According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about one in five adults in the U.S. — 43.8 million — experiences mental illness in any given year.
Many of these individuals turn to their church or their personal faith in search of support and guidance in times of emotional distress. Despite the prevalence of mental health concerns, there is still a stigma attached to mental illness in many of our churches. The predominant culture of silence along with mistaken expectations and misguided attitudes often cause suffering believers to feel shamed, blamed, and alone in their experience of mental illness. Additionally, in spite of a growing desire to help those suffering with mental illness, church communities often report feeling ill-equipped to address the issues of mental illness and mental health in their pastors, church leaders, and congregation members. A major factor that contributes to communities of faith not being open to the need to embrace mental health and mental illness as real issues is the failure to see how the gospel is intimately connected to the workings of the mind and heart. Mental health and the origins of mental illness are woven throughout the Bible, beginning in the book of Genesis.
In the Garden of Eden before sin, Adam and Eve were in a perfect covenant relationship with God. There was no stress, no dissention, no brokenness in this Edenic peace characterized by perfect love, empowerment, and intimacy. With the advent of sin, however, this love equilibrium was broken. Satan was successful in planting doubt about God’s goodness, justice, and love in Eve’s heart. As Adam followed suit, the sentence of death was required as God must be faithful to His Word. Even though God’s covenant of love never waivered, even as He pursued our first parents in Eden (Gen. 3:9), we humans began to experience anxiety manifested as blame, shame, and mutual victimization (Gen. 2:10-14).
One tragic result of this contention was the death of Abel at the hands of his brother Cain (Gen. 4:8). Can you image the depths of grief and self-condemnation that Adam and Eve felt when they knew that they were responsible for this death? Not only did they lose Abel, but also Cain in the judgment that he would be from then on a homeless wanderer on the earth (Gen. 4:12). The Bible does not describe the emotions of our first parents upon learning of the death of Abel. However, since depression is a part of the normal grief process, they likely experienced some level of depression. The Bible says: “Adam had sexual relations with his wife again, and she gave birth to another son. She named him Seth, for she said, 'God has granted me another son in place of Abel, whom Cain killed'” (Gen. 4:25). This passage aptly describes the longing in a mother’s heart related to the loss of a child.
Sin created a new mental norm in the human race. No longer able to rest securely in God’s perfect love, we began living a life of fear. No longer securely attached to God, humans began living with chronic doubt, anxiety and suspicion of one another. Relational insecurity became the norm.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), 5th edition, “is the product of more than ten years of effort by hundreds of international experts in all aspects of mental health. Their dedication and hard work have yielded an authoritative volume that defines and classifies mental disorders in order to improve diagnoses, treatment and research.” This manual describes well the state of the post-fall human race with diagnoses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depression, or Adjustment Disorder. The point is that, from the beginning of time, humans experienced symptoms of what is now codified by mental health professionals as mental health diagnoses.
The Bible is filled with other examples of what today would be called mental illness. Job, when afflicted with sores, expressed profound despair and grief. “Why, then, did you deliver me from my mother’s womb? Why didn’t you let me die at birth? It would be as though I had never existed, going directly from the womb to the grave. I have only a few days left, so leave me alone, that I may have a moment of comfort before I leave — never to return — for the land of darkness and utter gloom” (Job 10:18-21). Like many other humans who don’t understand why they are suffering, Job was depressed to the point of wanting to die.
Similarly, Elijah, after the magnificent demonstration of God’s power on Mount Carmel, responded to Jezebel’s threat of death with anxiety and depression. Elijah was afraid and fled for his life. He went to Beersheba, in town in Judah and he left his servant there. Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. ‘‘I’ve had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died” (1 Kings 19:3-4).
This is a small sampling of persons in the Bible who have struggled with some form of mental illness. As we have gotten closer to the end of time, tragedies, war, illness and death have become more commonplace, requiring intervention for the destructive thoughts and emotions that accompany these events.
However, the "Good News" (gospel) is that God predicted that a way of healing would come for a world wracked by mental disorders. In Isaiah 61:1-3, we read, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed. He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come, and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies. To all who mourn in Israel, He will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead despair.” Jesus quoted this passage in Luke 4:18-19 when He described the mission statement for His ministry. Unfortunately, His own people did not comprehend the prophetic meaning of His words or ministry, but Jesus immediately began His ministry of healing. The Scripture notes that His healing was complete or comprehensive. Matthew 9:35 states that He healed every kind of disease and illness. That would include mental illness.
As we look at the life of Jesus, we see that He suffered greatly many of the afflictions that are common to us today. He was despised and rejected – a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief (Isa. 53:3). He also was abandoned by His followers, betrayed by one of His own disciples, physically abused, sexually abused, emotionally abused, and ultimately chose death in His amazing act of redemptive love so we might live! He understands our suffering, but not only that, Isaiah 63:9 records that in all their suffering He also suffered. Whatever we experience even now, He is with us suffering our pain. In His heart of love, He would never, could never, leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5).
One of Satan’s cunning deceptions is to distort our view of God and His goodness. Not only was he successful using this tactic with Eve, but he also is successful today in insinuating that God doesn’t care, that He has abandoned us, that He expects perfection and is waiting to punish us if we fall short. This kind of thinking creates a chronic anxiety/fear in us and turns our focus inward to our own performance. A focus on ourselves and our performance is one of the major contributors to mental illness.
Remember that the great controversy is being waged right now is a battle for our minds and hearts. Proverbs 23:7 says that as a person thinks in his heart, so is he. We are what we think. Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson in his book, Anatomy of the Soul, describes the working of the human brain in response to what we believe. Another Christian psychiatrist, Timothy Jennings in his book, The God-shaped Brain, explains the negative impact that a fear-based view of God has on the brain. Jennings’ sequel, The God-shaped Heart shares research on the healing power of love on the brain. It is interesting that Jesus gave His disciples power to cast out demons as well as heal all types of disease. While we may not often do hand-to-hand combat with demons as Jesus did, I would suggest that every time we bring our thoughts into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-6), we are casting "demons" out of our minds even now.
One of the therapies used today is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or its Christian version (CCBT). This therapy suggests that thought distortions lead to toxic emotional states, such as anxiety and depression which lead to self-destructive behaviors. Recent research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) clearly confirm that childhood trauma can not only result in chronic emotional illness, but also chronic physical illness and self-destructive behavior such as addictions of all types. Satan uses the brokenness of human beings to continue the victim/victimizer cycle that began in Eden. There is a common truism that “hurt people, hurt people.” As a result, there are often cognitive distortions based in fear and shame that we believe about ourselves. Some of the more common lies we believe are that you are not enough, you will never measure up, and God cannot love you. John 8:44 describes Satan as the father or originator of these lies. However, Jesus promises in John 8:32 that we will know the truth and that the truth will make us free. This is the good news of the Gospel!
What is the truth about you? You are loved with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3), that you are precious to God (Isa. 43:4), that you are not condemned and that you belong to God (Rom. 8:1-2), you are God’s child (Rom. 8:16), that you are chosen (Eph. 1:4). When Jesus was speaking about knowing the truth, He was not only referring to the truth of our identity as revealed in God’s Word but to know Him as the Truth! The greatest longing of God’s heart (and ours as well) is that we would know Him (John 17:3) and that He would make Himself at home in our hearts, when we have been rooted in His love (Eph. 3:16-19). Spending time meditating on these truths found in God’s Word heals our broken brains by rewiring the destructive pathways that have been built based on lies. Experiencing God each day in our own lives takes us beyond a cognitive conception of God and into a personal, living “knowing” of God. The Gospel continues to be written each day in the renewed minds and hearts of God’s children.
We cannot ignore the reality that generations of sinful, destructive thinking and living has created in many of us unhealthy hormonal and neurochemical environments in our bodies and brains that result in chemical imbalances which contribute to mental illness. Likewise, genetics and epigenetics play their role and we must become more knowledgeable about these factors and how to overcome them to whatever degree we can.
For some of us, the use of psychiatric medications can be helpful and should be used as a way of assisting in the healing process. Many of us are overly suspicious of counseling, seeing it as nonbiblical or a lack of faith. However, David and Beverly Sedlacek in their book, Cleansing the Sanctuary of the Heart: Tools for Emotional Healing, quote Ellen White as follows: “The true principles of psychology are found in the Holy Scriptures. Man does not know his own value. He acts according to his unconverted temperament of character because he does not look unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of his faith” (p. 17). Seeing our own value as persons who Christ loved enough to die for and looking outwardly to Jesus rather than inwardly dwelling on our problems is tremendously therapeutic to mental wellbeing.
A Christian who has heart disease would consult a cardiologist who would provide appropriate therapies such as surgery or medication to correct the condition. Likewise, good counselors today, especially Christian counselors, perform heart surgery to remove pathological thoughts and emotions that many of us do not even know exist. Just as Jesus came to give sight to the blind (Luke 4:18), competent counselors help us to see ourselves as we are. Our motives, hurts and hang-ups are brought from darkness into the light so that we can see them as God does (Psalm 139). The prophecy of Malachi 4:2 has been fulfilled and continues to be fulfilled each day the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in His wings. This Scripture was fulfilled in the life of Jesus and His love for fallen humankind. The gospel of God’s love is as healing today as it was to those whom Jesus encountered centuries ago.
— David Sedlacek, Ph.D., is professor of Family Ministry and Discipleship, as well as chair of the Department of Discipleship and Religious Education at the Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. This article originally appeared on the Lake Union Herald website.