The soul is a complex thing. Our intellect, emotions and will, or decision-making capabilities, are all wound up together in the psyche, the soul. And God designed a pretty amazing engine called a brain to drive the soul. But sometimes, our engine needs a tune-up.

As a pastor and mentor to pastors, I am often concerned that we don’t understand the power of a brain driving a soul out of control. A recent survey by Lifeway Research found that while most Americans do feel comfortable going to church while struggling with mental illness (68 percent), a majority of Christians also believe that prayer and greater faith is the route to go to find healing from mental illness.

I believe that God is the Creator and Healer of body, mind and spirit. But I also believe that in most cases, He chooses to work through long-term solutions such as medicine or therapy to bring about healing. And I also believe that Satan is alive and real, but I don’t feel that every difficulty I face can be handled by a prayer to bind some particular “spirit.” And sometimes I feel that our faith borders on a kind of superstition that puts people in harm’s way. For example:

    If you think people with schizophrenia just have demons that need to be cast out …
    If you encourage depressed people to “just praise the Lord” and forget about their troubles …
    If you ever urge someone to “throw away their pills” and stop trying to medicate their sin …

Reflections on the Life of William Cowper

by John Piper

Why Cowper?

There are at least three reasons why I have chosen to tell the story of the 18th century poet William Cowper at this year's conference.

One is that ever since I was seventeen—maybe before—I have felt the power of poetry. I went to my file recently and found an old copy of Leaves of Grass, my High School Literary Magazine from 1964 and read the poems that I wrote for it almost 30 years ago. Then I looked at the Kodon from my Wheaton days, and remembered the poem, "One of Many Lands" that I wrote in one of my bleaker moments as a college freshman. Then I dug out The Opinion from Fuller Seminary and the Bethel Coeval from when I taught there. It hit me again what a long-time friend poetry-writing has been to me.

I think the reason for this is that I live with an almost constant awareness of the breach between the low intensity of my own passion and the staggering realities of the universe around me, heaven, hell, creation, eternity, life, God. Everybody (whether they know it or not) tries to close this breach—between the weakness of our emotions and the wonder of the World. Some of us do it with poetry.

William Cowper did it with poetry. I think I know what he means, for example, when he writes a poem about his mother's portrait long after her death and says,

And, while that face renews my filial grief,
Fancy shall weave a charm for my relief.

There is a deep release and a relief that comes when we find a way of seeing and saying some precious or stunning reality that comes a little closer to closing the breach between what we've glimpsed with our mind and what we've grasped with our heart. It shouldn't be surprising that probably over 300 pages of the Bible was written as poetry. Because the aim of the Bible is to build a bridge between the deadness of the human heart and the living reality of God.

The second reason I am drawn to William Cowper is that I want to know the man behind the hymn, "God Moves In a Mysterious Way." Over the years it has become very precious to me and to many in our church.

    God moves in a mysterious way
    His wonders to perform;
    He plants his footsteps in the sea,
    And rides upon the storm.

    Deep in unfathomable mines
    Of never failing skill,
    He treasures up his bright designs
    And works his sovereign will.

    Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
    The clouds ye so much dread
    Are big with mercy, and shall break
    In blessings on your head.

    Judge not the lord by feeble sense,
    But trust him for his grace;
    behind a frowning providence
    He hides a smiling face.

    His purpose will ripen fast,
    Unfolding every hour;
    the bud may have a bitter taste,
    But sweet will be the flower.

    Blind unbelief is sure to err,
    And scan his work in vain:
    God is his own interpreter,
    And he will make it plain.

This hymn hangs over our mantle at home. It expresses the foundation of my theology and my life so well that I long to know the man who wrote it.

Finally, I want to know why this man struggled with depression and despair almost all his life. I want to try to come to terms with insanity and spiritual songs in the same heart of one whom I think was a saint.

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Last weekend, the nation, and particularly the evangelical community, was stunned by the news that Rick Warren's youngest son, Matthew, had died by suicide after a lifelong battle with mental illness. We can't say what Matthew Warren—a young man with access to mental health care, a loving family, and a relationship with Christ—was thinking and feeling as he took his own life, but we can honor this family's pain by considering how we interact with the people in our own lives who suffer from mental illness.

In the wake of his son's death, Rick Warren has already addressed the "haters" who celebrate his family's loss and blame Warren himself. For most people, such a response is unfathomable. To celebrate a person's tragic death takes a special kind of evil. But in responding to mental illness, even well-meaning people can do harm so easily.

Experts say more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental disorder; while most people with mental illness do not die this way, Matthew Warren is not the only sufferer to experience that impulse or to act on it. He's one of about 38,000 in the U.S. to die by suicide each year, and thousands more attempt to do so, imagine it, or live out a number of other frightening symptoms of mental illness.

People with mental illness sometimes behave in ways other people don't understand and can't make sense of. People with severe depression sometimes stay in bed all day, unable to manage the most basic motivation to move. People with anxiety disorders can be gripped by irrational or even unidentifiable fears that don't incapacitate other people. Those affected by psychotic disorders may see things that aren't real, hear voices that don't exist, and sometimes lose the ability to discern reality at all.

Secular psychologists operate on a biopsychosocial model of human development and behavior. This model proposes humans develop and operate according to biological, psychological, and social influences. Accordingly, we are products of our biology and environment, both bearing equal importance.

In more recent years, psychologists have begun recognizing that our spirituality impacts our lives, but have yet to say it is imperative for life. While the traditional psychological theories and models that are based upon naturalism are insufficient from a Christian worldview, not all of secular psychology is wrong. Indeed, there are many helpful and positive aspects of psychology to consider, which is why there is a need for integration.

Mental Illness needs more exposure before our congregations. Preaching is one way to get that exposure. Information and encouragement from the pulpit can make a big difference in educating those who do not have mental illness and in welcoming those who do. You could devote a Sunday to the topic, or several Sundays, for a series just prior to Mental Illness Awareness Week.  But what if you follow the lectionary — will that keep you from talking about mental illness?

In 2001 Rev. Rose Ann Briotte, a Psychiatric Chaplain in Tennessee, and Rev. Jackson Day, GBCS Program Director for Health and Wholeness, looked at the lections for mid-September to mid-November – Pentecost 15-23, Year C - to see where the mental illness preaching possibilities might lie.

Luke 15:1-10
Seeking and Celebrating Those with Mental Illness

When mental illness strikes in young adulthood, these people experience being lost from their faith communities as much as the lost son, the lost sheep, or the lost coin in these parables. Jesus’ parables image the housewife leaving nothing undisturbed to find the lost coin, the shepherd risking the entire flock to find the lost sheep, and offer the image of God actively covenanting with the mentally ill with the expectation of great rejoicing when they are found. When we put our lives and churches in God’s hands, we do the same. These parables lead us away from our impulse to blame the "lost," and to see God’s way in focusing our outreach on them and in celebrating at the time of their recovery.

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“The depressed don’t simply need to feel better. They need a Redeemer who says, “Take heart, my son, my daughter; what you really need has been supplied. Life no longer need be about your goodness, success, righteousness, or failure. I’ve given you something infinitely more valuable than good feelings: your sins are forgiven.”  - Elyse M. Fitzpatrick

 “And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus.” - Philippians 4:19

It really does come down to “needs” after all.  I don’t need to feel better, and I don’t need a to take another Zoloft.  Do I believe in psych drugs? Yes, most definitely.  I do need to control my moods. But when we talk about need (its really an emphatic word, it needs to be drawn out) I have discovered I really have very few needs.

I’ll tell you what I need.  I need to follow Jesus with my cross.  I need to pray and worship in His presence.  I need to love my wife and children.  I need to love my neighbor.  I need the Word, both ‘rhema’ and ‘logos.’  I need a good pastor, and I need to fellowship with other believers more than I do.

Its good to go through this sifting process.  I do not need to feel happy, healthy, wealthy, content, strong, moral or helpful.  I do need God however. Yes, I am “mentally” ill.  I do take meds to keep me from burning down our house and shooting our dog.  I’ve been listening to music in my head that others can’t hear.  I see things, astonishing things.  I sometimes have to deal with paranoid feelings that would curl your hair.
But what do I really need?  I desperately need God.

I need his love.  I need to know all my sins are forgiven.  I need to know that I will be with him forever and ever.  I guess the challenge is now yours, sort out these issues.  It doesn’t matter what flavor of mental illness you have.  You need Him.  Everything else is mostly froth and scum.

“I will answer them before they even call to me. While they are still talking about their needs, I will go ahead and answer their prayers!” - Isaiah 65:24

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Recently, a church member shared two stories on mental health that I thought were fascinating and worth considering.

I have written frequently on mental illness (and medication) as of late. In addition, LifeWay Research is currently engaged in some significant research on the church and mental illness, which will be completely finished this fall.

If you are interested, here are some articles I have written on the topic:

But today, I want to address the two helpful articles from Heath Lambert, executive director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (formerly the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors or NANC), one of several biblical counseling organizations.

Iron Springs CRC               October 17, 2010
Pastor Greg Sinclair
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 1:3-7

Theme: God brings comfort to those who suffer from mental illness and their community
Goal: To encourage the congregation to bring comfort to those who suffer from mental illness
Need: About 20% of the population will suffer from some sort of mental illness in their lifetime.
One: The Trouble in the Text: Paul is suffering distress in the midst of his ministry for Christ
Two: The Trouble Today: Many of God’s people are in distress
Three: The Good News in the Text: God brings comfort to Paul and the Corinthians
Four: The Good News Today: God brings comfort to his people in the midst of their distress
Congregation of the Lord Jesus,
(Start with a pair of crutches) If you see me standing with the help of these crutches, you have immediate empathy for me. You might wonder what happened to me and hope that I will get better. Mental illness does not come with those kinds of external cues to help us feel empathy. When I was a kid, I always wondered why my Dad wore his sunglasses to the Cub Scout father and son dinner. It wasn’t a picnic on a bright sunny day. It was in a church basement. No body else was wearing sunglasses. I was embarrassed. Now I realize that for my Dad those sunglasses were like crutches. They were a visible sign of illness.

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These past few weeks have been very trying. From deaths of people who inspired us to yet another reminder that we are not completely immune from the horrible acts of others, grief seems to be everywhere we turn.

Earlier this month, we spent a lot of time talking about mental illness here at the blog, in light of the sad news from Rick Warren and Saddleback. I spoke about the church’s response to this problem that is bigger than we want to admit, and looked at what others have to say as well. I did want to discuss more fully one issue that we can have a tendency to tiptoe around as if we are on eggshells–mental illness and medication.

Michelle Boorstein from the Washington Post called me that week, and she asked some penetrating questions about why Christians might struggle with this issue more than, perhaps, mainstream society. In that article she quoted me as saying:

Part of our belief system is that God ­changes everything, and that because Christ lives in us, everything in our hearts and minds should be fixed. But that doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes need medical help and community help to do those things.

That’s the heart of my issue, but let me address it more fully here.

Mental illness is a tough thing to consider because it can open a debate that many would rather not have. But given the overwhelming response these past few weeks on my blog and in other spheres of social media, it bears discussing more fully before we close the conversation for now.

Among evangelicals, you will find some who are very open to dealing with mental illness as a physiological reality, but you will also find others who think that there is no other value to be gained from listening to the world.

One might wonder why we can’t just read enough Scripture or pray enough. Why can’t that cure us? Because the reality is that in some cases, there are physical, chemical, or physiological issues. Yes, prayer can help, and yes, God does still heal in miraculous ways. But more often than not, more prayer and more faith are not the only remedy for mental illness. Medicine is still needed.

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