Recently, I was interviewed by the Texan, a publication of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. I was asked to comment on the motion presented to the SBC Executive Committee in favor of improving churches’ care for those with mental health challenges. I see this as a huge step forward in reducing the stigma associated with mental illness, which has unfortunately been propagated by the church at times. Here is an exerpt from the the article. I’d love to get your thoughts on it:
“The challenge for Christians wrestling with how to define mental health and mental illness has always been, “How much of this issue is a spiritual problem, how much is psychological, and how much is physical?” Where does the brain stop and the soul begin? Is it even possible to separate the two practically? I would suggest that our desire to draw a hard and fast line between those three components is because it sets up a definition and model of treatment that is easy and comfortable for us. As humans, we gravitate toward the black and white. If I see a person in counseling and I can say with absolute authority that he or she is suffering from unconfessed sin, it makes my job a lot easier. Confess the sin and you will get better. On the other hand, if I can draw blood and say with absolute authority that the test results show a low thyroid level, again my job is very easy. Treat the thyroid and you will recover. The problem is that much of medicine in general (not just psychiatry) is not this clear cut. [Examples abound.] More importantly, Christians need to acknowledge that this is true of life. That is why the Bible speaks so much about wisdom, which is the application of knowledge to given situations, not in a cookie-cutter sort of way, but in a way that uses discernment, taking each case as it is presented to us. It is easier and more comfortable to make everything a black and white issue, but it is not the Biblical model in dealing with people. The essence of humanity is body and soul. Some would say body, soul and spirit. We separate these elements out in order to understand them intellectually, but in real life, in the context of counseling, we treat the whole individual. This might be messier, but God never called us to remain in the ivory towers of intellectualism. He called us to love people, broken people who need him. That takes a lot of work. So defining mental health and illness becomes a process of understanding the component parts of a person (their biology, their psychology, and their spirituality) and how they interact as a whole to effect an individual’s understanding of themselves, how they relate to God and others, and how they act in that context.
I see the SBC resolution (last summer on mental health) as extremely important to the shift in mindset that we are taking as evangelical Christians on dealing with the mentally ill. Do we still acknowledge the reality of sin? Absolutely. But we acknowledge it in the sense that it taints us spiritually, emotionally and physically. This means that we must accept that our physical bodies, our psychology, society, and our history of life experiences impacts the way we think and the way we feel, even the way we live out our faith.
Question: What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? How should we determine what problems are caused by the unhealthy practices of an individual’s faith tradition vs. a psychological or psychiatric condition that might benefit from medication or psychotherapy? Is the question even relevant?
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