“Sticks and stones may break my bones,” we used to chant on the playground, “but names will never hurt me.” Bold words we wanted so much to be true often proved false. The ugly names stuck– bucky beaver, fatso, cuckoo —and they hurt. Sometimes medical diagnostic labels do too.
This past week an Inquiry into the Schizophrenic Label (ISL)¹ was established in the United Kingdom to investigate use of the label “schizophrenia.” One of the founders of the panel criticized the practice of “accepting [psychiatric] diagnosis as valid ways of labeling people”² especially since so much stigma follows.
The problem goes even deeper when all of a person’s life becomes reduced to a vexing disease. A person suffering from an all-consuming health condition often comes to believe his (or her) identity is summed up by a medical label or a set of disorders. “I’m schizophrenic.” “I’m bipolar. I’m OCD.” Fortunately, we’re much more complicated than that.
Mike Emlet, author of Cross Talk: Where Life and Scripture Meet, suggests we look at ourselves the way God does, as a combination of “saint, sufferer, and sinner.”³ All three, all at the same time.
Obviously, most medical professionals and the media cannot use Emlet’s summarization, but a Christian diagnosed with “mental illness” can find great comfort and gospel truth in the “holistic” identity he describes. The biblical perspective can also help Christian counselors maintain compassion and humility in the face of complex problems. The medical diagnosis does not get tossed out or ignored, but becomes balanced with equally important truths about who we are:
Saint. We have a relationship with Christ that identifies us as saints, i.e., set apart as his chosen people in whom God delights. We are completely accepted in the Beloved thanks to Calvary. (This term “saints” differs from specific individuals honored as “Saints” by some denominations.)
Sufferer. We live in a fallen and broken world with weaknesses, limitations, and broken bodies. Evil in this world touches us. Scripture helps us to make sense of our broken lives and to find God’s strength in our weakness.
Sinner. We’re born in sin, according to Christian doctrine, and prone to make sinful choices. Those choices hurt us as well as others. We are accountable for our behavior.
Emlet, a faculty member at CCEF (Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation) sees a tendency in people to gravitate toward one aspect of our identity in particular, at the expense of the other two. Identifying ourselves as more than just sufferers allows more of the fullness of God to affect us. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he spoke of how we can grow into Christ in all things, which suggests a broad range of areas where we can think and act more biblically.
A more complete perspective of ourselves as saints, sinners, and sufferers will enable us to grow in:
• Forgiveness and grace for ourselves and others.
• Thankfulness for what God has done through Christ and will do when he completes our redemption. Greater obedience as a result of greater comprehension of his love.
• Willingness to persevere and maintain hope through our suffering due to the divine enabling of the Holy Spirit.
• Rest in Him. Forbearance. Humility. Patience.
I believe the label described by Emlet helps us to set our minds on things above and not primarily on the painful or stigmatizing things below. We can also take pleasure in the reality that God works in and through sufferers, using our broken and imperfect “earthen vessels.” Many Christians liken us in our state of brokenness to “cracked pots,” through which God’s glory shines.
For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness hath shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us. (2Corinthians 4:6-7)
Though Christianity does not provide easy answers or a guaranteed fix for complex problems like symptoms of schizophrenia, the gospel does reveal clear truths about the human heart … about sorrow and sin and the mercies of God … about saints, like you, who suffer and sin and turn to the cross daily for cleansing and strength and joy.
“There’s no other approach to complex problems that has songs as part of it. A Christian vision sings well.” David Powlison
1 The Inquiry into the “Schizophrenia” Label (ISL), press release, www.schizophreniainquiry.org .
2 “Inquiry to investigate how schizophrenia ‘label’ is dehumanizing and stigmatizing” by Adam James, April 17, 2012, www.psychminded.co.uk .
3 “Saints, Sufferers, and Sinners” interview with Michael Emlet, FamilyLife Today® Radio Transcript, aired 10/01/10. http://www.oneplace.com/ministries/familylife-today/listen/saints-sufferers-and-sinners-136413.html .