Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Possibly, More Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness

The term “Biblical view” is tossed around loosely these days and I am often appalled at nonsensical concepts as “the Biblical view of global warming” or “the Biblical view of the Internet.” I will allude here, and come back later to, a previous movement called the “Biblical Counseling Movement” or known by other names as “Christian Psychology.” At one point in my life I had the ambitions of being a “Christian Psychologist” and I totally believed in those movements, swallowing them line, hook and sinker. There are no such things as "5 easy Biblical steps" to anything that resembles success or cures.

But I do want to express some fundamental Christian teachings that I think influences my perspective. These fundamentals are very basic, and beyond them, the Bible is silent and gives us freedom to learn and be creative.

The first simple concept is that God is there and He is the creator. He made the universe out of nothing, and made it wonderfully (as opposed to the Dualistic notion that the physical realm is not important or inferior). He has made us in His image. Even though His design of us human creatures may have been perfect, the Christian teaching has the concept of the Fall, or aberration of what was intended. Why this aberration occurred, we can only speculate, but it is key to basic Christian teachings.

Next, is the notion that in Christ, we are COMPLETELY restored both in our intrinsic value and in our connection to God. The law was never intended to restore or to help us maintain value in the eyes of God or others. Living according to the fundamentals of the law does help us have a better quality of life (not as w reward, as in the Prosperity Gospel view) but as an instruction manual for quality living.

Enter Mental Illness:

My fist point here is that none of us are sane . . . completely . . . because of the effects of the fall. Some are saner than others and some are more sane at one point in their lives, or on a particular day, than other days.

The Fall creates mental illness in several ways. First is what we call “nature” or genetics. The brain is an organ of not only intellect, but emotions. Defects can be severe, as in cerebral palsy, or it can on a cellular basis, leading to thought disorders. This baggage comes at birth and the bearer has no responsibility as far the cause (although they might have a role in the treatment).

The second factor is of course “nurture.” This is simply life experiences and is made up of what others have done to us and decisions we have made.

Now there is no formula for determining how much of a factor nature or nurture shares. It depends on the illness and the person. However, there are some mental illnesses of course that are far more the fruits of nature and others more of nurture. But the exact balance can vary from person to person and from situation to situation.

One example of an illness that is more determined by nature is schizophrenia or other psychosises. However, even more minor mental illnesses can have a significant genetic influence in how the brain is wired. An example of one that is more related to nurture is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

With those things said, we do have influence over our mental illnesses, at least most of the time, but our control is not near as easy as Evangelicalism has assumed. Here is where, in my humble opinion, that Evangelicalism has failed in its ability to address mental health issues.

Because of the Dualistic influence upon the Church (historically, and in my opinion in great error) Christianity has had the tendency to divide humans among physical and spiritual lines. The body, digestion, breathing, walking and etc., are easily assigned to the physical. However, attitudes, thoughts, feelings and behavior are assigned completely to the soul or the spiritual.

The problem in believing that these “invisible” attributes are all spiritual, is that it means they are fluid, dynamic and can change on a dime. If you combine this with verses like, II Cor 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (btw, taken out of context) you come up with a belief system that all of these invisibles are controlled by moral choice.

If our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, fears and behavior are simply controlled by our moral choice, then, one would assume that if you have obvious mental illness it is sin because you have chosen to think badly.

Evangelicals love this paradigm, especially if their mental health issues are easy to hide. The reason is, they can look as someone suffering from, say depression (and they don’t have depression), and feel better about themselves. They like to think that they don’t have depression because they have more faith, pray more and etc. On the other hand, the one who does have the problem starts to feel more and more guilt because they too start to believe that their mental illness is simply a result of their bad choices.

One of the biggest movements in Evangelical psychology was Nouthetic Counseling. Basically the word Nouthetic means a type of confrontation. You confront the mentally ill person and get them to repent (or cast out the demon) and presto, they get better. In my personal opinion, and I was a great advocate for this movement for a couple of decades, is that it is pure bullshit. It has done a lot of damage to people whom god loves and gave his son for.

But in reality, mental health issues are based in the organic, concrete, brain. Even if the mental illness, such as PTSD, is a function of nurture . . . it becomes nature because the physical brain actually changes under the influence of extreme stress. I won’t go into that here.

So a better paradigm is realizing that these so-called invisible or spiritual attributes are founded in the physical (the incredible brain which God has made) then the approach has to be different. It is different because some disorders, just like a congenital heart defect or lameness won’t magically go away with a simple cure. So, baring a supernatural miracle, on the order of raising a stone-cold, decaying body from the dead, a schizophrenic will never be cured.

But mental illness can get better and can, in most situations, be controlled. But it is more like redirecting a glacier than fanning steam. It is hard work. It takes a huge amount of energy and support and yes . . . often it requires medications.

The “steppers,” like Bill Gothard, are also a disservice to those who suffer from real mental illness. He has 5 steps to perfect everything. So, in his opinion, if you jump through hoops x, y and z your depression will be gone. So, in real life, when your depression does not get better then you have a choice of looking like a failure, or push your mental illness underground.

So in summary, while mental illness is a product of the fall, there is a very good chance that it has nothing to do with its victims’ moral choices. No one hates their mental illness more than those who suffer from them. There is not an infinite amount of disciplines that they would not do, steps that they would not take, to rid themselves of the disorder once and for all.

Lastly, it is my opinion that mental disorders affect perception most, rather than logic. While I do think our sense of reason is also fallen (but still pretty good) mentally ill people reason, reasonably well, but it is their perceptions that are screwed up.

Take the example of an anorexic. He or she looks like they are very illogical. But their logic is mostly intact but it is there self-perception that is screwed up, especially in the area of body image.

More later.


Lutestring said...

I can't even begin to tell you how good and true this was. I did link to it on my own blog.

Christians have long been too cheap on the evil that mars our world. This "mind over matter" way of seeing needs to die without causing more pain than it has already. But I doubt if it will.

Anonymous said...


Jaimie said...

So refreshing to read.

MJ said...

Lutestring. I think you're right. I don't think they understand the depths of the fall, how just wishful thinking, smiling a lot and etc., doesn't always fix things.

Anonymous said...

MJ, thank you. Keep writing. Don't let the Western religions of medicine or protestantism push you underground.

Lutestring, I've added you to my favorites. Thank you for posting.


Don Hendricks said...

I had the creator of nouthetic counseling for a number of seminary courses. Dr. Jay Adams was at that time riding a wave of popularity that was amazing to watch. We used to joke about how he wrote a book a week answering finally every problem know to modern man. I read his manual religiously. Observe a problem, find an appropriate bible verse, share it, demand repentance and obedience, problem solved.

MJ said...

I was a huge fan of Adams. Things look very differently now. I think, after you go through a hard time (depression, anxiety etc.) then the slam-repent-cure doesn't make sense anymore.

After watching a lot of people struggle with mental health issues, and try, pray, jump through all the hoops--repenting all the time, constant guilt . . . still struggling (and usually at least one attempt of an exorcism)I now (and I know you do too from what it sounds like) believe that it is more complicated than that.

Bonny said...

I was just blogging about this and someone linked me here. Y.E.S.

THANK YOU for this.

Anonymous said...

Michael, thanks so much for your insight and your compassion. Great stuff! I linked to it also.

Norah said...

This is so true. I think you've hit the nail on the head. I thought for years that there was a solution to everything, and have a pile of self-help books to prove it, both Christian and otherwise. But living with mental conditions both in myself and my husband (PTSD), I've discovered otherwise. Great post.

Sue said...

Wow, this is great reading. Thank you so much!

(Came here via iMonk)

MJ said...

Thanks Sue. I've written a lot about mental illness here (look at later posts), including my own bouts . . . so, all are welcome.

thehawkdr said...


I read your article and I like much of it, and read many of the comments left by readers.
I noticed while reading that you have opened the door to basically belittle the word of God. I quite noticed it in your readers comments. Most dangerous path. Stand on the word or you compromise absolute truth.

iseetheglory said...

I work in mental health support and have read some of Jay Adams and John Mac's writing on mental health. I remember the conclusion from both of these leaders, basically being that there is no such thing as mental illness, just unbiblical thinking and I've wondered if this was true. It doesn't match my expereince or other study but I've looked for a biblical way to understand the complexities of mental illness/mental health. I actually agree with some of their points which advocate personal responsibility and found their writing a refreshing change from mental illness being used as an excuse for all manner of behaviour and though which DOES invlove moral choice. However, you are right and these authors are altimately wrong, I conclude.

Mental health is just so complicated. I appreciate your thoughtful approach to understanding some of the complexities biblically.

Norberto Sombiluna said...

MJ are you discounting other experiences that because they genuinely repented, something happened to them? Can you explained what happened to the maniac of Gadara in Luke 8: 26-39? After Jesus rebuked the demons that they came out from the man, the man was in his right mind. Are you discounting the fact that there are mental problems that are results of evil possessions and the only cure is for them to let Jesus in in their lives through repentance?

jmj said...

If there are demonic possessions today that are responsible for mental illness, then it must be extremely rare. I think of far, far more harm done to people who are mentally ill who have had Christians try and tell them that they have a demon. The crime is trying to turn a biological thing into a moral or spiritual issue. The biological damage is certainly the curse of the fall on this earth, but to the poor victim, I can't think of anything worse than telling them that they are demonic or full of evil (more so than the person who doesn't have mental illness).

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Anonymous said...

I know you mean well. But the science itself of psychiatry is flawed. Have you ever wondered why there are no actual tests? There are checklists of symptoms they fill out for various illnesses in the DSM5 manual (expands tremendously with each new edition.) Yet these are arbitrary, subjective guidelines reminding me of the cute quizzes for the Four Temperaments in Personality Plus. For diabetes they run a blood analysis. Yet psychiatry does no brain scans or spinal tap to figure out your brain chemistry.

Psychiatrists keep hoping to find a gene common to mental illness carriers. In lieu of that, they hope to at least find some biological indicator. Unfortunately these remain as elusive as Darwin's Missing Link.

It was through Bill Gothard that I learned about the model Dr. William Glasser used. He had an almost 90% cure rate among the schizophrenics he treated compared to the less than 20% of those treated by mainstream psychiatrists.

I know this sounds like a conspiracy theory. It was difficult for me to accept after almost 5 years of research.

To those of you with mental illness diagnoses--I know your suffering is very real. You do need help. Unfortunately mainstream psychiatry doesn't offer good long term solutions to life's problems or the ways we cope with them.

I know. I gave psychiatry a try. For 25 years.

I thought it would cure my pain. Unfortunately there were no easy answers, despite my faith in Christ.

Still He saved me when Zoloft couldn't.