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Reckon with Sin and Suffering in Mental Illness

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about one in five Americans deals with some kind of mental illness, and about one in 20 Americans has a mental illness so severe that it seriously affects their lives. What Christians ought to make of this and how we ought to respond to the idea of “mental illness” in the first place have both been open points of debate for decades.

John Andrew Bryant’s theological memoir A Quiet Mind to Suffer With: Mental Illness, Trauma, and the Death of Christ doesn’t engage with those debates directly. Instead, Bryant—a writer and part-time street pastor—narrates his experience of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), including his time in a psych ward and his recovery from the worst of that OCD. He weaves his theological reflections throughout the narrative. 

Mental Illness Is Suffering

The Christian life involves suffering. This suffering is always the result of sin in a general sense, but it isn’t always the result of someone’s specific sin (John 9). Many Christians understand this when it comes to cancer but not to mental illness. Bryant has the right idea, though: “It has been important for me over the years to not understand a mental illness as a character flaw or a lack of faith when it is simply an Affliction, a kind of Suffering among other kinds of Suffering. I simply have a brain that provides horrors to be seen and felt” (8). As with cancer, personal sin can sometimes lead to or exacerbate mental illness, but much of mental illness is the result of the physical and noetic effects of the fall.

The good news for suffering saints is threefold. First, Christ suffered too. He knows our afflictions and our sorrows because he has shared them. Second, he is with us. We are never left to suffer alone. Third, God uses our suffering to deliver us from the lie that we can depend on ourselves for our well-being. Bryant captures this reality as well as anyone I have ever read. “Nothing has disfigured me more cruelly than my dependence on myself” (177). The way out of that self-dependence is simply—painfully, with great difficulty, but simply—turning to Christ.

Recovery Isn’t Guaranteed

Good as this word is, Bryant missteps by consistently coupling his dependence on Christ to his experience of recovery:

How did I walk out of the psych ward and back into my life? . . . It was done with the trust I had in Christ. It was only done with a patient, quiet understanding of who Christ is. (148)

Not everyone gets to leave mental illness behind—and a continued struggle isn’t necessarily because of a failure to trust in Christ. Some Christians live with crushing depression that renders them simultaneously suicidal, and angry that they’re suicidal. Others suffer schizophrenic hallucinations that so disconnect them from reality that they might harm others through no ill will of their own. Those men and women also stand under the mercy of God.

The good news is that Christ keeps us, not the other way around.

Bryant comes close to seeing this. He acknowledges his recovery has meant the ability to live with OCD rather than to be healed from it. Yet he writes that his “dependence on Christ was the only thing that couldn’t be taken from [him]” (72). But what of the people for whom that dependence has been taken from them by a psychotic break? The good news is that Christ keeps us, not the other way around.

Inadequate Definition of Sin

Theologically, I expect the world-ruining effects of the fall to affect our brains no less than the rest of our bodies. I therefore don’t doubt the value of therapy when needed. Pharmaceutical treatments can function as a life jacket for someone drowning in his own mind. My wife’s life was saved by the combination of good therapists and good psychiatric medication.

But not everyone is mentally ill. What is needful for someone suffering from a severe mental illness isn’t necessarily good for everyone else. Moreover, therapeutic understandings can deform our theology when they aren’t framed by Scripture. We see this in the way Bryant explains his doctrine of sin. He writes,

Sin is not, ultimately, a thought or a feeling or act. Sin is perspective, it is a way of looking at things, it is what things are to us. Sin is like that Siren. It is always quietly working in the background, turning the world into what it isn’t.
Sin is not a thought or feeling.
Sin is a lie.
Sin is a bad expectation. (175)

Sin certainly distorts our perspective, but it absolutely includes our thoughts and feelings and acts. Excluding them undermines the clear call to repentance for “what we have done and what we have left undone,” as the Book of Common Prayer has it.

Pharmaceutical treatments can function as a life jacket for someone drowning in his own mind.

It’s easy to see how Bryant might have landed here. His treatment rightly involved learning not to treat every thought he experiences as one he’s culpable for. Yet this definition of sin doesn’t follow; it’s inadequate. There are times when repentance and sanctification are important parts of dealing with mental illness.

Theological memoirs go beyond mere narration into theological claims. It’s hard for the author to avoid saying more than he should. The danger is that it’s often easier for readers to accept those claims when they come couched in someone’s experiences.

Read Carefully

All of us need to see more clearly that Christ is with us through our suffering. Bryant rightly reminds us that the final word on our suffering is what God does with it:

We are not, thank God, what we can think, or what we will do. We are not our thoughts and not even our wills. We are what the Word of God will make of us. (124)

Bryant’s story serves as a moving (if florid) account of how God has used his suffering through OCD to bring him into much deeper dependence on Christ. His book can help reframe the suffering of those struggling with mental illness in particular. Yet we have to carefully sift both our experiences and the understandings gleaned by common grace through the content of Scripture to determine what’s true. This book deserves to be read carefully.

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