A recent survey shows that nearly half of evangelical Christians believe that prayer alone is the cure for mental illness. Is this sending a dangerous message to those who battle the disease?
As a Christian, I know that prayer can solve many problems. I also know that prayer can be at least as effective when combined with other strategies to improve your situation, your attitude, your relationships and your health.
For example, if you face a lot of debt, you can pray about it. But if you don’t cut your spending or find a way to increase your income, your debt is still likely to be there. I can say this from personal experience: if prayer alone was enough to create a windfall, I’d have won the lottery years ago.
But a recent Lifeway survey indicates that 48% of evangelical Christians believe that prayer alone is enough to cure mental illness, according to the article, “Evangelicals, You Are Wrong About Mental Illness” at ChurchLeaders.com.
To the point that 64% of evangelicals believe that the church should do more to help prevent suicide, the article adds this:
“…although seeking treatment is not condemned in a wholesale manner, prayer and Bible study are prescribed as the first step to try to avoid treatment—and this, for many people, has the same effect as discouraging treatment. It certainly has the effect of delaying treatment, and delay increases the likelihood that mental illness will become severe, cause serious disruption to functioning and potentially cost a person his or her life.”
Every Christian I know would go to a doctor, sooner or later, when they feel illness coming on. Sure, if it was just a case of sniffles, they’d likely hold off on making a doctor’s appointment. But if it becomes the flu, or a bad virus, for example, while they may pray for relief, they’d also go to the doctor.
One of my closest friends at church recently had foot surgery to correct a malformed bone condition. She could have just prayed about it and continued to live with the pain indefinitely. But while she’s the type of person I’d refer to as a “prayer warrior” who communicates regularly with God and who, I believe, gets a great deal of insight from that communication, she saw a medical professional and had the surgery to correct the problem.
So what is it about mental issues that make Christians — and society in general — so uncomfortable?
There’s certainly a stigma associated with mental illness. That stigma unquestionably makes it harder for people who feel they may need help in that area to ask for it, even from their own doctors. But by the church suggesting that prayer alone should be enough, that makes it that much more difficult: for some people who are battling depression or other mental illness, there’s already the pressure to feel that they’re somehow a failure for not being able to cope with their problems or to just “snap out of it.” When Christians tell them that prayer alone should solve all their problems and it doesn’t, it can make those people feel like even more of a failure.
Think about it: we all get depressed at some point. How well does it work for you when someone with the best of intentions tells you, “Oh just don’t worry about it”?
If you’re like me, it doesn’t work that well. Never has, never will.
I don’t think God wants us to worry about things. I don’t think God made anyone have mental illness. I think that biologically, things happen. As complex as our bodies are, some structures, some chemical balances just go awry.
If God intended for this world to be a place of perfection, there are a lot of things, I think, that would be different.
But why would Christians be so quick to discount people trained in mental illness treatment over prayer? Isn’t it possible that God helped those professionals hone their skills to help His people cope when something does go awry? Is that so difficult to imagine?
When you add to this mix, as the article points out, that as much as 90% of people who die by suicide had a mental illness that could have been treatable, one wonders how anyone can discourage someone from seeking professional help, no matter how powerful they believe prayer is.
I believe there’s always room for prayer in any problem we have. I believe that God does answer prayer, even though not always in the way we’re specifically asking Him to. But I also believe that a good deal of the time, His answer comes to us in the form of added insight, a spark of an idea, that leads us to the solution. In the case of mental illness, that could take the form of finding the right doctor after we’re inspired to look in the right place.
That possibility isn’t something we should ever try to dismiss for someone who’s suffering.
Have you ever been encouraged to pray about an illness — mental or physical — or any other problem rather than seeking any professional help? What was your response?