I know that most readers may be taken aback by the title of this post. Some will be confused as to how mental illness could be a blessing. Can something which disturbs your life on a fundamental level, which causes so much pain, heartache, grief and even despair, be on any level good? I say with an emphatic yes that mental illness, specifically in my case severe mental illness, can be a blessing.
How is this possible, you’re probably wondering? First, let me preface my remarks by saying that I don’t wish mental illness, let alone severe mental illness, on everyone. Even for Christians mental illness can be daunting and difficult to deal with. I’m not saying my experience will be the same for every believer who has severe mental illness. But I think it’s possible for every believer with mental illness to find refuge in Christ.
Before I had mental illness, some 22 years ago, I was in a bad state in my life. I had neglected regular Bible study, my prayer life was abysmal and I was seriously backslidden. God humbled me through mental illness, and got my attention so to speak. He broke me down psychologically and physically to the point that I couldn’t have survived without Him. Mine may have been an extreme case, but I believe the general principle is sound. We see throughout Scripture how God has used suffering and difficult circumstances to bring a person, or even a nation, to repentance and for their own good.
I had been arrogant in my youth. I put too much faith in my intellect and the soundness and superiority of my mind compared to others. I didn’t show enough compassion for others. I even was condescending and looked down on others who weren’t as intellectually gifted as I was. In other words, what God had given me as a gift to be used to edify and build up His Kingdom, my mind, I had turned into an idol! Once I lost my sanity due to psychosis caused by acute schizophrenia, and I no longer could rely on the health of my own mind to function, God brought me to true repentance. I see how mental illness was used by God to draw me back to Himself. It was 100%, a monergistic process.
As my troubled mind dealt with the new reality of living with severe mental illness, I took great comfort in Reformed theology. Specifically the glorious sovereignty of God. And also I took refuge in the fact that God was working all things together for my good and His glory. If my mental illness could glorify God then it was worth it for just that alone!
Also as I had nothing left to anchor me to reality, I clung to Christ desperately, like a drowning man clings onto a life preserver. I found that I could weather any trial, any tribulation, any storm of the mind, if I was in Christ. Those were difficult times, but also very sweet and rewarding times in my life. I felt as if the world had passed away and there was only Jesus and me. It was a wonderful intimacy, and I saw a tremendous spiritual growth and maturity transpire as I poured myself into God’s Word, meditated on His awesome greatness and goodness. And found great assurance in the doctrines of grace. Both for my own assurance of salvation, as well as my confidence that Christ was molding me to conform to His image daily as I battled against my own demons of mental illness. I discovered a type of freedom I had caught only glimpses of in my pre- mental illness world. Truly whom the Son sets free is free indeed. Glory to God!
Life is not all roses, I still daily have trials and problems stemming from my mental illness. But the difference now is that I know I’m a new creation in Christ, I know I am in Christ and because of that I know I can withstand any storm of life I may encounter, even death. My assurance of salvation has been such a sweet and much needed gift from the Lord. Without it I don’t know how I could function. I take great pity on believers who don’t have that rock solid assurance. I would tell them to run to Christ, to digest His Word daily, to meditate on the attributes of God, and to ask the Lord to grant them that assurance which the Scriptures promise us.
I should also mention that, since I developed severe mental illness (acute schizophrenia, major depression, anxiety disorder, and PTSD), my sanctification has increased exponentially. I’m not saying that to be self-righteous or boast about my level of holiness. I’m saying it for God’s glory, I’m being totally honest about what God has done in my life as I submitted to Him and obeyed Him. I used to understand sanctification as something that was automatic, something you didn’t focus on too much. I give God all the credit and all the glory. He broke me down to a bare bones level and built me back up. I believe God creates the good works we do, and gives us the strength and resolve to do them.
My advice to those who are suffering from mental illness, whether mild or severe, is to seek Christ first, to spend time reading His Word every single day, to read good Reformed books, such as the Puritans, as well as contemporary authors like Dr. R.C. Sproul, Dr. John MacArthur, Dr. Joel Beeke, and others. Mediate upon God’s Word daily, have a rich and robust prayer life, and be plugged into a Biblically faithful local church. Yes, you may need to take psychiatric medication, or you may be able to function with just nouthetic counseling, or you may find that a combination of the two works best for you.
Also coming to a Reformed understanding of the Christian faith will benefit your mental illness in some of the ways I’ve articulated. Understanding God’s supreme sovereignty has been an anchor in my life in a sea of emotional and mental chaos. It’s acted as a stabilizing force in both my spiritual as well as my mental life.
To relay a personal journey of mine, I hadn’t been attending a local church for a number of years. I had allowed Satan to control me, using fear, because of my mental illnesses. Through much prayer, meditation on God’s Word, and some exhortation and even rebuke by some dear Christian brothers, I finally attended church last Lord’s Day at a wonderful RPCNA church, Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church, here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my city. Providence is lead by Pastor Steve Bradley and the team of elders. They follow the Regulative Principle of Worship. Which is that you only worship according to what God’s Word explicitly allows. I really have been enjoying Pastor Steve’s preaching, and singing the Psalms in corporate worship, for the first time, was a very beautiful experience. Pastor Steve, the deacons, elders, and members have been so kind to me and welcoming, even though I’m a credobaptist! Just kidding – hehe. The Lord has led me to this church, so as long as I’m able to I plan on faithfully attending every Lord’s Day, and look forward to formally becoming a member at some point in the future. Glory to God! Many of the women at Providence cover their heads as the apostle Paul exhorted! And men have their heads uncovered, which is also faithful to Scripture.
I think the Reformed church does a good job in dealing with mental illness overall, however there is certainly room for improvement. Unlike physical maladies, which are readily apparent, mental illness affects the mind, which we can’t observe or measure with our naked eye. There is, sadly, a long history of negative stigma, physical and sexual abuse, even what I’d describe as torture, for mentally ill believers throughout history. We’ve made enormous progress in the Church as a whole. However, ignorance, misinformation, half truths, unsupported assertions, hasty generalizations, still abound in far too many churches. That includes the Reformed church.
Our pastors and elders and deacons have enormous responsibilities, and are often working long hours, and not receiving much thanks in return. I think people who have been taught wrongly concerning mental health and believers are not at totally at fault for being misled. However, if they persist in willful and deliberate ignorance, and choose to gossip, to slander, to demonize, to rebuke falsely, to judge falsely, then that becomes sinful, and something they must repent of forthwith. Mentally ill believers should feel welcome and loved at church. They shouldn’t have to have psychological walls up and be in defense mode. I think the vast majority of Reformed churches try to do that. But with limited time, limited resources, prejudices and bigotry against the mentally ill which have become ingrained throughout many years, these will all require grace and time to overcome. Pray for your pastors, elders, deacons and fellow church members.
Don’t be afraid to take the first step and reach out to someone in your church who suffers from mental illness. I’ve had people tell me I’m not healed of my mental illnesses due to lack of faith, that I’m demon possessed, that God is testing me like He did Job, that my mental illness is caused by willful and unrepentant sin in my life, etc. These are all very damaging and can inflict incalculable harm to hurting souls and damaged minds. Let us strive to be educated about mental health issues, and committed to loving and supporting our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ!
Finally, here are some Scripture which have been a real blessing to me as I deal with mental illness. I hope they will bless you as well!
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.Romans 12:2
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.Philippians 4:8
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.Philippians 4:6-7
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.2 Corinthians 4:16
Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.1 Peter 1:13
And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.John 8:32
For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.2 Corinthians 10:4-5
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.Colossians 3:2
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ JesusPhilippians 2:5