The Comfort of Christ

Caring for Sinners Through the Cross of Christ

by Matthew C. Harrison 

I suppose I’ve preached at and or presented at well over 100 LCMS district conventions. What a privilege to see so much of the church. Very few people have had that opportunity. It’s wonderful to meet new friends, see pastors young and old, and enjoy the universal good humor of the people of the LCMS. I greatly enjoy the Q&A sessions. I’ve always insisted they be unscripted and that folks feel free to step forward and raise any issue or question they have. Over the years people ask, “What is the Missouri Synod doing about this or that issue?” “Shouldn’t we be doing a lot more?”

Sometimes, someone will ask a question about what the national headquarters is doing on a particular issue. One thing’s sure: That question is — more often than not — a quite legitimate law question, and no matter the issue or topic, activity or service, more can, should or could be done. Addressing these issues is sometimes complex, with designated funding, personnel challenges, limited staff operating at maximum capacity, and so on.

One such issue is mental illness: “Shouldn’t the LCMS be doing more about mental illness?” Certainly. The issue affects us all tremendously. Virtually all of our families — and that includes pastors’ families and teachers’ families, our congregational and school families — deal daily with various forms of mental illness. The Synod has formed many committees, task forces and convocations, and offered many recommendations, books and reports on the issue. As important as all that is, the greatest work done in the Synod in the realm of mental health occurs in our 6,000 congregations by our 5,700 pastors and 20,000 teachers, deaconesses and others.

As weak sinners, confronted by challenges mixed with sin and frustration, we’ve often failed; we’ve not been able to provide what this or that child, or this person or family, needed. Nevertheless, our dear pastors and workers continue to love and care for millions of God’s people. Just think about how many lives are affected with the love of Jesus as our church workers offer straight talk about Law and deliver the blessed sweet Gospel, and as they apply the Gospel in the most challenging moments of people’s lives. Our well-trained pastors and church workers bring the consolation of the Word of God to those struggling with marital difficulties, clinical depression, addictions and a whole range of mental health struggles. They also bring the same Word of God to bear in the lives of the parents, children and family members of those who struggle. And when more clinical help is needed, our pastors and church workers know the names of reliable mental health professionals, many of whom approach mental health with a biblical worldview not unlike our own. Many of our families struggle with a child who moves in and out of treatment, a child for whom there will not be a cure, but only a life of deep struggle. We pray with such families, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:13).

While we certainly have room for improvement, the LCMS has made great strides in providing for the mental health of her people through all of her great certified counselors, agencies, compassionate congregations and especially those pastors and teachers who by the thousands provide mercy, spiritual care and referrals to professional help. The LCMS is a mental health powerhouse, such as we are, even under the cross.

Dr. Stephen M. Saunders, an LCMS member and psychologist who teaches at Marquette University, wrote a fantastic two-volume work on what Christians need to know about mental illness. A Christian Guide to Mental Illness, published by our friends in the Wisconsin Synod, is a tremendous help for anyone facing challenges in their family or among friends and loved ones. Get a copy of Dr. Saunders’ book.

Dr. Saunders teaches clearly the comfort of Christ crucified for those suffering with mental illness. He decisively rejects a theology of glory, which asserts that “real” Christians are blessed with health, wealth, prosperity and perfect mental health. Dr. Saunders recommends that we “remind [those suffering of] who they are, a forgiven sinner” (554). “Insist on church attendance,” that they not cut themselves off from Christ, but cling to His cross. “Teach the two kingdoms,” that is, that the realm of church, Bible and the Sacraments does not preclude the medical and scientific realms, which are also realms of God’s working for good. “Preach the theology of the cross” (555). Ask them to point out a person from the Bible who suffered, and tell the story. Help them realize that we just don’t know, finally, why some suffer so with illness, but we know one day He will “wipe away every tear” (Rev. 7:17).

And preach Christ crucified. God loves people. That means people with mental illness. “Declare to those dealing with mental illness that the world is full of hardship, tragedy, and despair for all. But we preach Christ crucified, and through the Holy Spirit, who gives us faith, we have sure and certain hope. We can look forward to that which we do not yet see” (556).

–Pastor Harrison

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