Loving People with Mental Illness

The most challenging level of obedience I’ve experienced, while walking with Jesus, is loving people who, for a variety of reasons, can’t receive and give love in a manner I’m accustomed to.

Before we get started, I would like to recommend a short prayer to you.  We should always confess our need for God to give us wisdom, understanding, knowledge and revelation in knowing the Lord Jesus Christ better through the leading of the Holy Spirit.

God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, you are awesome in all of your ways.  Please give me the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in knowing the Lord Jesus Christ more and more as I read this article.

Part 1 of this Series God and Mental Illness
Part 3 of this Series Loving a Hoarder

As I start the second article in this series, I’m reminded of a line from the movie Even Almighty.  God (played by Morgan Freeman) turns to a woman and says “if someone asks God for patience, do you think God gives them patience or does God give the person opportunities to be patient“?.  Ever had a moment where the light bulb came on over your head and you knew it?  Well, this was one of those moments for me.

Consider the following passages of scripture:

Do to others as you would have them do to you.  “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that
Luke 6:31-33 (NIV)

The most distinguishing characteristic of the followers of Jesus Christ is their unmistakable willingness to love those who either refuse or can’t love them in response.  In the passage above, we see the Lord Jesus making a crystal clear declaration that the barometer of whether we truly love others isn’t validated until we choose to love those who can’t or won’t love us in return.

As I commented in my opening thought, this is the toughest challenge of obedience, to the Lord Jesus Christ, I’ve experienced and continue to experience.  For me, it’s challenging because I often find myself expecting people to know how I desire to have love demonstrated and get disappointed when it doesn’t play out the way I imagined.  You know, we’re convinced that we know what we need.  It’s funny, there have been many times when I also had this feeling toward God. However, I’ve discovered, after looking back, that even though I couldn’t see it at the time, God was demonstrating the perfect form of love I needed at the time.

God Prepares the Environment for Testing

My brother, who’s 8 years older then me, was diagnosed with a Developmental Disability at the age of 8 years old.  According to my mom, my brother led a normal life until he contracted meningitis, which resulted in damage to his brain triggering the Development Disability.

The disability my brother lives with is responsible for stunting his social and intelligence growth.  He’s 50 years old, but has the social skills and intelligence level of a 13 or 14 year old teenager.  He is the most friendly, giving and trusting person I’ve ever met.  Like a 13 or 14 year old, he is extremely impressionable and vulnerable to people he crosses paths with.  As far as loving me goes, just imagine how a 13 or 14 year old teenager loves others and you have an excellent picture of what I mean.

I remember growing up as a young boy, my sister and I never wanted to be seen with my brother.  We felt embarrassed by his presence and the obvious difference in his behavior from our expectation of the normal 15 or 16 year old teenager.  This was partly due to the fact that my mom dressed him in a manner that made it obvious he was not the average 15 or 16 year old.  In addition, by this time, the rejection he felt from me, my sister, those at his high school and the general public, was showing up in his behavioral responses when he felt others were starring at him.  By the time my sister and I were old enough to have our own group of friends, we both made extra effort to make sure we didn’t have to be bothered with our brother.  We never considered the effects this had on our brother, nor what it clearly demonstrated about our ability to love him.

Here’s a truth that escaped everyone in my family.  In the midst of us continually rejecting my brother, for whatever reason, we had no idea the fleshly root of rejection we were subjecting my brother to.  When a person, either actually or through their perception, repeatedly experiences rejection, this breeds a whole nest of issues.  I will mention some of them here, hardheartedness toward others or a lack of compassion and empathy, blindness to ones own actions that further damage relationships, the fear of what others think about you, rebellion, stubbornness and an unwillingness to receive correction or constructive criticism.  This is not a complete list by any means, but it should give you an idea of the effects rejection can have on a child and even an adult.  So the behavior my mom struggled to subdue in my brother was the direct result of how he was being treated by the very people God surrounded him with to love him.  I ask you to ponder this for a moment before moving on.

After both of us left home as adults, multiple years would go by without my sister or I seeing our brother.  In addition, my brother, who has a different father than my sister and I, was rejected by his own father from an early age.  My mom, as you would expect from any mom, loved her son unconditionally but also struggled in the process.  By the time he was adult age, my brother clearly demonstrated pronounced aggression, rebellion and frustration toward us and others due to the years of being labeled crazy and a wacko by the segment of society that hadn’t taken the time to understand Mental Illness.  Not to mention, the constant rejection and ridicule from the very people he desired to love him unconditionally, his family.

Remember what Jesus stated in the passage of scripture above?  The rejection we demonstrated is symptomatic of people who find loving those who can’t or won’t love them back extremely challenging.

The Love Test

In November of 1996, a few weeks after my Romans road experience with Jesus Christ (see My Testimony for more details), Jesus told me I would be instrumental in my brothers healing process.  Can you imagine what went through my mind after hearing this statement from Jesus Christ himself?  It went something like this…I haven’t seen my brother in about 5 years, what will he think of me when I tell him I’m a Christian and he remembers how I treated him when we were younger, not to mention my unexplained absence?

In 2004 my mom, the rock of our four member family, went home to be with the Lord.  This launched me into the position of becoming the legal guardian of my older brother.  You know, I tell you the truth, God knows how to arrange situations that give Him the opportunity to squeeze (usually against our will) the best out of us for His glory.  It’s also amazing how God makes sure we have everything we need to accomplish His will for our lives, even when we think we lack what’s needed.

By the time I became my older brothers legal guardian, the Lord Jesus had done such a 180 degree turn around in my selfish, self-centered heart, that loving my brother unconditionally was possible without reservation.  I thought it was going to be much more difficult than it’s been.  After spending years meditating on the complete turn around in my attitude toward my brother, I know without a shadow of a doubt that through Jesus, God gives us His love.  This is how we’re able to love those who won’t or can’t love us in return.

The Gift of Love

I remember being amazed at my brothers excitement with the fact that we were hanging together to go shopping, to the doctor, the dentist or other runs.  On many occasions, we’d be together and he would turn to me and say Tony, I’ve been telling so and so about my brother and I want you to meet them, will you go with me.  I would always respond sure.  When we arrived at one of these destinations, it was almost as if he was introducing a superstar.  I would meet the people, and like a rehearsed chorus, the people would all respond the same way.  Your brother is the nicest person we’ve ever met and he talks about you all the time.  It finally dawned on me, after years of this happening, that one of my brothers ways of demonstrating his love for me was to introduce me to the many people that have grown fond of him.

My brother isn’t able to love me in the way I would traditionally expect to be loved by a person.  However, what this God ordained relationship has taught me is that love is not about what we receive, but what we’re willing to give for the benefit of another.  In addition, I thank God that through His mighty work in my heart and in my brothers heart, He has healed my brother from all past offenses and continues to heal him from the fear of rejection.  Thank you Lord Jesus!

My brother will probably never read this post, but becoming his legal guardian has been one of the greatest blessings I’ve ever received from the Lord Jesus.  In addition, he will probably never know how God has used him to teach me what it means to truly love someone the way God loves us.

On of the most important things I’ve learned in this process is not to expect something from a person they can’t give.  Mental Illness is always a condition that involves some form of damage to mind and brain.  That said, expecting someone living with Mental Illness to think and behave like a mentally healthy person is at best an unrealistic expectation.  Loving people who live with Mental Illness demands unconditional love, great grace on the part of the mentally healthy person, immense patience and understanding.  This is impossible for us as human beings, but when we partner with God all things are possible!

As I close this post, please consider the passage of scripture below and ask yourself whether you are the blessing to those in your life who live with Mental Illness.  Or is it possible that God is actually using them to teach you how to love the same way God loves you.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God
1 John 4:7 (NIV)

As usual, I offer you a brief prayer

Our Father, in the name of Jesus, I appreciate every opportunity you give me to love others.  Father, teach me to love others the way you love me, unconditionally.  You know every struggle I face when it comes to loving the people in my life.  Thank you for your promise to finish the work you began in me, and for perfecting your love in me so I can then love myself and others.