The Bible and Mental Health
By John W. Kennedy and Renée Griffith Grantham | Posted In What Does the Bible Say
“Almost everybody in the pew has a broken heart for one reason or another,” says Glen Ryswyk, a pioneering Assemblies of God U.S. Missions mental health chaplain in Lawton, Oklahoma. “We all have our wounds, flaws, hurts, and bruises and they do bother us. The pain can be quite intense.”
Valerie Saviano, founder of Mental Health USA and Restoration Ministries in Bemidji, Minnesota, has an adult son who has battled severe mental illness. She and her husband John found little empathy among Christians regarding the situation because people didn't know how to react. “Mental illness is the most widely misunderstood illness,” she says. “People are afraid of what they don't understand.”
While a churchgoer suffering from cancer may be embraced in a crisis, Saviano believes someone in depression too frequently is ignored or judged, only exacerbating sensations of shame, hopelessness, and guilt. Saviano says Christians typically view mental illness as a spiritual problem, assuming iniquity in the person's life led to the difficulties. “They don't recognize it can be a real biological illness that causes brain chemicals to be off balance,” Saviano says.
Saviano says Jesus' healing of a blind man as recorded in John 9 has helped her to view mental illness through a different lens. The disciples asked the Savior whether the blind man or his parents had sinned. Jesus said neither; rather, the disability allowed for God's glory to be displayed. “The disciples wrongly looked at it as a spiritual issue in which there was sin in the man's life,” Saviano says. “But Jesus showed not every illness is a result of sin.”
So does the Old Testament.
MENTAL HEALTH AND THE BIBLE
Mental health as understood from a biblical worldview begins in the opening chapters of Genesis. There, we learn what it means to be human and what it means to be healthy.
The Bible begins by declaring that God created everything—including all humanity. As we learn the characteristics of God in Scripture, we see that He did not create humans because He needed us; rather, in His all-sufficiency He created us in love and designed us for relationship. Genesis presents the three relationships that all humans have: their relationship to God, to each other, and to their environment. We see this in God’s creative acts of making humans in His image (Genesis 1:26–27), of giving them each other as companions (1:27–28), and of giving them a mandate to steward the earth (1:28–30).
Regarding mental health specifically, the Bible contains no one word for mental illness. This is in part because Old Testament writers chose a variety of biblical Hebrew words to express personhood. Though they lived before modern scientific understandings and psychological research, they recognized that humans are incredibly complex. For example, the Hebrew word for soul (nephesh) is also used in the Old Testament to mean an individual (Numbers 31:28) or their inner being (Psalm 103:1). The Hebrew word for heart (lev) can also be translated as mind (Deuteronomy 29:4) if the meaning is focusing less on the physical and more on the mental aspects of a person. These words are used not just to describe the condition of a person but also the means through which they interact with God. When illness besets someone in the Old Testament, their whole person is affected, not just their mind. We would do well to take this into consideration today.
Looking at the Old Testament as a whole, we can see that its books contain much evidence of deep pain on individual and community levels. In the book The Bible and Mental Health, editors Christopher C. H. Cook and Isabelle Hamley note that “the Old Testament is a collection of texts shaped by pain and trauma: struggles for survival, war, slavery, exile, and political oppression are ever present, and these texts weave together accounts of personal pain and trauma. . . . The Old Testament, therefore, is both a story of trauma, and a theological and spiritual . . . response to it.”
Hamley and Cook’s quick look at just three books of the Bible give us a glimpse into biblical writers’ struggles with psychological pain: Job details his faith in the face of extreme personal loss. The Psalms often address anxiety and reframe personal experience in light of God’s character. Jeremiah deals with the trauma of an entire nation and his personal responsibility to enter fully into it.
What is the Old Testament’s response to trauma, then? The answer, rather than being contained neatly in one small segment of Scripture, is an ongoing struggle woven throughout all its books, testifying to the complex nature of human beings and painful experiences. Hamley and Cook share several themes that are consistently seen in the Old Testament relating to mental health and wholeness:
1. We need to tell the truth and be realistic about our existence: humans live with hope and frailty.
2. We need to move away from easy answers and start engaging with all the biblical books, not just verses that make sense to us.
3. We need to understand the importance of God’s story, our own, and how meaning is made when the two intersect.
4. We need to emphasize reading and understanding Scripture in community so that we can better understand what it means to be whole in all areas of life.
In summary, taking time to understand Scripture’s treatment of pain and illness—not simplistically from one verse or passage but from all the books taken together—builds a strong foundation for healthy, helpful interaction with people struggling with mental health issues.
THE CHURCH AND MENTAL HEALTH
“One of the biggest myths is that salvation and being filled with the Holy Spirit should somehow make us immune to the painful events that occur in a fallen world,” says Donald A. Lichi, a licensed psychologist and vice president at EMERGE Counseling Services in Akron, Ohio. He maintains that there is no reason for people of the Word to belittle or ignore those who have mental health issues. Although prayer is an important aspect of mental health recovery, prayer shouldn't be viewed as the pat answer we give for every problem, thinking it requires no further remedy. God may choose divine healing in response to our prayers, yet He also may heal through a medication process, Lichi says. And neither path lets the Church off the hook.
The Church is coming to grips with the reality of its role in the once-taboo topic. Ryswyk says in this century he has seen much progress accepting the mentally ill, but much more grace is needed. Pastors and lay leaders need to let others see their humanity: “When we try to be perfect, we really communicate that others must be perfect. Stop trying to measure up. Only God's grace is sufficient.” Lichi notes that many churchgoers initially approach a pastor in seeking help for such issues in life. The reaction of the pastor will likely determine whether the person is open with others about the condition.
Those who are besieged by mental health issues often are their own worst critics because they have been conditioned not to accept unconditional grace. “More than we realize, those of us in ministry often communicate a works righteousness,” says Ryswyk. “We subtly communicate that we have to pray more, read more, fast more to measure up and make God happy.”
Yet the reverse is required for healing to begin: “The community of believers should provide a safe space for a person who is struggling with life's difficult issues,” Lichi says. “In a community of grace and acceptance, one may find practical means to receive the help of the Holy Spirit.” There should be no better place than the household of God to gain healing from pain caused by dysfunctional relationships.
WHEN THE CHURCH GETS IT RIGHT
Here are two stories of when the Church has healthfully, helpfully stepped in to address mental health: the story of Brittany Jones, and the story of Kathy Kerfoot Cannon.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 3 percent of adults in the United States have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That includes Brittany Charise Jones, teacher and worship leader at Motivation Church in Richmond, Virginia.
Jones says, “Although we’re all going through the same thing, we still need to talk about it and not pretend our feelings don’t exist.” Motivation Church has become a healing center for many attendees, in part because Jones has been transparent about her past trauma and current struggles. Jones doesn’t have to put on a happy face just because she is expected to as the wife of the pastor, Travis S. Jones.
When the state of Virginia issued a shelter-in-place edict last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jones proactively took a step to ensure that adherents wouldn’t feel besieged. Motivation Church has partnered with Footstep Counseling Center, a Christian agency in Richmond, to help pay for adherents to receive necessary treatment. “I deal with the things going on now on a regular basis, the highs and lows,” Jones says. “But a lot of people didn’t realize they would be so anxious dealing with these raw emotions.”
With new restrictions put in place seemingly every day during the pandemic, Jones ramped up efforts to engage with her therapist, emotional support team, and husband. “It’s really good to have somebody to process thoughts with you,” Jones says. “I’m healthier because I’m surrounded by people who love me and understand me, and I can go to them anytime.”
Kathy Kerfoot Cannon
Kathy Kerfoot Cannon, pastor of Sacred Church in San Bruno, California, struggled with infertility before she and her husband, Ben, adopted five children. Later, she received a diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Cannon says the church she pastors welcomed her revelation. She contends Christians need to view mental health struggles as no different than physical maladies.
“We’re a trauma-experienced family and we’ve been very open about there being a lot of therapists and doctors in our lives,” shares Cannon, who suffered panic attacks while a student at Evangel University.
“This time, mid- and post-pandemic, is an even more important season for those who already have struggled with mental health,” Cannon says. “Right now they are the teachers because trauma is familiar.”
“Historically in the Church we’ve struggled with discussing mental health because we don’t see mental health as a part of physical health,” says Cannon. “Being transparent allows us to normalize the conversation, realizing that everybody goes through down seasons and some deal with it on a long-term basis.”
MENTAL HEALTH AND THE BIBLE: What does the Bible say?
Scripture and the people consulted for this article (health professionals and ministers) give us some powerful takeaways when it comes to the Bible and mental health:
Where do we start?In a biblical worldview, understanding what it means to be human starts in Genesis: humans are created by God and designed for relationships with Him, others, and their environment.
What is health?
Health—mental, physical, emotional, spiritual—is affected when one or more of these relationships is disturbed.
What’s the Bible say?
The Bible does not offer one simple answer for mental health issues because these issues are complex and our human nature is complex. Using just one small segment of Scripture as an explanation for suffering can be misleading and harmful.
Where does Jesus fit in?The books of the Bible collectively explore pain and loss, they point to our need for redemption through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
What’s our response?The Bible invites us to integrate our personal stories with God’s redemptive story, giving us meaning and purpose.
MENTAL HEALTH AND THE CHURCH: What can we do?
Practice active listening.
“When someone talks of thoughts of hopelessness or feeling worthless, the best thing we can do is take a moment, put down our phone, close our laptop, and let that person know we are listening, and they are not alone,” Saviano says.
Encouragement makes a difference.
For those dealing with milder forms of depression or anxiety, Ryswyk suggests positive interaction. “Rather than judging or criticizing, have compassion, put your arm around their shoulder, tell them you are praying for them, and that you believe in them.”
Be honest with and about yourself.
“People can readily identify what's wrong with others, but frequently miss what is askew in their own life. We all have mental health issues,” Ryswyk says.
Don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
Anyone in the throes of depression, anxiety, chronic schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and more need assistance from medical professionals rather than off-the-cuff advice from churchgoers.
Consider a local church-counseling partnership.
Explore whether your church can partner with a local counseling center to help adherents receive necessary treatment.
Christopher C. H. Cook and Isabelle Hamley, eds, The Bible and Mental Health: Towards a Biblical Theology of Mental Health (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020).