Mental Illness and Spiritual Crisis

The shock of being diagnosed with cancer is similar to the shock of being diagnosed with a mental illness.

When this happens, even a person of strong Christian faith can have a crisis of faith.  Experiencing an illness which causes self-destructive actions, psychotic perceptions or impulsive, bad choices can change life forever, and it is in the recovery from illness that faith and identity reforge life to a different level. This new level is hopefully more meaningful, leading to intimacy with God and a world that is more consistent with the tenets of the faith. This is not a simple path, as psychiatric and psychological treatment is not easy.  Recovery is also complicated by unexpected responses from distant as well as intimate life relationships, including those in the family and the church. These responses can either encourage recovery or divert healing, but they can direct the course for the rest of life.

This life experience has been described through time in different contexts and cultures. “Trials,” “sufferings,” “tests,” and “dark night of the soul” can be some of the ways believers have identified their experiences of mental illness.  The terms of psychiatry, and the successful treatments that result from medicine, describe these experiences in a scientific context that supports healing, but this medical science does not attend to spiritual struggles that take place during this “dark night.”  It is no wonder why mental illnesses comprise a majority of the top causes of disability worldwide.  Emotional pain and loss of function are more devastating when spiritual confusion and loss of life meaning is added to the struggle.

Questions of “why God,” “why me,” and “how can you let me suffer ” are just some of the painful cries that circle in the mind of a Christian while in acute mental illness. These questions are asked even by older believers with mature character and deeper spiritual understanding, including pastors and church leaders. This is not different from Job’s cries to God during his sufferings. The Apostle Paul’s “thorn” is an example of these spiritual struggles with a frustrated request for healing despite a victorious Christian life.

Relief from pain and restoration from illness are the hope of medical treatment.  When the relief from pain or restoration to former function is incomplete, the veil of “normal life” is lifted and the brokenness of life on earth is revealed. How then can God still be sovereign and loving? How can suffering be transformed to “delight” as described by Paul?

When one suffers from acute mental illness, obtaining good mental health care is crucial for healing and returning to a functional life. For the believer, there is an accompanying deep search for spiritual meaning in the suffering. This requires holding on to our belief of a sovereign God, and experiencing His love above all else despite the pain.  Job’s ability to question his sufferings and not sin, and Paul’s ability to count his thorn as a delight are models for our response and spiritual direction.  Despite severe illness, as followers of Jesus, we can believe in a higher purpose to our suffering.  We hold in faith that God is more powerful, knowledgeable and more loving than our experience of pain and loss of a “normal” life.  With meaning, our suffering and disability can be overcome.  The “dark night” we experience can lead to a transformation of our brokenness, and as with Job and Paul, we can surrender to a life in deeper communion, empowered by Him.

Time to Redeem


Birthdays, anniversaries and New Year’s celebrations are ways to mark the passage of time, valuing achievements as well as what has occurred over the past year.  Resolutions are a way to remember and set goals to use the time wisely in the coming year. Unfortunately, we usually forget these goals all too soon, as resolutions quickly “fall by the wayside.” But time is a valuable gift, and it is often wasted.

He made everything appropriate in its time. He also placed eternity within them—yet, no person can fully comprehend what God is doing from beginning to end. Ecclesiastes 3:11 (ISV)

In mental disorders, time is a crucial requirement in healing of both relational conflicts as well as inner psychic disorders.  In no other disorder is the perception of time as severely disrupted as it is with the destructive effects of emotional trauma. Before medical training, I first learned about the connection between the experience of time and emotional trauma from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse Five.  In this story, the main figure Billy Pilgrim suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his experience of the bombings in Dresden during World War II. Traumatic experiences of the war suspended his sense of time, causing him to re-experience the bombings throughout the book with “flashbacks” of memories.

In real cases of traumatic stress disorders, “flashbacks” do occur.  During these flashbacks, one feels the same painful experiences suffered during the trauma, while being emotionally “transported” back to that time.  The psyche attempts to repair and recover one’s broken identity to be whole again. It can take time and professional help to heal the broken inner parts of one’s identity that traumatic life experience has fractured. Healing requires time to regain mastery and safety as psychological wholeness is restored.

Traumatic experiences are not the only way we are broken in our psyches or in our relationships. Brokenness is part of our nature as men and women in a fallen world. Sequential time was lovingly created by God for both our spiritual and psychological redemption. This redemption includes sanctification as the process by which the Spirit heals and draws us to God.

The Spirit works to heal fractured parts of ourselves as well as fractured relationships, bringing us towards reconciliation and growth. The Spirit uses time to lead us to healing and wholeness. This includes psychological as well as relational wholeness.  It includes finding and choosing Christ’s salvation.

For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for well-being, and not for calamity, in order to give you a future and a hope.  When you call out to me and come and pray to me, I’ll hear you. You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart. I’ll be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I’ll restore your security and gather you from all the nations and all the places to which I’ve driven you,’ declares the Lord. ‘I’ll bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.’        

Jeremiah 29:11-14 (ISV)

God created time for our redemption. Time gives us the space to heal, grow and develop a closer relationship with Him.  A New Year’s resolution can help us remember to use the year for continual redemption and a closer walk with God.

A Cultural Context: Society, Mental Health, and the Church

Today, culture and mental health science are trying to come to terms. The high prevalence of mental illness has a high cost to society—from the pain and suffering of families to the unhealthy development of youth to the impact of mental illness on the legal system. Our culture has yet to find an answer to addressing mental illness in this big picture so that society works more compassionately and more effectively.

Although the first American efforts to help the mentally ill came from the Christian church, the modern church at large still has a long way to go. While there are some programs for peer counseling and support groups, and awareness of mental illnesses and addictions is developing, the church has largely had difficulty embracing those with emotional and mental illnesses.

Despite Jesus’ call to care for the sick and oppressed, there is little voice for those suffering from mental illness. Often, those suffering feel there is no one in the church who notices or cares. While suffering, they try to relate and integrate into the main body of believers, but are often forced to pretend that their major life struggle and spiritual battle is not happening. When they do share their pain, they can be met with awkward or hurtful responses, from platitudes to condemnation, as Job experienced with his “friends.”

There are many unmet needs among those individuals and families experiencing traumatic events, loss, illness, or addictions. The church could be their major spiritual resource and testament to God’s love. The Spirit reveals truth through pain and suffering as God’s love is expressed through the restoration of broken lives and relationships. It is an extremely challenging ministry area and not a calling for the weak or fainthearted.

A psychiatrist has a unique point of view, sharing in the pain and suffering of others, seeing the destruction of their “normal” lives, then participating in their healing. We are in a position to observe the transformation of a broken life to a new life, helping patients progress from pain and suffering to healing and recovery, and ideally, from hopelessness to joy. There are many theology and Christian philosophy resources that offer “top-down” perspectives, but spiritual truth from the medical perspective has the unique role of illuminating God’s truth in real life events.

This blog presents a point of view that brings the reality of emotional trauma, mental illness, and medical science in concert with philosophical and biblical truths. The healing of illness and brokenness reveals a clearer and fuller picture of the nature of God’s authorship and His love for us—through life’s sorrows and joys, He desires us to see Him and feel His love intimately as we journey in this lifetime of restoration.