3 Christian Responses to Mental Illness; Which One Is Most Biblical?
This post is a P.S. to my article on Monday entitled Rick Warren's Horrific Tragedy & The Sickening Response of Some "Christians", which has become my most viewed blog post since I started the blog in 2008.
Throughout my years of being involved in various and sundry Christian movements and denominations, it seems that Christians understand mental disorders in one of three chief ways:
1. Mental illness is demonic in origin. So the antidote is to cast out the demons that are causing it.
2. Mental illness is psychobabble. There's no such thing as a "mental disorder." All so-called mental illnesses are just sinful behaviors. So the antidote is for person to repent and get right with God.
3. Mental illness is a physiological disorder. The brain is a physical organ just like the heart, the thyroid, the joints, etc. Thus if someone has panic attacks or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or chronic depression or ADHD, they have a chemical imbalance in the brain, not dissimilar to a hyperthyroidism or high blood pressure or arthritis.
I cut my teeth on a movement that promoted #1. I've met many people who believed #2. But I believe #3 is often the case.
Yet it's not so simple.
The problem, I feel, is that confusion over this issue seems to be rooted in the fact we don't properly understand the integration of body, soul, and spirit.
1Thessalonians 5:23: May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole SPIRIT, SOUL, and BODY be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing SOUL and SPIRIT, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
The popular model of the human anatomy among Bible-believing Christians is that the body and the soul (and spirit, if you believe the spirit is distinct from the soul) are completely separate entities.
Imagine 3 circles. One circle represents body, another soul, and another spirit.
I don't believe this model is correct. Instead, I understand the body, soul, and spirit to be interconnected. And I think the NT bears this out. See the diagram below for an example.
According to this model, the body (brain), the soul (mind, will, emotions), and the spirit (the part of the Christian that's been made alive to God) are all interconnected. That means that each part has an effect on the other.
God sometimes heals physical disorders supernaturally. This includes mental illnesses, such as panic attacks. But . . . not always. Sometimes the Lord treats it through medication.
Sometimes demons are involved in mental illness, but not always.
An entire book can be written on this subject, and perhaps Rick Warren will write one on it someday. But these are some cursory thoughts.
Having known people who have had various kinds of mental illnesses – including friends and family members – this is an issue that I've grappled with and sought answers for myself over the years.
I know many others can attest to the same thing because mental illness, like heart disease, cancer, and arthritis, touches millions of people . . . including God's people.
I certainly don't have all the answers . . . and the so-called "experts" disagree with each other.
But I feel that as believers, we could better understand that mental illness is not just a matter of only spirit, or only soul, or only body. It's often physiological at its root. And this effects both soul and body. And vice versa.
(The Fall did great damage to the human soul as well as to the body.)
If we could better understand this, we'd be less prone to making detestable judgments against our fellow brethren who may suffer from a mental illness.
For instance, if you take blood pressure medicine, you have no right to judge a believer who is taking medicine for depression.
If you take thyroid medication, or medicine for migraine headaches or arthritis, you have no right to judge someone who takes medicine for bipolar disorder.
Or let's put it in terms of what Paul and James both said: If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you have no right to judge a fellow Christian.
Romans 14:4: Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
Romans 14:10: You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat.
James 4:11: Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?
There is one who is called "the accuser of the brethren," so be careful not to be caught siding with him in the matter of mental illness.
That's how the terrain looks from my hill, anyway. Your mileage may vary.
Frank Viola has helped thousands of people around the world to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and enter into a more vibrant and authentic experience of church. His mission is to help serious followers of Jesus know their Lord more deeply so they can experience real transformation and make a lasting impact. Viola has written many books on these themes, including God's Favorite Place on Earth, From Eternity to Here, and Jesus Manifesto (with Leonard Sweet). His blog, frankviola.org, is rated as one of the most popular in Christian circles today.