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What Every Pastor Needs to Know About Mental Illness

The soul is a complex thing. Our intellect, emotions and will, or decision-making capabilities, are all wound up together in the psyche, the soul. And God designed a pretty amazing engine called a brain to drive the soul. But sometimes, our engine needs a tune-up.

As a pastor and mentor to pastors, I am often concerned that we don’t understand the power of a brain driving a soul out of control. A recent survey by Lifeway Research found that while most Americans do feel comfortable going to church while struggling with mental illness (68 percent), a majority of Christians also believe that prayer and greater faith is the route to go to find healing from mental illness.

I believe that God is the Creator and Healer of body, mind and spirit. But I also believe that in most cases, He chooses to work through long-term solutions such as medicine or therapy to bring about healing. And I also believe that Satan is alive and real, but I don’t feel that every difficulty I face can be handled by a prayer to bind some particular “spirit.” And sometimes I feel that our faith borders on a kind of superstition that puts people in harm’s way. For example:

  • If you think people with schizophrenia just have demons that need to be cast out …
  • If you encourage depressed people to “just praise the Lord” and forget about their troubles …
  • If you ever urge someone to “throw away their pills” and stop trying to medicate their sin …

… chances are, you’re doing more harm than good. We have the mistaken idea that medicinal treatment for mental illness is somehow a substitute or counterfeit for being authentically who we were made to be. To put it another way, many Christians assume that if you were really right with God, you wouldn’t need medication. The truth for many people is that medication is the mechanism that allows them to rediscover who they really are by clearing away the irrational thinking that clouds their minds without it.

I asked my small group last night, If I had severe diabetes and threw away my insulin and simply asked them to pray for my healing with a declaration that I was going to trust God for complete healing, how would they react? Thankfully, their response would have been, “We’ll pray for you, but keep taking your meds.” Is this a lack of faith? No. It’s a recognition that we live in a world in which our bodies have inherent flaws for which God has empowered some really smart people to develop medicinal solutions.

So, here’s my pastoral word to anyone who struggles with mental illness to any degree, or to those who aren’t sure what to think about mental illness.

  • Pray for healing, but take your medicine.
  • Pray for deliverance, but see a counselor.
  • Ask God for the miraculous, but commit to the long-term hard work He often uses to heal.
  • Stop offering guilt trips to people with an illness of the mind unless you’re ready to start making people feel guilty for having cancer too.
  • Be there for someone with mental illness. Your friendship may be their only lifeline on a really bad day.
  • Know that you can’t keep people well mentally any more than you can magically cure them of physical illnesses.
  • Love people who struggle with mental illness. Jesus does. He died for them. He’s a friend to them.
  • If you struggle with irrational or persistently self-defeating thoughts, talk to someone. Get help today.

I think we’re making progress as a church. We have a long way to go in our understanding, but we seem to be more open to talking about the issues of mental illness than ever before. Let’s keep moving in the direction of really making room in God’s family for people with mental illness to belong.  

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Brandon Cox is Lead Pastor of Grace Hills Church, a new church plant in northwest Arkansas. He also serves as Editor and Community Facilitator for Pastors.com and Rick Warren's Pastor's Toolbox and was formerly a Pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. In his spare time, he offers consultation to church leaders about communication, branding, and social media. He and his wife, Angie, live with their two awesome kids in Bentonville, Arkansas.