Mental Health is the issue of the day, it seems. For example, the official charity of the 2017 London Marathon was Heads Together, a mental health charity started by Prince William, Catherine, and Prince Harry (you can see a video of the three of them discussing it on YouTube). Mental health is a big deal at the moment. The solution of Heads Together is to get people talking about mental health, which is fine as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes deep enough.
I believe that Christianity alone provides the deeper perspective on mental health which is lacking. But how?
Firstly, a quick caveat: this is, of course, not even close to everything that could be said when it comes to Christianity and mental health! There is far, far more to say and I just wanted to make clear from the outset: this is just the beginning. With that in mind…
1. What is mental health?
This is a pretty key question. The MentalHealth.gov website (a US government initiative) defines it this way:
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.
Emotional, psychological, and social well-being. That’s a pretty vague definition, isn’t it? It’s very difficult to pin down. What is well-being? Is it the same for everyone, or does it vary from person to person? This is the fundamental place where I believe the Christian faith makes a difference. Let’s think about the question: what is a human being ‘for’? Why are we here, what is our purpose? That makes a massive difference to the way we tackle and think about this issue.
Imagine a man from a remote tribe who has never seen modern technology before. Imagine this man picking up a smartphone and looking at it, trying to discern its function. It’s not heavy enough to be a good hammer, it’s not sharp enough to be a weapon, it doesn’t seem to be very useful! You can’t really assess its function without knowing what it is for. Once you know that it is for making phone calls and accessing the internet (etc), you can assess how good it is at those things and then if there are problems you can fix them.
Similarly with human beings. If you have no vision of what a healthy human being is, of what a healthy human mind is, then you will struggle to define mental health and struggle to fix it. Our view of what a human being is will determine both how we define mental health and how we go about healing it.
When I was at college, we studied pastoral counselling. We looked briefly at three different models of counselling:
- Psychodynamic. This basically assumes that a human being is a product of their past experiences – if you can access the memories, access the past, you can identify what makes someone behave in the way that they do and then you can go about fixing it. For a while my wife had some counselling with a psychodynamic counsellor who kept trying to delve into her childhood and her past. I’m not sure that my wife found it particularly helpful!
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This is the type of counselling which I believe has been adopted by the NHS. This is more of a ‘carrot on a stick’ approach – if you give someone the right carrot on the right stick, they’ll be able to change their behaviour – appeal to someone’s motivation.
- Person Centred. This is the vaguest of the three I looked at – it seems to be about listening to and affirming someone until they feel better about themselves.
All of the above models of counselling explicitly assume a postmodern worldview, that is, they all assume that there is no ultimate truth. The only real arbiter of mental health is your own personal feelings about whether you think you are OK or not.
2. Who does the Bible say we are?
This is where the Bible comes in. It says that we are not products of random chance or blind evolution, or atoms floating around inside an uncaring universe. Psalm 24 begins:
The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
and established it on the waters.
So what implications does that have for how we are supposed to live? Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment was. He said there are two greatest commandments:
- Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
- Love your neighbour as yourself.
People often think of the second commandment while skipping over the first. Jesus said the commandment of first importance was to love the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind – with everything that we have. In other words, part of our primary duty and joy as human beings is to love the God who made us. This is fundamental to who we are.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism has as its first question: “What is the chief end of man?” (i.e., ‘what are we ultimately here for?’) The answer is, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever”. Our primary purpose here is to glorify God and enjoy him. If we get that wrong, we will never even begin to get anything else right. As the author of Proverbs put it, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7).
Someone once said, “everyone has a God-shaped hole”. I think that’s a bit simplistic but expresses something true about our experience: a life lived without God is a life lived without realising our true identity and purpose. We’ll never understand ourselves unless we grasp this basic truth.
But that’s not all there is to say.
3. What is wrong with us?
Mental health problems assume that there is something wrong with us – but what, exactly? And how do we solve it? As I’ve already said, there are various different ideas about human beings and various solutions on offer, but none of them get to the heart of the problem according to the Bible. As we just saw, Jesus said that what God has created us to do is love Him and love others. How exactly we do that is spelled out in the rest of the Bible – this is the purpose of the commandments, for example. But the problem is that none of us love God and love others as we should.
I’ve been reading through Calvin’s Institutes recently, and I came across a helpful quote just this morning:
… it is clear that keeping the commandments means not love of self but love of God and of our neighbour. Thus whoever lives as little as possible for himself, lives a good life. Conversely, no one leads a more disordered life than the man who lives for himself and who thinks only of his own gain.
This is a very helpful insight: the fundamental problem with each one of us is what the Bible calls sin. You could call it disordered self-love – we love ourselves more than we love God or other people. Call it selfishness, call it what you like, it’s a failure to live up to God’s standards of love.
Now, do you think a disordered life of self-love will be satisfying and lead to well-being? No, of course not. Without even trying I can think of many, many examples of people who have been ruined in this way – who have loved possessions, or money, or their career, or so on, too much. I see a lot of it in my work – people who have every material thing but are still desperately unhappy.
Now of course possessions, money, career etc. are bad things in themselves, but when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing, it becomes destructive. A rampantly materialistic culture, for example, which encourages people to love things, will never be satisfied – you’ll never have enough to make you happy.
The Bible says that each one of us is a sinner, all of us have fallen short of the glory of God, and we all fail to live up to the life of love which God calls us to live. We are all guilty. However, there is a solution.
4. The solution: Jesus
Jesus was the one who lived a perfect life of love for us. He died the death that we deserve, the punishment we are due for turning away from God, and he offers us his life in exchange. Jesus can forgive us all our sin, can remake us, restore us, heal us.
Once we have accepted that God made us, once we have accepted that we are not as we should be, then we can fix our eyes on the solution that God has given us in Christ Jesus. All this makes it sound a bit clinical (Jesus is more than a ‘solution’), but I hope this starts to make some sense.
There’s more. Yesterday I was watching Mike Reeves on the reformation (part of this excellent series). He was talking about the puritan Richard Sibbes, and his work The Bruised Reed (that article is worth reading for a summary). One of his ideas is that all of our experiences, all of our ‘bruising’, should cause us to take our eyes off ourselves and onto Christ: because of God’s grace, demonstrated in Christ Jesus, we know that God’s love is shown towards us in everything that happens – even the difficult times.
I’ve really gone very quickly through all of this, and there is much more that could be said, but I want this to be a blog post rather than a book! So let me conclude by quoting just three hymns of the many which have struck me as I’ve been thinking about the issue of mental health from a Christian perspective.
Jesus! the Name high over all (Charles Wesley):
Jesus! the prisoner’s fetters breaks,
And bruises Satan’s head;
Power into strengthless souls it speaks,
And life into the dead.
O that mankind might taste and see
The riches of His grace!
The arms of love that compass me
Would all the world embrace.
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds (John Newton):
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
in a believer’s ear!
It soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds,
and drives away our fear.
It makes the wounded spirit whole
and calms the troubled breast;
’tis manna to the hungry soul,
and to the weary, rest.
How firm a foundation:
In every condition, in sickness, in health;
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
At home and abroad, on the land, on the sea,
As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be.
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of grief shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.
The core of what the church sings about is how we are saved, rescued, healed, redeemed – the Father has “lavished” his love on us (1 John 3:1) in adopting us as children through Jesus Christ. He promises never to leave us or forsake us, that all things will work together for the good of those who love him. This is great news, truly great news, which is worth shouting about – not just in mental health but in everything.
Postscript: ‘But what about…’
At the beginning I said that this wasn’t all that could be said about mental health from a Christian perspective. Absolutely true. I appreciate there will be many who have questions about depression, or anorexia, or other issues and I simply don’t have time to explain here how those things relate.
Just a couple of quick observations:
- All this is the ‘beginning’ – the foundation stone. The gospel is the cornerstone, without which nothing else will be right. It’s important to remember that just because more may need to be said about other issues, if the gospel is missing then whatever the solution is will be incomplete.
- Richard Sibbes’ work ‘The Bruised Reed’ (which I mentioned above) is very helpful on thinking about how pain and suffering work in the Christian life. It’s important to remember that God gives us difficulties so that we might turn to Him and walk with Him through them – He doesn’t save us from all of our issues, but rather uses them for good.
I find the work of the Christian Counselling Education Foundation (CCEF) very helpful, and more can be found on their website – in particular, it would be worth reading the book ‘How People Change’ by Lane and Tripp which outlines their the core of what they’ve about.