Part 4: Mental Illness, Spiritual Issues, and Suffering
In this post I want to talk about the relationship of suffering to the spiritual issues that our culture often refers to as mental illness. At times the biblical counseling movement has received a bad rap for equating the kinds of spiritual issues on the table in counseling with sin. I want to make clear that sins aren’t the only kinds of spiritual issues that biblical counselors want to address.
Sin is an Issue in Counseling
Many people that come for help are struggling with sinful living. Rage, lust, anxiety, and selfishness are all problems psychology medicalizes. God calls them sin. Christians committed to counseling the Scriptures are literally the only people who know this, who can call these problems what they are, and offer true help.
Many people are concerned that Christians who point out sin to their counselees will make them feel guilty. Such thoughts are misplaced. Sinful people are guilty whether they feel it or not. In Christ we have a redeemer who rescues us from the guilt of sin. When biblical counselors point out sin they are pointing out a difficulty for which we have a solution in the person and work of Jesus. Secular psychologists call this guilt inducement. The Bible calls it good news!
People Suffer Too
Though sin is an issue in biblical counseling, it is not the only one. People come to counseling for many reasons that extend beyond their own personal sin. Spouses are victims of domestic violence, children are molested by those they love, people are in spiritual turmoil over a devastating medical diagnosis. There are hundreds and thousands of reasons why someone might seek counseling help for a difficulty that is not their fault.
Depression is one example.
In The Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, He opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:2-3).
In this passage Jesus talks about those who are poor in spirit. Different people in different cultures use different language to refer to people called poor in spirit. Whether we call it melancholy, sorrow, anguish, or depression there is a category of sad people who are not judged by Jesus, but honored and promised reward. The people who are sad in the way Jesus discusses here are not condemned, but esteemed.
The kind of sorrow that Jesus is referencing here is anguish over sin, but the sorrow itself is praiseworthy. Only a faithless counselor would rebuke a person in such pain. Jesus, the wonderful counselor, promises them the Kingdom!
Multiple Kinds of Sorrow
The Apostle Paul talks about two kinds of sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7. There is worldly sorrow that leads to death and godly sorrow that leads to life (2 Cor 7:10). The worldly sorrow that leads to death is sorrow, which is focused on self and the things of the world, rather than God. The godly sorrow that leads to life is focused on Jesus. Worldly sorrow is bad, and needs a rebuke. Godly sorrow is virtuous, and worthy of praise.
The biblical teaching in this regard is helpful in several ways.
First, it keeps us from the error of thinking that it is never wrong to be sad. There is a kind of anguish that the Bible condemns.
Second, however, it keeps us from the error that all sorrow is bad and needs correcting. The kind of sorrow Paul emphasizes with the Corinthians is goodsorrow. Paul was happy that the Corinthians had this kind of anguish (2 Cor 7:9). There is a certain kind of sorrow we should encourage.
When you understand the importance of the body as we discussed in Part 3 of this series we also can make room for sorrow that is not spiritual, as in 2 Corinthians 7, but is physical. For example if a person has a problem called hypothyroidism their thyroid does not produce enough thyroid hormone. This will lead to feelings of intense sorrow. This is not the fault of the person with the problem. They have a physical weakness for which they need medical help. When we draw near to such people with that kind of care the Bible calls it helping the weak (1 Thess 5:14).
Counseling and Comfort
Biblical counselors should want to provide ultimate comfort to any who come for counseling. We must understand that people who are struggling with sins are suffering in ways they might not even appreciate. Providing ultimate comfort to them means extending a loving, gentle rebuke.
We should also want to comfort folks who are struggling with pain that doesn’t need a rebuke. In this brief discussion on depression we looked at three kinds of causes for it in the Bible and saw that two are spiritual in nature, and one is physical. Only one kind of sorrow needs a rebuke–that is the spiritual variety that has to do with sin. The other two kinds of sorrow, suffering and physical issues, require encouragement and physical care.
This is biblical evidence that requires all of us to move towards people offering help with their sufferings, not merely their sin. It is also strong encouragement in the varied and profound wisdom provided in the Scriptures. There is no source in the world, outside the Bible, that supplies such wisdom.