Mental illness and toxic religion

For several weeks, as I’ve met with the Lord each morning, I’ve been listening to one of my favorite old hymns, “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains. 

A blog post about my lifelong struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the accompanying torment over sin, shame and guilt elicited this response from a reader: 

“You need to turn toward Jesus, admitting you are a sinner. In a scenario where a doctor has diagnosed your sin as a disorder, it seems to me that repentance would be impossible. Thus your continued and distressing concerns of sin and guilt. Victory over your disorder, along with the associated guilt, is immediate and lasting through faith in the finished work of Christ. I highly recommend it.”

This reader’s reaction gave me a chance to utter Jesus’ words on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do [or say].” 

It also allows me to respond to a church that, for far too long, has assumed that those of us who struggle with our mental health are weaker than others, do not have enough faith, are walking in sin or are under the influence of demonic power. 

The church has failed to understand it is an incubator within which depression, fear, anxiety, panic and mental torment are too often nurtured and then discounted and minimized. Religious toxicity does not emerge in a vacuum. 

I think this is why I love this 18th- century hymn by William Cow-per, who suffered from depression and panic attacks and attempted suicide multiple times. In the midst of a depressive bout, Cowper penned the beautiful words of this hymn. 

Only a person desperate for wholeness could have written such words. My letter-writing friend could not have written them. 

In John 9, Jesus heals a blind man. Those who stood by assumed the man or his parents had sinned. Jesus cut short their self-righteous blame game. “There ain’t nobody sinned!” Instead, “this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Then Jesus healed the man. 

And, as still happens far too often today, the church refused to believe and threw him out. 

Jesus finds the man, sees him, speaks love to his wounded heart and brings salvation to his body and soul.

I am not ashamed to say I have struggled with mental health issues. Nor am I ashamed to say I have sought the help of healing professionals. Most of all, I am not ashamed to say that, like William Cowper, I have found the fountain that flows not from the church but from the One who was -broken just like me, rejected just like me. 

He knows what it is like to be one   of us. This is why he will never stop seeking the sick, the lame, the castaways, the mentally ill and just about everyone else living on the edges of society. 

Why? Because he has more in common with them than with those who have it all together.

In Mark 5, Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac who had haunted the tombs with his rage, howls and self-harm. Jesus delivers him and sends his demons fleeing over the cliffs into the sea, embodied within a herd of swine. 

Rather than rejoice, those who witnessed this miracle of freedom and restoration begged Jesus to leave their region. Why? Who knows for sure? But the fact that this man’s demons had been exorcised may have meant that they, too, had begun to consider their demons and the possible consequences of being set free. 

Freedom brings uncertainties, problems, questions and disruption. Sometimes it is easier to remain bound in our chains and hang out with our demons. And easier to ask Jesus to leave our church. That’s what happens in the next chapter. 

I wonder how many of us, struggling with our demons, wander away from a church that prefers to see us in our chains, all the while singing “Amazing Grace” and “Blessed Assurance.” 

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