I was working in a hospital and doing a rotation through the psychiatric wing. When I arrived, I was greeted by an affable young man whom I had met at church. I thought he was an aid until he said that he was a patient and this was his fourth admission. Meanwhile, a nurse had seen us talking, and when he and I had finished our conversation, she asked if I knew him.
“Yes, we attend the same church.”
“Oh, we just love him. We think everyone here should go to that church. I don’t know what they do, but at least three of our patients have improved so much after going there.”
The church we attended was relatively small (maybe one hundred attenders), on the youngish side (a number of recently married people), and with no mental-health professionals that I knew of. It seemed ordinary. And yet the help this church gave its psychiatric patients had stood out to the staff.
As I have reflected on that church and others like it, I’ve identified six principles that guided their care for those with complicated troubles — troubles that would be identified as psychiatric. These include depression, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, anorexia, and other disorders that are commonly treated with medication. I am assuming that the person is already under the care of a psychiatrist.
1. Be patient and kind with everyone.
This principle is obvious but not easy (1 Corinthians 13:4). We might do well with those who are like us, but we are slow to be patient with those we don’t understand. Patience and kindness are not scared away by eccentricities, differences, or complicated problems.
If someone is off-putting or disruptive, we don’t overreact; intense reactions are among the worst steps we can take. Instead, we might simply ask, “Is everything okay? It seems like something is on your mind.” The first-time loner gets an invitation to lunch. Kindness includes others and assimilates them in the larger family of the church, where peculiarities abound.
2. Don’t let medication scare you away.
When others are courageous enough to mention that they take psychiatric medication, church members tend to withdraw. This, we think, is for the professionals, and it would be unwise to get involved. Yet when someone takes psychiatric medication, it means that something hurts and life can feel overwhelming. It means that the person has known suffering, and that is a reason to come close.
There are cautions for us here. Too often, on matters that we know little about, we speak with great confidence. We overinterpret suffering in misguided efforts to find causes and remedies. We can default to demonic interpretations when a person’s problems seem foreign to us. Such thoughtless reactions, of course, never help. Instead, we want to know the person, be moved by their hardships, ask them what would be helpful, consider Scripture together, and then come to the God who invites us to draw near in our neediness (Hebrews 4:16).
3. Pray with them.
We pray when we are over our heads and only God can help, and we are comforted when our relationships take us to this place. Any quest for the perfect piece of advice will fail. Instead of advice, prayer is our destination.
This principle too is obvious but not always easy. Prayer connects our needs with God’s promises and plans, but we can be unclear about either one. That confusion leads us to at least two places. First, this is a natural time to ask for help from others. Who can give us a better understanding of the person’s struggles? Who can give us a better understanding of promises that we can pray? Second, as we continue to search Scripture together for passages that are meaningful to the struggling person, we can always pray, “Help us, Father.”
4. Rest in what you know.
We will not understand the biological details. We do not give advice on physical remedies — we are thankful that there are physicians who have expertise in medication. But we do know that there are spiritual realities at the heart of all misery. Suffering is an occasion to reconsider the love of God, the sufferings of Jesus, the presence of the Spirit, and so many other attractive truths that bring comfort and hope.
So we will look for a way into Scripture. We will ask questions like, “Are you familiar with Scripture?” Or, “Is there any Scripture that you have found helpful? Any you have found hurtful?” Then we head off together into a relevant text or theme. We aim to do it together. If the other person goes silent after we mention a passage, then we ask what happened. Was the passage unhelpful? Did it provoke something especially difficult?
Talk together about what you know. Remember, beneath the unusual behaviors identified by modern psychiatry are struggles that are common to us all, such as broken bodies, broken relationships, guilt, shame, anger, and fear. These all have close connections to our knowledge of Jesus.
5. Aim for a balance.
Though a search for the answer is usually misguided, we always want to know someone better. The challenge, both one-to-one and in groups, is to love others by knowing them and to love them by including them in the community where we hear the word, know other people’s joys and struggles, and participate in worship. In other words, sometimes you talk about a person’s struggle, and other times you don’t.
6. Walk in humility and confidence.
We could sum up all these principles this way: we walk in humility before God and others; we are alert to our limitations, needs, and dependence on the wisdom of others; and we walk with increasing confidence in the God who is closer than we once thought. He is our deepest need.
We can be confident that we have everything we need for life and godliness in the knowledge of Jesus (2 Peter 1:3). We are confident that patience and kindness is the appropriate package for ministry to all people. Without this confidence, we would never take the first step toward another person. Yet this confidence is coupled with humility that feels needy and often overwhelmed. It seeks help from the Lord, from his people, from those with experience in the particular problem, and from the one who is struggling.
In this way — in weakness — we aim for the glory of Christ to become more noticeable to the world.