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

Baylor Psychology Professor Dr. Matthew Stanford will be speaking at Saddleback Church's mental health conference in California on March 29, 2014. | (Photo: A Larry Ross Communications)

Editor's Note: Leading into an important conference on mental health and the role of the Church hosted by Pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, at Saddleback Church, The Christian Post is offering special focus on the topic. CP plans to continue this coverage including reporting on The Gathering on Mental Health on March 28.

Dr. Matthew Stanford, a Baylor University professor of psychology who studies the intersection of the Church and mental health, will be one of the experts addressing attendees at the conference. Stanford has taught at Baylor since 2003 and serves as the director of the Mental Health Grace Alliance. He's the author of Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness and The Biology of Sin Grace, Hope and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped.

Part one of The Christian Post's interview with Stanford can be read by clicking here. Below is part two.

CP: In many recent mass shootings, we've subsequently learned that the killer suffers from mental illness. To what extent are Christians nervous about talking about mental health because they believe it may let the perpetrator off the hook for his or her wrongdoings or crimes?

Stanford: To date, 16 of the past 25 mass shootings in the U.S. were untreated mental illnesses. I think you're onto something there. When we talk about people having thoughts that aren't their own or them being involved in behaviors they aren't full in control over, then Christians start to get real nervous because are very much into culpability: Did you sin? Is it your fault?

I work with a lot of bipolar disorder patients and excessive spending is a very common symptom of bipolar disorder. A person in their manic will go out and literally spend every penny they have in a day. I don't mean everything they have in their pocket, I mean $50,000, $60,000 in a day with no thought of the consequences or that that's a bad thing.

If that person is brought into a church and the person says, "Well I spend all my money," [the church] will throw them in a Dave Ramsey class for [financial] stewardship because that's looked at as "you're a bad steward."

But the thing is, if I didn't go in and say, "Look, the only reason they are doing [this] is because they are in a manic state. They have no sense of consequences. They feel larger than life. They feel as if there are no consequences. This is part of the illness and if we treat the illness it will go away," they will say to me, "Well you are just affirming their sin."

I'm trying to explain that they're not fully in control of what they are doing. That's a very scary thing for Christians because the way we tend to think about sin is of "do's and don'ts," which is really not the way sin is described in the Bible. Sin in the Bible is more a state of being.

We are all sinful when we are born because of original sin. I'm a sinner not because of anything I ever did. I'm a sinner the minute I was conceived. There was never a moment I wasn't a sinner, even though I had never sinned yet. I sin, but I sin because I'm a sinner; I'm not a sinner because I sin. The thing is, we don't like to think about the fact that somebody might do something and they might not be in control of it.

I remember years ago, a bipolar disordered woman at a church, she had been a long-term missionary. Once I finally got the pastors and staff to finally understand what was going on with her, the pastor's wife pulled me aside and said, "If you had told me a week ago that a person could have thoughts and do things that they weren't fully in control of, I would have told you you were completely wrong. But I know that woman right there," she said, pointing at the missionary. "She is the most godly women and I've known her my entire life and there's simply no way she knows what she's doing."

I say a lot of times, mental illness really shows you what the limits of grace are and grace is limitless.

CP: How do you advise churches on leadership and the mentally ill?

Stanford: When we go into training with churches, one of the first things we do is start with the definition of mental illness because I think a lot of times we use terms very cheaply in our society like "I'm depressed," or "I have OCD." We may just start talking about being sad for a day and not understanding the intensity or severity of what mental illness is. We usually will go over what it is, how does it happen, what are the numbers, what percentage of the population we're dealing with. Then, I'll kind of give an overview of what type of answers people receive when they interact with the church.

I think one of the things people don't realize is that people in psychological distress are more likely to go to a pastor than they are to any other professional. Before they ever go to a psychiatrist, before they go to any other physician or psychologist, they're much more likely to go to a pastor just because it's easy access. So we know they're coming to the church first.

Pastors do the predominance of counseling in North America, so what are they being told? Our research shows that 30 to 40 percent of them are being told that this is a spiritual issue and you don't have a mental illness, you have a spiritual problem. We try to put it into a faith context so we share, how has God created us? He's created us as a multi-part being: part of us is spiritual, part is physical. When we fell as a people, we were affected spiritually and physically. So why do we get sick? We get sick because we live in a fallen world and we're in a fallen body. When we come to know the Lord, we're changed spiritually, but we still live in a fallen body and our brain can be affected.

Ultimately we talk about the role of the church, which I really see as pivotal particularly because God is sending these people to churches first. We talk about "Three R's." The church is to relieve suffering, reveal Christ and restore lives. What can the church do to relieve suffering? They can have contacts with the mental health care system so they can refer people and can be trained to recognize when someone is struggling from mental health problems. They also set up supportive groups within their church or develop a supportive care community where they are free to share about their problems and then in building those relationships, they then reveal Christ, which is the only way we're ever going to obtain wholeness.

Ultimately, restoring lives is an issue of walking alongside of people, caring for their families, doing those types of things. We really show people that the church doesn't have to do anything different than it is already called to do or that it already does with people that are ill. They just need to recognize they are dealing with a mental health problem and not try to over spiritualize it.

You asked about being in leadership, I think as long as that person is effectively managing their symptoms, they're being treated, they have a supportive system around them, in many instances that person can do virtually anything that a person that does not have a mental illness can do. I think that's important. People with mental illness are not to be feared. It's really no different than diabetes. Diabetes is a chronic condition that we do not know how to cure. We know what the problem is: your pancreas isn't working right. We know the interventions, so there's some things you have to do, you have to diet and exercise. You have to inject yourself with medication or take medication to control your blood sugar. If you do those things and if you go to the doctor and get check-ups to make sure you're doing well, you'll manage that disorder and you'll be fine for the rest of your life. If you choose not to eat healthy, that disorder will control you.

Same thing for mental illness. We can effectively manage the symptoms. We can minimize them and the person can take control of their illness and live a relatively normal life, much like a person with diabetes. I don't see it as a marker of shame or an exclusionary thing. I think unfortunately in the church a lot of times you do.

I've talked to plenty of pastors that themselves are struggling with depression or had a family struggle with different problems, and I think in some instances churches don't want a pastor who has had depression and they don't think their pastor should be taking medication. I think that's an unrealistic threshold for a pastor.

I want my pastor to be just like me. Since I know the Bible tells me that my savior was just like me, that he was tempted in every way that he struggled with the same things that I did. I mean he literally allowed himself to be killed as an incredible sacrifice and example. I don't think it's too much to ask for my pastor to be like me then if my savior was like me.

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