BY BENJAMIN R. LEE, Assistant Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church
Leading up to this year’s Olympics in Japan the anticipation and expectation couldn’t have been much higher for the performance of our nation’s current most beloved Olympic athlete and world-renowned gymnast, Simone Biles. Most of us only watch gymnastics once every four years, but we were going to watch Simone Biles. It felt like a forgone conclusion that Simone was going to bring home gold medal after gold medal for the US. We were going to watch, that is, until Simone sent the sports media whirling when she dropped out of nearly all her scheduled events (she did go on to win bronze in the balance beam). It wasn’t a physical injury, though, that kept the world’s best gymnast off the floor. According to Simone and her team it was her “mental health” that necessitated stepping down from the competition.
The backlash was immense. Simone Biles, arguably the greatest and most accomplished gymnast in history, was labelled weak and cowardly. She should have “toughed it out” to make the country proud, they said. You’ve heard the takes.
The controversy got me wondering how we as Christians think about issues surrounding mental health. If you’re anything like me the situation at the Olympics probably sparked a conversation or two (more gracious than Simone’s harshest critics, I hope). Recent studies would suggest it’s an issue worth thinking about. Even prior to the COVID outbreak 19% of adults experienced some sort of mental health issue.[i] It’s only worsened over the last 18 months. If you want to find out for yourself just how real an issue this is, just call a counselor or psychologist around town and try to book an appointment. Mental health professionals are slammed with people looking for help. And this isn’t just an issue “out there” in the world. There are many people in own congregation who struggle through mental health issues on a regular basis.
So, what should Christians think about mental health? How ought we to respond when we hear of a friend, a neighbor, a fellow church member who suffers from anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, PTSD, or any number of mental and emotional illnesses? Let me suggest four biblical truths to remember.
First, when you’re thinking about mental illness, remember the fall. Adam’s fall into sin and the subsequent curse God enacted on the universe hit the world with the force of an atomic bomb. Genesis 3 was a cataclysmic event that left not a single molecule in the entire cosmos unaffected by sin. On account of sin and its effects, the world “groans” as it remains in “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:20-22). Since Genesis 3 we have existed in a disordered universe.
We shouldn’t we be surprised then when we find our inner world likewise disordered. But that is often how we respond. We react to our own and other’s inner turmoil as if it’s not natural in a Genesis 3 world, as if somehow the fall hasn’t reached down into the depths of our being. But the examples left for us in the Psalms suggest the opposite. Heman the Ezrahite in Psalm 88 recounts the mental and emotional anguish he experienced “from [his] youth up” when his soul was “full of troubles.” The Psalms suggest that the experience of inner turmoil is the natural state of mankind under the fall.
Nor should we assume that mental and emotional disorders, whether anxiety or schizophrenia, are the direct result of moral failure. All too often, though, we treat those with these disorders just like the disciples when they encountered the blind man, “Rabbi, who sinned that this man is depressed, this man or his parents?” A functional theology of the fall teaches us that mental and emotional disorders cannot be reduced merely to a “sin issue,” as they so often are. Heman’s song recounts no sin leading to his despair, yet darkness is his only friend (Psalm 88:18).
Thinking well about the fall will help us think well about mental health, and we also need to remember common grace. The Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof teaches that God’s common grace, while not the grace that pardons sin, is the goodness of God in a fallen world ‘common’ to all men which makes “an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men.”[ii] In other words, through common grace God alleviates to some extent the cataclysmic effects of the fall that would otherwise render life in a fallen world unbearable. Simple gifts like food and music are common grace gifts that provide a limited amount of joy in life for all people, and so are things like technological and scientific advancement.
The doctrine of common grace is critical to how we think about mental and emotional disorders. Just as common grace has afforded medical technology that can alleviate the effects of the fall on our bodies, so common grace has provided medications that can help alleviate the effects of the fall on our minds.
Sometimes Christians are uncomfortable with using medication for mental and emotional disorders because it has been suggested that the “spiritual” means of healing is prayer and Bible study. These are crucial, no doubt. But reducing healing to Bible memorization most often leaves suffers stuck with excessive guilt because their continued turmoil means they must not be spiritual enough. It may be they need medication to help them get unstuck.
Christians with a high view of common grace who suffer in these ways should be encouraged to consult their doctors and counselors about how the proper medication could aid their healing journey. If the idea of medication makes you nervous, think more deeply about common grace, and maybe try talking to a fellow believer who takes these medications. I know several folks at Oakwood who take them and would be happy to talk.
There’s a funny (sad) idea floating around in evangelicalism that once you become a believer that your troubles will fade away, or that if you pray enough and read the Bible enough that you can be “fixed.” However, Paul prayed repeatedly for this “thorn” to be taken away to no avail (2 Corinthians 12:8). Heman said he called on the Lord every day, yet was still “afflicted” (Psalm 88:9,15).
The idea that prayer and Bible study will fix your problems has more in common with the prosperity gospel than with biblical sanctification. The Bible doesn’t tell us that sanctification is a formula. It doesn’t tell us that all our troubles will go away if we do certain things. Instead, it tells us that God will use all our “thorns” to make us like Jesus.
Here’s why this is important when considering mental health. If you’re a sufferer this means that your disorder is one of the means God is using to make you more like himself. So, if you don’t get “fixed,” if depression hangs on, if you’re still anxious, that doesn’t mean you’re failing. It may be that God allows that thorn to remain so that his power can be made perfect in your weakness (2 Cor. 12:10).
If you don’t suffer in these ways this means that as you encounter Christians who struggle, don’t be confused when the problem doesn’t resolve right away, or if it continues even after counsel and medication. Instead, keep on encouraging them as you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:25).
The gospel is last on the list, but it’s of first importance. Yet it seems to be the gospel that is so often left out of the conversation. When I think about reactions to Simone Biles, what I hear are Pharisees looking down their noses at a girl whose struggle they refuse to understand, who with puffed up chests say they’d have buried the feelings if they were in her spot. I hear similar things from Christians who encounter sufferers: “Buck up. Read this Bible verse. Stop doubting. Just trust God.” Suffers often think the same about themselves: “I shouldn’t be so sad. Christians shouldn’t be anxious. I’ve got to do better.”
But that’s the law. The law tells you over and over again what needs to be done. And let me tell you from personal experience, the law is of no use here. Healing begins with the gospel of free acceptance through Christ Jesus whose life, death, and resurrection have won for us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, regardless of our mental and emotional state. The gospel is the ultimate spiritual grace that provides sufferers with a consolation far surpassing anything even the common grace of medication can offer. Medication can silence anxiety long enough for us to hear that in Christ I have peace with God regardless of what I feel, and it has an answer for every disorder. Indeed, the gospel tells me that while my disorder may endure in this life, someday Jesus is coming back to re-order all of creation, including my inner world.
The gospel is where the troubled must root themselves, and it is where we must take those who suffer. We move people toward healing not by giving them a list of things to do, but by pointing them to Christ who has already accomplished everything for them.
Don’t be like the media pundits were with Simone Biles. Think well about mental health by thinking deeply about the fall, common grace, sanctification, and the gospel. And then, go and be Christ to sufferers.
[ii] Berkhof, Louis., Systematic Theology, pp. 435, The Banner of Truth Trust (2005).