Taking a Christlike Approach to Mental and Chronic Illness
Jesus said His followers would be known for their love (John 13:35). Instead, and to our shame, Christians are often known as one of the most judgmental religious groups. Speaking as a professing Christian, I feel like this needs to be talked about. Christianity is widely associated with rules, religion and trying to be “good enough,” instead of grace, love and how good God is. This is not a new development; it happened in the days of the Pharisees, and it still happens whenever we try to place our self-righteousness above God’s true righteousness. I believe the church should be the one place on earth where people know they will be accepted with open arms and hearts, regardless of their struggles. Instead, it becomes the place where they feel they must paint a smile on their face and pretend to be OK.
One place our judgmental attitude can manifest itself is in the sphere of mental and chronic illness. When it comes to health, everyone has an opinion, and we often share it when it is not wanted. I personally have gone to church friends for help and been greeted with condemnation. I and my loved ones have been told, “If you trusted God, you wouldn’t have anxiety” or “If you were more grateful, you wouldn’t be depressed” or “If you prayed and studied your Bible more, you wouldn’t have time to feel bad.”
Even well-intentioned advice has been hurtful when those giving the advice didn’t understand how mental illness works, or when they didn’t listen with open hearts before casting judgment. On the flip side, I have also been quick to judge people whose health conditions are different than mine, or to speculate why God would allow those conditions to happen (not my place). So I know something needs to change. But what? To improve our approach to mental and chronic illness, I think we need to ask ourselves the following questions.
First, How would I want to be treated? The Bible teaches us to treat others the way we want to be treated (Luke 6:31). This principle is echoed throughout the holy books of many faiths, because we as human beings know it is the right thing to do. Yet so often, we fail to do it. We forget to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Now, if you have never experienced mental or chronic illness, it can be difficult to comprehend how it feels. Even if you have experienced it in some form, the same illness may affect different people in different ways. Therefore, it would be unwise to cast judgment or give advice without at least listening to the other person (Proverbs 18:13).
Even if you don’t know what to say or how to help, I think one of the best things you can do for a struggling person is to just listen. After you listen, ask them, “Is there anything I can do to help you?” Then ask yourself, “If I had racing thoughts I couldn’t slow down…feelings of sadness I couldn’t shake…fatigue and pain on a daily basis… a child born with an unfamiliar condition… an addiction I couldn’t beat…a disease I didn’t know my partner was carrying…traumatic memories that wake me up in the night… How would I want to be treated?” Your answer to that question speaks for itself. You know how you would want to be treated – with love and respect. In the words of Jesus, “Go and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37).
Second, What would Jesus do? This question is often quoted but, like the first question, rarely followed. Let’s put it into context. When a teen shares that she is battling anxious feelings, would Jesus dismiss her as “worrying too much,” or would He offer her the comfort she is seeking? (See Matthew 11:28.) When a young mother confesses she is dealing with postpartum depression, would Jesus tell her to be “more grateful” for her baby, or would He wrap His arms around her and cry with her? (See Romans 12:15). When a church member has struggled with a chronic illness for years and found no healing, would Jesus call it a punishment from God, or a miracle waiting to happen? (See Mark 5:25-34). When a child is born with a birth defect, would Jesus sigh that the mother “must not have eaten right” during the pregnancy, or would He encourage that God has a special plan for that baby? (See John 9:2-3). When an alcoholic has a relapse, would Jesus accuse him of “not trying hard enough,” or would He help him find the resources he needs to make a full recovery? (See John 8:36). When a young lady in youth group confides that she has an STD, would Jesus admonish that if she had kept herself chaste this wouldn’t have happened, or would He defend her from her accusers? (See John 8:7). When a veteran experiences flashbacks due to PTSD, would Jesus scold him to “quit living in the past,” or would He remind him he is safe? (See Isaiah 41:10-13).
Basically, it all comes down to this: when someone is facing an illness – or a struggle of any sort – would Jesus place blame or show love? If we honestly look at the Bible, we can see that Jesus would build us up instead of tearing us down. As Christians, hopefully each of us can recall a time when we personally were at our lowest and Jesus showed us compassion instead of judgment. And as His professing followers, I believe we are called to do the same.
Luke 6:31 “Do to others as you would have others do to you.” (NIV)
Galatians 5:14-15 “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” (KJV)
Ephesians 4:29 “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
Proverbs 18:21 “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.” (KJV)
Proverbs 15:23 “A man hath joy by the answer of his mouth: and a word spoken in due season, how good it is!” (KJV)
John 13:35 “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (KJV)
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Thinkstock photo via mbolina.