Buttons Guy, Mental Illness and The Church. Part 2.

So back to Belgium. And Dis and his wallpaper lions who jump out and attack him. Why does Arthur, the father of the house that Dis stays in chase them away rather than try and convince him that they’re not real? That’s a great question. One I think that can be answered in how it affects Dis.

Simply put, it worked every time. It took a little time, but people like Dis and others who had mental illnesses began to live normal every day lives. They had jobs, they had relationships, they were happy and the one key to all of this was simple, acceptance.

Now acceptance may sound simple but is it easy? My experience has been, no. It’s incredibly difficult. For example, I can accept others for a while but I find it almost impossible to accept myself, often. Yet, when you talk to the people who open their homes to boarders in Geel, none of them think it is difficult. They just don’t consider it a chore or an inconvenience, they just don’t let the quirks that the boarders have, bother them.

One of the reasons for this may be the closeness factor that I talked about last time. When boarders first come to the town, the families are not told anything about their mental illnesses. Nothing. Nada. So in a way, there is nothing to compare them to. What they know about the boarders is everything they experience with them in their lives.

Their weirdness is just, well normal.

With our own families, it is much different. We know what they are capable of, we know how happy they used to be and we “know” that these behaviors are not “normal”. So when we see someone in our family or our church acting in a way that we think is unhealthy, it is difficult for us to accept.

Which really, when we stop and take a deep breath and think about it, means it is difficult to accept them.

The Sociologist George Brown found that there were three factors to determining if someone with Schizophrenia would relapse when they returned to their families after treatment. Specifically, three attitudes from their families which determined their long term success.

1. Criticism

2. Hostility and

3. {{drum roll}}…… Emotional over involvement. Or as Dr Brown called it, The Law of Expressed Emotion.

When families expressed things like “I would do anything to make sure they don’t relapse again” or “I desperately want you to not act like this anymore because I care for you so much”, it actually had a negative effect on the patients. They felt controlled or overly smothered. It was too much for them to handle.

So what can we really learn from the Dis and Toni and Arthur, the people whose lives have been so affected by this wonderful town in Belgium that none of us have ever heard about before? What can a small town in Belgium teach the church about Grace?

Enough With Grace Already.

It’s interesting because I think we have a similar experience with Grace in the church.

But maybe we’ve just lost sight of how to apply it. Grace is a radical message. There are no ifs or buts with Grace. There are no conditions but subconsciously we apply these conditions all the time. We are happy to give Grace freely to anyone who wants it, that’s the amazing thing about it, but unless we see change we get uncomfortable.

We’re afraid that we’re just given someone license to act in whatever way they like.

And maybe that is why so many of us are stuck with addictions or mental illnesses in the church. We demand change more than we simply follow the command to Love. Which ultimately leads to overbearing and smothering of people with a need to change. Even though we told them they don’t need to.

We give Grace freely but only up to the point where we feel like the person is starting to change. And by using Grace like this we subconsciously are always holding back. We’re protecting ourselves from someone in our church family from not changing the way we think they should, by holding Grace at arms length.

I think to us in the Western Church our over familiarization with Grace is a little like those who can’t believe that someone in Belgium would be crazy enough to have someone with a mental illness live with their family. We’ve forgotten the true power of acceptance. Unlike Arthur and Toni, we see it as a burden to accept someone with all their quirks and weird habits.

Something that is required to do if you host a boarder, is the ability to let go of control. You can’t control someone and when you realize that, it’s probably the biggest gift you can give them. Because then you can fully accept them and when you fully accept someone, perhaps they will learn to fully accept themselves. Then if that happens, maybe you will start to see someone who is happier and more at peace and more able to be fully present in the world.

A few years ago in the middle of my porn addiction, I decided to take a different approach. Instead of trying to stop, with all the accountability software and strategies of praying more or reaching out to friends, I decided to just accept it. I would wake up every day and tell myself that I was probably going to view porn today. Relentlessly, just accepting it.

I could fight it but let’s be real, it’s going to happen. It’s happened everyday for years and years so why would it suddenly stop? So if it’s going to happen I should at least just feel ok about it and stop beating myself up. “I mean if I haven’t been able to beat this thing so far, what if I just don’t feel bad about it.” That’s the one thing I could change.

So I did and…. it was an abject failure.

I looked at porn more than ever. Then slowly, something changed. Porn lost it’s thrill for me. Then porn lost it’s edge for me. Then I went from looking at porn every day to maybe just a few days a week. Which then went from a few days a week to maybe once in a blue moon. Until I finally stopped looking at porn completely.


Until I started looking at porn again almost as bad as ever, that is.


Why did this happen? Here’s why I think.

At the beginning, my new approach didn’t work because I was so overfamiliar with Grace, that it became a means for me to change rather than  an unrelenting, acceptance of who I am without any conditions or demand for change. I couldn’t just accept what I was doing, because in my head it was wrong and evil and it was hurting my relationships. There’s that overbearing voice again.

Then slowly as I began to fully accept porn in my life, this acceptance of it wasn’t another new method to change, it was just the way I saw myself as a human. I’m a porn addict and I’m ok with that. I don’t need to change. I took Grace to the extreme, which really just means applying it the way it’s supposed to be applied, and it worked.

Which is when it stopped working.

Because I saw it exactly as something that was “working”. I realized I was living less and less in these destructive behaviors and I saw it as the solution to making sure I didn’t look at porn anymore. Which then got me back to thinking, well why do I want to stop viewing porn anymore? Well, because it hurts you and you’re a horrible person for doing so. Which made me hate myself again. Which made me stop accepting myself. Which made me want to medicate again. With porn. Then more porn.

Ring a ring a rosies!

This is the unrelenting cycle that many of us find ourselves, in or out of the church. On one hand we preach messages of acceptance, but what we really mean is acceptance of a certain version of ourselves. If we can’t stop an impulsive behavior after many years, or if we have questions about how good God can really be to let horrible things happen or if we question that God literally spoke words into the brains of the Bible’s writers, then acceptance tends to be held back a little.

Until we can see the error of our ways.

So this is a call to all of us, whether we’re in a church or not, to relearn the art of Grace.

To learn all we can about Grace and then perhaps realize that in that very moment, we need to forget it all.

To look to Geel and the people there who are happy and put down our “we’re Christian so we have all the answers” pride long enough to realize that maybe they’re onto something.

To stop and ask, are we demanding something from the people closest to us that is impossible for them to meet right now.

To open ourselves to the crazy idea that perhaps the things we want to change in people can be what makes them uniquely them.

And what if we find ourselves with someone close to us that is terrified of lions coming out of their walls? Maybe the best thing is not to strip away the wallpaper, but get together with your friends and your families and chase them away.

Every single night if we need to.


These posts were inspired and pretty much stolen from the episode of Invisibilia called, The Problem With The Solution which tells the story of the village of Geel and their incredibly unique approach to mental illness. Check it out!

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