Part 2: Why Do We Ignore the Spiritual Nature of Mental Illness?
Regardless of whatever biological factors are present in mental illness, most of those diagnoses will feature spiritual issues in ways that traditional diseases do not. This reality seems to be an obvious one whether the problem is a mild case of seasonal affective disorder or a more extreme diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder.
As true as this reality is many Christians overlook the spiritual essence of mental illness. One of the most significant reasons that Christians make this error has to do with an astonishingly secular assumption that an extreme problem is a medical problem.
When we observe people with problems that are debilitating, out-of-the-ordinary, scary, and hard to solve we can become disoriented in our evaluation. We have tended to adopt the prevailing secular understanding that extreme problems are biological problems.
There is no doubt that medical problems can often be extreme. We have disconnected from our biblical and God-centered worldview, however, when we ignore the powerful and distorting effects of spiritual problems. In fact the most debilitating and scary problems in the cosmos stem from the spiritual problems we face.
Extreme Spiritual Problems
Consider a few examples of extreme spiritual problems . . .
King Saul, his kingship on the decline, vacillated between murderous spear-throwing, and strange displays of affection in his relationship with David. No amount of medical technology could ever diagnose a pathology in his body because there was nothing physically wrong with him. Saul’s extreme problem was decidedly spiritual (1 Samuel 18-31)
When Job learned of the deaths of his children he engaged in a display of grief that must have been quite disturbing to see. Most of us would feel uncomfortable at Job’s extreme reaction to his painful loss. He screamed at the top of his lungs, tore off his clothes, and shaved his head. I can imagine people in churches I’ve pastored saying privately—without intending to be mean—“I know this must be hard, but something is wrong with him. That just isn’t normal. I wonder if he is sick?” In fact, Job was just fine physically, but, overwhelmed with grief, he behaved in an extreme way. (Job 1-2)
If the great Kingdom of Babylon existed in our day we would have a hard time processing the behavior of King Nebuchadnezzar. If the garden-variety Christian saw the mighty King flee from his palace to go live in the wild, act like an animal, and begin to eat grass he would know just what to do with him. He would commit him to a mental institution, expose him to a battery of tests, and put him in the orbit of the finest secular therapists money could buy. And none of it would work. Nebuchadnezzar was proud, and was being judged by God until he should humble himself. Nothing helped Nebuchadnezzar but a humble acknowledgement that the Lord was God (Daniel 4)
What would most people today think of a man running around in a graveyard, calling out, breaking chains, and cutting himself? Most would diagnose him with some sort of extreme mental illness, medicate him, and institutionalize him. When Jesus encountered such a man in the country of the Gerasenes, however, he did not recognize a man with a disease, but with a demon (Mark 5).
War of Worldview: Biblical Vs. Secular
These are just a handful of examples. The Bible is full of many more. The point is clear, however, that as Christians committed to a biblical worldview we must make room for the spiritual in our conception of extreme problems. Each of these problems, which today would easily earn an extreme diagnosis as a mental illness, is actually an extreme spiritual issue. None of these issues involved any expressly medical problem, but had to do with lying spirits from the Lord, desperate sorrow, divine judgment, and Satanic oppression.
To the secular, atheistic, humanistic, and postmodern conventions of psychiatry this must seem like mindless religious drivel. As Christians, though, we are convinced that these realities are the truth of God. Any Christian that cannot fold these situations (and many others) into their understanding of extreme problems is less-than-biblical in their understanding of what ails troubled people. We have forsaken our biblical and Christian heritage when we believe that the most extreme problems are medical, rather than spiritual in nature.
Not Simplistic, But Complex
Folks operating from a biblical worldview get accused of being simplistic, but actually it is secular people who are open to this charge. What is simplistic is to assume that all extreme problems can only have their genesis in medical problems. What is more nuanced and complex is a dynamic and sophisticated model that allows for the intersection of spiritual and biological factors in the extreme problems of mental illness. Only the approach of biblical counseling can offer this kind of multi-dimensional approach.
The Bible is pretty clear that tons of extreme problems are essentially spiritual problems. This should motivate Christians to avoid forsaking the area of “mental illness” as one about which we have nothing to say. Instead we should move towards the most troubled people in our society with spiritual solutions that will be full of power when the best medical interventions are irrelevant.