Many of us have probably heard, at one point or another, “You don’t need therapy. You need Jesus.” As if Jesus is a 90-day prescription that you can pick up at your local Walgreens. Maybe you have heard people say that those who take psychiatric medications don’t have enough faith. That if those who had a mental illness would just trust in God, He would deliver them from the depression, that addiction, the eating disorder.
Yet mental illness, addictions and eating disorders can be extremely complex and multidimensional issues. Are they a chemical imbalance in the brain? A hormonal imbalance? Are they related to low self-esteem, poor body image or little self-respect? An unhealthy diet or lack of exercise? Are they related to past traumatic experiences, poor boundaries or troubled family relations? Or are they, most likely, an intricate web of interconnecting factors?
Answers without questions
I was driving to work the other day behind a car with a bumper stick on the back that read, “Jesus is the answer.” It was not an unfamiliar statement, for I have often heard people say Jesus is the answer, God is the answer, faith is the answer. I understand where they are coming from, but first I think we must ask, “Well, what is the question?” It is my personal opinion that many faith groups often resort too quickly to proclaiming the answer without first defining the question.
When someone proclaims to another person who is struggling with mental illness that “Jesus is the answer,” do they mean that Jesus will change out the chocolate caramel cheesecake in the fridge for fruits and vegetables? Or that God is going to fix that dusty exercise bike in the garage or sign that person up for a gym membership? Is He going to magically erase traumatic memories, raise self-esteem or fix all of those troubled family relations? For those who struggle with their eating or perception of their body image, does it mean that is He going to clear the grocery store check-out lanes of photo-shopped, airbrushed pictures or persuade all of Hollywood to quit idolizing the perfect, but completely unrealistic, body image?
As a Christian, I humbly ask that we be careful not to approach someone struggling with a mental illness too quickly, and solely, from a theological framework, because in doing so we may be discouraging them from taking some practical (and common sense) steps to recovery.
Why do psychiatry and spirituality seem to be so uneasy with each other? Why do the two lines of thought harbor so much distrust toward each other? Significant leaders and thinkers on both sides have tried very hard to pronounce, denounce, preach, prove, write, study or intellectualize the other out of influence. Yet both continue to survive, both continue to be relevant (despite many strong opinions otherwise) and both continue to play important roles in the hearts and minds of people. They are both here to stay.
For the sake of those who suffer from mental illness, we must learn to make them work together.