In Samuel Butler’s satire, Erewhon, published in 1872, he presented a society where criminals were treated as if they were ill, while the ill were treated as criminals.  It was once the case that those who were ill were looked down upon, considered cursed by God.  Many believed that if only they repented of their sins, sought the Lord in prayer, and had more faith, then they would be okay.

Most people today would not treat a cancer patient as if she were an especially grievous sinner needing only to exhibit greater faith in order to get well.  We do not make people feel guilty when they have a cold, or the flu; we do not excommunicate diabetics or those in need of heart transplants.  We do not tell a person with a broken leg that they need to pray and read their Bible more. Christian colleges do not have Departments of Biblical Gynecology. 

But when it comes to mental illness, that’s all too often our reality.  So much so that according to a 2005 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, 67 percent of people who suffer from some sort of significant mental health problem are not in any type of treatment.  I know people in our church who have children with mental health problems who resist getting treatment. They say they don’t want to have to be dependent upon drugs to function.  “It’s a crutch.” 

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Though of course, if they had a broken ankle, I suspect they wouldn’t feel bad about using a crutch. And I have yet to hear anyone tell paraplegics that they need to get their lazy selves out of their wheelchairs.

When  my youngest daughter—who suffers from severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is bipolar and possibly schizophrenic—was six, she went to spend the night with her cousin (the daughter of my brother-in-law and his wife) for a sleepover.  We gave them my daughter’s medication and explained that she needed to take it when she got up in the morning. 

When we picked up my daughter the next afternoon, my in-laws returned the medication unused, explaining that they had left it up to her to take and that they didn’t feel such things were necessary, anyhow.

My daughter has never done another sleepover with her cousin at her cousin’s house.  And we do not discuss any of my daughter’s mental health issues with them.  They do not believe in mental illness; they think it’s a spiritual issue and that we’re just lousy parents. 

My in-laws are far from alone in their attitude.  The father and mother of our church’s song leader were missionaries in Africa for more than three decades.  They had to leave several years ago due to the rise of Islamic extremism. Many of the people they worked with slaughtered by terrorists; they witnessed horrible things. Her mother has also suffered from depression most of her life. The therapy and medication she has used over the years has been very effective.

But their home church, where our song leader’s sister and brother-in-law attend, rejects the reality of mental illness.  She cannot discuss her problems or admit to anyone there what she suffers from.  She cannot even talk to that daughter or son-in-law about it. And the church is located next to the college I attended as an undergraduate, a liberal arts Christian college which is no longer the same school at all. 

When my wife and I attended it had an excellent psychology department, but after a change in administration and a name change, all that ended.  The new administration rejects modern psychology and replaced the psychology department with a “department of biblical counseling.”  As a part of the school’s Bible program, biblical counselors are taught to focus on getting people to confess their sins and to do more Bible reading and prayer.

As a Christian, Sunday School teacher, sometime preacher, and theologian, I’m all for confession, the reading of the Bible and prayer. I believe in the inherent value and life-transforming effect of such things.  However, no amount of prayer and Bible reading is going to fix a broken leg.  Making my daughter pray won’t eliminate her bipolar disorder; more Bible reading won’t help a retired missionary’s clinical depression.

Don’t I believe God answers prayer?  Consider this old joke:

            George Mumford lived in Louisiana near the Mississippi river.  One day it started to rain. The TV weatherman warned of a coming storm and that everyone needed to move to higher ground.

            George just shook his head.  “God will take care of me.”

            The next morning, with water lapping gently against his front door, the sheriff floated by in a small boat.  He called out to George, “Jump in, I’ll take you to safety.”

            George shook his head.  “That’s okay, God will take care of me.”

            The next morning, George found himself sitting on the roof of his flooded house.  A helicopter dropped a rope to him, while a man with a bullhorn shouted, “Grab the rope, we’ll save you.”

            “I don’t need saving,” said George.  “God is my savior.  He’ll take care of me.” 

            A couple of hours later, the water rose still higher and George was now treading water.  Another boat came drifting by.  “Grab the life preserver, we’ll pull you to safety.”

            “That’s okay, God will take care of me.”  And he swam away from the life preserver.

            George soon drowned.

            God confronted him at the pearly gates:  “What are you doing here, George?”

            “That’s the same question I have.  I trusted you to save me, but instead you let me drown!”

            God frowned.  “Well, George, I did try to save you.  I sent you that weather report, the sheriff, a helicopter, and a life preserver. What more did you expect?”

            God has given us doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists.  There is treatment available.  God has given us doctors to fix our broken legs and heart attacks; he’s given us modern medicine and therapy to help us when our brains aren’t working right. We don’t need to be like George.


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