Mental Health Expert: Christians Should Not Be Surprised That There's Something Wrong With All of Us

Does the Church Lack Unity on Mental Illness Due to a Pursuit of Christian Perfectionism?

A young man holds his head in this undated file photo. | (Photo: Creative Commons)

Central to a Christian worldview is the belief that humanity exists in a fallen world and that, as a result, everyone is born in sin and susceptible to conditions that affect them physically, mentally, emotionally and in other ways. Yet, Christians are at odds when it comes to mental illness, with some suggesting that such maladies are simply the result of personal sin, lack of faith or spiritual attacks.

While there have been recent efforts to help destigmatize mental illness, studies show that many American evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians view such health issues solely as a spiritual condition to be treated with Bible study and prayer. Prior studies also have shown that religious leaders are most often the ones sought out among those suffering from mental illness, who, in some cases, have their ailments dismissed.

Dr. Eric L. Johnson, author of Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal and professor of pastoral care at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explains that "the whole body can be affected by human fallenness."

"There's reason to believe that the human brain can also be impacted by human fallenness and that things can go wrong at the genetic level, at the embryological level during development In Utero as well as through the rest of the lifespan," Johnson recently told The Christian Post.

The SBTS professor joins Saddleback Church Pastors Rick and Kay Warren on Friday (March 28) for an event called "The Gathering on Mental Health and The Church." Johnson's particular presentation for the one-day event in Lake Forest, Calf., is titled "Stigma or Stigmata: Helping the Church Rethink Mental Illness."

In the following transcript of CP's interview with Johnson, who also is the director of the Society for Christian Psychology (SCP) and editor of three journals on the subject, takes on Christians who are skeptical of mental illness and suggests ways in which the Bible helps inform believers on the issue. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

CP: The description for your "Stigma or Stigmata" presentation states: "There are many reasons why mental illness is commonly viewed in a negative light." Can you share some of those reasons?

Johnson: I think as human beings we tend to be adverse to anything that's out of the norm. I think that mental disorders tend to also be somewhat threatening to us. We feel somehow insecure or uncomfortable in the face of such problems ... It seems to be kind of a natural tendency that we have to look down on people with such disabilities and difficulties. That's what I hope to address a little bit.

CP: What would you say are some of the common misconceptions people have about mental illness? What do we just get wrong when it comes to that subject?

Johnson: I think one [misconception] is that mental illness is something that a person brought upon themselves. In the Christian community we sometimes say it's all a result of a person's sin. Or maybe they're not trusting in God enough.

CP: What do you say to Christians who are just convinced that there is no such thing as "mental illness" and who attribute these types of maladies to a spiritual condition?

Johnson: I want to begin by saying that everything in human life has a spiritual dimension. So I don't want to say that there is not spiritual and that it's only physical. That's the other extreme that we have in a secular culture, is that they blame everything on the brain or blame everything on biology or socialization. I think a Christian approach is going to be distinguished by being comprehensive and holistic. We're going to want to bring in all the dimensions that might bear on a malady.

Regarding the Christian that is skeptical of mental illness, I would say that we have good reason to believe that the whole body can be affected by human fallenness. We know that we have cancer, and it can affect all parts of the body. There's reason to believe that the human brain can also be impacted by human fallenness and that things can go wrong at the genetic level, at the embryological level during development In Utero as well as through the rest of the lifespan.

There's a profound mystery in how the soul and the body are interlinked, but the best understanding that we have of that relationship is that the soul can affect the brain and the brain can affect the soul. How that works depends on — every individual is different and every particular condition has its own configuration of that relationship.

In my experience, people who are the most skeptical haven't had much experience working with people with mental illness. Once you have, and you work with a family member that has a serious mental illness you realize that, 'Oh, this is a lot more complicated that I used to think.'

CP: How does the Bible add perspective to this, or inform Christians in approaching issues related to mental illness?

Johnson: The Bible gives us the basic beliefs that Christians need in order to understand all of life. It tells us that we're created. It tells us that there has been damage to the creation through our fallenness. It points to [the fact] that God is a god who's deeply concerned with us and our condition and our struggles and our difficulties. We also have reason to think that God Himself came to earth in Jesus Christ and bound Himself to our suffering down here, experiencing suffering and kind of identifying Himself with the human predicament, all of a part of helping to redeem us from our sin.

The Bible tells us that sin is the greatest psychological problem that we have, but we shouldn't conclude from that that it's the only psychological problem that we have. It is the psychological problem that relates to our relationship with God, but because of our fallenness there are many conditions that are a part of the damage that has occurred to human beings, along with cancer and diabetes and all kinds of problems.

CP: What are some things that church leaders should be doing to help create the type of environment to talk about these things before a tragedy hits?

Johnson: I love the thought of churches having a morning seminar on a Saturday morning where they talk about a particular disorder, bring in a Christian expert, maybe the pastor and this Christian expert share on a panel and open it up to the church to ask questions and talk about it. I think pastors in their sermons can make references to such problems. I think pastors and church leaders can pray for people with schizophrenia and bipolar that are in the congregation, not necessarily by name, or maybe so depending on how well known it is and what the person wants. But just say, 'We pray for those who are struggling with schizophrenia in our midst.' Things like that to normalize having particular struggles.

I would say probably a third of a congregation at any given point in time is having some struggle or at least has had such a struggle in their lifetime. The Church is the home for those who need a physician, like Jesus, a comforter like the Holy Spirit. We ought to be at the forefront of addressing these issues and creating safe places for people who have such struggles.

CP: Can everyone benefit from some kind of therapy?

Johnson: I think Christianity, because we believe that we're all sinners, is a worldview that built into it is the recognition that there's something wrong with us. It ought to be no surprise that there's something wrong with each of us that warrants some attention, that can benefit from meeting with an older, wiser person that knows something about the soul. I do think that it makes good sense for us to build into our congregations a sense that everyone periodically ought to see a pastor, or a spiritual director or a counselor to work on their soul. There's nobody that doesn't have some level of brokenness, even if that is just their sinfulness which we all struggle with. Some people are going to have more serious problems, suffering from depression, anxiety. You know, life in a fallen world is not easy and some people suffer more seriously than others.

It seems to be that it ought to be considered something more typical than it often has been in the church, particularly over the last 100, 150 years. I think that if you go back into church life it may be in some sense that it was more normal to recognize that people have struggles and spiritual problems and they ought to go to their pastors for those kinds of things.

I think there's a kind of perfectionism that has arisen in the Church over the last 150 years that has made it seem like Christians are supposed to be perfect. We're not supposed to have any struggles either with sin or with depression or anxiety because we have Jesus. That seems to be naive and unrealistic, particularly in light of the Book of Psalms, the Book of Job, Jesus suffering on earth when He was here, the struggles even Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane. I think we have good reason to think that suffering and struggling and difficulties down here are kind of normal. I think the Church can take some real leadership in this area because it's a part of our worldview.

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