As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." (Jn. 9:1-3, NRSV)
In the Gospel of John, Jesus asks the question that faithful people have been asking since Job, since the Psalms, maybe as long as there have been faithful people: Who is to blame for the physical misfortune that afflicts people?
In the Gospel of John, Jesus offers what feels like a definitive answer: It's nobody's fault.
But that doesn't seem to be the answer accepted by many people in the Church.
The pastor of a student who sat weeping in my office had told her that her illness was her own fault. "He says that if I were a better Christian," said my student, a sufferer from chronic serious depression, "I would be well. It's my lack of faith in God."
When I suffered from chronic serious depression to the point of trying to take my own life, my Assembly of God grandmother—whom I love 24/7—trod the way of Job's friends. "Have you committed some secret sin," she asked, "that only God knows about?"
"God, I hope only God know about it," is what I managed to say, but I took (and took to heart) her message; this devoted follower of Christ believed I had done something wrong, believed that I had somehow caused the bad chemicals in my brain that threatened my very life.
Amy Simpson's new book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission, comes to shine a light into the dark corners of one of the Church's great failures—our inability to respond to a flood of mental illness with anything like compassion and faithfulness. As she points out in personal stories and through statistics, the Church has often responded to mental illness by ignoring it, or by demeaning it, or, as in the stories I've related here, by associating it with spiritual failure.
If someone breaks a leg, we in the Church help them to get medical help, we bring them casseroles, we trim their hedges.
We don't suggest that God is angry and threw him or her off that ladder.
So why do we sometimes do that with those who suffer from mental illness? Why do we ignore their condition lest it make us uncomfortable? Why do we allow fear and shame to rule the Church's response to mental illness, which is the Number One cause of disability in the United States, and affects almost every family in America in one way or another?
Well, we're only human. Ms. Simpson writes, "The church allows people to suffer because we don't understand what they need and how to help them. We have taken our cue from the world around us and ignored, marginalized and laughed at the mentally ill or simply sent them to the professionals and washed our hands of them." (19) What makes this particularly tragic, though, is that the Church should always be taking the lead in binding the wounds of the broken, ministering to the brokenhearted, bringing hope to the hopeless. "What is the church if not a place where everyone can be honest about brokenness? What are grace and healing worth if no one needs them?" (180)
Truly, this issue reaches to the very heart of the Christian identity, and makes this book particularly important in a time when only 12 percent of church leaders say their church addresses mental illness openly and in a healthy fashion. (53)
Troubled Minds has become my new go-to recommendation for Christians seeking to understand mental illness, whether they be in the pulpit or in the pews. The stories Ms. Simpson relates about those suffering from mental illness—including what must be incredibly painful stories about her mother who suffers from schizophrenia, became homeless, and eventually committed a crime that landed her in prison—personalize these illnesses for us, and the chapter describing and giving case studies about various forms of mental illness help us to understand and perhaps to recognize these conditions in those around us.
Finally, by discussing how these illnesses affect families and friends—how her mother's illness affected her family—by considering the often-feeble response of the Church and individual believers to these illnesses, and by exploring pastoral and practical solutions to them, Ms. Simpson does us the service of showing why and how we must change.
American Christians sometimes worship at the altar of success, of pretending all is well, of congregational growth over congregant growth. Nowhere are these warped theologies more harmful than in the broken lives and families of the mentally ill. In churches that value the sparkly and successful life of faith, "people have little tolerance for sticky messes—the kind that really are ugly, that stink, that stick to you and won't completely wash off. These messes slow us down and require us to wrestle with questions we'd rather avoid." (103-4)