If you need a guide to navigate through mental illness for yourself or someone you know. Today’s book is for you.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “A Christian’s Guide to Mental Illness: Answers to 30 Common Questions” by David Murray and Tom Karel Jr. 256 pages, published by Crossway in September 2023. Available in Amazon for USD21.99. I got a free review copy from Crossway. Crossway has no input on today’s review.
Those Who Help and Have Been Helped
By way of introducing the authors, let me quote them:
As the authors of this book, we want to assure readers that God is our hope and help. For a combined total of about fifty years, we’ve both been involved in helping Christians with mental illness and their families. Tom has served as a psychologist in a Christian healthcare setting and David has served as a pastor, counselor, and professor of counseling, as well as authoring various books on the subject.
Later they write:
We approach this problem as Christians who not only believe but who have experienced that God provides hope and help for Christians with mental illness and those who care for them. While mental illness often has spiritual consequences, it is rarely only a spiritual problem that can be fixed simply with repentance and faith. God provides hope and help through his word and a word-based view of his world. This word-directed, holistic approach is the most honoring to God and the most beneficial for sufferers and their families.
The book is organised around 30 questions. I will not read out all 30 questions here but let me read a few.
The first question is, “What is Mental Illness?” After answering that, they answer related questions on the different kinds of mental illnesses, its causes and effects.
Here is a good question. “Can a Christian have mental illness?”
Have you heard people say that “If you are a Christian, then you should not have mental health issues. You just need to read the Bible more, pray more, trust God more and all that mental illness problem will go away.”
Well, the authors have a good answer to that if you are willing to take it.
As I go down the list of questions in the table of contents, I thought of a quote:
A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.
That’s not from Proverbs. That’s from Bruce Lee. None of the questions here are foolish, but we can definitely learn a lot from the 30 questions they chose here.
For instance, it’s clear that Murray and Karel have a holistic approach. Some push the sufferers to mental health professionals. “You can take care of it because I am not qualified to.” Others push it to the pastors maybe because pastors are in the business of counselling, healing and miracles. While others say it’s a social or relational problem, you just need to stick the fellow within a circle of loving family and friends.
The authors think everyone has a role. We have dedicated chapters on the role of pastors, family and friends, mental health professionals, biblical counsellors and also medication in helping the mentally ill.
Then we have a whole list of questions on how to deal with mental illness. And if you pay attention to the verbs, you might notice that the authors don’t use the words solve, cure, or manage. Instead they use verbs like discern, help, avoid, care, prepare, minister.
And some of these questions may not occur to you. As you are grappling with how to deal with the mentally ill, you may not be asking yourself, “How can we help him grow spiritually? How can we help her serve in the church?”
The authors do not shy away from scary questions. They ask, “How can we help someone who is suicidal?” They direct our attention to ones often forgotten, “How can we care for caregivers?” And the last question in the book is an audacious one, “What good comes out of mental illness?” How can any good come out of something so terrible? If anyone else had tried to talk about the good that comes out of mental illness, we might throw him out. How dare he?
But because we have read Murray and Karel’s answers to previous questions, answers that come from a God-loving, people-loving heart, we trust that they know know how important it is to answer this question and answer it well.
Story Behind The Book
The book ends with a chapter titled, “The Story behind This Book”. The chapter begins like this:
When Norman Van Mersbergen’s brother, Gary, died from complications of schizophrenia, a small legacy of about $70,000 was realized from his estate. Due to their painful experience of trying to care for Gary through these traumatic years, Norman and his wife, Vicki, felt called of God to donate this money to a research project that would ultimately help Christians care for other Christians with mental illness.
They reached out to Dr. David Murray, then a professor of counseling, and along with Ed Stetzer they pulled together a team from Lifeway and Focus on the Family to research this neglected subject. The resulting research is the foundation of this book. Here is a little of Norman’s (and Vicki’s) story.
It’s a sobering story. In previous chapters we get bits and pieces of different peoples’s experiences with mental illness. This one is different. Here we have the life story of a man suffering through mental illness. And how it affects the people around him. It’s not a fairy tale story, it will not fit with how some people, even Christians, think a Christians life with mental illness should be. It’s a brief story, but it shows paradoxically how the 30 questions are helpful and ultimately not helpful enough. Not helpful because it’s not enough just to know the answers, it’s hard.
Mental Illness and Spiritual Life
That’s a broad look at what to expect, let me narrow down by sharing a few tidbits from a chapter. Chapter 6 is “How Does Mental Illness Affect Spiritual Life?”
Consider this important point:
First, when mental illness is a sickness, it is a mistake to condemn such suffering as sin. Such misclassification turns a sufferer into a sinner, heaps false guilt on the person, and multiplies her suffering. Second, and just as damaging, is when mental illness is even partly caused by personal sin but is blamed on sickness alone. In this case, false comfort may be offered, turning a sinner into a sufferer, and depriving the person of the healing power of repentance and faith in Christ.
This is probably what I will remember long after this review is done. Don’t turn a sinner into a sufferer, nor turn a sufferer into a sinner. Again, we get a holistic, a whole physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, handle of mental illness.
This is also the chapter that helped me relate better to those with mental illness.
This next part spoke to me:
For most people, especially men, sleep deprivation vastly increases the likelihood of conflict. We get grumpy, impatient, and bad-tempered. We withdraw from social situations and have no time even for close friends. We just want to be left alone. If we don’t want to be with people or talk to them, it is unlikely we will want to be with God or speak with him.
Recently, I am going through sleep problems. So I truly get what this is saying. Then they link it to mental illness, like so:
Mental illness tends to have a similar effect. When our thoughts, moods, and physical health are disordered, it is almost impossible for that not to injure our relationships. As our most important relationship is with God, we can expect that mental illness is going to undermine that relationship in a similar way.
A little bit of empathy goes a long way. And for Christians who tend to tell others to suck it up, maybe it’s good to remember how difficult or impossible it is to just suck it up. Maybe they still have to, but empathy helps us approach it in the right spirit.
In every chapter, the authors give a summary that includes some action items. For this chapter, one of the action item reads:
Think through how your last physical illness influenced your spiritual life.
And just like that, this exercise can help you be a better person to help those with mental illness.
As I mentioned earlier, every chapter ends with a personal story and in this chapter we have a paragraph of David Murray’s reflection on how he used to look at mental illness and how he looks at it today.
I found the choice of stories in the book interesting in how uninteresting they are. We don’t have a man who mistook his wife for a hat or anything that would grab headlines.
It’s just ordinary people dealing with everyday life, a life made complicated by mental illness. And hopefully Christians will make helping them an ordinary thing as well.
Book Better Than Q&A
Let us now move to my general thoughts on the book.
The style and format of the book fits with a website’s Q&A. You click on a question, and you get an answer well-written for the general, non-specialist, audience in a helpful, non-condemning, tone. So why turn it into a book rather than a website?
I am sure there are many reasons, but from a reader’s perspective, a book gives you something that a website does not. With a book, you are expected to read cover to cover and for many people, I think that’s what you need.
You may have some pre-conception of what is mental illness and how to deal with it. The problem is you don’t know what you don’t know. What the authors offer here is a series of questions, questions that they consider most important to guide Christians on mental illness. Questions that may never have come across your mind and now have an opportunity to hear the answer from Christian mental health experts.
Christian, underline, Christian
I would like to underline that Christian part. If you Google search what you want to know about any mental illness, you will get tons of helpful advice from professors to sufferers.
That part is easy. I think the hard part is finding information on mental health from Christians who don’t sound like they have a problem with mental health problems.
There are many Christians, including pastors, who would make light of mental health. There are Christians, including pastors, who don’t know how to deal with it, they don’t see it as their problem, you have to go see a mental health professional because they are the only ones that can help you.
By no means, not all Christians are like that, this book is proof of that. But when you are searching online, you just don’t know whether what you are reading is coming from Christians, pastors, who know what they are talking about. God-loving, God-fearing Christians, who have studied mental illness, helped people with mental illness and have themselves suffered through mental illness.
If you are looking for a good Christian resource on mental illness that is not coming from extreme ends of the spectrum, I can tell you right now, you just got to get this book.
Who is this Book for?
This is not a book for those who need detailed knowledge of the disease. If you have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, this book does not nearly go into enough details to help you with that specific illness.
But if you have just been diagnosed, maybe even in denial, or shame, wondering what this means for your faith and salvation, then this book is for you.
If you know someone struggling with mental illness, whether you are a pastor, family member, friend, mental health professional, biblical counsellor, then this book is a good start to see how different people can work together. It’s not all on the pastor. It’s not all on the family. It’s all on the therapist. We can all play a part to help a brother, a sister in Christ overcome this trial.
Maybe what we are looking for is assurance.
Let me end today’s review with the book’s answer to the question, “Are they saved?” How can we know when the fruit of their faith is questionable? Under the subsection, “There are Truths to Comfort the Heart”, they write:
Salvation is God’s work from before time began until time is no more and everything in between (Rom.8:28–29). This means that salvation is God’s work, not ours or anyone else’s, and therefore it is not dependent on a person’s work or even their sanity. God can preserve a person’s faith even when we cannot or they cannot. He can give a person with mental illness more faith than those who have full control of their faculties. This is where a strong view of God’s sovereignty in salvation can give more hope than some theological views that major on functioning human reason and “free will.”
I have never considered the question of mental illness and salvation. And before this book, I never saw how God’s Sovereignty was the comfort and answer to that question. How great is our Sovereign Lord! How wonderful are his ways!
This is a Reading and Readers review of “A Christian’s Guide to Mental Illness: Answers to 30 Common Questions” by David Murray and Tom Karel Jr. 256 pages, published by Crossway in September 2023. Available in Amazon for USD21.99. I got a free review copy from Crossway. They have no input on today’s review.