Counseling expert Ed Welch spoke at the Desiring God 2012 National Conference in Minneapolis, Minn., on Saturday and explained how Christians can better minister to those who deal with various psychiatric issues.
It can be difficult to minister to those with certain mental health needs, Welch explained, although Christians should remember that everyone is "brain damaged" to a certain extent. Everyone forgets things at times, and everyone has limits to their intelligence, so Christians should be careful not to turn their backs on those who have specific mental limitations, because they too can pursue holiness.
"Though the brain offers these limitations on us, the brain essentially, fundamentally offers no limitation on our sanctification," said Welch.
If the Bible doesn't explicitly command or prohibit a certain behavior or symptom – such as waking up early for no apparent reason or experiencing hallucinations – he said, then the symptoms can be attributed to a weakness in the brain, but not necessarily a weakness in the person's spirit.
The first step to guiding someone with mental health issues toward holiness is to listen to them, Welch stated. Ministers should get to know the person and their family on such a deep level that the minister himself is "affected by the hardness of their life."
"At the level of the heart, our issues are identical," said Welch. "Yet our embodiedness is such that you are very, very different from myself. There are strengths that you bring to life, there are weaknesses that you bring to life, not to mention all kinds of historical things that have defected you, that make you very, very different. So ministry, as a result, is this wonderful opportunity to study, if you will, a kindred spirit."
Just as physical bodies grow old and begin to waste away, so the brain also gradually wastes away, yet Welch reminded those in attendance at the conference that the spirit can be constantly renewed every day of a person's life.
For some reason, though, it has become "law" in Christian churches today to walk away from those who are dealing with mental health issues, Welch said, and leave their lives solely in the hands of psychiatrists for treatment. Christians should always work toward helping one another because whether a person is in need of psychiatric care or not, life can be difficult for everyone.
After learning about a person who is dealing with weaknesses in the brain, the second step in helping guide them toward increased holiness is retelling their story to them in light of the Bible.
"Christ was crucified in weakness," said Welch, "and as a result he seems to have a unique affection for those who are especially weak ... And he seems to be particularly pleased to use people who are weak to do magnificent, fruitful things in the kingdom of heaven."
One example he shared was about a friend of his who has struggled with panic attacks for the last decade. During a panic attack he feels as if death is near and he is losing his mind, but because the Bible says Christians should not be anxious about anything, he also often felt an overwhelming sense of guilt following an attack.
While the friend failed to prevent the attacks from happening, he managed to cry out to God when they were occurring. Welch said it is admirable for a person to so quickly turn to Jesus Christ for help in his time of need – that is a spiritual strength of his – and he needs to be encouraged by being told that is his strength.
As much as counselors and ministers would like to alleviate hardships altogether for those they are trying to help, they need to remember that sometimes God uses hardship to draw people to Himself and develop holiness within them.
"We don't have to be experts in modern psychiatry, we simply need to love wisely with particular glasses on, recognizing that people live before God – their soul is always navigating them morally and covenantally – and they always are people with different strengths and weaknesses," said Welch.
Welch holds a Ph.D. in counseling psychology with an emphasis on neuropsychology from the University of Utah, and an Master of Divinity degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. He is a faculty member with the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, and is the author of a number of books, including Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection, which was released earlier this year.