Part 1: The Gospel and Mental Illness
Is the Gospel about Mental Illness?
At ACBC we are committed to a specific kind of gospel ministry. We want to connect the most hurting and troubled people with the gospel of Jesus Christ in the context of counseling ministry. We certify counselors to minister the gospel of God’s grace to all kinds of people whether they struggle with a mild spiritual problem, or the most serious mental health diagnoses.
The commitment makes many people wonder whether the Gospel has anything to do with mental illness. Isn’t mental illness a medical issue? How can the Gospel help with those kinds of things? The temptation is to think that the Bible can’t help with so-called mental issues because the one doesn’t have anything to do with the other. For many it makes as much sense as having a biblical counseling commitment to car repair.
Is Mental Illness Spiritual?
In reality the Gospel has everything to do with mental illness. There are a number of ways I could demonstrate this, but for now let me tell you a story you may have heard. It is a story about a man named John Hinkley Jr.
Hinkley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. Hinkley had become obsessed with actress Jodie Foster, and believed that if he could kill a president, he would be her equal and be able to get her attention. Hinkley opened fire on President Reagan at the conclusion of a speech and injured four people including the president, two law enforcement officers, and Reagan’s press secretary.
In a very controversial verdict, Hinkley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Over the years many different psychiatrists have debated what is wrong with Hinkley. He has had numerous diagnoses including depression, dysthymia, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and schizoid personality disorder. Even more psychiatrists have debated whether Hinkley even has a mental illness. During the last three decades expert psychiatric testimony has conflicted over whether Hinkley should be institutionalized in a hospital or a penitentiary, and whether he should have increasing freedom.
Mad or Bad?
Such debates demonstrate that psychiatry doesn’t provide the clarity of diagnosis and treatment we expect from many other scientific disciplines. The point I want to make here, however, is that even if we did conclude that Hinkley had something we might refer to as a “mental illness,” wouldn’t we also have to say that there is something fundamentally different from Hinkley and, say, a cancer patient? People with cancer, diabetes, and heart disease don’t stalk women and open fire on a crowd in an attempt to murder a president. All disease exists in a world tainted by the sin of Adam, but there is something about “mental illness” that is moral in a way that other diseases are not.
When you pay attention to the problems that our culture identifies as mental illnesses, you’ll notice that they are problems which involve an active human heart in ways that traditional diseases do not: folks diagnosed with clinical depression need hope and encouragement, folks labeled as alcoholics need to learn self-control, children identified with obstinate defiant disorder need to learn to respect their parents. What other diseases have hope, self-control, and submission as elements fundamental to cure?
What do the Mentally Ill Need?
Do not misunderstand me. I’m not trying to sit in judgment on all people diagnosed with a mental illness. I’m not comparing every person who has been diagnosed with a mental illness to John Hinkley. I’m also not saying that there is never anything medically wrong with people labeled with a psychiatric disorder.
What I am saying is that in almost every single mental illness diagnosis, spiritual issues of right and wrong, good and bad, obedience and disobedience are on the table in ways that they are not with traditional diseases. This means that people diagnosed with mental illness need the gospel in ways that are different than those with an actual disease.
I say “different” because all people need the gospel. The gospel is more important to a cancer patient than chemo; it is more important to a diabetic than insulin, it is more important to a heart patient than a bypass operation. The gospel provides the only solution that extends beyond a finite medical intervention to eternal life with Christ in heaven. The great need of every diseased person is the gospel of Jesus even when the central treatment for their specific pathology is found outside the gospel.
This situation is not the case for those who carry the label of a mental illness. What pill can impart Christ-centered hope? What therapy can conjure up self-control? Has there ever been an ECT treatment that created submission? The answer to all of these questions is no. These realities are spiritual fruits that Jesus produces through his indwelling Spirit. This Spirit resides in those who believe the gospel.
Whatever we say about the biological and medical element of the various mental illnesses, we will say that no treatment for them is complete without a proclamation of the gospel, which alone brings the requisite changes in each of these problems.
This is why Christians need to have something to say about these issues. ACBC exists to help the church grow in wisdom about these issues, and to certify men and women who know how to bring the profundities of the gospel to the complexities of such difficult problems.
In the days ahead we’ll say much more about all of this.