No credible Christian I know of says that all instances of depression, anxiety, etc., are always mental illness and never the result of personal sin. Yet sometimes that impression is given because of language and emphasis.
Similarly, no credible Christian I know of says that all instances of depression, anxiety, etc., are caused by personal sin and are never the result of mental illness. Yet sometimes that impression is given because of language and emphasis.
Part of the reason for these false impressions is the absence of mutually agreed terminology that would cover both physical and spiritual causes. However, there are steps we can all take to bring Christians who disagree on these matters a bit closer together.
I’m going to ask “mental illness maximizers” (those who speak mostly in illness/disease categories) to reach out to “sin maximizers” (those who speak mostly in moral categories), and then I’m going to reverse the process. I realize that these are not two totally distinct groups and that most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum between them. But, wherever we fall, we can all make an effort to bridge the divide and work more cooperatively and respectfully.
Mental Illness Maximizers
Christians who use mainly “mental illness” language and fully accept the possibility of physical damage and disease in the brain’s ability to process thoughts and emotions, should:
1. Be careful not to give the impression that “mental illness” is all we believe in. While offering compassionate help to those who suffer due to having fallen bodies and brains, or because of factors outside of their control (Job 1), or because of direct divine intervention (John 9), we must also carefully identify where people have brought much or all of their suffering upon themselves due to sinful personal choices, and adjust our language, counsel, and help accordingly.
2. Even where there is a physical cause or element to a person’s suffering, we should still allocate time and energy to helping sufferers respond to these physical issues in a spiritually beneficial manner, reserving an important place for God’s Word in the healing process.
3. We should usually not run to the “medical model” too fast, too over-confidently, or to the exclusion of spiritual factors. Where medical intervention is necessary, we should make clear that it’s very rarely a full cure on its own.
4. Even if there has been physical damage to the brain, undermining its ability to process thoughts and emotions, in addition to medical treatment, we must also have confidence in God’s Word playing a role in reversing bad thinking and feeling patterns, and substituting them with biblical ones.
5. We need to be sure that we are also helping people to get spiritual benefit from their suffering. While we do not agree with the idea of somebody suffering depression to the maximum to get the maximum spiritual advantage (who would do that with a broken leg or cancer?), yet we must question the common demand for the speediest and most complete deliverance that can be found in this world.
6. While being open to medical research, we should be more discerning in reading and believing it due to the secular assumptions that drive most scientific work.
7. If we involve other caring professionals we must stay involved in the caring package and ensure that people are not led astray by false philosophies or dangerous therapies.
8. We must keep the local church, Christian fellowship, the means of grace, and prayer central in all care packages.
The vast majority (95%+) of biblical counselors I speak to accept the existence of “mental illness” to some extent. However, some of them are (understandably) so afraid of losing biblical categories of “sin,” “redemption,” “sanctification,” etc., that they sometimes give the impression that there is no such thing as “mental illness,” or that it’s so extremely rare that it’s hardly worth a cursory glance.
I know this impression is often unintended and sometimes denied, but it’s the impression I and many others have at times received. As someone who sadly used to be 100% in the “denial of all mental illness” school, I’m probably more sensitive to this impression than others, but I know that the impression is widespread among a wide range of people. And we’re not all dummies.
As the effect of this impression is that many people who desperately need at least some spiritual help turn away from Christian pastors and counselors, and go to more “compassionate” secular counselors, I would offer the following suggestions to lessen this impression and hopefully increase the involvement of biblical counselors in these situations:
1. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, try not to state that in very small print, with very few words, and with a very quiet voice. If you do, don’t be surprised if people think that you in practice deny it.
2. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, don’t allow any other statements in your speech or writing that seem to deny it. People will see the inconsistency and make their own conclusions about what message is really intended.
3. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, don’t limit root causes to one or two glandular problems. This not only makes it look like the last medical research you read was 30 years ago, it also effectively reduces the number of “genuine” mental illnesses to a negligibly small number.
4. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, provide holistic help to people by going beyond searching for sin and calling to repentance.
5. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, do not indulge in generalized criticism of psychiatrists, psychologists, pharmacists, etc., unless you really know what you are talking about. If there are things to critique – and there are – be specific, but also recognize the valuable contributions that these other caring professionals can make.
6. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, build relationships with trustworthy professionals in those fields, so that you can confidently involve them (not “punt” to them) in caring for sufferers God has brought into your life.
7. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, don’t insist that a person who is suffering in this way endure it as long and as deep as possible in order to get maximum spiritual advantage. You wouldn’t do that if he had cancer. Remember that the person’s family members and churches are often suffering the consequences of waiting for the sufferer to get his “spiritual growth.”
8. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, be open to reading current medical research and learning about the knowledge God is sharing with scientists for the benefit of His church. Try to avoid latching on to a few pieces of research that prove your prejudice against, say, medication. If you are going to quote research, make sure you read a breadth of material and stay mainstream. There are quacks on both extremes of this divide.
If there’s one thing we can all do, it’s to avoid making our own experience the rule for others. That’s the most common mistake I’ve seen people falling into here (and I’ve done it myself as well). Just because medication worked for you, does not mean it will work for everyone else. Just because biblical counseling alone worked for you, doesn’t mean it’s the answer for everyone else. Just because you’ve never been depressed, doesn’t mean depression does not exist. Cases are so different, and causes are so complex, that we need to exercise charity, sympathy, and patience in all our dealings with one another.
What else can we do to bridge the gap and communicate more clearly? This is no academic question. It’s sometimes a matter of life or death.
*Dr David Murray is a professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He kindly provided permission to repost this blog, which suggests the type of intersect we would hope to see in Christian Psychology. You can read more of his writings at www.headhearthand.org