by Nancy Guenther
My roommate in the psychiatric hospital asked me a searching question. “Does God understand mental illness?” She had been raised in the Catholic church. I’d been raised in a nominally Protestant home. Yet we were both longing for a deeper spiritual connection as each one of us struggled with severe depression. I didn’t have an instant answer for her, or for myself. Although I had become a Christian at the age of 14, at age 23 in that hospital ward, I felt I had no wisdom to offer.
Instead, her question led me to others. Where is the line between an act of sin and a consequence of mental illness? Is there always an element of choice in out-of-control behavior? Am I a bad person, or am I just mentally ill? These questions would impress themselves on my brain like an unwanted visitor knocking incessantly at the door. I later learned that this thought pattern was a result of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which can create a need for certainty where it doesn’t exist and can also manifest itself in an inordinate concern with sin. The questioning wore me out, and the lack of answers added to my sense of hopelessness.
I was assigned to a Jewish psychiatrist. More questions…Would this doctor be OK? Should I be seeing a non-Christian therapist? Maybe this was the exact opposite of what I should be doing to get well! I wanted to follow God, but at that point of my life, I felt as if my “decision maker” was broken. I had to do something to stop the mental “spinning.”
At last I decided to make a deal with God. I prayed, “If you are the God of wholeness, then I am going to assume that in my journey to get well I am moving closer to you.” I shifted my focus to just getting better. I would work with the psychiatrist, I would trust the therapy process. I would try to let go of some of the constant worry about sin and let God’s grace be enough.
It’s been several decades since that hospital stay. I still take medication for depression, but live on the other side of those dark and confusing days. I have made peace with many of the questions that once tormented me. I Am I a bad person or just mentally ill? I am both! By virtue of my inborn sin nature, I am broken and in need of a Savior. In addition, I have a mental illness. Where is the line between an act of sin and an act caused by mental illness? Only God knows. I have come to terms with the fact that there was rebellion and pride mixed in with my off-kilter biochemistry. Because each person is different, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the reasons behind any person’s actions.
I like to say that we all need to offer “individualized grace” for those with mental illness. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Each mentally ill person is unique as are their symptoms and needs. When their symptoms are in full bloom, it might not be the best time to try to connect or reconnect them with God through discussion or chastisement. Love them. Pray for them. If possible and appropriate, try to get them the help that they need. In my own life, those who prayed and extended friendship no matter what helped to keep me connected in some way to life in the Spirit.
Well-meaning advice from Christian friends to pray more, to check for sin in my life, to trust God or to go to church was not helpful to me. Questions about God and sin had become part of my illness, and the topic only exacerbated the mental anguish. I learned then and continue to learn about being gracious to myself during times of depression. There are times that I simply cannot make decisions, answer questions or be involved at church. This is when I’ve learned to simply rest in God’s grace and let Him carry me.
My long journey to this point has answered the question that set all the other questions in motion. Does God understand mental illness? Of course. He knew me before I was born-He knew all of my days. Thus I can trust that he knew I would have these struggles. Brokenness is why He sent His Son to heal and restore.
Nancy Guenther is a wife, an entrepreneur and a mom to three wonderful young adults. She and her husband are currently in the process of downsizing to a Chicago suburb as they head into empty-nesthood. Nancy owns an online business called RosesAndTeacups.com.