A thirty-eight-year-old dedicated christian, whom I'll call mary, sat in my office crying. "Down" days had plagued her for years, but in the last six months she had become increasingly depressed; a persistent cloud of doom hung over her head. She felt as if she was "in hell"—as if God was punishing her. She felt guilty, and the long sleepless nights left her exhausted all day. To eat was a chore; to concentrate was next to impossible. She spent more and more time in Bible study and prayer, hoping that would help, but it didn't. The Scriptures seemed to condemn her, and her prayers bounced off the ceiling. She couldn't get away from the agonizing pain of depression.
Mary's husband, a deacon in the church, didn't understand why she couldn't just "snap out of it." Her Bible study leader simply asked, "Have you confessed your sin of depression yet?" Mary felt too wounded to explain her situation. She had cried to God repeatedly to forgive her of all sin, even though she wasn't able to pinpoint any—but a vague feeling persisted: you must be sinning or you wouldn't feel this way. She wondered if this attitude toward her illness might have come from a Christian book about depression. It said, "If a person has the peace of God which passeth all understanding' (Philippians 4:7) in his life he cannot have emotional conflict. Ultimately... symptoms are spiritual problems."
She visited the church of a popular TV pastor and went forward for healing. While waiting in line, someone in front of her asked the well-known minister for help with her depression. The minister told the lady, "I won't pray for you, because depressed people feel sorry for themselves and God doesn't condone that." This shocked Mary so that she left immediately, feeling much worse and very confused. Her own pastor also failed to understand the depth of her problem.
For months she struggled with the pros and cons of seeking professional help. Her husband opposed such treatment because the main speaker at a Christian conference center had said, "If you are a committed Christian you shouldn't need a psychiatrist." Five times she started to dial my number before she had the courage to complete the call. As she sat in my office, tears streamed down her face; the underlying depression had grown to suicidal proportions. On top of this, she felt guilty for not being able to solve the problem on her own. Convinced that sitting in my office made her a failure, she concluded, "I shouldn't feel this way."
Charles is a conscientious attorney who, after losing an important case, began to have severe panic attacks. His heart pounded so hard that he was convinced he would soon die of a heart attack, have a severe stroke or go crazy. He broke out in a cold sweat, felt a prickly-tingling sensation throughout his body, became light-headed and believed everyone could see how frightened he was. At first this terror hit him when he tried to go back to court; then it started when he went to the office. His wife responded angrily: "It's all emotional—just get ahold of yourself."
Skip, a twenty-year-old minister's son, was president of his highschool class and, until last year, active in his church youth group. Then his college grades began to drop, and he found it nearly impossible to concentrate on his studies. He began hearing voices and became terrified that people were out to hurt him. He became overwhelmed with what was happening to him and the world around him. He was diagnosed as having schizophrenia, and medications brought him much relief. His hallucinations and suspicion of others stopped, but he was not able to resume his classes.
His father had just finished reading a book on spiritual warfare. It said, "The obvious psychological illness to relate to demonic activity is schizophrenia." So the elders prayed for Skip, and his dad insisted that he not take the "drugs." But the result confused Skip: when he didn't take the medication, the horrifying voices returned, telling him to protect himself before someone killed him. Now he is so fearful that he carries a knife for protection.
With their inability to find relief, is it any wonder that the advice received by Mary, Charles and Skip only confused them?
Many Christians, including prominent leaders, view most if not all emotional problems as the direct result of personal sin or bad choices. I have been told that such individuals "just have a sin problem." Dwight Pentecost, in his book Man's Problems—God's Answers, says, "Thus we must first of all honestly face this fact that when we give way to worry, anxious care, and concern, we are disobeying a specific command of Scripture given by God to His children, and we are displeasing Him because of our sin." Statements such as this are not uncommon. Turn on the radio or TV, or pick up one of many current Christian books and you will find any negative emotion pronounced a sin, whether it is anger, doubt, depression or anxiety.
Beyond Seduction by Dave Hunt is an example of such a book. He says, "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." John MacArthur, in Our Sufficiency in Christ: Three Deadly Influences That Undermine
Your Spiritual Life, takes a similar position, saying that "there may also be certain types of emotional illnesses where root causes are organic," but adding that "these are relatively rare problems.... Every need of the human soul is ultimately spiritual. 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." Referring to those who seek psychological help he concludes: "Scripture hasn't foiled them—they've failed Scripture."
These spokesmen represent a large segment of Christianity that judges virtually all mental and emotional problems as due to deliberate sin of the individual. With such a conclusion it is understandable how they would deeply wound those suffering with emotional symptoms.
People who believe that emotional problems are caused by one's sin will inevitably communicate to others that it's not O.K. to have emotional problems. Sometimes we are as judgmental as Job's "friends" or the Pharisees in conveying that the person going through a difficult time is sinning. For example, Eliphaz told Job, "Stop and think! Have you ever known a truly good and innocent person who was punished?... My advice to you is this: Go to God and confess your sins" (Job 4:7, 5:8 LB). This judgment adds a giant burden to the person who is already struggling with a heavy load.
Harold Sala of Guidelines International Ministries recently wrote to me about a colleague of his, whom I'll call Sam. While teaching and working on his doctorate, Sam had some major concerns about how a specific Christian university was spending significant amounts of its money. After looking into the matter, he became convinced that unethical practices were being employed which he couldn't condone. He felt he needed to resign his teaching position, even though he knew the university would probably blackball him so that he wouldn't be able to get a teaching position elsewhere. The tension began to eat away at him, pushing him to the brink of a nervous breakdown.
When he checked into the university hospital for a few days of rest with medication, the university president told the student body, "Nobody who is right with the Lord has a nervous breakdown and needs medication." This statement, of course, got back to the individual who had served the university with distinction for many years.
Feeling completely trapped and that his life had become unbearable, Sam took a .22 pistol, shot himself in the stomach, and bled to death over a period of hours. The response of the university? It refused to let either the students or his fellow professors attend the funeral! This event took place in the 1960s, but the position regarding mental illness held by that fundamentalist institution has not changed today.
The widespread nature of Christianity's prejudice can be seen in churches across the nation on any Sunday morning. In most of our churches we pray publicly for the parishioner with cancer, a heart attack, or pneumonia. But rarely will a conservative church publicly pray for Mary with severe depression, Charles with incapacitating panic attacks, or the minister's son with schizophrenia. Such a conspiracy of silence further communicates that these are not acceptable illnesses for Christians to have. And by our silence we further wound those in pain.
Not only do Christians shoot their wounded, but most of the world inflicts injury on those suffering with mental problems. Condemning the emotionally distraught is rampant in our society. A public opinion survey found that 71 percent believed mental illness was due to an emotional weakness; 45 percent said it was the victim's fault—they could will it away if they wanted to; and 35 percent believed it was the consequence of sinful behavior.
Well-publicized examples of such prejudice include the case of Thomas Eagleton, who in 1984 was forced to withdraw as a U.S. vice-presidential candidate because he had once been treated for depression. Similarly, President Reagan made an offhand comment about presidential candidate Michael Dukakis's treatment for depression, apparently hoping to discredit Dukakis's ability to be president. Fortunately, that comment didn't go very far in the press. On the other hand, the media had a heyday with Kitty Dukakis later.
Even the medical and psychological fields are not immune from this problem. A Forum on Stigma sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that even health care professionals harbor unconscious, unstated negative feelings about their mental patients.
In a recent medical journal, a physician wrote the following: If you are sick and disabled, it must be in some way because you want to be.... The sick have enough misery from their illnesses. Should they now have to put up with the burden of their physicians and their relatives harboring a subliminal suspicion that it is their fault?...
Before we allow ourselves the liberty of accepting that the sick somehow deserve what they get and letting that subtle judgement somehow intrude into the way we cope and care for patients, let us be absolutely sure we are right. So far, the evidence is not there.
So this is a universal prejudice. Unfortunately, on this issue Christians in general are as biased as the secular world, if not more so.
In the preface I describe the philosophy of some missionaries who have severe emotional struggles but "still won't seek professional help." The church as a whole not only criticizes the person with emotional symptoms, but also opposes their seeking help.
Christian author Dave Hunt, whose books have sold over a million copies, says: "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.... There is no such thing as a mental illness."
This simply is not true. It is one of the most unfortunate ideas ever published. Dave Hunt greatly lacks understanding of emotional illness. His attitude is a classic example of how Christians shoot their wounded—often mortally.
While I was putting the finishing touches on this book, a very successful singles' pastor drove over a hundred miles to see me for a consultation. His father had been incapacitated by depression, and now he was suffering with the same malady. His family physician had prescribed an antidepressant which had proven to be very effective. But this pastor felt condemned and guilty—condemned to the same fate as his father, and guilty because he needed to take medication. Unable to fight off his depression without medicine, he had decided that he should quit the ministry, and he assumed I would encourage such a decision.
During that initial consultation, I was able to share some of the essential truths in this book. They literally set him free. He left the office feeling grateful that someone understood him and his problem, relieved of a tremendous amount of guilt, and assured of hope for his future. My prayer is that this book will give hope to all of you who are hurting. And for those who are not hurting, I trust it will enable you to be an instrument of healing, rather than wounding, to those around you.
In this book I will share (in lay terms) some recent scientific documentation that mental illness is as real as diabetes, cancer or heart disease, and that it often can be treated very effectively. But first let's look at why we wound those already hurting.