Want to Minister to People Who Live with Mental Illness? Here’s Where to Start

by Guest Author on May 4, 2016 in Faith

Imagine this.

You are a soldier, a veteran of war. The experiences that have made you stronger have also left your body marked by scars. The battles you have survived have helped you discover previously unknown parts of yourself that both make you proud and terrify you. Your training shows in the way you walk, the way you talk and the lines on your face.

You appreciate when people recognize you as a veteran and thank you for your service. But what you really need is to be with people who understand, who have been where you have been and who don’t require you to explain your stories or hide your struggles.

So you look online and find an ad for a veterans group, and you make plans to attend. A little nervous, you make your way to the meeting location. Once there, you open the door and walk in, looking forward to being with people who will understand you. You look around the room, and suddenly you know this was a huge mistake. Smiling faces greet you, perfect faces with glowing white teeth. Beautiful people are dressed in formal clothes, showing off their sculpted bodies and unlined faces. Not a scar in sight. And on the wall is a banner proclaiming, “Welcome to the Society of Veterans Healed by Plastic Surgery.”

You’re in the wrong place.

For many people, walking into a church on Sunday morning can feel like bringing a scarred face and a vulnerable heart into a group that has made every effort to look perfect on the outside and mask their own wounds. People with mental illness need to connect with others who will understand their daily struggle and love them through it. Instead, they walk into a room full of people who aren’t even willing to admit they’ve ever had a really bad day.

Historically, when people have sought help for dealing with a mental health problem, the number-one place they have gone is to a member of the clergy. What do they encounter when they walk through the doors of our churches? Many find acceptance, the love of Christ, and real help; many more find misunderstanding, fear, and even open hostility. Many encounter the subtle message that they’d better hide not only their illness, but every problem in their lives. One of the most heartbreaking things they find is a community of people who lack the ability to welcome them because they’re so out of touch with their own brokenness and they have forgotten how generously Jesus has welcomed them.

If you’re like me, you can do a pretty good job of hiding your flaws and struggles for at least an hour. For people who live with mental illness, especially serious and chronic disorders, symptoms are hard to hide. Some people can’t hide their struggles for five minutes. How can they enter into community with people who pretend nothing is wrong and there is nothing in them that doesn’t work as it should?

I spend a lot of time writing and speaking to people in the church, educating them and advocating for a more Christ-like response to people with mental illness and their loved ones. I ask Christians to live up to their calling as representatives of Jesus, extending love and practical kindness to people who live with mental illness, just as we do to others. And when I stand up in front of a group of Christians with this message, I ask them to start by acknowledging their own brokenness. 

Why is this so important? Because the church is a place for veterans, people who have been through battle and who bear scars to prove it. The church is a place for people who have come to recognize their own spiritual barrenness, their own inadequacy to rescue themselves from sin, their own tendency to repeat their folly “as a dog returns to its vomit” (Proverbs 26:11). We are a community of people who are supposed to be familiar and comfortable with the idea that the world is broken and that we are ultimately hopeless without Jesus. That we need rescue and that this world is not a comfortable final destination.

When, instead, we reject our brokenness and make ourselves out to be polished products of spiritual plastic surgery, we make our communities unsafe for people who are past the point of pretending to have it all together.

You are a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), but you have not yet been made new (Romans 8:22-25). If you belong to Christ, you are forgiven (1 John 1:9), but you are still engaged in a very real and daily battle with sin (Romans 7:21-25). You walk in God’s gifts of grace and faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), yet you wrestle with arrogance and doubt, struggling to believe that God even cares (Psalm 73).

Maybe you struggle with your own mental health, maybe not. Maybe you live with a bad heart or an aching back or a case of diabetes or high cholesterol or you walk with a limp because there is some part of your body that does not work as you wish it would work.

We’re all broken and imperfect. We’re all flawed and scarred. And the only people who are truly effective in ministering to others are the ones who are aware of this in themselves.

Acknowledging your own brokenness will make your church a safer place to suffer. It will turn your congregation “from a museum for saints to a hospital for sinners.” After all, Jesus himself told the Pharisees, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Those who recognize their need for God are the only ones in the right position to receive Him. Christians who realize they still need grace are the only ones who authentically offer it to others.

 There is no better way to make our churches relevant to the world around us. There is no better way to proclaim the Gospel than to live it and love the people who come to us. And we can start by being honest about ourselves.

Amy Simpson is a writer, speaker, and inner strength coach who helps leaders get clear on their calling and fortify their resources so they can fully engage in life with guiding purpose. She is the award-winning author of  Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission and Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry (both InterVarsity Press). Amy lives with her family in Illinois. You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, and on Twitter @aresimpson.

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