Corrie ten Boom once told a story about an elderly couple who attended her meetings in post World War II Germany. They were from an isolated rural area of Germany, and their unkempt appearance and lack of physical hygiene put off some of the people at the meetings. The more spiritually mature Christians who attended the meetings encouraged the group to accept them and demonstrate the love of Christ to them. Before long, they both made professions of faith in Christ, and without anyone saying anything to them, they began to make use of the washing facilities, laundered their clothes and combed their hair.
The more spiritually mature Christians at those meetings got it exactly right. One of the most difficult human tendencies to deal with is the tendency to label people as ‘weird’ because of the ways that they may differ from others. And most certainly it can be extremely difficult for a person to deal with the dehumanization that may take place once others have given that person the ‘weird’ label. But the question then comes for the fellowship of believers: what are you doing to demonstrate the love of Christ to that person? And the question comes to those in leadership, as pastors and elders: what are you doing to lead the others in the fellowship of believers to show the love of Christ to that person?
The label of ‘weird’ can arise in several different ways. Sometimes it can come from the false expectations, stereotypes, prejudices, and preconceptions of others. For instance, one of my favorite coworkers told me that one of her friends called her, ‘weird,’ because she had minored in art history in college. I advised her that I found that to be quite the opposite of weird. This may well be from mere minor differences in upbringing, educational background, or region of origin. In addition, many times there can be highly exaggerated understandings of what ‘normal’ is, based on looks, popularity or athleticism. A person is not ‘weird’ if he or she is not the best looking person, most accomplished athlete, etc. Just as much, this can even come from highly exaggerated and misunderstood observations on one time incidents and off hand remarks. For instance, if one encounters someone who has been up all night or who has just experienced the loss of a family member, it should go almost without saying not to make any snap judgments about that person, since one is not encountering that person in normal circumstances. And in all these situations the question remains: what are you doing to demonstrate the love of Christ in that situation?
I venture that the applicable passage of scripture in those more minor situations is Ephesians 4:1-3: “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Even more, if there is an inclination to label a person as ‘weird’ because of these minor personal differences, preconceptions and expectations, there are two further questions to consider: what did you expect from that person? And what right do you have to put those expectations upon that person? So in this case, James 4:11-12 applies: “Speak not evil of one another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?”
Another way that someone may receive that label is because of social backwardness due to personal immaturity or having come from an addictive, neglectful or abusive family, or even a family with one or more members suffering from a mental illness such as depression. The truth is that neither of these situations is either permanent or spiritually crippling in themselves, and people who are in this situation may have received little more than avoidance, ridicule scorn or angry demands for change from others, and very little of the love of Christ. For instance, there was an episode of the TV series Wonder Years where there was a classmate who was trying desperately to be the friend of Kevin Arnold, the main character. She was socially inept, had a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and had a quirky hairdo, to say the least. The narrator said that his reaction was, “Why did she have to be so weird?” And at the end of the episode, he learned that she was part of a military family which had moved around the country several times a year, so that she never really had much of a chance to develop strong, lasting friendships.
The immature or socially backward person may actually find huge benefit in the stable environment of loving patience in Christ –a church which is living in Ephesians 4:11-16 rather than in I Corinthians 3:3. And for someone who is in the place of immaturity, the need is for growing in knowledge of, faith in and obedience to the Word of God, which “ . . . is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). So the questions then become, “What right do you have to treat that person with contempt or disdain for whom Christ has died due to an unloving, malicious, childish, prejudicial or pejorative label or stereotype? And if you have spread ridicule and tried to involved others in contempt for that person, shouldn’t you rather repent and seek to correct the false and disdainful impressions of another person you’re encouraging? Are you rather willing to sit back, pray, love and let that person grow in Christ?” In these cases the applicable scripture is I Thessalonians 5:14: “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.”
Finally, someone may receive this label due to demonstrations of irrational and immoral thinking patterns, words and behavior. Here I’m referring to persistent patterns which are markedly deceptive, malicious or even unimaginable for a person in touch with reality, and which cannot be charitably attributed to any of the reasons I’ve mentioned above. These may in fact be signs of an accelerating degenerative addiction or abusive lifestyle, mental illness or even demonic influence. I would counsel against any kind of snap judgment or superficial diagnosis by anyone in these areas, and attribution of any kind of addiction, abuse, mental illness or demonic without due consideration for the alternatives. This is one area where spiritual leaders need to stand strong in firmly rebuking what may turn out to be hateful and slanderous attributions by others and making extremely serious scriptural and sensible assessments if these kinds of patterns are evident. While I don’t have a great deal of experience in making these assessments, here are some things which I’ve learned from others and some situations.
First, do not be determined to find something wrong with someone, to find a label or diagnosis for a person, and, even more, be extremely diligent and cautious to protect each and every confidentiality in these cases. There can be strong legal sanctions in these cases where confidences are breached, particularly if there are violations of HIPPAA regulations in the United States. A spouse, an elder or a fellow pastor is not qualified to be a confidant in such a case, even if someone tries to justify breaking the confidence to request prayer. In addition, no referrals should ever be made without the explicit knowledge and probably written permission of the person being referred, and that person should always be aware of anyone attempting to refer him or her to any professional for anything.
Second, be ready and willing to consider that there may be physical problems which are contributing to the person’s behavior. D. Martyn LLoyd-Jones, whose background as a physician included assisting the leading diagnostician of his day (the Dr. Gregory House of Great Britain), counseled this in his book on healing, and he named some of the problems which could contribute to irrational and eccentric behaviors which might otherwise be labeled as mental illness. With this he agreed with Jay Adams, the originator of the nouthetic branch of pastoral counseling. It may take a thorough physical exam to find a physical cause, but it would certainly be in the path of Christian love and pastoral care to advise a physical exam. A pastor and a church could easily join together to pay doctor’s bills or to refer to a Christian doctor who might perform an exam pro bono for someone who might be in need of such an exam. For more on how physical ailments can be confused with ailments labeled as mental illness, see the Wall Street Journal blog entry on Confusing Medical Ailments With Mental Illness. In addition, an examination specifically for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may be in order for people who have come through moderate to severe and protracted physical abuse, particularly if they show signs of heightened vigilance—a kind of unusual caution and jumpiness.
Third, where physical or organic causes, syndromes or illnesses are known, prayer for physical healing is easily an act of Christian compassion and love. Jesus healed those who were, as the King James Version put it, ‘lunatick’, or, in a more contemporary sense, suffering from physical afflictions that caused seizures and other abnormal behaviors. Compassion and faith in Christ to heal out of his own compassion for the physically afflicted are in order here, not fear, mere pity and avoidance.
Fourth, while the pastor, elders and other spiritual leaders need to avoid trying to play the part of amateur psychiatrists, the insights of psychiatrists can be quite helpful, especially when dealing with illnesses that carry perceptual and cognitive distortions such as schizophrenia. While I myself would prefer to offer prayer for healing as well as medication for people who have these kinds of afflictions, in these cases medication may in fact be the plan of God.
Finally, there may be demonic influence in some lives, and in some cases there may be an intertwining of the demonic, the psychological and the physical problems. These kind of problems are pretty rare, although Jesus dealt with cases, such as in Matthew 17:18, where he both took authority over the demonic and healed the person at the same time. Certainly none of those problems are necessarily mutually exclusive. But in the diagnosis of these kinds of problems, both Drs. Kurt Koch and Martyn Lloyd-Jones agree that someone who is truly under demonic influence will have a sense of spiritual darkness and show rejection and avoidance of the Word of God and the name of Jesus and resist prayer in the name of Jesus, sometimes with awful blasphemies and maybe even physical violence. It’s true that a rare few will believe that they are inhabited by demons and perhaps identify real physical symptoms that they are experiencing as demonic, yet remain calm while people are praying for them and honor the name of Jesus and his sovereignty and Lordship. This is most likely confused thinking that comes from an organic cause, and the only people that I’ve encountered like this had been institutionalized. In these cases the pastor may need to team with elders, medical doctors and mental health personnel to deliver wise, scriptural and compassionate treatment.