Mental health is a loaded topic. Especially for Christians. As both the giver and receiver of mental health care at different times, I’ve heard the full gamut of unhelpful over-spiritualised Christian responses. But I’ve also seen and experienced some wonderful Christians stand beside those with mental illness and offer comfort and hope. In these articles, we’ll explore some steps to developing a Christian approach to mental illness so we can lead the way in caring for those with mental illness and experiencing the freedom of the gospel.
This is the second in a three-part series exploring a Christian approach to mental illness, so we can lead the way in caring for those with mental illness and experiencing the freedom of the gospel.
Here’s how I think the logic works for most Christians when they approach mental illness.
Christians are supposed to be transformed from sin by the renewing of their minds.
Mental illness involves faulty mental processes.
People with mental illness are not renewing their minds.
Mental illness is sin or results from sinful thinking patterns.
On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense. This is how we usually talk about sin. Holiness is a struggle between an individual and their temptations. The solution to sin is to be more filled with the Spirit, more soaked in Scripture, more captured by the truths of God, to encounter more of God in prayer, and to act out your beliefs until you truly believe them. These are all wonderful things to do! But in the instance of mental illness, this approach contains two fallacies.
First, it reduces mental illness to thinking processes. The psychological research tells us that cognitions or thoughts are crucial in the development and maintenance of mental illness, and that changing those thoughts is a vital part of recovery. However, it also tells us that mental illness arises from a combination of cognitive, behavioural, biological and social issues. Reducing mental illness simply to thinking processes is like trying to sit on a one-legged chair: you might be able to balance for a few moments, but without the other legs, you’ll quickly tire and fall over. We need to resist viewing mental illness as purely a matter of renewing our minds.
The second problems with the above approach is that it locates the fault for the mental illness within the person. Underlying our exhortations for them to renew their minds, is an assumption that if they would only work harder at their holiness, they could pull themselves out of this mess. It assumes that the person has somehow brought this illness on themselves, as if individual sin and illness have a linear relationship. Not only is that unbiblical (Luke 13:1-5), but it neglects the systemic aspects of sin.
God created a world without pain and illness and therefore without mental illness. This changed after that fall. Illness and pain are a direct result of sin’s intrusion into our creation. Pain, suffering and illness – mental and physical – are in our world because it is corrupted. As we think about mental illness, we need to locate the problem broader than the individual. We need to stop looking for problems in the person’s own life to explain their mental illness. This is true for any sickness, but it is especially critical for mental illness, where the guilt and fear experienced by those with mental illness, seize upon these half-truths and further bind people in condemnation. Instead of viewing mental illness as related to personal sin, let’s get on with transforming the effects of sin’s intrusion into our creation and restore this broken world. People don’t need you to explain their illness, they need you to walk through it with them. In the next post, we’ll look at some practical ways to do this.
For some grace-filled music that gently points to the truths of Scripture, check out Rain for Roots
This post is designed to help Christians walk alongside their family and friends who experience mental health issues. It is no replacement for professional mental health care. If you or someone you know needs help, here are some resources.
Lifeline – 13 11 14
"Ruth Adams" (not her real name) lives in Central Asia, serving the Great Healer as a psycologist and sharing about Him.