Mental Illness and God

We live in an age of greatly increased awareness of the reality of mental illness and greater recognition of the enormous range of difficulties that are associated with the human brain and with how humans deal with other humans. Most of us are now aware that learning is affected by a variety of mental conditions. Depression is now known to express itself in a variety of ways. Human behavior is now recognized to be something affected by environment, chemicals, and history.

As our understanding of mental illness has grown, a variety of issues that affect spirituality and the Church have also been recognized. Christians who minister to others who are in need of help in a variety of ways are sure to run into cases that they cannot handle. In my 40+ years of trying to follow the instructions of Christ to visit the homeless and downtrodden, bear one another's burdens, comfort the feeble-minded, help those who mourn, and meet the physical needs of the poor and those in prison, I have frequently been confronted with people who had problems far too complex for me to be able to solve. The fact is that in a vast percentage of need cases, the apparent needs are smaller than the mental needs that underlie what we can see.

There are a lot of issues here, and the issues cover an enormous range. Is a mentally ill person responsible for what they do--can they really sin at all? Did God goof in His creation of man allowing for such massive defects? Should the Church really try to minister to all people when so many people are beyond the reach of most of us who lack the expertise to address the mental illnesses we come in contact with? How can elders and ministers avoid lawsuits and disasters for the Church when there is such a pervasive influence from people in poor mental health. We would like to address some of the key points that are germane to questions like these that we hope will be useful. We are not naive enough to believe we have all the answers, but there are some things we feel we can discuss which will be helpful.

It is Man's Makeup as a Being Created in God's Image That Makes This an Issue

Why do ants not have problems with depression, learning disabilities, or multiple personalities? Their lives are monotonous and without personal goals that have meaning, and yet there is no jealousy or sibling rivalry. The most fundamental answer to this question is that ants do not have a concept of self. Their social structure is instinctively programmed and genetically determined--not the choice of the individual. (We chose ants as an example because people are more likely to anthropomorphize other animals, but the discussion is true of all living things in the animal kingdom other than man.)

Man is uniquely created in the image of God. That means that man has characteristics which are unique to his makeup. Man's creativity is a function of this makeup--his art, his music, and his worship. Man also feels guilt, sympathy, and has the capacity for forgiveness, altruistic acts, and self-sacrificing love. None of these things are possible in an ant or higher forms of life. One price of being human (being able to feel guilt and to offer a self-sacrificing love) is that we can have pain from these things. In the physical realm, we can see the effect of constant pain. A dog that is physically abused will radiate such pain and demonstrate such bizarre behavior that they become unable to function and usually unable to survive. In humans there can be horrendous results from constant guilt, emotional isolation from others denying love, or an inability to forgive. In spite of that, none of us would want to give up love or the ability to be forgiven. It is the very essence of what it means to be human that makes mental illness a reality.

The Causes of Mental Illness are Man-Made

We increasingly see atheistic writers refer to mental illness as divine mistakes. The idea is that flaws in the design of man's brain and his neurological system cause mental illness. For some authors, this is a denial of God's creation of man as a rational possibility. Flaws that result in a mental illness are said to be proofs that we are a product of chance

The fact is that research has clearly shown that the design of the human brain and neurological system is not flawed, but that what we have done to ourselves is the cause. Recent studies have shown that everything from learning disabilities to the overt psychosis of schizophrenia can be linked to maternal exposure to radiation, mercury, a variety of medications, and dozens of environmental/chemical factors (BrainWork, Vol. 11, No. 5, September/October 2001, page 1). It is not just prenatal chemical problems that produce mental problems, but the situations and environments we choose to put ourselves in. There is a growing body of evidence which shows that recreational drug use of all kinds produces long-term psychological problems. Even diet can have an influence. How all of these agents work is the subject of massive ongoing research. Some of them alter the chemical in the brain that triggers various emotional and mental processes. Some of them alter the genes of the fetus. Put together, they are a major player in those cases where the brain misfires, causing mental illness.

We do want to emphasize that these factors are not always a function of something the person affected or their parents could have avoided. In the BrainWork article mentioned above is a reference to the fact that mercury, lead, and pesticides get into brain tissue just from what we breathe and what we eat, and the FDA has come out strongly against the consumption of large amounts of certain foods like fish by expectant mothers because of this. The other man-made cause of mental illness that must be mentioned is sin and its consequences. God has given mankind a clear set of guidelines as to how we should conduct ourselves. These teachings and rules are not just a set of restrictions designed to frustrate and deprive man. They contain vital guides for physical and mental health. Recreational drugs and sex can be incredibly destructive in every way, and poor mental health just like poor physical health can be the end consequence of abuse.

I want to emphasize that I am not saying that those who are mentally ill caused their own mental illness in 100% of the cases. Many mental illnesses are caused by genetic changes due to substance abuse or environmental pollution by previous generations. Diseases like syphilis can be passed on to children from their parents. Physical and psychological abuse can cause mental illness, and while the individual did nothing to cause his/her illness, it is still the acts of mankind which causes the illness. God does not design or program us to be crippled in any way, and blaming God for illness of any kind to absolve mankind of its responsibility for its actions is ludicrous.

The Church and Its Leaders Need to Face the Issue of Mental Illness Carefully and Logically

In the past, the issue of mental illness has been handled very poorly by the Church and its leadership. In general, the Church has either tried to deny that mental illness exists or the Church has excluded the mentally ill from any kind of involvement. Ignorance, fear, and prejudice have dominated the Church's approach to mental illness damaging everyone concerned. It is time for this to change!

The first thing the Church and its leadership must do is become educated about the mentally ill. Education will remove misconceptions, fear, and prejudice. There are many in the Church that can help us in this education, especially those in our Christian schools and in our larger congregations who are full-time psychologists and psychiatrists. The worst mistake we can make is to expect preachers and elders to be able to solve all the problems the mentally ill and their loved ones have. Doing this is analogous to expecting a preacher to do a bypass surgery, and the damage done can be equivalent.

Not all congregations can employ Christians who have training in dealing with the mentally ill, but all congregations can know where to get competent help that is consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ. If congregations do this and if they provide a loving, warm, accepting body of brothers and sisters who want to nurture and support their ill brother and sister, they will find dealing with the mentally ill to be a great ministry that brings glory to God and positive experiences to the body. 

--John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, SepOct02.