Understanding Mental Illness

We usually think of our pastors as strong, supportive and inspiring. It’s hard to imagine that the wise and confident people who teach us to get in touch with God might be struggling just like the rest of us. But when US pastor Jarrid Wilson took his own life recently, it was a tragic reminder that our spiritual leaders are human too.

Pastor Jeff Vines is one of our most outspoken leaders and apologists. In his recent book, Divine Romance, he writes very honestly about his struggle with anxiety disorder. When he had his first panic attack, he was sure his family’s history of heart problems was catching up with him.

But the attacks kept coming. Six months and $50,000 worth of tests later, doctors told him there was nothing physically wrong with him. ‘When I found out that I was having anxiety disorder, first I was so angry at myself. I’d always felt that anxiety disorder was because you’re weak, and you can’t deal with the problems of life.’

‘And then they explained to me, hold on, it’s not that simple. We all have things inside us that never get out—feelings of loss, or insignificance, or lack of meaning or purpose. And we’re all trying to find our way in the world.’

When he started researching his condition, Jeff came to understand that a mental illness is really no different to a physical one. In the same way that your arm might become weak or painful due to a past injury, your brain can send your body false alarms if it isn’t working correctly.

‘So I’m having an anxiety attack when there’s nothing to be anxious about. My brain is telling my body that it’s got to fight. It’s got to survive. But I’m not being chased by anything, and I’m not running away from anything.’

The best superfood the brain can have, of course, is the Word of God

But this isn’t a bad thing, because it means that just like you would keep your physical body healthy by working out and eating well, you can keep your brain healthy by feeding it the right things.

The best superfood the brain can have, of course, is the Word of God. In Romans 12:2 NIV, Paul says: ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’

So Jeff decided to fight his anxiety by memorising Scripture, and calling upon it in difficult times. ‘When those feelings come, and I know they’re coming, I know it’s a lie, I actually speak to myself, and say wait a minute. This is not true. This is not an accurate reflection of what’s actually going on. And then I stop the cycle, and the anxiety attack can’t happen. So the Word of God is more powerful than any of us ever knew.’

If that’s true though, how do we explain the suicide of a renowned pastor like Jarrid Wilson? Jeff says it’s shocking to us because pastors are so in touch with God. But he also says that everyone knows things they should do but can’t manage. 

Jeff still struggles to be forgiving toward people, even though he knows that’s what God wants. In the same way, Jarrid was battling the false idea that he had no value, even though he knew God loved him. ‘Some days and some years, he won the battle. Other times, just like anybody else, he lost the battle. And it just so happened that he lost a crucial part of the battle.’

Though Jeff was able to overcome his anxiety, he knows that not everyone is so blessed. And he understands how powerful Jarrid’s inappropriate thoughts must have felt. ‘I can’t guarantee you healing of anything. I can only tell you that your chances significantly increase as you get the Word of God into your mind, continually repeat it.’

Of course Jarrid, as a pastor, did have the Word of God foremost in his mind. ‘But mental illness, in the fallen world in which we live, is so powerful that all of us are vulnerable.’

Perhaps you’ve heard some Christians say that taking your own life is a sin which condemns you automatically to hell. But Jeff reminds us that all sins are equal in the eyes of God, and that God felt and understood Jarrid’s pain better than anyone else. He understands our human frailty, and walks with us through all our suffering.

We also have to remember that we’re saved by grace, through faith, which means that when Jesus died for us, he covered all our sins, past, present and future. ‘Do you have the right to take your own life? No. You don’t, because your life doesn’t belong to you like our culture says. It belongs to God. He gave it. Only He can take it. When you did it, you sinned against Him. But guess what? Jesus covers that sin.’

If you’ve been impacted by issues discussed in this story, you can call Lifeline, 24/7, on 13 11 14.

About the author

Jonathan Craig

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