In John’s gospel, Jesus and his disciples see a man blind from birth, and the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?“1
Of all the questions the disciples ask Jesus, this is the one we’re least likely to ask today. We know that every physical malady doesn’t result from a spiritual problem. That’s a good thing. Can you imagine having a physical disability in a world that assumes it’s a result of sin?
In our modern world, we rarely attribute physical illness to spiritual causes. But many people still see mental disorders in these terms. The reaction to depression or an eating disorder can be close to the disciples’ question: “Who sinned?” People struggling with these issues will commonly feel ashamed. They’ll blame and cast judgment on themselves, as if they have done something wrong. And others’ comments to them might only reinforce that.
In my previous article on mental health and personality, I had that perspective in mind. I was reacting against a sort of pre-modern approach to mental health that disregards the physical things happening in someone’s mind and body. Several of your responses confirmed that you’ve heard this approach to mental health or had it yourself, and it caused ample pain and hardship.
But I committed a common modern era in my attempt to fight a pre-modern mentality. I ignored the spiritual battle entirely. I placed a glass ceiling over our world, denying God any role.
How does Jesus respond after his disciples ask him who sinned to cause the blind man’s blindness? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.“2 And then he heals him! Jesus corrects the common idea that disability must be linked to sin, but he follows it with a miraculous healing, not a scientific discourse.
I made reference to God as healer in my previous post. I mentioned a prayer for healing if my son breaks his leg. But that comment was as glib as I’m sure it sounded. Do I really believe God may miraculously heal that leg? Only just barely. I call Jesus the Great Physician with my lips, but when it comes to physical maladies, I place much more trust in the physician down the road. God, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!
So allow me to offer this corrective: the spiritual battle is constant. When we’re weakened in one area, that battle surely intensifies. What better time for our adversary to tell us lies than when we’re too physically, mentally or emotionally weak to refute them? We need extra spiritual protection and provision during those times.
Furthermore, even the physical battle is God’s. He can and does heal. Do we believe it?
To be clear, I’m not retracting anything I said in the previous post. Please seek professional help if you might have a mental health problem. Please don’t attribute a character problem to yourself or others if the real issue is mental health, and don’t assume that you just don’t have enough faith.
But that previous post was terribly incomplete. I should have urged you to seek a spiritual solution while you seek a physical remedy. I should have told you that pastoral counseling and care may be a crucial complement to psychological treatment. I should have encouraged more discernment about where you seek help. Some psychologists operate under a philosophy that stands in direct contradiction to Christian faith and values. Consider asking your pastor for a good reference.
I’ll close by sharing some beautiful words from a reader who captures all the sides of this with a theological depth that I lacked:
I think mental health is one of those tensions between living in the “already, but not yet.” We want to live in a world where all is right. Yet, until Christ comes, we won’t. So, even in matters of mental health, we continue pursuing redemption and restoration, knowing that it is certainly possible in the here and now, but also knowing that we may have to continue living with remnants until Christ returns in final victory. […]
I would like to see a study on the effectiveness of spiritual disciplines in eliminating undesired behavior or restoring functioning and reducing mood disturbances. My personal experience tells me that they’d be effective.
Special thanks to Julia, who graciously showed me the problem with my original post.