About 10 years ago I heard an Australian pastor say that mental illness was a big need in his city. I was young and strong back then so the picture that came into my mind was that he lived in a town of crazy people. Now I know better. Mental illness is one of the giants of our day. I’ve heard it said that one in twelve people suffers from some form of mental affliction.
If you have 60 friends, chances are that five of them suffer from mental illness. Do you know who they are?
For many people mental illness is taboo. It’s the sickness no one talks about until it’s too late. In face-conscious Hong Kong you won’t know that a person is suffering until they’ve thrown their kids out the window and leapt after them. Mental illness is bad enough, but keeping it wrapped up in secrecy and misunderstanding only makes it worse.
Jesus said he came to bring freedom to the oppressed (Lu 4:18; see also Acts 10:38). Surely that includes those oppressed by bipolar disorder, depression, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, OCD, and so forth.
There is a huge opportunity for followers of Christ to make a difference in this area. How do we do this? By building ramps. Just as we have access ramps for wheelchairs we need ramps for the mentally ill. And by ramps I mean we need to make it as easy as possible for the hurting to come in and find comfort and friendship and healing. Here are 5 ramp-building ideas:
1. Send the message: “come as you are.” People who struggle should not be told they are only welcome when they’re feeling “up”. If blind people are allowed to bring their seeing-eye dogs to church, then people who suffer from depression should be allowed to bring their black dogs. Of course we want to get rid of the dogs. But read the Bible and you will see those who came to Jesus were much more likely to get healed than those who stayed away.
Whether you subscribe to the institutional church or the organic church or the I-am-church model, are we making it easy for people with mental illness to come just as they are? Or are we sending the signal that you must be walking in victory every single day? We need to get real.
2. Cultivate transparency and reality. Think about the sicknesses that you pray for. If the majority of these are physical ailments and you don’t live in the third world, something is wrong. Chances are that those struggling with mental disorders are keeping quiet out of embarrassment or fear.
People outside the church will pay thousands to have a caring counselor listen to their struggles. In the church we listen for free. Create a safe environment where hidden weaknesses can be talked about. We don’t gather around our problems – we gather around Jesus – but bringing problems into the light is the first step towards healing and deliverance. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, keen to pray.
3. Become dealers in hope. Hope is the first casualty of depression. People who suffer from mental disorders often battle to see hope in their situation. When the battle is in the mind, perspective is easily lost. So what hope can we give to sick people? Isaiah 53:5 tells us that Jesus died for us that we might be free from sin and sickness.
I really love Joseph Prince’s take on this scripture. He says that Jesus identified with us in our frailties so that we might identify with him in glory. Don’t identify with your illness. Identify with Jesus. When the doctor speaks a negative diagnosis remind yourself that “as Christ is, so are we in this world” (1 Jn 4:17). Jesus is not depressed. Jesus is not anxious or stressed. Make Jesus your hope.
Incidentally, never tell a sick person that God made them sick to teach them something. He didn’t. Do tell them that the Greek word for salvation covers every aspect of life including healing. On what basis are we healed? On the basis that Jesus was wounded for us (Is 53:5). Stand with them on that promise. In his book So You Think Your Mind is Renewed?, my friend Cornel Marais says:
“Healing is not our privilege, it is our right. Jesus didn’t suffer and die for you to have the privilege of maybe being healed. He died so that you could be well.”
4. The strong need to help the weak (Rms 15:1). Some in the Bible were so helpless that they needed determined friends to rip open roofs to break through to Jesus. We need to cultivate a similar attitude of perseverance when we come along side those who are struggling. Have faith for their healing, be fervent in praying on their behalf and don’t give up. Celebrate victories but don’t throw in the towel if there are set-backs.
A literal reading of James 5:16 says that the energetic prayers of the righteous are effective – energetic in the sense of faith that’s doing something, instead of faith that’s doing nothing. That is an awesome promise to stand on. But take care not to impart guilt or condemnation if the person you’re praying for doesn’t feel as passionate or as chirpy as you do. And don’t tell them to throw away their medication if they don’t have a conviction about it. Encourage them in the Lord but don’t put pressure on them. Be the ramp that lifts them up to Jesus.
5. Encourage them to step out of their comfort zone. Some people aren’t going to get healed the first time you pray for them, or the second time. Does this mean they’re to sit on the sidelines of life waiting for their healing? Absolutely not. God can use us for his glory no matter how strong or weak we feel. In fact, God can use us more when we’re weak than when we’re strong (2 Cor 12:10). He surely used Paul:
“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers.” (2 Cor 1:8-11)
As someone has said, you can be very low emotionally and still be strong spiritually. I agree. You may not be able to lift your head but you can still lift your hands saying, “Lord, here I am, use me.”
A whispered prayer of praise in the midst of suffering is an act of faith that defies circumstances. It’s saying, “no matter what happens, he is worthy and I will praise him.” I don’t know about levels of faith or anything like that, but it’s my conviction that God finds this kind of faith irresistible. When his children, who are in pain, praise him, he is moved. Prisons tumble, graves open, the dead rise, and the depressed rejoice. He is the glory and lifter of our heads (Ps 3:3).
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