When the focus is on Christ, who is proclaimed to us in the gospel, we can pray with honesty, casting ourselves on God’s mercy. We aren’t coming to a judge, or even to a therapist, but to our heavenly Father who has accepted us in his Son. We’re not rubbing a lamp and making a wish, but we are children crying out to the sovereign God who cares for us and answers our feeble, half-hearted, and even intemperate rants with love, wisdom, and compassion.
Many of us were raised in an era when “it’s all in your head” meant that mental illnesses weren’t real at least not as real as a broken arm. This tendency reflects not only a lack of appreciation for the rapid growth in medical diagnosis and treatment of such disorders but a cluster of theological misunderstandings. So here are a few introductory theses to consider.
1. We are body-soul creatures.
Contemporary brain science has shown the remarkable extent to which our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions are connected to our bodies specifically, our brain and chemical interactions. “Mind over matter” betrays a pagan rather than biblical view of human beings. According to Scripture, reality is not divided between spirit/mind and matter, but between God and everything else. Angels and human souls are no more divine than antelopes or fingernails. We are not God and yet we are like God: created in his image that is, in true holiness and righteousness.
Because we are body-soul unities, physical and spiritual issues intersect in ways that can’t be easily pulled apart. It is, therefore, a biblical view of the human person that cautions us against dismissing physical trauma as an illusion or spiritual and moral responsibility. The “real you” is not just your soul but you as a body-soul unity: distinction without separation. The biblical view of human beings as body-soul unities should already prepare us to accept that every spiritual problem has a physical component and vice versa.
2. Sin is a condition, not just actions.
According to a 2008 Baylor study, 36 percent of church attendees with mental illness said that they were told by their leaders that it was the result of sin; 34 percent said they were told it was a demon; 41 percent were told they didn’t have a mental illness; and 28 percent were even told to stop taking medication. “Deliverance ministries” make a lot of this second point. Many believe that demons bring “generational curses,” passed down from generation to generation. There is simply no appreciation for the biblical gravity of the sinful condition in such a view.
In a biblical perspective, sin isn’t just something we do or don’t do. It arises out of a sinful condition. Just as the whole self is created in God’s image, the whole self is fallen. Consequently, we are sinners and sinned against, victimizers and victims. That is not to say that we are not personally responsible for our sin, but that the sinful condition is far greater in its extensiveness than that.
We can be like Job’s counselors, assuming that he had done something to deserve his calamities. If he would only ferret out the sin and come clean with it, then God would restore his fortunes. But neither Job nor his friends had access to the first chapter, where God permitted Satan to test Job so that something greater than physical health, wealth, and happiness would appear. Satan meant it for evil, but God intended it for good. Job’s suffering brought him to the confidence he expressed in chapter 19: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God; Whom I myself shall behold, And whom my eyes will see and not another. My heart faints within me!” (vv. 25-27).
Neither his friends nor a modern naturalism would be able to explain the ultimate purpose for Job’s suffering from the available data. And in our own suffering, we do not have access to “chapter 1” either. All we see are the natural causes and the divine revelation that God works all things together for our good, because he has already triumphed over sin and death in Jesus Christ.