On mental health –– I was wrong. Or at least incomplete.

man-born-blindIn 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. John 9:2, NIV]

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. John 9:3, NIV. THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.] 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.


9 thoughts on “On mental health –– I was wrong. Or at least incomplete.

  1. Maybe there is another way of approaching this. I agree with you in your post, however, maybe one aspect appears to be missing here.
    God gave us the ability to think and use good judgement; both of which are required in this case.
    Sometimes, we need to ask God’s help not so much to cure us but to think out our problems so that we can work through them. In your illustration of your son’s broken leg as an example, we would not be using good judgement if we expected God to physically heal the leg, but asking God’s help in making the right choices would be in regards to getting proper medical care.
    With any kind of mental issues such as depression, grief,anger,etc ; we can call on God and our faith to help us work through the things that may be causing this and asking for his strength to deal with them. We can ask him through prayer to give us the power helping us make the right decision to seek help if we cannot handle it alone when we are overwhelmed by the stress of it all.

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for this comment. I agree with you that we need to ask God’s help to work through a problem with wisdom and discernment. I would say, though, that this isn’t the only way I believe we should be seeking God’s help.

      God heals. Sometimes with no other intervention. I don’t believe this is the only thing we should expect–I’m not a Christian Scientist–but I believe it’s something we should pray for with sincerity. Less modernized places produce a disproportionate number of the stories I hear about miraculous healings and incredible events. I think one reason for this is that they still expect miraculous divine intervention when the best we expect is God’s help in guiding us to a more common intervention.

      1. I agree that sometime God heals us without intervention because he wants us to help others without us being burdened with our own problems. He sees the burden we carry and the good in us. As an example, when we are hurt by people who or do bad things to us, God wants us to have the means of forgiving them which can be very difficult and a long process. God gives us the means to forgive others so we can be free (mentally and emotionally ) to help others. This is why we need to be reminded by reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

        I agree too that too many people want to see Divine intervention as a means to declare that a miracle has occurred. God does not work that way and we should not take it for granted otherwise. There are many miracles that occur everyday that people overlook. Just look at Creation itself.
        I also believe that some good can come out of bad which means God may have a larger plan for each one us in spite of our misfortunes. We may never know what will be but putting our faith into God is assurance that he will never fail us.

  2. Hi Teddy! Some additional thoughts…The lives of the saints can be very helpful in this discussion of temperament, mental health and healing through spiritual disciplines. As I mentioned in another comment, I have tendencies toward depression/anxiety. Several books by Art and Lorraine Bennett have been helpful in determining a primary melancholic/secondary choleric temperament for myself. A next step led me to the lives of the saints, where I found Therese of Lisieux. Her autobiography tells of the trials her melancholic temperament afforded her, as well as how those trials were overcome in strength and with grace. In many instances there was prayer and resolve on her own part, but she experienced a particular bout of melancholy that required divine intervention for healing. I share this just to highlight that while we point people to the Lord, to spiritual counsel, etc., we also have the lives of holy men and women to draw from for help. Whether our particular Christian tradition recognizes them as saints or not is of lesser importance than that they were normal God-loving people with many of the same circumstantial, temperamental and mental health burdens that we find ourselves battling to overcome. Their stories are available for our aid…and what hope in Christ they can bring us presently.

  3. I came upon your posts about the relationship between mental health issues and Christianity and was eager to be able to share my personal experience with you! I am 33 years old and was first diagnosed with manic depressive disorder at age 14. A few years later I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Anyway, beginning at 14 I was heavily medicated, dragged around to numerous therapy sessions, committed and generally told by my parents that I was defective and a disappointment. Now without blame, I feel it important to note that both the parents in the home were Atheists. I was raised with a complete absence of any spiritual concept, Christian or otherwise. As an adult Christian now and a mother as well, it is quite obvious to me that my “mental health” problems were rooted there. Fast forward to 2012. I was a college drop out, on disability with 3 illegitimate children. I had isolated myself from the world. I experienced bouts of manic psychosis. I had anorexia. My teeth were completely rotted out from both a lack of brushing as well as malnutrition. I was plagued with constant, debilitating migraines caused by my extreme depression. My doctor had me over medicated. I was taking an anti-depressant, two mood stabilizers, a very high dose of an anti-psychotic, and a strong anti-anxiety medication and I was self-medicating as well. I wanted to die. Unfortunately, my son died instead because I was too involved in my own pain to protect him. One morning, waiting for the school bus one of my sons was hit by a speeding SUV and killed. I could not have pictured my life could have been any worse than it was. I was wrong. The point I am trying to get to is that a local church came into my life. God used such a tragic event in my life to light a fire in me. I began to attend services and Sunday school weekly. I was saved and eventually baptized. Miraculously, as my relationship with Christ grew stronger, my mind cleared! Two years later, my mania and subsequent psychotic episodes are completely gone. My anger outbursts have faded. I feel like a different person. I don’t get as stressed out, the headaches are not completely gone but are controllable. I am clean. I am a better mother. The list just goes on and on! So, I guess my point is, it is definatley possible for God to change someone’s mental health. The change is possible. I live it everyday! I still struggle, but I have a sense of peace now I never imagined could exist! I want to tell the world! Thank you for your time, Lyra Scott

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