Part 1: The Nature of Mental Illness

One of the questions we get asked a lot in the biblical counseling movement concerns whether Jesus can heal those with a mental illness. The question is asked by people who are concerned about Scripture’s sufficiency and Jesus’ relevance to deal with the most difficult problems that people face. Before we can answer the question we need to know what we are talking about. That means we need to know what mental illness is.

Defining Mental Illness

Defining mental illness is harder to do than you might imagine. That is because psychologists don’t really know what it is. There are scores of books on my shelves full of secularly trained professionals debating what mental illness is and whether it exists. Interestingly, even the writers of psychology’s authoritative manual on mental illness, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), cannot agree on what constitutes a mental illness.

There has been a lot of attention in the psychology community over the fact that the most recent edition of the manual, DSM-V, made a substantial change to the definition of mental illness included in its previous edition, DSM-IV. I won’t take the time to quote them here, but you can see the definitions here.

Writing in Psychology Today, psychologist Dr. Eric Maisel points out in fascinating language the difficulty of being able to change a definition so easily.

The very idea that you can radically change the definition of something without anything in the real world changing and with no new increases in knowledge or understanding is remarkable, remarkable until you realize that the thing being defined does not exist. It is completely easy—effortless, really—to change the definition of something that does not exist to suit your current purposes. In fact, there is hardly any better proof of the non-existence of a non-existing thing than that you can define it one way today, another way tomorrow, and a third way on Sunday.

The definition of mental illness can be changed so easily because mental illness does not really exist.

So, What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness is not a disease in the way that tuberculosis or hepatitis is. Mental illness is more in the realm of what social scientists call a construct. A construct is not an object like a tractor or table. It is an idea like beauty or relevance. A construct is a relatively abstract idea that gets informed by the shifting opinions of various people. Mental illness is a construct. Psychologists Herb Kutchins and Stuart Kirk have each served on the DSM committees, whose votes decide what is and is not a mental illness. They say,

The category of [mental illness] itself is an invention, a creation. It may be a good and useful invention, or it may be a confusing one. DSM is a compendium of constructs. And like a large and popular mutual fund, DSM’s holdings are constantly changing as the managers’ estimates and beliefs about the value of those holdings change.

Mental illness is not really a thing. It is a shifting idea that different people fill up with different categories at different times. For the most part it is a category that gets used by secular psychologists to describe behaviors that are outside the range of normal. I have described elsewhere that, for Christians, our standard is not normalcy, but righteousness.

Mental Illness and Worldview

Before we can answer whether Jesus can heal mental illness, we need to be sure we know what we are talking about. Understanding that mental illness is a construct means that Believers have a responsibility to fill up that category with their biblical worldview, rather than a secular one.

Psychology informs the construct of mental illness with a secular, materialistic worldview. They do not believe that people are spiritual beings who live all of their life under the authority of a God who made them and holds them accountable. Denying the Divine and the spiritual requires them to see all problems as physical and organic in nature. Worry isn’t sinful; it is an organic mental illness that requires medical intervention. Sorrow isn’t spiritual; it is a medical problem that requires a pharmacological solution.

As Christians we know better.

Jesus teaches that these problems—and thousands more like them—are spiritual problems that grow out of the heart of man (Mark 7:14-23). Certainly they impact the body, and the body can have its own problems as well. But the assigning of spiritual problems like anger, worry, and sorrow to the medical realm is unbiblical, unchristian, and a rejection of the clear statements of Jesus about the problems people have.

Mental Illness and Jesus

Mental illness is a label secular thinkers assign to spiritual problems discussed in the Scriptures. In Part 2 I’ll talk about what Jesus and his healing have to do with all of this.

Heath Lambert
Share your thoughts


  • lee macey
    August 17, 2016

    Yes. Hoping to help people stay out of mental health system!

    • Joseph Jerome Simon
      October 25, 2016

      Most mental illnesses are caused at a very young age. Sins of the parents handed down. The first 4 yrs of a child’s life is the most critical time for brain development. If a child is abused verbally, physically and or abandoned and not given the proper attention of love, then behavior problems start to surface. The child will act out desperately to get love. Many problems stem from some form of neglect or abuse.

  • David
    December 17, 2016

    How do you account for real physiological conditions that can have an impact on the brain and mimic the symptoms mental illness? Are you eliminating those from this discussion?

    Let me give you a real life situation: An elder at a nearby church had an pre-teen daughter who had been diagnosed as/with bi-polar (disorder) and with BPD. Come to find out after numerous tests and years of unsuccessful treatments. It was discovered that she suffered from an infectious disease that had passed through the blood/brain barrier. The doctors who had misdiagnosed her (even some, I believe, who had a biblical counseling background) made zero effort to understand what was going on. Eventually it was a compassionate friend and doctor in a Sunday school class who began asking questions, which ultimately lead to a correct diagnosis. The young lady has improved (significantly), but the effects of the illness will continue to have a mental/psychological impact.

    I’m curious as to how you would account for a case like this?

    • mm
      Sean Perron
      December 20, 2016

      David, thank you for your comment! We recommend checking out this short book. We think it will help answer your questions! Many blessings

  • Lucy M DeFaria
    March 31, 2017

    I think you are so wrong. Mental illness is a chemical imbalance. You are only putting a guilt trip on truly wonderful christians who have to live with this illness. I don’t think that you are a doctor and qualified to make this statement. The brain is an organ in your body that can have an imbalance just like any other organs and glands in your body. All you are doing is bring condemnation to those who are sick. Have some compassion will you.

    • Willie Kingori
      June 27, 2017

      I honestly think this article is more a compassionate response than saying your brain just works that way. I don’t think his aim was condemnation but hope

  • Julien A
    April 15, 2017

    Lucy, there is very little scienfitic eviedence to support the “chemical imbalance” for each indevidual paitent. The art of psychaiatry revolves around trying mutliple drugs in order to find one that reduces the symtoms of a paitent while adding a number of terible side effects. Living a balanced life, in the light of chirst. Sureendering to him. Soutions for stress, worry and anxiety will come. Jesus does not point the finger to make your feel gulit. He forgives, and finds way to help you to change. Jesus is a cure, Psychairty is an Art ( has no use but its self)

  • Bruce Allsop
    May 17, 2017

    Dearest Lucy,
    I can understand your reaction to the idea of Scripture’s sufficiency to deal with the troubles of the mind. The “mental disease” model and it’s acceptance has been a common model for over 50 years. Jay Adams addresses this movement taking the activities of thought and placing them into the brain function and organic category in his book The Big Umbrella, at a time when he saw this movement begin to take over the Church in the late 1960’s. He accounted for a small number of organic causes of brain damage that could have an organic origin but appropriately noted that our thinking is to be held captive to the obedience of Christ. There are multitude of Scripture to support want and who brings us peace. James 3:18 is a favorite of mine.
    As a physician of over 30 years I have come to know by faith that the work of the Holy Spirit can cure the “diseases of the mind”. Medicine helps ease suffering but can’t cure them. I hope this helps you in your walk of faith. Dr Bruce Allsop

  • johnty peterson
    August 9, 2017

    this is so unhelpful for a young man suffering from mental health issues, having suffered severe trauma and being abused by an alcoholic, bipolar father. The relationship between religion and mental health is so messed up and damaging that posts like this do nothing but dampen the light and ever dwindling faith that I do have. Especially with Grandparents who are fervent Christians (my Granddad was a Vicar) denied that anything was wrong and did nothing knowing full well what my Dad was doing to myself, mother and siblings.

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