3 Christian Responses to Mental Illness & Which One is 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 been linked all over the Internet.

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 the 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, anther soul, and another spirit.

CIRCLES1

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.

CIRCLES2

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 affects 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.

My friend Adrian Warnock has written two articles on this subject also. Check them out.

What Are Mental Disorders?

Can a Christian Be Depressed?

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  • Frank Viola

    I’d ask them: 1. show me in Scripture where it’s wrong to take medicine. A clear text. 2. Ask them if they or their spouse take ANY medication for ANY reason, over the counter or prescription. That should settle the issue. You need to do what YOU feel is right before God. The idea that medicine is wrong is only held by a small handful of people today. The Christian Scientists included.

  • Grant

    Thank you for addressing such an issue. This has been one that I’ve suffered over personally, myself being a user and the victim. The individuals I’ve been around have always said that you should not take medicines treating ADD/ADHD. Their arguments being, ‘You should be the person God made you, without controlling it in such a way.’ How would you respond, Frank?

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  • Geoff

    Great that you are talking about this openly and honestly. As a Pastor I find it sad when members of my church are afraid to talk openly about their struggles because they fear the rejection associated with “mental illness”. Completely agree with you, body and soul are inter-connected, and wholeness and health are complexities we should not try to push into simple formulas.

  • Jeremy Hetzel

    Thanks. I’ll have to dig into the context to understand the difference. Thanks again.

  • Frank Viola

    Jeremy: I’m not using the word “judge” in the sense of 1 Corinthians 5. That’s a different matter and the context bears this out. I’m speaking of the kind of judging that James and Paul were addressing in the texts I quoted. Which fit the scenarios I gave. As well as Jesus in Matthew 7.

  • Jeremy Hetzel

    Frank,

    Thanks for your heartfelt and loving response on this. I agree. The one point I’d like to push back on is where you said, “If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you have no right to judge a fellow Christian.” I agree with those verses, but also feel a need to balance those verses with 1 Corinthians 5:11-12:

    11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?

    Judging others is often an issue of pride. We elevate ourselves and look down on the other sinners around us. However, are we not also to hold our brothers and sisters accountable? Doing so out of love, not pride?

    I think the things that have been said to the Warren family are horrible and come from pride, misunderstanding, and fear. I am praying for them.

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  • Joyce Whitt

    Brother Frank, I would hug your neck right now if I could! Thank you for bringing beauty out of ashes, by addressing this issue . Having lost a younger sister (mother of 6 children) to suicide in the early 80′s, when the “experts” still said that schizophrenia was the mothers fault…and so on, as well as hearing a lot of 1 and 2, above, I knew in my gut 3 was God’s truth. I love the overlapping circles. Soldier on!


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