The Last Refuge for Faith Healing: Mental Illness

The Last Refuge for Faith Healing: Mental Illness July 13, 2015

photo ryan melaugh (CC BY 2.0)
photo ryan melaugh (CC BY 2.0)

Despite my upbringing in conservative, evangelical Baptist churches, I don’t often feel like I can claim that I’ve seen fundamentalism like others have. (A close childhood friend of mine, also a preacher’s kid, grew up in a family that proudly called themselves “hyper-conservative,” and even they didn’t quite match the fundamentalist type. They’re either the closest thing I’ve really seen to fundamentalism up close, or my fundamentalism meter is poorly calibrated.) I was fortunate enough to land in a family that generally gave a high regard to science (well, except for the standard bugaboos like evolution) and medicine, and so I grew up valuing those things as well.

Of course, prayer and even the occasional laying of hands – which often felt (at least to me) more like a showing of solidarity than some channeling of spiritual energy or whatever – were also a part of our normal practice. But they were never presented as a substitute for actual medical care, at least not to me. If you prayed for that kind of healing, it was because modern medicine was unsure. God can work miracles, the logic always went. If you didn’t need a miracle, you went to a doctor and didn’t worry about the rest. That’s basically how every church was for me as a child. (It’s possible that some congregants felt differently, but it never really came up.)

So faith healing has always been sort of a weird thing for me to wrap my head around. It was easy for me to exercise skepticism about the idea that healing would be contingent on having enough faith for God to restore one’s health and how it would be basically impossible to verify or falsify such claims (although I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate this at the time, at least not at first).

There was one exception to this that I found: mental illness.

I didn’t know much about mental illness until a member of my family was diagnosed with depression about twenty years ago. (I won’t be divulging any details about the people involved to protect their privacy.) That diagnosis, though, brought with it conversations, and I remember learning about what mental illness was in simplistic terms: a problem with brain chemistry.

These beneficial conversations were limited to the family, though. When it came to the church, I heard statements that still sicken me to this day.

Most of them could be summed up this way: “Depression is just the result of unresolved sin. You gotta give it to God.”

For much of this time, our family sat in silence around these statements. Finally, the family member responded to one of these statements, where the person (who was otherwise a very kind and considerate person) was saying that depression was something that could be overcome with enough faith, by saying that they had mental illness and that it wasn’t a matter of faith. (The church member, to their credit, backpedaled quickly and I think genuinely learned from the encounter.)

Mental illness carries a stigma with it virtually everywhere, and unhealthy attitudes abound. This Robot Hugs cartoon (which I still see getting shared around social media periodically, even though it’s two years old) is a great illustration of the ways in which we treat mental illness as a matter of character (“You’re not trying”; “You’re just being lazy”) or a failure of “positive thinking” (“You just need to buck up”; “You just have to force yourself to be happy”), in a way that we would never consider doing with other kinds of illnesses. Yet I have seen that kind of behavior firsthand – and indeed I have seen it even from people who themselves have mental illnesses. (Which is immensely frustrating, I might add.)

But while I think the general stigma influences the way that Christians (particularly evangelicals) look at mental illness, I think that there has been something more pervasive going on, which is that mental illness is largely seen as a disease of the soul.

And for those who insist on making the Bible their primary source of information about reality – as opposed to empirical evidence – it isn’t altogether surprising that they come up with a dualistic view that posits mental illness not as the result of biological processes going haywire but of invisible entities playing spiritual warfare with your soul (and thus your mind, since the two are related). There are numerous times where what would seem to be (by the descriptions provided) mental illness is attributed instead to “evil spirits” – Saul’s affliction, for instance, or the demon-possessed man in Mark 5. And those are only a few examples of many.

One could forgive an ancient text for not understanding mental illness in a modern sense, but if you reject modernity in favor of ancient tradition…well, this is what you’re left with. Demons and spiritual warfare instead of a scientific understanding of neurobiology.

I want to be optimistic about this. After all, the experiences I describe are 15-20 years old in some cases – surely evangelicals have gotten better since then?

In 2013, Lifeway Research (a Southern Baptist outfit) conducted a phone survey that found that 48% of self-identified “born-again,” evangelical, and fundamentalist Christians believed that Bible study and prayer alone could cure not just mental illness but serious mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.*

Let me emphasize: Bible study and prayer alone. That’s faith healing, no matter how you slice it.

And neither that survey nor one Lifeway conducted in 2014 were very positive about the church’s handling of mental illness. Pastors don’t talk candidly about it, and those with mental illness generally don’t feel like they can bring up the topic.

So no, that doesn’t sound much better than where churches were even ten years ago.

I had hope that in the aftermath of his son’s suicide and the revelations about his son’s mental illness, Rick Warren – a man who I’m frequently at odds with, and not just because we have different conclusions about theism – would emerge to bring this issue to the forefront. To his credit, he did step up to host a conference on mental health and the church last year. And if you look at what Warren has said about mental illness, you’ll notice a different kind of language:

“There is no shame in diabetes, there is no shame in high blood pressure, but why is it that if our brains stop working, there is supposed to be shame in that?” said Warren, who said the family kept Matthew’s illness a secret from the public not because of shame, but “because it was his own story to tell.”

To anyone who doesn’t hold a dualistic view of the mind, this is absolutely obvious. Of course mental illness is like diabetes – they’re both biological conditions. But to hear a Christian say it is encouraging, even if that’s not a view that emerges easily from Scripture. (That’s not to say that I haven’t heard Christians try to explain these phenomena without throwing out the metaphorical baby of the soul; many do in fact say that the physical brain can have an effect on one’s soul. But that’s neither here or there at the moment, just evidence that many Christians have ways of rationalizing their belief in the neuroscience of mental illness.)

Whether or not this change is really happening on a broad scale, I don’t know, but I suspect that it won’t, at least not until more Christians learn to see the Bible as something other than the arbiter of all truth.

I might hold out some hope, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

*It’s worth noting that the numbers among the general public are about one in three, which is also pretty damn depressing.

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