A Thorn in the Brain

By Doug Towne

When it comes to “mental illness”, conventional wisdom suggests that we as a church or scientific community have responsibility to combine our resources to fix our members (clients) who have gaps, imbalances or deficiencies mentally. I agree that many of the mental illness issues can be addressed by medical, psychological or spiritual intervention in adjusting chemical imbalances and behavioral abnormalities. I also agree that these communities need to better learn to pool their resources and talents in addressing these things.

I would like to bring to the table an insight that my wife and I have been learning both from the Lord and from personal experience -- beginning with personal experience.  Our son Joey was born with autism. This “mental disorder” includes him being functionally nonverbal. I, too, have recently been diagnosed as a person who is on the “autism spectrum”, yet don’t have the nonverbal blessing!  At the onset of Joey’s life, we spent much time and a quantity of resources in efforts to fix his problem.

We consulted doctors, psychologists, used government resources from the department of developmental disabilities, money from social security and Medicaid… the list goes on. Yet, it didn’t take much time for Linda and I to realize that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Joey together again. We brought him before the elders of our church. They prayed. The result of the prayer didn’t seem to change Joey’s state of mind much, yet it did renew my hope. It reminded me that God is sovereign and that Joey is one who is fearfully and wonderfully made. 

A couple of verses enter into this conversation:

“On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary, and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our unseemly members come to have more abundant seemliness, whereas our seemly members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another....” (1 Cor. 12:22-25)

“Be of the same mind with one another, do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly” (Romans 12:16).

Not only was Joey designed to be an integral part of the community (body), he is equipped with talents and gifting which are vital for the body to function healthily according to God’s design. Those gifts and talents are meant to contribute to the edification of the church. When my thoughts about him were focused only on ways to fix him, or to adjust him to fit the “norm”, I bypassed the gifts that he already has ,which could be contributing to the health of the body. My false belief was that he can only contribute if this “issue” were fixed. Linda and I, my family, and the church community to which we belong have grown to know God in more intimate ways as a result of allowing Joey’s silent voice to speak into our lives to reveal God and His character.

The apostle Paul pleaded with God a number of times to have a thorn in his flesh removed (or fixed?). He learned during the course of his life that in God’s providence and sovereign design, this thorn was a gift through which the Lord worked for the purpose of growing His body. It wasn’t evil that Paul desired this thorn to be removed, but it wasn’t God’s desire that all of Paul’s resources be focused on removing it. God made that clear to Paul! God’s desire was for Paul to bring both the sufferings and the joys that this thorn evoked in him to be shared and experienced in context of his community. This is the process in which God’s power mightily works in and through us. 

So let’s keep in mind that not all members of our churches who have mental imbalances need to be viewed as someone who should be fixed.    The real challenge, then, is to embrace the mental diversity we have been given, just as we are learning to embrace the racial diversity in our churches.


Doug Towne is currently serving with Wycliffe Bible Translators. He has lived and worked with a Mixtec community in Southern Mexico for more than 25 years as a facilitator in translating Scripture.  He, along with his wife and three sons, are grateful for relationships with these indigenous people, and for the many opportunities to learn and grow in community with them during these years.

Doug is studying for the Masters in Biblical Studies at Multnomah Seminary, tobe further equipped for the continuance ofwork and life in communityboth with the Mixtecs as well as with other communities throughout the world. 

[Picture Credit: Simon Tagliaferri]