Lenten resource: Mental health in the body of Christ

During our Lenten sermon series, “Too much to bear alone,” we are engaging the troubles we face in life. We recognize that many of these troubles overlap with the realm of mental illness. Our hope is to name this reality wisely and well, to use our language carefully in the context of worship and discipleship. To that end, your pastors thought it helpful to sketch a few contours of a biblical theology of mental illness.

We believe:

  1. People who live with mental illness are made in and bear the image of God, fully belong to Christ’s family, the church, and are valuable members of the community in need of specific care.

  2. People who live with mental illness are known and loved by God, and nothing can take away this divinely created personhood or remove God’s image from them — not trauma, abuse or violence, not disabilities or dementia, not depression, psychosis or any disorder, not even suicide.

  3. People who live with mental illness are not people out there - they are family and friends, they are people we serve with and worship beside. They are us, the body of Christ.

  4. People who live with mental illness are not defined by their illness and bring unique strengths and experiences which enrich our community. So we celebrate the whole person and both stand with them in their suffering as well as learn from their resiliency.

  5. People who lived with mental illness are included in the story of faith provided for in scripture. We see biblical heroes like Moses, Elijah and Paul were so distressed that they considered suicide (Numbers 11:15, 1 Kings 19:4, Philippians 1:20-26). Jacob, Job and David all experienced what seems to describe depressive episodes (Genesis 37:35, Job 3:11 and Psalm 38:6). Jesus, too, expressed the full spectrum of anguished human emotion, including anger, distress and sorrow.

  6. People who live with mental illness experience disappointments, barriers, and fear as well as triumphs, resiliencies, and gratitude as they live with their illness.

  7. People who live with mental illness receive good gifts from God in care accessed via trusted individuals, mental health professionals, medication, and various treatment options.

  8. People who live with mental illness should not be made to feel isolated because of their experiences, or feel the need to keep their suffering to themselves. In worship and community life, it is healthy and necessary to name and lament our traumas, sorrows and losses without shameful whispering or painful silence, bringing all of what we experience into the presence of Jesus.

  9. People who live with mental illness, like many of us, can sometimes experience faith to be a source of strain and distress or find spiritual language confusing (e.g. wondering “why doesn’t God heal me?” or “Is anxiety a lack of faith?”). It is crucial to be nuanced in our language, choosing speech to show love, offer healing and to bless, while recognizing that spiritual practices can be a comfort, provide meaning, and be a source of coping for those living with mental illness.

  10. People who live with mental illness sometimes find it difficult to feel or experience God. We understand lament and complaint during difficult times as evidence of faith, not a lack of it. As a body of Christ, we can carry those living with a sense of God’s absence, holding hope for those who cannot hope within Christ-shaped friendships.

In The Inclusive Church, Jean Vanier and John Swinton write, “The greatest pain of people with mental illness is to be seen as different, to be stigmatized as ‘abnormal,’ pushed away into a horrible world of loneliness, isolation, anguish and pain; trapped in a space where no one desires to meet with them. The call of the church is a simple one: meet people where they are. . . . Meeting people in love destroys stigma and gives the person back their name.”

Our troubles are too much to bear alone. Praise God for the body of Christ where we are held together in Jesus.

— Pr. Phil Reinders