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Thinking Well About Mental Health

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BY BENJAMIN R. LEE, Assistant Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

     Leading up to this year’s Olympics in Japan the anticipation and expectation couldn’t have been much higher for the performance of our nation’s current most beloved Olympic athlete and world-renowned gymnast, Simone Biles. Most of us only watch gymnastics once every four years, but we were going to watch Simone Biles. It felt like a forgone conclusion that Simone was going to bring home gold medal after gold medal for the US. We were going to watch, that is, until Simone sent the sports media whirling when she dropped out of nearly all her scheduled events (she did go on to win bronze in the balance beam). It wasn’t a physical injury, though, that kept the world’s best gymnast off the floor. According to Simone and her team it was her “mental health” that necessitated stepping down from the competition.

     The backlash was immense. Simone Biles, arguably the greatest and most accomplished gymnast in history, was labelled weak and cowardly. She should have “toughed it out” to make the country proud, they said. You’ve heard the takes.

     The controversy got me wondering how we as Christians think about issues surrounding mental health. If you’re anything like me the situation at the Olympics probably sparked a conversation or two (more gracious than Simone’s harshest critics, I hope). Recent studies would suggest it’s an issue worth thinking about. Even prior to the COVID outbreak 19% of adults experienced some sort of mental health issue.[i] It’s only worsened over the last 18 months. If you want to find out for yourself just how real an issue this is, just call a counselor or psychologist around town and try to book an appointment. Mental health professionals are slammed with people looking for help. And this isn’t just an issue “out there” in the world. There are many people in own congregation who struggle through mental health issues on a regular basis.

     So, what should Christians think about mental health? How ought we to respond when we hear of a friend, a neighbor, a fellow church member who suffers from anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, PTSD, or any number of mental and emotional illnesses? Let me suggest four biblical truths to remember.

The Fall

     First, when you’re thinking about mental illness, remember the fall. Adam’s fall into sin and the subsequent curse God enacted on the universe hit the world with the force of an atomic bomb. Genesis 3 was a cataclysmic event that left not a single molecule in the entire cosmos unaffected by sin. On account of sin and its effects, the world “groans” as it remains in “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:20-22). Since Genesis 3 we have existed in a disordered universe.

     We shouldn’t we be surprised then when we find our inner world likewise disordered. But that is often how we respond. We react to our own and other’s inner turmoil as if it’s not natural in a Genesis 3 world, as if somehow the fall hasn’t reached down into the depths of our being. But the examples left for us in the Psalms suggest the opposite. Heman the Ezrahite in Psalm 88 recounts the mental and emotional anguish he experienced “from [his] youth up” when his soul was “full of troubles.” The Psalms suggest that the experience of inner turmoil is the natural state of mankind under the fall.

     Nor should we assume that mental and emotional disorders, whether anxiety or schizophrenia, are the direct result of moral failure. All too often, though, we treat those with these disorders just like the disciples when they encountered the blind man, “Rabbi, who sinned that this man is depressed, this man or his parents?” A functional theology of the fall teaches us that mental and emotional disorders cannot be reduced merely to a “sin issue,” as they so often are. Heman’s song recounts no sin leading to his despair, yet darkness is his only friend (Psalm 88:18).

Common Grace

     Thinking well about the fall will help us think well about mental health, and we also need to remember common grace. The Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof teaches that God’s common grace, while not the grace that pardons sin, is the goodness of God in a fallen world ‘common’ to all men which makes “an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men.”[ii] In other words, through common grace God alleviates to some extent the cataclysmic effects of the fall that would otherwise render life in a fallen world unbearable. Simple gifts like food and music are common grace gifts that provide a limited amount of joy in life for all people, and so are things like technological and scientific advancement.

     The doctrine of common grace is critical to how we think about mental and emotional disorders. Just as common grace has afforded medical technology that can alleviate the effects of the fall on our bodies, so common grace has provided medications that can help alleviate the effects of the fall on our minds.

     Sometimes Christians are uncomfortable with using medication for mental and emotional disorders because it has been suggested that the “spiritual” means of healing is prayer and Bible study. These are crucial, no doubt. But reducing healing to Bible memorization most often leaves suffers stuck with excessive guilt because their continued turmoil means they must not be spiritual enough. It may be they need medication to help them get unstuck.

     Christians with a high view of common grace who suffer in these ways should be encouraged to consult their doctors and counselors about how the proper medication could aid their healing journey. If the idea of medication makes you nervous, think more deeply about common grace, and maybe try talking to a fellow believer who takes these medications. I know several folks at Oakwood who take them and would be happy to talk.

Sanctification

     There’s a funny (sad) idea floating around in evangelicalism that once you become a believer that your troubles will fade away, or that if you pray enough and read the Bible enough that you can be “fixed.” However, Paul prayed repeatedly for this “thorn” to be taken away to no avail (2 Corinthians 12:8). Heman said he called on the Lord every day, yet was still “afflicted” (Psalm 88:9,15).

     The idea that prayer and Bible study will fix your problems has more in common with the prosperity gospel than with biblical sanctification. The Bible doesn’t tell us that sanctification is a formula. It doesn’t tell us that all our troubles will go away if we do certain things. Instead, it tells us that God will use all our “thorns” to make us like Jesus.

     Here’s why this is important when considering mental health. If you’re a sufferer this means that your disorder is one of the means God is using to make you more like himself. So, if you don’t get “fixed,” if depression hangs on, if you’re still anxious, that doesn’t mean you’re failing. It may be that God allows that thorn to remain so that his power can be made perfect in your weakness (2 Cor. 12:10).

     If you don’t suffer in these ways this means that as you encounter Christians who struggle, don’t be confused when the problem doesn’t resolve right away, or if it continues even after counsel and medication. Instead, keep on encouraging them as you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:25).

The Gospel

     The gospel is last on the list, but it’s of first importance. Yet it seems to be the gospel that is so often left out of the conversation. When I think about reactions to Simone Biles, what I hear are Pharisees looking down their noses at a girl whose struggle they refuse to understand, who with puffed up chests say they’d have buried the feelings if they were in her spot. I hear similar things from Christians who encounter sufferers: “Buck up. Read this Bible verse. Stop doubting. Just trust God.” Suffers often think the same about themselves: “I shouldn’t be so sad. Christians shouldn’t be anxious. I’ve got to do better.”

     But that’s the law. The law tells you over and over again what needs to be done. And let me tell you from personal experience, the law is of no use here. Healing begins with the gospel of free acceptance through Christ Jesus whose life, death, and resurrection have won for us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, regardless of our mental and emotional state. The gospel is the ultimate spiritual grace that provides sufferers with a consolation far surpassing anything even the common grace of medication can offer. Medication can silence anxiety long enough for us to hear that in Christ I have peace with God regardless of what I feel, and it has an answer for every disorder. Indeed, the gospel tells me that while my disorder may endure in this life, someday Jesus is coming back to re-order all of creation, including my inner world.

     The gospel is where the troubled must root themselves, and it is where we must take those who suffer. We move people toward healing not by giving them a list of things to do, but by pointing them to Christ who has already accomplished everything for them.

     Don’t be like the media pundits were with Simone Biles. Think well about mental health by thinking deeply about the fall, common grace, sanctification, and the gospel. And then, go and be Christ to sufferers.


[i] https://mhanational.org/issues/state-mental-health-america

[ii] Berkhof, Louis., Systematic Theology, pp. 435, The Banner of Truth Trust (2005).

 

Posted by Rev. Ben Lee with

Who Are You Owin’? (6)

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BY OWEN HUGHES, Associate Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

Who Are You Owin’?

DISCLAIMER: My blog posts will be about gratitude. Gratitude, thankfulness, and appreciation do not come naturally to me, but there are so many people that I owe so much to. People who invested in me, who spent time with me, who pursued me, and who shaped me. Some were intentional, others were unintentional, and others were just being themselves. So, my blog posts will be about people who have made me who I am today. People I am “owin’” for making me, well, Owen. Disclaimer: I am not a writer and I’m not an aspiring writer. So, if my writing is “offensive,” either because of structure or grammar or both, please forgive me.

Lynne Mills

     “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” - Paul

     If you have been around Conal Carr for any length of time you will know that Conal has a love and passion for youth ministry. He was the youth “pastor” (unpaid) at Oakwood for many, many years, and was previously involved with youth ministry in his former churches. His favorite verse to quote is 1 Thessalonians 2:8 (see above) as he talks about his “philosophy” of youth ministry. The verse basically says that ministry to others is more than just words, it is actions, it is sharing life, it is genuine care for others.

     Earlier this month I went back to Florida to do a wedding. I got to see a lot of my old friends from my time there. One of these friends who had the biggest impact on me was Lynne Mills. Lynne is about 10 years older than Amber, my wife, and me, so when we first met her she was in the stage of life that we are now. She and George have four children who were involved in the community and in the church. Lynne has a heart for the lost and as her kids got older, her mission was to impact her children’s friends and their families with the Gospel. The way she did that was to become a coach for a local soccer club team, where she gained a reputation for loving her team and winning a lot of games. Her involvement with the community and her love for these girls lead to something more important for Lynne: friendships. Lynne’s mission was never to be one of the best club coaches in the state of Florida (which she was), it was to impact kids with the Gospel, for Jesus.

     Lynne started several youth outreach initiatives at the church where our family attended and where I later worked. She started a successful soccer camp, VBS, and youth retreat, but her real impact was the way she invested in kids, specifically girls, in a very intentional way. She was always discipling young women, challenging them to think about their choices, and what it looked like to live in the light of Jesus. What drove Lynne’s ministry was this motto, “Kids just want to be loved and cared about.”

     Lynne and I (along with Robin Ferguson, another lady in our church that was instrumental in the youth ministry…are you seeing a pattern?), worked together for about four years. We ran the youth group, the summer programs, and the discipleship program for the church and we had a blast. There were many tears, several arguments, and a ton of laughter. Lynne’s motto became ingrained in the ministry and the fruit is that many of those kids are now in their mid-twenties, and they love Jesus, the church, and look for ways to serve the community.

     “Kids just want to be loved and cared about.” Has always stuck with me as I consider my ministry, the way I interact with my neighbors, and how I try to parent my own children. There are many times I have been tempted (and have fallen into temptation) to talk and talk and talk about what others should do and what things “could be like,” and what the Bible tells us to do, but sadly I don’t DO anything. Not that words aren’t important, and certainly, we are to preach the word, speak the Gospel, and tell others of Jesus, and I take that very seriously, but Lynne taught me that for a kid to listen to me, they needed to know that I love them and care about them, first. Lynne showed me this by always having her home, wallet, time, and heart opened to those kids.

     I need to say though, that Lynne got burned many times. When you put yourself out there, when you are “desirous” for others, then you will get burned. Loving people is wildly inefficient, hurtful, and often does not yield a good return on your investment. When Lynne, Amber, and I met again this past month we talked about these things, and about how ministry can become an identity. When our identity is tied to anything other than Jesus, we will get burned and burned out. We spent time talking about how Jesus shows us that He loves us and cares about us. We also talked about how Jesus is desirous for us and doesn’t just say He loves us, but shows us His love by giving His life for us so we can live with Him forever.

     Even in that conversation I was once again reminded of Lynne’s passion to see others encouraged and grow in their faith in Christ. Lynne spent time encouraging us, because Lynne knows “Owen just wants to be loved and cared about.”

     I am definitely ownin’ Lynne Mills for teaching me through her kindness, generosity, and love what it looks like to be “desirous for others” to the point that you will share your life with them.

So, who are you ownin’?

Posted by Rev. Owen Hughes with

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