In a series of three posts, I would like to explore three ways of mitigating mental (heart) anguish that a Christian can offer himself, fellow believers and even their unbelieving neighbours. Far from being idealistic about or indifferent to mental health, I firmly believe that these are practical and useful ways of dealing with the suffering of the mind. The first of these (below) is about the most basic of Christian beliefs, namely forgiveness, which will also serve as an introductory post about the subject of mental health as integrated into a biblical perspective. The other two, future posts, will focus on some neglected Christian practices: Sabbath keeping and Psalm singing.
“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
Since no man is an island, and since individuals are affected by the plight of their neighbours amongst whom they live, we should be concerned about the well-being of everyone around us. This includes mental well-being. Mental illness is a real problem that many people struggle with, either directly themselves or indirectly through the experience of loved ones.
Though some may undergo a brief time of depression, others wrestle with it their whole life. Some experience periods of sadness and anxiety, while others must, even on a daily basis, combat the thoughts (and even voices) of their own mind.
For all these, Christians ought to have a great deal of sympathy, just as we do towards those who are suffering in the body. We should understand and agree that some people may need to take medication to alleviate or suppress the symptoms that can be debilitating to a normal life. Some may need to be on this medication for the rest of their life, even as someone who was born with diabetes needs regular injections of insulin to control their blood sugar.
Nevertheless it is said that, to some extent, our mental health is also dependent on our bodily health as a whole. Some of the best advice I received when I was going through intense periods of stress and anxiety was to eat right, sleep well and exercise regularly. Certainly I could have taken medication, but without adding these three things to my daily regimen, I was only prolonging my angst. It is not enough to take care of the mind for it is integrally bound to the body.
I would assert that this is analogous to how a Christian ought to think of mental health. For there is more to the person than the mind, and even more than the body. Man is an integrated whole. According to scripture, I am one being with two aspects: spiritual and physical. And it is the spiritual part of our being that I want to address and that I believe, to our common detriment, is neglected by the medical establishment and our culture at large.
When we speak about the spiritual nature of man, we usually use the word “soul.” What is meant by that? The soul of man is really the inward “person” looking out and observing the world. It is the projected “I” that speaks, acts and, more deeply feels, thinks, and reflects. My eyes see but I discern. My ears hear but I receive. Thinking is not just the brain because I am thinking. I am conscious of my own thoughts. And it is I who suffer, even when I am sick in body, lacking nourishment or in pain.
Now how does this all relate to forgiveness as offered by God in Christ? In short, man must, in humility, receive this forgiveness for the peace of his own mind. The state of my heart and my own conscience testify to my ability to judge between right and wrong and to refuse the evil and to do the good. Thus the reality is that our problems in life are not merely due to some disordered state of our physical being, but due to the fall of humanity through Adam. Though our wholesale slavery in sin has precipitated many physical and mental maladies, the cause was, at its root, spiritual: a deep seated, deliberate rebellion against God in the inward man (Jeremiah 17:9 & Romans 8:7). From the scripture’s perspective, therefore, the consequences of the fall do not only present themselves in the mind and body but in the soul as well. And thus the cure or at least the abatement of the symptoms is often spiritual too.
Forgiveness offers the one who suffers in their conscience, release from the guilt of sin. The word guilt is key because it is often used in other contexts, and thus is probably more readily understood than that of sin to the average person. Guilt is such a powerful feeling it can also be used as a powerful tool to oppress and manipulate, so much so that some would have us do away with it altogether. Consider that sometimes people feel guilt(y) for things that aren’t even their fault (such as abuse at the hands of a person in authority).
However, the answer cannot be that we merely pretend it does not exist. Indeed every person has a way of calling out the debt of others. Today some speak of reparations and social injustice. Some relate to the idea of some unknown but powerful means of payback for wrong inflicted. These are all ways of speaking of guilt. And religions also have many forms of dealing with guilt too: atonement, alms, prayer, deeds, works of righteousness and so on.
But do any of these actually remove guilt? Note, not just the feeling of guilt but actual guilt, the real debt that we owe? The answer must be no, and that is likely why so many look within themselves for absolution. We are told we must forgive ourselves alongside of, perhaps, forgiving others. We must love ourselves and accept ourselves as we are. All well and good, but that still does not deal with debt. The debt must be paid.
Thus, I believe it is true that no man can forgive himself, anymore than we can, ultimately, rule ourselves and generally take care of ourselves. For even as adults, we are dependent on others for these things (see Ecclesiastes 5:9). Forgiveness too. If we have offended in some way, how can we say that we forgive ourselves if the offended party is not willing to forgive?
Scripture teaches, after all, that sin is debt (Matthew 6:12), an entanglement (Hebrews 12:1), a burden (Psalm 38:4), a bringer of death (Romans 5:12), a deceiver (Romans 7:12), a pathway to the grave and to hell (Proverbs 7:27), a poison (Romans 3:13), even sometimes a punishment for sin (John 12:14). We cannot release ourselves from that, even as much as we may fool ourselves into thinking that is possible. As such, the feeling of sin, the weight of sin, remains and, according to scripture can drive us mad for these war against the well-being of body and soul.
Consider David. David knew God’s forgiveness and he knew his mercy but yet, at certain times of his life, unconfessed sin ruled his spirit. He expresses his experience, or how this feels, in the Psalms. His bones waxed old (Psalm 32:3), and God’s hand was heavy upon him (vs. 2). In Psalm 38 he speaks of the hand of God pressing him down (vs. 2), drowning in sin (vs. 4), being in mourning all day (vs. 6), being disquieted (vs. 9) & weak in heart (vs. 10). In Psalm 51, he says: “Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice” (vs. 8). The bodily language of harm (broken bones) related to David’s spirit (especially in positive emotions such as joy, gladness & rejoicing), demonstrate the oneness of the body and soul in life. What is disjointed within our souls, will bring harm to our bodies (and minds).
So David asks God to “restore unto me the joy of thy salvation…” (vs. 12) He has been given the diagnosis and now the (hopeful) prognosis. What of the cure? “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (vs. 17). Sorrow, weeping, sadness. These are often associated with depression, but these are also good & healthy emotions; appropriate reactions to the brokenness of life. And these ought to be found within us due to our sin & rebellion, for the good of our mind and the state of our eternal soul.
But is that sufficient for forgiveness itself? The Christian knows better, even as David did. David denies the burnt offering in favour of an internal disposition of the heart (Psalm 51:16-17) but he also realises that the actual cleansing comes from God, not from within the confessor: “blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (vs. 1-2). Even though forgiveness cannot be received without confession (1 John 1:9), neither can it be made without the washing of Christ’s blood (1 John 1:7).
Indeed, through Christ’s death and mediation, we have peace with God (Romans 5:1). The implication is that without Christ, without forgiveness, we do not possess that peace and, indeed, that is what the scripture says: “there is no peace to the wicked” (Isaiah 57:21). What peace can a soul have if all it can say is: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of death?” (Romans 7:24) How can we be at rest when we deny that we are undone through our unholiness, even while our own conscience and the law of God unite in testimony against us?
Thus, we must realise that we must first begin by feeling worse about ourselves. Now we are told in the West, that this is damaging to the psyche. Yes some may have too low a view of themselves and we need to lift them up to the level of God’s view of their intrinsic worth as made in the image of God. But it is also true, that there are many in our time that have too high a view of themselves. We have to be realistic. Is pride not a problem? Haughtiness? This is not only damaging to ourselves but also to others. Witness those who store up (read: horde) food and goods to the detriment of their neighbour. The entitled person who uses and abuses others around them.
Regardless, we are not asking our neighbours to consider themselves beneath us or beneath others. We are asking everyone to place themselves before God and his law. In this way, no one can stand and no one can say “I am without sin.” The way to cure of illness and sickness is not to ignore the symptoms or refuse to visit the doctor. It is to hear the bad news about our health and find the cure for our ailment. See your sin for what it is and how it damages you inside and out. See that Christ is the only way to be forgiven (Isaiah 45:22 & John 6:40).
None of this ought to be construed that if people received (or have received) the fullness of forgiveness offered in Christ that all their mental health issues will go away. I have already noted that mental health issues can be rooted in a physical disorder. Additionally, childhood trauma, loss and many other experiences play a part in our mental makeup. But what I am saying is that, according to scripture, we have ignored a key aspect of our mental health, and one that is intertwined with our standing with God and our fellow man. Let us pursue it and receive it for our benefit.
1. These are not meant to be exhaustive but I have chosen these three because I think they are probably the most useful and neglected forms of relief for sufferers.
2. Even as we realise that the brain (not the mind so much) is a physical thing, just as the body.
3. Just as Hezekiah was cured through a poultice applied to his wound (Isaiah 38:21), and Timothy was encouraged to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake (1 Timothy 5:23).
4. If after all, the guilt is still there, the feeling will come to the surface time and time again (much like a sickness of the body will return if we only deal with the symptoms). But in order to do away with the feeling we must deal with the source.
5. These portions of the Psalms will be important when we discover the blessing of the singing of the Psalms for the well-being of the mind.
6. Note that this statement of Paul applies to the believer and the unbeliever but, in some ways, more to the former than the latter. For the Christian, though he knows the forgiveness of sins, must now deal with two aspects to his inner being for the scripture speaks of the old man and the new man. The Christian then is one person but these two war within him (Romans 6:6 et. al.). Though he experiences peace from forgiveness, this inner conflict shines light on his sin in a way that he did not previously experience. So he must return, again and again, to the source of mercy and grace in Christ to receive balm for his wounded conscience and help for his struggle against sin (the latter which the unbeliever has not yet experienced).