The Only Army that Shoots its Wounded

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By Dwight L. Carlson

From an article in Christianity Today, February 9, 1998

The only army that shoots its wounded is the Christian army,” said the speaker, a psychologist who had just returned from an overseas ministry trip among missionaries. He summed up the philosophy of the group he worked with as:

1. We don’t have emotional problems. If any emotional difficulties appear to arise, simply deny having them.

2. If we fail to achieve this first ideal and can’t ignore a problem, strive to keep it from family members and never breathe a word of it outside the family.

3. If both of the first two steps fail, we still don’t seek professional help.

I have been a Christian for 50 years, a physician for 29, and a psychiatrist for 15. Over this time I have observed these same attitudes throughout the church—among lay leaders, pastors, priests, charismatics, fundamentalists, and evangelicals alike. I have also found that many not only deny their problems but are intolerant of those with emotional difficulties.

Many judge that others’ emotional problems are the direct result of personal sin. This is a harmful view. At any one time, up to 15 percent of our population is experiencing significant emotional problems. For them our churches need to be sanctuaries of healing, not places where they must hide their wounds.

THE EMOTIONAL-HEALTH GOSPEL

Several years ago my daughter was battling leukemia. While lying in bed in the hospital, she received a letter, which read in part:

Dear Susan, You do not know me personally, but I have seen you in church many times….I have interceded on your behalf and I know the Lord is going to heal you if you just let Him. Do not let Satan steal your life—do not let religious tradition rob you of what Jesus did on the cross—by His stripes we were healed.

The theology behind this letter reminded me of a bumper sticker I once saw: “Health and Prosperity: Your Divine Right.” The letter writer had bought into a “healing in the atonement” theology that most mainstream evangelicals reject.

According to this traditional faith-healing perspective, Christ’s atonement provides healing for the body and mind just as it offers forgiveness of sins for the soul. The writer meant well, but the letter created tremendous turmoil for my daughter. While evangelicals have largely rejected “health and wealth” preaching—that faithful Christians will always prosper physically and financially—many hold to an insidious variation of that prosperity gospel. I call it the “emotional-health gospel.”

The emotional-health gospel assumes that if you have repented of your sins, prayed correctly, and spent adequate time in God’s Word, you will have a sound mind and be free of emotional problems.

Usually the theology behind the emotional-health gospel does not go so far as to locate emotional healing in the Atonement (though some do) but rather to redefine mental illnesses as “spiritual” or as character problems, which the church or the process of sanctification can handle on its own. The problem is, this is a false gospel, one that needlessly adds to the suffering of those already in turmoil.

This prejudice against those with emotional problems can be seen in churches across the nation on any Sunday morning. We pray publicly for the parishioner with cancer or a heart attack or pneumonia. But rarely will we pray publicly for Mary with severe depression, Charles with incapacitating panic attacks, or the minister’s son with schizophrenia. Our silence subtly conveys that these are not acceptable illnesses for Christians to have.

The emotional-health gospel is also communicated by some of our most listened-to leaders. I heard one national speaker make the point that “At the cross you can be made whole. Isaiah said that ‘through his stripes we are healed’ … not of physical suffering, which one day we will experience; we are healed of emotional and spiritual suffering at the cross of Jesus Christ.” In other words, a victorious Christian will be emotionally healthy. This so-called full gospel, which proclaims that healing of the body and mind is provided for all in the Atonement, casts a cruel judgment on the mentally ill.

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Don’t Shoot the Wounded

Two authors widely read in evangelical circles, John MacArthur and Dave Hunt, also propagate views that, while sincerely held, I fear lead us to shoot our wounded. In his book “Beyond Seduction”, Hunt writes, “The average Christian is not even aware that to consult a psychotherapist is much the same as turning oneself over to the priest of any other rival religion,” and, “There is no such thing as a mental illness; it is either a physical problem in the brain (such as a chemical imbalance or nutritional deficiency) or it is a moral or spiritual problem.”

MacArthur, in “Our Sufficiency in Christ”, presents the thesis that “As Christians, we find complete sufficiency in Christ and his provisions for our needs.” While I agree with his abstract principle, I disagree with how he narrows what are the proper “provisions.” A large portion of the book strongly criticizes psychotherapy as one of the “deadly influences that undermine your spiritual life.” He denounces “so-called Christian psychologists and psychiatrists who testified that the Bible alone does not contain sufficient help to meet people’s deepest personal and emotional needs,” and he asserts, “There is no such thing as a ‘psychological problem’ unrelated to spiritual or physical causes.

God supplies divine resources sufficient to meet all those needs completely.” Physically caused emotional problems, he adds, are rare, and referring to those who seek psychological help, he concludes: “Scripture hasn’t failed them—they’ve failed Scripture.”

A PLACE FOR PROFESSIONALS

When adherents of the emotional-health gospel say that every human problem is spiritual at root, they are undeniably right. Just as Adam’s fall in the garden was spiritual in nature, so in a very true sense the answer to every human problem—whether a broken leg or a burdened heart—is to be found in the redeeming work of Christ on the cross. The disease and corruption process set into motion by the Fall affected not only our physical bodies but our emotions as well, and we are just beginning to comprehend the many ways our bodies and minds have been affected by original sin and our fallen nature. Yet the issue is not whether our emotional problems are spiritual or not—all are, at some level—but how best to treat people experiencing these problems.

Many followers of the emotional-health gospel make the point that the church is, or at least should be, the expert in spiritual counseling, and I agree. Appropriate spiritual counseling will resolve issues such as salvation, forgiveness, personal morality, God’s will, the scriptural perspective on divorce, and more. It can also help some emotional difficulties. But many emotional or mental illnesses require more than a church support network can offer.

I know it sounds unscriptural to say that some individuals need more than the church can offer—but if my car needs the transmission replaced, do I expect the church to do it? Or if I break my leg, do I consult my pastor about it? For some reason, when it comes to emotional needs, we think the church should be able to meet them all. It can’t, and it isn’t supposed to.

This is why the emotional-health gospel can do so much harm. People who need help are prevented from seeking it and often made to feel shame for having the problem. Thankfully, more and more people in the Christian community are beginning to realize that some people need this extra help. If professionals and church leaders can recognize the value of each other’s roles, we will make progress in helping the wounded. Forty percent of all individuals who need emotional help seek it first from the church, and some of these will need to be referred to mental-health professionals.

Church leaders should get to know Christian therapists in their communities so they can knowledgeably refer people with persistent emotional problems.

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Standing With Her in the Rain

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“Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.”

Galatians 6:2, NLT

By Lisa Schubert, Guest Author

Samantha approached me outside the church on Thanksgiving morning with her hair disheveled and her coat covered with dirt smudges and raindrops. She demanded to borrow my cell phone to find if the Thanksgiving dinner she had requested from a charitable organization would be ready for pick-up in an hour. I was in a hurry. I needed to be inside preparing to lead worship. I begrudgingly let her borrow my phone, but I insisted on dialing the number myself and standing with her in the gentle rain.

Samantha issued commands to the person on the other end of the line. When she hung up, the rant continued against our church, our staff, the weather, and this meal that would serve as her Thanksgiving dinner. I had to let her go mid-rant, but not before reminding her that I would keep her in my prayers.

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My encounters with Samantha have continued over the past few months. She’s almost always confused, angry and paranoid. She tells stories about growing up with another member of our staff, who never met her until recently. It’s hard to know how to respond to Samantha.

A friend called me recently to ask if our church had any resources for helping congregations to welcome those who struggle with mental illness. I pointed her in a few directions, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) at www.nami.org. Even as I offered her the information, I felt uneasy. Connecting with those who have mental illnesses is a complex, difficult journey.

It was raining again on Monday when I saw Samantha. She was sitting in the front lobby of the church. She shouted at me as I walked out the door, “Be careful out there! Two guys tried to kidnap me, and I wouldn’t want that to happen to you.” Unwilling to believe her, I replied, “Samantha, I’m sorry you had a rough morning. I’ll be thinking of you. Hope your day gets better.” I continued out the church doors and opened my umbrella.

I later discovered that Samantha was mugged that morning. Thankfully, the police believed her while I had blown her off. They arrested the alleged perpetrators that afternoon.

I’m embarrassed by my lack of gentleness and compassion toward Samantha, and I know I’m not alone. I wonder what it means for the Church to embrace, accept and listen to those who have mental illnesses. I wonder how church leaders like myself can grow and help others to deepen their care for people like Samantha.

There are no simple answers, but I think the answer starts in a simple place: We stand with them in the rain.

Lisa Schubert is Associate Pastor of Discipleship and Formation of North United Methodist Church, Indianapolis

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Flying Lessons

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Sometimes it’s best to use bullet points; they help me think.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. 

  • I want to do what is right, but I can’t.  
  • I want to do what is good, but I don’t.
  • I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.

But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.”

Romans 7:18-20, NLT

“How can you be so inconsistent? I feel like there are two ‘Bryans,’ I don’t understand how you can live like this.” This is what a dear friend said to me recently. I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know how to answer. It was a bit embarrassing, but I couldn’t respond. Later, the Spirit ministered to me while praying about it. The Lord spoke, “He has no idea how bad you really are. Don’t you dare defend yourself!’

I now realize I should have said this to my friend. You’re absolutely right, I am a bit of a flake. But you only see the veneer, deep down  I’m much worse than you will ever know. I can’t defend my actions, and I desperately need a Savior. Would you pray for me to work this out?”

The daily struggle with sin is sometimes more visible than we would like. Even as a believer I can and do sin. That should surprise no one, and yet, I am the most surprised when sin inevitably breaks out. (Inconsistency is a factor in Bipolar disorder, but this is more than that.)

I’ve recently realized that in spite of 37 years of following Jesus that I’ve sinned more as a believer than I have ever did as a ‘worldling.’ I’m kinda embarrassed by this.

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In Romans 7 we are confronted with a man who is constantly disappointed in himself. It can be wrenching to read– partly because it is so real. It describes us too well. At times the Word is like looking into a mirror.

Romans 7 describes what is wrong with us, for we are attempting to keep the law from our own efforts. We slide from grace when we attempt to stand before God in our self-righteousness. We have a strong tendency to do this at times.

“We are all infected and impure with sin.
    When we display our righteous deeds,
    they are nothing but filthy rags.”

Isaiah 64:6

We have a problem when our heart doesn’t match our actions. It gets a little hairy when our sin is visible to others. We feel like hypocrites and our testimony is officially ‘toast.’

Sometimes, we’re reasonably certain we’ve shamed Christ in some irrevocable way. But do Now a lot of this can be satanic, for he indeed is “the accuser of the brethren,” (Rev 12:10). 

Whenever we stand before God, we should never come with our list of great things we have recently done for Him. It won’t be accepted. They are at best, filthy rags. They’re not fit for a King’s court. But yet we keep coming, parading our dirty, grimy rags.

I wonder when we ‘strut’ into His presence if the angels don’t ‘roll their eyes?’

We forget that only Christ’s righteousness is accepted. Heaven is satisfied with His atonin’t ng blood that covers every sin. The tension we feel in Romans 7 is there because it turns us away from our self-efforts. Our ‘confusion’ over this chapter indicates the depth of our attempt to be righteous on our own.

“The greatest enemy to human souls is the self-righteous spirit which makes men look to themselves for salvation.”

Charles Spurgeon


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Mental Illness Concerns

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As with anything, those of us with mental illness have much to think through. I believe that God will direct us through these issues. And these are not static things. It isn’t “one and your done”– these are ongoing. They never get completely resolved; you must get used to this. The following list is not meant to be exhaustive.

  • Stigma— This is one of the basic hazards that comes with having a mental illness. People will whisper and treat you like a moron, even in church. You’ll need to be thick-skinned. Ask Jesus for his help. He understands what it’s like. At the time some considered him mentally disturbed. You’re in good company.
  • Medications– This will be a stretching time as you must determine what  is best for you, your family and basic functionality. There will be many opinions and many issues that will arise. Your patience will be required (but isn’t it always?) Oh, and booze is not a med. It is your enemy and a real threat to your sanity. Quit now.
  • Church“Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” should be our rally spot. We need fellowship.  It is easy to just go it alone, but we will suffer a barrenness which we will see in our hearts. (I’ve chafed at this from time to time.)
  • Therapy— To go or not to go? A good therapist is worth their weight in gold doubloons, but a bad one can be hard to abide. Also, a  Christian may not always be the best for you personally. My current is a unbeliever, but is very respectful regarding my faith.
  • Marriage—  A faithful spouse/friend is key to managing your mental illness. Invite them to your appointments. Talk, listen, talk, listen, talk. and then listen some more.
  • Family— They will feel the brunt of your issues. It is good to be aware of this and adjust to their needs. Above all, don’t flog yourself for your failings. Trust in the Lord to redeem things. Look for ways to love them. (Surprise ice cream does wonders.)
  • Work— Not surprisingly, some employers have little tolerance for your issues, but the law says is that they can’t discriminate against a mental illness. I hope it won’t come down to that.
  • Social/friend-– Finding other mentally ill believers is priceless. When I meet someone who also struggled with severe depression I give them a big hug. We instantly have a comradeship that isn’t easily defined.
  • Pray–Desperate prayers have a tendency to get answered. Start praying for five minutes a day. Pray, not complain. Be real, not religious. Talk with Jesus like he was your best friend. Prayer is the key to making everything work.

We have the joy of combining our discipleship with our illness. This is a formidable task. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit stands ready to give you wisdom. You will discover that its the tiny issues that can really ‘rock your world.’ (And I’m beginning to think that “grittiness” should be added to the fruits of the Holy Spirit?)

The Lord truly will accommodate your illness with His power and grace. He always does this for His children. No one is ever abandoned or forgotten.

There is no circumstance, no trouble, no testing, that can ever touch me until, first of all, it has gone past God and past Christ, one.right through to me. If it has come that far, it has come with a great purpose.” 

— Alan Redpath

These are only some of the areas that are affected by your mental illness. Oh, a wise spouse, pastor, friend, or a therapist can do wonders when things are out of whack.

The spiritual disciplines of prayer and the Word will assist you. Having people pray for you will be a necessity and may provide you relief and restore your sanity. Just remember, some people still remember how to pray.

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”

,, Philippians 1:6, NLT

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