Psychology Expert Says Christians Uneasy About Question 'What's Sin and What's Mental Illness?'

Part Two of CP's Interview With Baylor University Professor Matthew Stanford

We hold pastors to a standard that's unrealistic and that's why we see that a lot of pastors don't have a lot of people to talk to when they have problems. So I don't see any problem with them being in leadership as long as their symptoms are being effectively managed. If they're symptoms aren't being effectively managed, it wouldn't matter what their job is, they won't be able to perform it effectively and it'll just cause more stress in their life.

CP: How would you advise a Christian to minister to either a non-believer or one seeking to come into relationship with Christ and struggling with a mental illness that, like depression, that makes him or her feel like that hope cannot exist?

Stanford: I think that is every person when they first are struggling in the real acute phases. When we work with people with mental illness we work with a recovery model as opposed to a treatment model. A treatment model is really kind of how we treat other medical problems where you go to the doctor, the doctor gives you something and your whatever it is goes away. Well, that doesn't happen with mental illness. It's a process, you control your illness and over time you get better, but you still have it.

The key part, the first step in recovery, is hope. The person has no hope if they don't believe that they can get better. If they don't believe God cares about them and that God is involved in them getting better, then they're not going to get any better. I think that's one of the reasons I'm so excited to be practicing from a holistic approach, where I'm able to reveal Christ to people because I think whether your symptoms get better or not is not where you need to ground your hope. Your hope is grounded in Christ so even though the circumstances of your life may not be what you want them to be, or what others think they should be, you can still have great hope and a hope in a savior and that can be a starting point for your recovery.

Whereas, if I'm just trying to do this from a secular perspective and I'm just trying to build hope in you, and I say, "I think if we work together, I think we can get your symptoms to go away," what if four or five months from now, your symptoms aren't getting any better? I don't know how much longer you're going to believe me, but if I can show you the hope that exists in Christ that transcends your circumstances and that gives us a point where we can start from.

CP: Would you advise the loved ones of the person suffering from mental illness to be open about their faith?  

Stanford: If that's something that empowers you, if that's something that transforms your life, then why would you not share that? Now again, you don't do it in a preaching way, in the unsophisticated naïve way that suggests that if you found Jesus everything would be great for you because I still haven't met that guy. I'm not sure who came up with that idea that once you know the Lord, everything is perfect in your life. I don't even think it says that in the Bible. But I think if that's been transformative for you and you have a relationship with that person, and they're interested in knowing how you overcame a problem, or where it is that you find hope, why would you not share that?

I think it's all in how you do it. If you do it from love, from a place of caring, not in a "You need this because if you had this, your depression would go away." That's not the presentation I'm talking about. The fact is when a person is depressed they feel disconnected from God. What I'm saying is that we don't always have to talk about your illness. We can talk about things that transcend your illness and opportunities and hope and joy you can have despite your illness and that conversation can sometimes help the person to start to move forward and realize "I just had a conversation that didn't include depression."

People get tired of talking about their illness. They're not their illness. They have an illness. Their identity should be grounded in how God sees them, and God doesn't see them as some poor sick little person with a mental disorder. He sees them as His child that is suffering but He is ready to walk alongside.

CP: You've written a book called The Biology of Sin. Could you share some of the perspectives that the book offers on homosexuality?

Stanford: One thing I would say about homosexuality is that when we're talking about mental illness, that's not even in the same topic but it does get brought up a lot. I've had a lot of pastors kind of throw that at me and say, "Well that's why I don't like psychology because psychologists think that homosexuality is normal," and we might have been talking about depression a minute ago.

The Biology of Sin is a book I wrote for sinful behaviors like aggression, criminality, homosexuality, lust, and adultery related, sexual morality related type of stuff, and addiction – things that the Bible clearly says are sinful but that science has shown there is some biological component to. I wrote that book because those things get thrown up to me at times when I'm having discussions about mental illness and I really wanted to write a book to say "God made us physical and he made us spiritual. I didn't choose that; He just did that."

For me to say that homosexuality has a physical, biological component to it — I think God said that. I think God said everything has a physical component to it and everything has a spiritual component to it. That's how He made us. In trying to equip the church and educate the church to say, "We need to stop being naïve and say 'That's just a choice. He just made that choice and needs to stop that'" because all of behavior is biological and all of our behavior has a spiritual aspect to it. One is not more or less important than the other — that's just how God made us.

We need to be less naïve than we've been where we decide that some behaviors are biological and some behaviors might not be because it undercuts our interaction with the world when the world says, "We've got lots of evidence that the earth goes around the sun and not the other way around and you need to quit arguing about it."

At one time that was a big deal, people didn't believe that the earth went around the sun, they thought it was the other way around and said so because of Scripture. Was Scripture wrong? No, they were wrong. Science is inquisitiveness and an opportunity for us to learn about the creation and I don't think we need to be afraid of it.

I do think homosexuality has a biological basis. I do think that the Bible's clear that it's a sin. But I don't think the church has done a very good job on ministering to people with homosexuality.

CP: Can you give more specifics about you mean when you say "biological basis"?

Stanford: For instance, for homosexuality, if you look at the anterior hypothalamus of people with homosexuality, which is an area of the brain that's involved with sexual behavior, for [male homosexuals] it looks like the anterior hypothalamus of a female. So their anterior hypothalamus is not exposed to enough androgens when they're developing like testosterone so it's feminized. So part of the brain is more feminine-like. It's just the opposite for women who are lesbians.

If you look at say aggression, people who have loss of control or violence, where they lose control of their behavior, (that's one of my specialties, I do a lot of research in that area,) their brains literally function differently. Their frontal cortex is not as active. Their amygdala is overactive. So literally their brain does not function normally so they have trouble controlling their behavior. It doesn't excuse their behavior but it helps us understand their behavior. These things are no different in any other kind of aspect of our body that might not function correctly; it just shows that we're broken and need a savior.

I don't think that in any way this removes the culpability of a person. For instance, alcohol, drug addiction, there's a clear biological aspect. Most people will accept that nowadays. But clearly you have to make certain decisions and choices to put yourself in a situation where that biology is kind of enacted. Nobody holds you down and pours the alcohol down your throat. But at some point, once you've become addicted, it's not anymore about you wanting to drink to feel good, it's about you having to drink because you're physically dependent on it.

So I think understanding that we're biological, understanding that we're spiritual, helps us do a better job ministering to people. I think the church thinks sin is an easy thing to get rid of when in reality it took Jesus dying on the cross for us to get rid of it. So it's not something easy to get rid of.

We need to realize that we're all sinful. We have these predilections, we have these vulnerabilities, and we need to show more grace to each other than more judgment.

CP: Any last words you'd like to share on the subject of mental illness?

Stanford: I think we're starting to turn the corner in the church and I think more high profile things like this — unfortunately this is occurring because of Warren's son committing suicide and there have been several other high-profile suicides with church leaders' children — but I think finally church leaders are starting to see the real seriousness of this and this could be a very important year for the church in really starting to reach out to those who are mentally ill.

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