Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Grace for the Afflicted by Matthew S. Stanford, PhD

Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perpective on Mental Illness
by Matthew S. Stanford
Copyright 2008
Paternoster Nonfiction - Religion & Science/Mental Health
261 pages, incl. resource lists and recommended reading

A fifth and final reason I believe Christians tend to deny the legitimacy of mental disorders is they are concerned that the designation "mental illness" is simply another tool the world uses to dismiss or legitimize sinful behavior. Although I believe this is a legitimate concern, we need to be careful to separate sin from illness. It is not a sin to be ill, even mentally ill. On the other hand, mental illness, whether it is a learned pattern of abnormal thinking or a biological disorder, does not dismiss sinful behavior (Leviticus 5:17).

I've described this book a little in past posts, but in brief: Grace for the Afflicted is a book that describes some common mental illnesses, their causes and management, and what the Bible has to say about them. It's written by a psychologist who teaches at Baylor and does research on the brain.

There are loads of scripture references and the descriptions of each illness and its treatment are written with a great deal of compassion but with emphasis on the fact that mental illness is not an excuse for making conscious decisions to do wrong. He gives examples of how the various conditions have effected people and, if applicable, describes passages from the Bible in which a specific mental illness can be surmised from the descriptions of Biblical characters. The author also goes into detail about the body-mind-spirit connection, which is one thing that's a little bit beyond my descriptive abilities but absolutely fascinating.

What I loved about this book:

Just about everything. The author describes the use of medication -- when it's needed, when it's not and why some people absolutely must use medication. They may need prayer, as well, but what mentally ill people need more than anything is emotional support of their fellow Christians and help with basic needs during crisis. He suggests making meals, performing simple chores, helping pay the bills and such -- the same kind of little things that most church members are happy to provide after surgery, childbirth or a funeral -- for times that a mentally ill person is having trouble functioning.

As I was reading I thought, "This is one of those rare, special books that I think absolutely every Christian should read." In fact, I'll probably buy a handful and pass them out. I love the way the author describes the difference between demon possession (which a lot of people like to assume causes mental illness) and true illness. He says possession happens, but it's rare and gives evidence of how few actual possessions are described in the Bible. We tend to zone in on tales like the story of Legion, the demon who was (were?) chased out of a man and into the pigs nearby -- remember, the pigs that went running straight into the water and drowned? Which, by the way, is a perfect example of why the Bible is such fun reading material.

Another thing you cannot help but get out of this book is the fact that absolutely everybody is touched by mental illness, at some point. We all have acquaintances or relatives who battle addiction, depression and other problems. And, for that reason alone, it's important for every church member to understand why such things shouldn't be whispered about but faced head-on and treated in whatever way is most appropriate.

The only thing I disliked about this book

was that the parts on the body-mind-spirit connection were a tiny bit dry. Just a tiny bit -- it was still utterly fascinating. That is the beginning section of the book (you can read the first chapter, here). It would be tempting to skim that bit but it's important as it lays the groundwork for understanding of the Biblical perspective on mental illness.

Excellent, excellent book -- highly recommended

, whether you're related to someone with mental illness or just want to read up so you know how best to support mentally ill people within your church.

Tomorrow, I will be touring No Experts Needed, so my Written in Blood review will be delayed by a day. This has been one of those weeks in which I've sat down a few times and just stared at the screen, totally blank. So, I have a bit of catch-up to do. If I can ever sit still long enough, I'll churn out a few posts in one day and clog your reader. Won't that be fun?

Son and I went to the Mexican restaurant, tonight, so you get a picture of artwork painted directly onto the wall. They have some pretty talented people working in that restaurant.


  1. It sounds like a good book. A church I was in recently was very much of the "mental illness is demon possession" persuasion and one of my friends told another friend to throw away her medicine and rely on God alone. I have to admit when I heard that I was so angry.

  2. Amy,

    Part of the reason that I read this book is that a friend at church had a breakdown and -- well, it's complicated but she took a pot-shot with a gun over the head of a meter reader and the SWAT team was called out. I didn't know the details till I asked her, but it was kind of frustrating when I asked someone who knew and she just shook her head and whispered that we needed to keep praying. I thought my friend needed a lot more than prayer from us, myself.

    The author does an exceptional job of describing why medication is absolutely crucial for some people and why the demon-possession assumption is way, way off-base. Reading this book can help arm you to defend people who are treated that way. There's good reason to be upset about the way church members often assume that prayer is the only answer, not realizing that brain chemistry and possession are worlds apart.

  3. This book looks excellent! I have friends that attend one of those churches that go with the demon posession theory. To be honest I've heard so many stories about them telling people to chuck their meds and if they don't get better they aren't praying enough....jeeesh!

    We had one church where we used to live that told parents of a child with AIDS they needed to stop meds and pray. Of course the child died....and the parents were told they didn't pray hard enough, didn't live a Christian enough life...pissed me off!

  4. Marta,

    The book is excellent. I'm truly hoping that it will get a lot of buzz and end up getting passed around to people like those you mentioned. The truth is that many, many Christians simply don't understand mental illness and what scripture says (the book definitely educated me), even though I think they mean well.

    That's so sad about the child. I can certainly understand why that experience would anger you.

  5. I'm in a very blah mood today and was going to skip commenting on blogs, but I have to comment on this post. This books sounds awesome! Right up my alley. I'm definitely going to check this one out. I find that there's often this stigma associated with mental illness in some religious groups and it's great to see a book like this demystify that. Thanks for the great review Nancy :)

  6. Chris,

    I'm sorry you're in a blah mood. Bad day at the hospital or just life in general?

    I do think you'd enjoy this book. The way he connects the dots between body, mind and spirit is interesting. I don't think you necessarily have to be a Christian to think, "Well, that makes sense." Who knows, maybe you can use the info about Biblical connection to reassure some people.

    Sending (((hugs))). I see you were up late. I hope you have time to get some rest and have a better day, today.

  7. Thanks for the review! I will definitely check this one out!


  8. Great Review Nancy! This book sounds fascinating. I have friends who suffer from depression.
    It's frustrating how it can be such a stigma and treated as somehow different than other physiological illness.

  9. Amy,

    Second attempt. I must have read someone else's comment when I "replied", earlier. Thank you! I think, honestly, whether they say so or not, we all have friends who have suffered from depression and I agree -- there's still a stigma attached to it that can and does make it very frustrating for everyone close to the person suffering.

  10. I'm a little freaked out that people still believe in demon possession or that mental illness is considered an "excuse" for sin. Wha'?

    Also? I think that verse from Leviticus isn't right. ;)

  11. Carrie,

    I know. Both are kind of ridiculous.

    I'll check the Leviticus verse, later. I may have typed it wrong. I'm really special in that way. I'm trying not to have to edit so much, but not succeeding.

  12. Great review, Nancy. And, golly, if the church doesn't want to help someone possessed by the devil, I sure wish them the best at finding only perfect people to be members.

  13. Care,

    I think that can definitely be a problem -- expecting people who know they need forgiveness not to sin. But, part of the point he was making is that just about nobody (he didn't outrule possession completely) is possessed and that ministers and church members need to get off the "pray out the demons" bandwagon and learn the reality of brain chemistry. At least, that's what I got out of it. :)

  14. I must admit that I struggle with the idea of mental illness. Until somewhat recently, I didn't really know anyone who had any kind of mental illness, and I thought that people should just snap out of it or get over it. I know now, however, that it can be a very real and very powerful problem. This sounds like a good book to read!

  15. Laura,

    Oh, horrors. I hate it when people expect someone to snap out of depression, but since I like you I'll just ignore that and hope you read the book. It's really fascinating. I do think a lot of people think that way. It's easy to fall into if it's never something you've experienced, yourself. I grew up with a mother who fought depression and have had a little trouble, myself (esp. after the birth of my first child) so I probably understood earlier than most about how must help some people need.

  16. I definitely do not still think that people can just "snap out of" depression. When I was in high school, I worked in a pharmacy, and it was amazing to see the amount of anti-depressents that were prescribed. I do know that depression is far more than someone just feeling sorry for themselves. I also think that while medication may be necessary for some people to take, there are probably other things that should go along with it (such as counseling), so people can also start to deal with the underlying issues.

  17. Laura,

    It is pretty wild how many anti-depressants are prescribed. I think they're a bit like ADD meds, probably too easy to get hold of and they're not a cure-all. I definitely agree with you about that -- they're probably best in conjunction with counseling!

    You have to wonder what it is that's making so many people depressed, though, don't you? Is it the fact that we aren't as sociable as we used to be? I've been following Stephen Fry on Twitter and thinking his lifestyle is so much healthier than anything I know. He goes for long walks around London, plays darts at the pub -- quite a social life, that fellow has and I do think that's good for the mental health. We don't have that easy ability to get out, here. It's all about hopping in the car. Not a good thing in many ways.

  18. It is perhaps this stigma or the idea that "I must be under spiritual attack" that kept me from the realization that I needed more than just prayer with my mental illness of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I got to the point of barely able to function in my daily life before I finally succumbed to my husband's pleading to try medication. Now I take Paxil every day and I am FREE to be myself! I will be on this medication the rest of my life and I am fine with that. OCD is a real illness, it's not just in the mind and medication can be the difference between living a normal life and being paralyzed with anxiety. I'm glad there are books like this out there that help to debunk the stigma.

  19. Debi,

    I think you've just mentioned one thing a lot of people don't understand -- there are illnesses that are surprisingly easy to control with medication but which, if not treated, can cause a person to be unable to function on a normal basis. That stigma is very harmful to all concerned. I'm glad you figured out what works for you!!! The book is excellent. I highly recommend it. I'm going to get some extra copies to pass around.

  20. Anonymous2:05 PM

    My mother is struggling with Massive Depressive Disorder and this book was an incredible help to our whole family, in understanding the disease and how to help her. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about mental illness or who is affected by it in any way!

  21. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in June 2010 at the age of 43. I was admitted to a mental hospital while having a manic episode. I hadn't slept 4 days. Prior to that I had no sign of mental illness, I was living a normal life. I took the meds for about 18 months and then stopped taking them. I was back in hospital after 4 months with another manic episode, this time after 6 days of no sleep. I took meds again until the end of Feb this year and then stopped again. The time I was on meds was a time to gather my thoughts and try and figure out what was wrong with me. My head was messed up because of time I had spent in a cult, the International Churches of Christ. I have sorted out my doctrinal issues now and refocused on Jesus, as long as I keep my eyes on Him and my trust in Him, I am well. I believe Jesus has healed me of bipolar disorder. Its still early days, but time will tell. John 3:14-15, Numbers 21:6-9


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