More about hard issues

Christians and Psychiatry

     Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.
     Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be cleansed.”
     But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.
—2 Kings 5:1, 10-12, NIV

Most Christians nowadays don’t have a spiritual crisis about seeing the doctor for a case of the flu, but mental illness is another thing altogether. So that is the medical problem I’m going to deal with in this essay.

Most people who are newly diagnosed with an affective disorder, such as depression, often have a problem coping with the diagnosis. The reason is obvious. If it turns out that some of your emotional reactions were caused by a disease and can be fixed by taking pills, you have to go back and re-evaluate your whole life. You have to reassess all your emotional experiences—and here is where it gets scary—you have to revisit all your religious experiences as well. This is as hard and unpleasant to do as to confessing and repenting of all our sins, so we try to find a way out of it.

For this reason, most psychiatric patients go through a phase in which they try to refute the diagnosis. This is a dangerous phase, because they might discontinue their medication with disastrous results, or they might seek out quack cures. If they are religious people, such as you and me, they might even try to find a religious solution to what is actually a medical problem.

I think it is a great idea to have a church-related support group for people with affective disorders, because often there are spiritual dimensions to these illnesses that medical practitioners don’t address, either they don’t think of them, or because they feel they have no expertise. Psychiatrists won’t attempt to give you spiritual counseling for the same reason that they won’t attempt to treat your hay fever. Psychiatry is a medical discipline that deals with the soul, but spirituality on the one side and allergies on the other are just outside the bounds.

However, it is a serious mistake to use spiritual counseling as a substitute for medical treatment. It is wrong to dictate to God the terms under which we will condescend to receive His blessings. If God went along with this, it would puff us up in religious pride, that our church is better than this or that worldly thing. Humility, not pride, is a fruit of the Spirit, and Jesus sends us into the world, He does not call us to circle the wagons.

     Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
—2 Kings 5:13-15, NIV

God occasionally teaches us humility. At first, Naaman was too proud to bathe seven times in the river Jordan. After all, as he said, if he had wanted to take a bath, he could have stayed home and bathed in a more majestic river there. It was only after his servant convinced him that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain that he humbled himself to an otherwise unacceptable treatment and was healed. What will you do if God tells you to dip yourself in a doctor’s office seven times? If you insist that God only heal you in a certain way, which you dictate to Him, who is going to run after you to convince you try the treatment you rejected?

Could anyone have devised medical science apart from the grace of God? Of course not! Doesn’t God send the rain on the crops of sinners and of the righteous alike? If sinners ask for a fish, would God give them a snake? When you were a sinner and you asked Jesus to save you, did He condemn you? Of course not! If secular scientists were able give us healing apart from God, then they would be greater than God and we should worship them! Surely this is nonsense! All the healing arts are gifts from God.

God occasionally teaches us humility. The lessons in that curriculum are hard enough without bringing down a remedial course upon our heads.

When God sends us to secular doctors, God teaches us humility and gives us a chance to be a consolation to our doctors when we show them our humility, resilience, openness, and love. God gives us a chance to reveal to our doctors that they are not wielding a technology, but administering God’s bountiful grace. When they see God’s grace working through their own lives, they will turn to Him and be transformed.

You aren’t surrendering your faith at the pharmacy, because sometimes God heals through medication:

     He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
—John 9:11, NIV

Some people think that God’s healing always comes instantaneously, but that is plainly not true:

     [Jesus] took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
     He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
     Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
—Mark 8:23-25, NIV

At all times, therefore, allow God in His sovereignty to choose the means of His own grace. He might have a purpose in doing it His own way, which may be different for each case. One person might be healed at the altar through the laying on of hands. Another person at the same altar might be required to dip himself seven times in a doctor’s office, like Naaman, to keep him and his church humble, so they can serve the Lord.