Over the years in the pastorate I can truly say I met all kinds of people—big rig drivers, business people, fighter pilots, nurses, doctors, former professional football players, mothers, parents, children, and the like. But I can say, without a doubt, that some of the most challenging people to deal with in the church were those that suffered from mental illness. One of the effects of living in a sin-fallen world is that there are illnesses of all types, including those of a mental nature.
On a number of occasions I would be engaged in pastoral counseling and people who suffered from mental illness would ask me if I would recommend to them that they should stop taking their medication. I certainly was sympathetic, as I suspected with most medications, those that are for mental illnesses have some unpleasant side effects. Regardless of what some might think of psychotropic medication, i.e., those who believe all mental illness is the result of sin rather than physiological problems, I always told counselees to listen to the advice of their medical doctor. I have training in theology and Scripture, not in medicine. I did not want to meddle in things for which I had no competence or training. I know little about human anatomy, physiology, or pharmacology except that aspirin and cough syrup are useful when I have a cold. But medical issues aside, I would always point such people to Christ, give them the gospel in counseling, walk them through the Scriptures to show them their sin and Christ’s grace and forgiveness, and encourage them to make use of the means of grace—word, sacrament, and prayer.
I must say, however, that there were some occasions where all efforts of counseling were absolutely futile. I do not write what follows in an effort to be disrespectful or insensitive, but there is no way you can reason or counsel a person who has lost his mind. On a few occasions I found myself trying to encourage a person to seek medical attention and act rationally, only to be met with mindless babbling, wandering about, ranting, and generally bizarre behavior. At one point I was trying to get one person admitted to the hospital and security personnel threatened to arrest this individual, and I encouraged them to do so if it meant that the person would get treated faster. My desperate attempt did not work, though the member of my church was eventually admitted and treated. Years later that member would later be diagnosed and die from brain cancer—I suspect that this perhaps played a role in this person’s mental state.
I’ve often wondered what good my efforts to counsel such individuals ever accomplished. And I’ve come to a few general conclusions. First, sometimes in such circumstances God in his providence is teaching the counselor, not the counselee. Dealing with people with mental illness requires patience and love, something that can be in short supply. Sometimes you simply have to spend time with people who suffer from mental illness and show them the love of Christ. Second, while the person suffering from mental illness might be in a fog unable to recognize your counsel or efforts to assist them, family and relatives are not. Family and relatives often stand on the sidelines and watch, take notes, and hopefully see the love of Christ manifested to their loved ones. Third, it taught me, and still reminds me, that Christ loves every member of his bride, the church., Even in the midst of mental illness, Christ still loves us. It is a great personal assurance to me that, even if I might lose my mind and become lost in a mental haze, Christ never forgets or fails to love me or anyone in such a condition. It is reassuring that Christ extends his love to his bride not only through the means of grace but through the care, patience, and love of others within the body of Christ and that one day, all of our frailties, whether sin-induced or by-products of the fall manifest in our frailty, will be eliminated—our tears will be wiped away and we will suffer no more.