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.