like any other organ, the brain, can get injured or suffer from sickness, weather that is through physical trauma, viruses, or prolonged stresses, etc, it’s real, it happens. Unfortunately, we can be too quick to turn momentary suffering into something that it is not. With the help of “Dr. Google” this can send people down an obsessive rabbit hole that gets them focusing on their problems more than their healing.
4 Bear with them: Ephesians 4:2 says to be humble and patient and to bear with one another in love. One thing we can do, that often seems a bit arrogant and uncaring is to offer quick simple, on the spot solutions for someone’s ongoing suffering. The Bible calls us to be humble when interacting with one another. Our opinions should be checked at the door, hence why the added command is “be slow to speak and quick to listen”. Patience is also important here as well, as none of us are usually readily apt to engage in spontaneous catharsis, we generally take a while to open up about everything we are going through, and we need to be able to do that in our own time. Someone who is bearing with someone has patience. Bearing with, is more than just a quick word after Church, it’s an on going conversation and support. Maybe, your not that person, that is OK. Don’t try to be that person if you don’t have that kind of relationship with the person. Don’t try to force yourself into a friendship that doesn’t exist. Instead, if you don’t have that relationship, but you care about the person, bless those who are walking with them. If they have no one, encourage one of their friends or family members to Support them.
5. Act according to what the person is telling you: If you are listening the person suffering will give ques both subtle and not so subtle to tell you what they need and don’t need. We can get overzealous and try to force our way into someone’s life when maybe that’s not what they need at that moment. There are some who need lots of interaction, people who are filled by being social, who need interaction for healing. There are others who need time alone, they need quiet and solitude to process what they are experiencing. I’d argue that everyone needs a bit of both to different degrees. We have to be sensitive to the needs that they have. Jesus himself modelled this, by at times, asking others to come with him to pray, and other times going off to a place by himself.
6.Don’t try to be the hero: Our task as believers is to point people to Christ. This is especially true when someone is suffering. We want them to seek out the peace of Christ by faith in Christ. Telling them “this is what happened to me now you should go and do that”, or “this is what I think about that, you should really try it, I studied this and I know everything there is to know about the subject”, may not be the best approach, as you are pointing to you self. If they do not accept it, they will most likely shut you out for being pushy and opinionated. If they do accept your advice then you run the risk of them turning you into a personal guru. What we want to be doing is pointing to Christ. Don’t make the conversations about yourself. Ask more than tell. Use Scripture and pray with them, asking for God’s wisdom not your own.
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