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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

20 September 2006

Mental Health and Spiritual Well-Being

Q: I’m manic-depressive and doing fairly well with medication. I sometimes feel guilty about being depressed and worry that it’s a sign of weak faith. How are mental illness and medical treatment related for a believer? I want to act, speak, live, an think like a Christian. I know that this is foolish worry, but I need someone like you to tell me so.

A: Manic depression (bipolar disorder) in its extreme forms may completely debilitate a person — especially in the depressive state. As you note, many cases are managed with drug therapy, often coupled with counseling. The drugs are powerful medications, often with side effects, but sufferers usually prefer living with the medicine rather than the illness.

Available counseling may be only secular (and thus we should carefully weigh the advice we receive), but Christians also desire advice and comfort from their pastors and other spiritual leaders. Your wisdom in seeking help illustrates my favorite quote from a psychiatrist: “They come in, wondering if they’re nuts. I tell them they would be nuts if they didn’t look for help.” This holds true not only for ailments of mind and emotion but also of body.

LithiumOnly recently have medicines been added as means of treatment. Until the late 20th Century, all we had were prayers (for believers who suffered mental or emotional illness), some form of counseling (for anyone so afflicted), and possible confinement in mental hospitals or prisons for severe cases.

Anti-psychotic drugs paved the way. Other medications followed as science began understanding brain chemistry. Newer drugs are generally stronger and safer than those of a few years ago. As more specific types are created, the number of people benefitting greatly increases.

Because they work, the medicines sometimes become “problems” for committed Christians. We might wonder, “What kind of faith do I have if I feel so bad?” Satan, through sin-warped consciences, seeks to deceive believers, to confuse problems we have with problems we cause. The devil uses such openings to lead us to doubt our entire relationship with God.

Yet it’s evident from your question that you haven’t rejected the salvation Jesus Christ won for you. You confess your faith and your desire to be more Christlike in all you do. Don’t worry that medication helps you through your days. Few in all the Church’s long history have had truly “mountain-moving” faith to throw off such a burden or have had the blessing of its removal. Most merely endured the load.

The Bible says we cannot save ourselves. Instead, God works through the forgiveness of sins, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He washes us in Baptism, comforts us by forgiving sins, and pours the holy medicine of the body and blood of Jesus Christ into us.

PsychologyUnlike our souls, our bodies often appear to heal themselves. Sometimes, God intervenes miraculously. More likely, He provides physicians and surgeons to aid physical healing. Yet even “normal” healing is a wonderful gift from God.

So it is with many mental problems: Their root cause may be sin, but it’s often not a specific misdeed but the crippling result of being born sinners in a sinful world causing our trouble. Born in spiritual distress, we may suffer physical or mental ailments. God blesses us both with the healing of the Gospel and with that of modern medicine.

The Lord frees us from bondage to sin, death, and devil through Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. He frees us from the chains of depression and despair, both through His healing Word and often through other people or through medicine. This freedom then allows us to live fuller lives of Christian service.

Who among us would feel guilty if God reversed physical paralysis and got us up and walking? Similarly, God used your doctors and medications to bring healing for emotional paralysis, freeing you to walk the road He lays out for you.

If you ever feel guilty about feeling better, examine the source: Did you do something wrong or does Satan seek to deceive you? If you’ve doubted God’s love, honored a false god before Him, or sinned against another, confess your sin and enjoy His forgiveness. If this is a trick of the devil, turn to the Word of God to rebut his lies, rejoicing that God releases you from your affliction.

De ProfundisAs you look upward from the valley of depression or other distress, consider Psalm 130. It begins: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,” and ascends to celebrate the Lord lovingly keeping his promises.

Remember that you don’t (and can’t) climb up to meet God on His level. Instead, His Son lovingly descended, crawling into the painful pit occupied by sinful humanity, lifting us up toward heaven. He accepted the shame of the cross (Hebrews 12:2) and depressing abandonment by His Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). The Father judged the Son “guilty” of all sin so that He might say “not guilty” to all believers in Christ.

Let your troubled heart hear what your faith already knows: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36)”

Previous column: Can Mentally Ill People Go to Heaven?

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Send email to Ask the Pastor.

Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. Mental illness is rooted in physical malfunctions in the brain. Mental illness is not more or less the result of sin any more than other physical diseases are. Are cancer patients counseled that their disease is related to the guilt of sin in their lives?

After personal experience with bi-polar disorder, I theorize that the manifestations of that brain malfunction are basically a mind crying out for a creative outlet. I believe we do a very poor job of encouraging personal creativity, starting in childhood and continuing on into the adult years. We instead teach adherence to rules.....toeing the straight and narrow in all aspects of life. Not every brain can tolerate that; there is creativity there bursting to get out, but is allowed no outlet....hence, the development of the disordered thinking of manic-depression.

God created humans in His image, and an overwhelming aspect of that image is the trait of creativity.

In my view, psychiatry is way off track in many respects. It doesn't direct minds to be creative and spur self-healing. My defense against the onslaught of bi-polar was supposed to be the constant popping of pills. Sorry, I just couldn't abide with that--or afford it--and thankfully, I was in a position to make my own decisions about treatment after hospitalization.

You wrote that sometimes it "appears" that the body heals itself. Well....I believe God created bodies to do just that, heal themselves.....and minds, too, can do that with the right encouragement and direction.

Those people who come to you, despairing of their terrible thoughts and moods.....yes, direct them to God's gifts of Word and Sacrament, but also encourage them to create.....to channel the stream of mixed up thoughts into something tangible.

03 January, 2009 14:18  

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