May is National Mental Health Month. It’s a time dedicated to increasing awareness about mental health needs. Because I have the privileged of teaching Abnormal Psychology classes at Southern California Seminary, I thought this would be the perfect time to write about how mental illness fits into a Biblical worldview.
Mental Illness and a Biblical Worldview
A simple definition of mental illness is a harmful dysfunction that influences one’s thoughts, feelings, and relationships. Just as physical illnesses damage the body, mental illnesses wreak havoc on the mind. These illnesses cause people to feel emotions; they do not want to feel. Troublesome and intrusive thoughts become commonplace. Perhaps worst of all, those with symptoms of mental illnesses find themselves hurting the people they love the most.
Studies place the lifetime prevalence of diagnosable mental illnesses at 46.4 percent. This means that nearly half of Americans will meet these criteria at some point (and everyone else will show some signs and symptoms of a disorder without meeting the full criteria). Truly, all of us are in the same boat. We are damaged goods. I’m sure that you recognize by now that this view is very much in alignment with Scripture.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM for short, outlines the signs and symptoms of approximately 300 disorders. Here’s how mental illness ties into a Biblical worldview. One way of viewing the DSM is as a continuation of the Genesis narrative. The story of Genesis begins with God speaking the world into existence. In six days, God created the heavens and the earth. Then, on the seventh day, God rested. Looking over all that He made, God proclaimed His creation was good.
During the creation process, God placed Adam–the first man–in a vibrant garden called Eden. God instructed Adam and his wife Eve, to tend to the garden. They were to enjoy Eden and eat freely from their produce. However, there was one restriction. God commanded Adam to avoid the fruit in the middle of the garden. Eating from this tree (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) was to be avoided at all costs.
Mental Illness and Sin
Nevertheless, Adam willfully disobeyed God. As a result, sin and death entered into a once good world. Because of sin, Adam and Eve were banished from Eden. The ground was cursed. Crops ceased to grow freely. Childbearing became painful, and the slow process of death began. After God’s good creation became tainted, nothing functioned as it should.
I imagine that it wasn’t long before Adam or Eve stubbed a toe for the first time. Skinned knees, broken bones, and many illnesses (both physical and mental) became a part of everyday life. Genesis gives a broad overview of how the 300+ things that can go wrong with humanity’s thoughts, feelings, and relationships began. The DSM names and classifies these disorders so that you and I can better understand how to meet hurting people where they are at and collaborate with them in moving toward healing.
In short, the DSM is an in-depth continuation of the Genesis story. Gaining an increased awareness of the devastating impact of mental illness is incredibly valuable for Christians. Hurting people fill our churches. Unfortunately, sometimes well-meaning Christ-followers give advice that sounds like this:
- “Trust Jesus, and feel better.”
- “Pray more, read the Bible more, and attend church. Then things will improve.”
- “Have more faith.”
While this advice might sound spiritual, it can be devastating. Advising someone to “trust God and feel better” can heap guilt on a person already in pain. Hurting Christians begin to wonder, “Why am I not spiritual enough to overcome these symptoms.” Yet, mental illness is not a purely spiritual issue. God created us as biopsychosocial beings. Many components combine to create our mental health–or lack of it.
In Romans 7:19, the Apostle Paul writes, “I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” Many people can relate. Countless Christ-followers long to be less depressed, anxious, fearful, and angry. When Christians know they should be more joyful yet are not, it is incredibly frustrating.
Mental Illness and Redemption
Fortunately, God is in the redemption business. Understanding mental illnesses allow us to meet others where they are. Mental illness comes with the unfortunate stigma of shame, blame, and guilt. Churches have the incredible opportunity to lead people down a better path. The first step is to understand that mental illnesses are real, painful, and–although God is fully capable of doing anything that He wants–usually require more than prayer and Bible study alone to overcome.
While churches may not be the appropriate place for all treatment, they can provide a safe, grace-filled, shame-free environment. They can serve as a sanctuary from the storm, where hurting people can move toward healing at their own pace. All of us are broken to one degree or another. For the church, Mental Health Awareness Month is an opportunity to understand how people hurt. This way, we can meet them where they are, offer hope, and extend grace. Which is much better than this…
Continue the Conversation on Mental Illness and a Biblical Worldview
Don’t act like the people in this cartoon. I’m excited that you and I can lead by example and live out a better way. I would love to hear your thoughts on mental illness and a Biblical worldview.
- What do you think of the idea of the DSM being a continuation of the Genesis story?
- How are you extending grace to others?
- Does the idea of reaching out to those who are hurting excite you or make you nervous?
- What would you add to this conversation on mental illness and a Biblical worldview?
I would love to hear your thoughts and continue the conversation in the comments below!