Does Mental Illness Mean I’m Not a Christian?

I receive a lot of inquiries from people asking for advice about living with mental illness, loving someone with a mental disorder, and doing ministry among people with mental illness and their families. I can’t offer the kind of advice and help a mental health professional can give, but I can point people in the direction of resources that might help them. Sometimes it’s a matter of just introducing people to resources that are available. Sometimes it’s a matter of sharing my own personal experience and my own perspective.

Occasionally I share some of these interactions* here, for the benefit of others who may have similar questions.

Here’s one:

Question: I have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. It’s awful. I can hardly get up and dress myself some days, it’s so hard. I am a Christian. Can you tell me if you lose your salvation for having this illness? And is schizophrenia caused by not serving God correctly or by believing lies?

Answer: I can hear the tremendous pain behind your words. I’m so sorry for what you are going through. My mom has schizophrenia, and from loving her, I know it’s an illness that can be extremely difficult to live with.

Let me just start by saying no–you can’t lose your salvation because you have schizophrenia or any other form of mental illness. If you are a child of God, through faith in Jesus Christ and his work on your behalf, and you have accepted him as your only hope for eternal life, you have salvation and you can rest secure in that. I believe the only thing that can cause you to “lose” your salvation is your rejection of that salvation–your lucid choice to walk away and choose eternity without God.

If a person follows Christ in this life, I believe that person will be with Christ in eternity.

When it comes to my mom’s illness, I try to live in a place of dual hope: hope for now and hope for the future. I have hope that Mom can continue to live a stable life (as she does now), although I know she may not. I also have hope that God can heal her completely in this life, although I know he has never promised to do so and doesn’t owe that kind of healing to anyone. And ultimately my greatest hope is in the future, when Christ will redeem us completely, giving us new bodies (including new brains) that don’t decay, don’t die, don’t get sick or cause pain. I know I will see my mom healed completely and free to worship God without the confusion and torture of mental illness. If you are a follower of Christ, I know I will see you there too. It will be a beautiful sight and a great reason to worship God for doing what only he could do to fix what we humans cannot fix for ourselves.

The pain you experience does not mean God has abandoned you (Romans 8:35-38). It means you’re human and you’re suffering in a way that most people don’t have to endure. And the good news is, he has a remedy for that someday (2 Corinthians 5:1-5).

Please keep holding on to faith and hope in prayer and Christ. I know that is not always easy, especially when you’re struggling with those very dark days. I hope you have someone to talk to, who knows what you’re going through and doesn’t judge you for it. Do you see a counselor? If not, I hope you’ll consider doing so.

Another idea is to find a support group. If you don’t already attend one, you may be able to find a group of people in your area who are also living with mental illness and who will listen to you and share their stories and suggestions with you. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI.org) has branches throughout the U.S. and offers excellent education, support, and groups for people with mental illness. I encourage you to call your local chapter and ask them what resources are available to you. You may be able to find a support group or an adult day program that will provide transportation.

Another idea is to call the mental health department in your county and ask them what they can tell you about available resources. You might also try calling 211. This is a phone number that is available in some areas of the United States, which will help connect people with human services available in their area.

You may also be able to find a Christian support group. A couple of places you could check to see if they have groups in your area:

Mental Health Grace Alliance

Fresh Hope

If you have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, you need to take medication too. I hope you are taking it. I know it can cause bad side effects, and I know it can feel like something you don’t need when you’re doing well, but there is no other way to live well with schizophrenia. It’s just like diabetes: the only way to live with it is to take insulin. The pancreas doesn’t function properly and needs that help. With schizophrenia, it’s the brain that is misfiring and needs that medication to help it work as it should.

No, schizophrenia is not caused by a problem with your faith or things you believe. It’s a brain disorder, a physical problem with the brain. It’s one of the most severe forms of mental illness, but in some ways it’s one of the simplest to treat because it’s so biologically based. It has a genetic component, so in many cases it is inherited. But some people who carry the gene for schizophrenia don’t develop the illness. Sometimes it develops because of a person’s environmental conditions (for example, exposure to trauma or severe stress). And even if a close family member has the disorder, it won’t necessarily be passed on. For example, even though my mom has schizophrenia, none of her children (there are four of us) do. You probably have read about the disorder before, but here’s a link to a good description of it: Schizophrenia.

Remember, your brain is a physical organ in your body. It can malfunction, can be injured, can be abnormal. This is no different from what happens to other organs in our bodies: heart, liver, lungs, kidneys. Developing heart disease or kidney failure doesn’t mean you haven’t followed God or you aren’t a Christian. Having a problem with your brain doesn’t mean that either. God loves you and still has a purpose for you. The best thing you can do is receive treatment, take your medication faithfully, and attend a counselor or support group or something else that will help you live well with your illness. You can become an example how God’s strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). If we could handle all this on our own, we wouldn’t need Jesus. You and I both need Jesus, and he will be faithful.

Please know that God has not abandoned you and will not ever walk away from you. You have not let him down either. Your illness does not surprise or overwhelm him, and he is not disappointed in you. He loves you no matter what, and any message you hear or feel to the contrary is a lie. Please also know that while you may feel alone, you’re not the only person enduring this kind of trouble. There are others out there, and some of them feel alone as well. You may be able to find support with them. I’m sorry for your struggle and I will pray today that you will be aware that the Lord is right alongside you. He loves you more than you can imagine.

*Question has been modified to protect privacy.

9 Comments
  1. June Zwier says:

    Thanks Amy for sharing this helpful information. I hope it reaches many people and will be sharing it myself with many of my connections. Blessings, June Zwier

  2. Robyn says:

    Thanks so much for this…May I print to pass along to my faith-based NAMI class? And would you have any churches in DuPage County to recommend for families searching for a pastor who “gets” mental illness?

    • Amy says:

      Robyn, please feel free to print and distribute to your NAMI class or anyone else you think might find it helpful. As for churches in this area, I’ll send an email with some thoughts.

  3. Jeff P says:

    Amy;
    Thanks for this and all your columns.

    I’ve been meaning to ask you a question related to the topic of your article here:
    Have you written about, or can you recommend any resources for Christians struggling with a mental illness (maybe a mild case), with guidance on their special challenges they face with prayer, and with discernment?

    For example: I know a person with Depression for whom the quietude and introspection of prayer sometimes leads them into their darkness.Or, when going to the Holy Spirit for guidance, they seem to find a Holy Sprit which dislikes them, and their perceived leading of the spirit often seems to be negative or self-destructive guidance. When the brain is malfunctioning, at least to some degree, should that impact how we recommend people use prayer and discernment?
    I have your book ‘troubled minds’ on my shelf waiting to be read, if you answered my question in there-

    • Amy says:

      Jeff, this is a great question. I did not address this specific thought in ‘Troubled Minds,’ so don’t look for the answer there (although I hope you’ll find a lot of other helpful stuff). I do mention a couple of issues that get close to this–for example, despite our very best work in ministry and teaching, someone with a cognitive disorder may lack the ability to accurately understand and apply what they hear. Truth can get mixed with delusion. It can be very hard to understand figurative language when your brain is not processing input in a healthy way. Also, sometimes we are quick to prescribe spiritual practices for people who are struggling with mental illness (especially depression and anxiety) without any guidance on how they’re supposed to do something nebulous like “have more faith” and without helping people meet any of their other needs that may be keeping them from really entering into their experience of faith.

      Your question takes this a step further and is a great one. And my answer is yes. We should carefully consider what we recommend in terms of spiritual practices for people who are experiencing symptoms of mental illness. I don’t think that means we should shy away from encouraging people to engage with Christ, but that we should understand that not all ways of approaching him are going to be beneficial for all people. A person who is living with depression may desperately need to engage with God through a community of loving people, rather than withdraw to silence and solitude. Praying with someone else may be better than praying alone. A person with out-of-control anxiety may be unable to be still and may need someone else to put prayers into words for him or her. And as we tell people to engage in these practices, we really need to be willing to help them address their symptoms so they can (like support them in seeking treatment or paying for it).

      Unfortunately, I can’t think of a resource that gives recommendations on this. There may be one, but I’m not remembering that I’ve seen something like that. It would be a good resource for someone to create, actually.

      Maybe someone else knows of such a thing and will comment with an idea.

  4. Jeff P says:

    Amy:
    Thanks for your thoughts. I think you are quite right that we should be careful with what spiritual practices we recommend to people with a mental illness, and tailor things to individuals with limitations or particular weaknesses.
    It feels wrong to suggest to someone they not pray in a particular way, but I do wonder if there are people, say with depression, who should not use open-ended contemplative prayer, but should as you suggest use group prayer, or maybe a book-of-common-prayer. And, giving guidance to people with Depression or Bi-Polar to not listen to the voices they hear during prayer without discussing with their pastor, etc…
    But even just saying this out loud makes seems very close to suggesting someone not pray, which seems close to blasphemous.

    I do think special guidance for the faith life for people with mental illness would be very helpful. I know you work a lot with congregations trying to better accommodate and welcome people with mental health issues, and perhaps a resource like that would be helpful for those congregations, and for people with mental illness.

    Thanks for your work Amy-

    • Amy says:

      Thanks, Jeff. These are great thoughts. And I think by making thoughtful recommendations, we are not discounting the importance of prayer and other practices, but acknowledging the limitations of our own minds and of our experiences to draw us closer to God without interference from those limitations.

      This could be a very useful resource. Maybe we’ll see it out there someday.

© 2016 Amy Simpson.