Soon after our marriage, my wife and I were faced with the needs of a family member whose inner world was deeply troubled.
Sometimes this loved one heard voices no one else could hear. Sometimes there were fears that the government was spying on her through her television set. Sometimes she accused us of trying to kill her.
For a while she lived in our home. On other occasions she was able to care for herself in government-subsidized housing. More than once she ran away in an attempt to avoid a world that frightened her.
With the help of local mental health services, we did everything we knew how to do. Through it all, we loved and laughed and prayed. Sometimes she went to church with us. One Sunday evening, she expressed a desire to accept Christ as her Savior. For a while, her state of mind improved. But within a few months the voices and hallucinations returned.
Over time, we developed a deep appreciation for the doctors, mental health community, and social workers who helped us. On occasion, we needed the help of law enforcement officers and judges to help us obtain involuntary admission to a mental health facility, or we needed the oversight of a financial conservator. Her troubled life ended in a state hospital.
In the middle of our experience, we became aware of other church and neighborhood families who were also dealing with similar heartbreak. They too were praying for spiritual help, while reading mental health literature for medical answers.
Along the way, we saw why doctors often refer their patients to counselors and why counselors refer their patients to doctors. The human body and mind are so interwoven that physical symptoms can mask spiritual roots, just as emotional and mental confusion can obscure organic causes.
Like the body, the mind sometimes heals itself. Sometimes it doesn’t. Often there is a place for medication to provide relief while wise counselors offer perspective and new ways of dealing with confused thoughts. There’s time for both doctors and counselors. Persons struggling with mental health issues may respond to either, to both, or to neither. Sometimes the pain is softened only by sedation.
Such complexity calls for wisdom so that we can offer spiritual answers with gentleness rather than presumption. Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, love, and truth provides a foundation for good mental health. Many have found their inner world of anxiety and hopelessness calmed and strengthened by personal faith through reading the Bible. Some have a story that is similar to those who have found deliverance from spiritual oppression in the presence of Jesus. Prayer in Jesus’ name should not be ruled out. But our humility needs to be as real as our faith. There are countless people who suffer from depressive and compulsive thinking that does not respond to prayer, Bible reading, or spiritual correction.
On more than a few occasions, I’ve been deeply troubled by the apparent unwillingness of God to answer prayers for those who live in such inner confusion and anguish. I see families who are barely surviving in their effort to care for loved ones tormented by autism, Alzheimer’s, or other conditions that affect not only the body but the mind and emotions as well. But then, in the face of such brokenness, I’m reminded that the Bible doesn’t ask us to believe in a God who fixes everything in this life.
Those of us who believe that the Bible is all we need to treat mental and emotional problems usually allow for exceptions rooted in organic causes. We recognize that we must leave room for thoughts and emotions altered by the real effects of brain cancer, thyroid disease, or chemotherapy. What we sometimes forget, though, is that bodies and minds that are fearfully and wonderfully made can be tearfully and woefully broken.
Mental and emotional health and illness are a matter of degree. No one but God fully understands the complex interplay between body and mind.
We might wish that life were simple enough to say, “Think right, do right, and you’ll feel right.” While such advice works for some people some of the time, it can add even more pain to those who are already hurting the most. The apostle Paul gives us a more thoughtful approach when he writes, “Warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
Note the varied responses. Warn some. Comfort some. Hold up some. Be patient toward all.
The need for such patience is easy to see in a child or adult struggling with profound mental or emotional impairment. In such cases, we are inspired by the gentleness and patience of a caregiver who loves in ways that are not returned. We wonder at the compassion that tenderly makes room for limitation while always looking for undeveloped potential.
But it’s important to see that Paul’s words are not just addressed to those with obvious impairment, or even with the kind of diagnosed schizophrenia that my wife and I saw in our loved one. Paul urges, “Be patient with all.”
All of us live with a complexity that is not easily understood by others or ourselves. This is one of many reasons the Bible encourages us to relate to others with a spirit of thoughtful patience and firm gentleness rather than with a spirit of judgment and condemnation. If we are followers of Jesus, filled with His Spirit, we will be more than moral drill sergeants. Guided by His Spirit, we will give others the consideration we want for ourselves.
If troubled people need our help, we don’t do them a favor by ignoring or indulging unhealthy thinking when there is reason to believe they could be making better choices. Love needs to be strong, and sometimes even tough, in dealing with those who are profoundly impaired. But this is where we need to use wisdom and patience rather than the presumption of ignorance.
Father in heaven, there is so much we don’t understand about others and ourselves. Please help us to know when to warn, when to comfort, when to hold up, while being patient toward all. —Mart De Haan