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Finding a real God in a chasm of unreality

"Finding a real God in a chasm of unreality" Continued...

Weiss and his family attend a conservative church that offers mixed reactions to his illness. His pastors express understanding and many people write letters of encouragement, but some well-meaning inquisitors are skeptical, asking whether he’s secretly gay or harboring unconfessed sin. Other believers have accused him of demon possession or of not being a “real” Christian. 

While the church offers some support, Weiss confesses his experience makes him more reliant on the medical community for help. “I just think the church misunderstands the mentally ill,” he said. “Often people try to ‘fix’ me. … I just want to be accepted as I am.”

According to Matthew Stanford, that need for acceptance is a trademark of the mentally ill in churches. Stanford is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University and director of The Grace Alliance, the national non-profit organization that serves the mentally ill and their families. 

In a 2011 study, Stanford surveyed 293 Christians who approached their local church for assistance in response to a personal or family member’s diagnosed mental illness. Approximately 30 percent of those surveyed reported a negative interaction, including abandonment by the church, being told their problem was solely spiritual in nature, or having their illness dismissed or denied.

“What this shows is that lots of churches may be affected by mental illness, but by and large, the body of Christ is simply unprepared to minister effectively these people,” Stanford said.

Because mental illness is a problem of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, Christians tend to “over-spiritualize” the issue and undermine biology, Stanford said. He advocates a holistic approach that ministers to both the physical and spiritual aspects of mental illness. Cultural stigmas surrounding mental illness, combined with a general fear of psychiatry and psychology in the church, Stanford said, leaves congregations unequipped to deal with the mentally ill. Yet research consistently shows that clergy—not psychologists or other mental health experts—are the most common source of help sought in times of psychological distress. 

“That being the case, I honestly believe that mental illness is the great mission field of today,” Stanford said, noting that 450 million people in the world struggle with some form of mental illness. “The church needs to stop being afraid of that. … You can’t put mental illness in a little box, because it’s a mess. But that’s OK. The church is for messy people.”

For Weiss, life with schizophrenia has been a journey of accepting the reality of grace when disappointment and delusion threaten to overwhelm. He admitted it’s hard to let go of the dreams, but he’s grateful for a renewed spiritual walk and a mercy he didn’t know before his illness

“Events have taken place that have changed my life forever,” Weiss said. “Many of these events have left deep scars on my soul. Though my illness persists, I have finally met the God I had heard about but never truly experienced. A God who heals.”

Caroline Leal
Caroline Leal

Caroline Leal is a freelance journalist for WNG.org. She graduated from Regent University with a degree in English and Professional Writing, and lives in Central Texas. Follow Caroline on Twitter @anncarolineleal.

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