Tag Archives: Illness

Serious mental illness and Christianity: Questions about responsibility


Today marks the end of the semester and the end of Counseling & Physiology. At the end of this course I ask students to talk amongst themselves regarding what they have learned in the course and what questions remain. The most frequent questions have to do with this:

What of a person’s struggles can be viewed as physiological; what is spiritual? What is the client responsible for?

[I should explain. We looked at problematic behaviors (e.g., cursing, aggression, etc.) after brain injury and the physiology of bipolar disorder. The class took bodily weaknesses quite seriously and recognized that sometimes our expectations of individuals exceeds capacity.]

At the end of this post I’m going to give you what I think are some better questions to ask. But first: Simultaneously, a couple of my old blog posts are getting a lot of attention these days–both having to do with the problem of serious mental illness, faith, and the response of the church. I highly recommend you skim the posts (both are incredibly short) but hang out with the comments.

https://wisecounsel.wordpress.com/2007/06/26/serious-mental-illness-and-faith-what-to-do/

https://wisecounsel.wordpress.com/2006/11/14/living-faith-bombshell-honest-wrestling-with-mental-illness-and-divorce/

These two posts are some of the most viewed and most commented on. Each and every comment reveals a world of heartache, alienation, and confusion about how one should think about mental illness, healing, responsibility, and the Christian faith. Clearly, we have not talked about this problem enough in the church–either to those with chronic mental illness or to their loved ones. Far too many are suffering alone.

Does it matter what of your problems are physical and what are spiritual?

Let’s say that you are a parent of a 3-year-old. Due to no fault of your own, your child misses their afternoon nap. It is now 6 pm and your child is both hungry and tired. She sees some candy and begins to whine for it. You know that you will feed the child in 15 minutes. You decline to give the candy and your child now has a temper tantrum. What do you do? Or, what SHOULD you do? You most likely provide mercy and kindness as you try to calm the child down. If the child screams, cries, and maybe even strikes you…has she sinned? Yes. Does it matter at the moment? Probably not so much as you acknowledge the child is limited by her lack of sleep.

Now, let’s extend the analogy. Would you treat your 40-year-old spouse in a different manner if they also had a tantrum because they were tired and they wanted dinner NOW? Of course, you would determine their moral capacity to be greater than the 3-year-old.

Back to our question…is it necessary to consider the division between spiritual and physical problems? Here’s why I think not. Problems are problems. Physical problems are spiritual problems in that we don’t do things only with our body and leave out our spirit. And spiritual problems always include the body. We don’t have spiritual experiences outside our neurons. Further, I still have to respond to the 3 or 40-year-old now (illustration above). Yes, I need to discern how to respond. Do I teach, comfort, discipline, rebuke, encourage? Am I responding with grace and mercy? Less important (though highly desirable) is my efforts in trying to keep the problem from happening again. Isn’t that really what is behind the physical/spiritual question: Who is going to make sure that x problem is taken care of?

Here are some better questions:

1. What can I do to help bring increasing comfort, hope, and encouragement–right now?

2. What response is my client capable of–right now (post hoc)?

3. What spiritual or physical interventions might be of help–right now?

4. How can I encourage my client to accept/respect their body (and its limits)–right now?

5. How can I encourage my client to see the hand of God in their life–right now?

6. What community resources and/or involvement can be made available–right now?

Notice the emphasis is on practical/mercy ministry, increasing insight, and commitment to seeing self from God’s point of view (rather than “normal”, “acceptable” as defined by church or larger community).

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