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A few years ago, two women with severe persistent mental illness asked me to lead them in a study of the Bible. Both women were well controlled on medication and did not have any apparent psychotic manifestations of their illnesses. Both received disability income and held part-time jobs. One was married, the other was single.


I had known one of the women, Joan, before her major mental illness had been diagnosed ten years previously. Joan contacted me, asking if I would lead a Bible study for her and a friend, Pat. I agreed to meet with them and discuss their needs.


Our first meeting was in Pat's apartment, where we talked about our expectations regarding Bible study. Pat's kitchen provided a pleasant and relaxing setting, although she was quite concerned with being a good hostess. Pat's attention span was significantly shorter than Joan's or mine, but Joan graciously role modeled patience and gently guided the subject back to the focus of our meeting. Pat and Joan were good friends and had a pleasant, easy relationship, fully aware of each other's disability and life issues. They included me in their conversations, but did not look to me for advice. Each seemed confident in her ability to problem solve and make decisions.


However, it became apparent that they wanted answers to specific life questions. They also desired to read through the Bible, not just look at certain passages for answers, and wanted to discover personally what the Bible "really said." Neither had read the Bible before, and they wanted someone who could help them gain understanding. It was refreshing and encouraging to see their genuine interest in and openness to God's Word. They didn't want me to give answers to their questions, but wanted to wait and see whether they found answers in the Bible. I left that first meeting excited.


The Gospels were a good starting place because these women wanted to know what Jesus said about divorce, remarriage, and forgiveness. We decided to meet weekly and read one or two chapters together each time. Sometimes Pat would forget about the meetings and not be home at the designated time. We learned to call each week to see if we could get together. I felt it was important to build trust and reliability, so I kept my calendar free during the designated meeting time. I wanted the two women to know they were important to me and that I valued our meetings.


We met once or twice a month over the course of six months. First we met in Pat's apartment, and then we had some meetings in Joan's home. Although the plan was to read the Bible together, we always took time to visit and eat together. Pat and Joan talked about current concerns and I listened, letting them decide when they were ready to look at the Bible. I learned that sharing important life issues needed to occur first before they could focus on God's Word.


The studies consisted of taking turns reading verses, discussing the verses and their meaning, and then asking questions. I brought an assortment of Bibles with concordances or Life Application Bibles, as well as various translations to help with clarification. Studying the Bible with Joan and Pat was like pouring new wine into new wineskins (Matthew 9:16-17). It was refreshing to look at the Bible passages through their eyes, discussing things such as why Jesus healed some people and said to others "your sins are forgiven" (spiritual healing) before they were physically healed. We waded through difficult passages with comfort and an academic attitude. I realized it was important to keep the study reality based and not get "heady" or try to do much interpretation.


One outcome of our time together was that the women found a sense of confidence by finding answers to their questions in the Bible. They read passages that made them comfortable with remarrying and reduced the guilt they had been experiencing. They seemed to understand that God's basic nature is to love and forgive as revealed through Jesus. They felt more confident that they were accepted in God's kingdom even with the life events that had hurt them and their families. Sin and forgiveness seemed to be less troublesome for them as they realized they were trying to obey God and that was probably "enough."


I chose not to deal with their individual religious practices during our time together. Some of their experiences in the past had resulted in guilt and confusion, and I was unsure of what church settings were healthy for them. I tried to model healthy Bible reading and good interpretation by looking to expert resources. They both started using a more modern translation of the Bible with extra study helps. Sometimes they met without me and became confident to do so.


I encourage nurses to befriend those with mental illness. I've found that building trust and being reliable, realistic, nonjudgmental, and caring goes a long way in all relationships, but are especially crucial for building relationships with those suffering from mental illnesses. God is present in the truth of Scripture, and in honest relationships, we grow to become better, stronger people. Often people find their own right answers to their problems as we listen objectively. When they are ready to find out what God's way is, they are ready to leave behind as many poor coping skills as they can. Often sinful patterns are ways of getting needs met, and when those with mental illness gain confidence in God's love and ways, they tend to want to please him for the right reasons and become healthier in the process.


I am grateful for the opportunity I had to work with these women and am enriched by having studied the Bible in their presence. My prayer is that Christ's yoke will be easier for them (Matthew 11:28-30).