This article is part of our new series on Mental Health. In this series, our counselors hope to call churches and Christians to re-engage with the discussion and care for mental health struggles.
Whenever our counselors speak or write about mental health in a Christian context, we expect to disappoint some people. We’ve even come to find out that some people would prefer we not talk about it at all.
However, more Christians need to learn how to have healthy conversations about mental health.
For many with a diagnosis of mental disorder, they fear unhealthy conversations will bring a word of judgment or accusations that they are blame-shifting their “character weaknesses” onto a mental health diagnosis.
Others fear hearing a message of “do more, try harder” when the battle is already fierce within them; they can assure you they are trying very hard.
Still, others feel timid to speak up, not wanting to say the wrong thing, so they remain silent or distance themselves from friends who are struggling.
Whether you are dealing with your own personal struggles or care deeply for those suffering, you can respond in ways that glorify God and care well for those in a struggle.
We need more healthy conversations about mental health!
How should we define mental health?
Some experts developed this working definition: “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.”
Those who think about mental health from a Christian perspective will quickly realize that biblical teaching and Jesus himself often spoke about our emotions, thoughts, actions, and desires as well. In fact, Jesus often claimed that following Him would begin a process of transforming how people think, feel, and act.
One of the clearest themes of the New Testament is that the Good News that Jesus shared has the power to radically change people and dramatically impact their lives.
This raises the question of whether it’s possible to have constructive conversations about mental health from a Christian perspective while ignoring the claims that Jesus made. He clearly lived by example and taught us that it’s possible to grow in our thoughts, feelings, and actions towards Christlikeness when we are connected to Him.
Sadly, many churches partner with counselors that leave Christ and biblical teaching to the side when dealing with mental health issues. This leads to individuals who live independent from God, rather than dependent on him.
As a pastor in the shadow of some of the largest Christian counseling and psychology programs in the country, it saddened me that many of our congregant’s experience with “Christian counselors” was missing how the gospel brings hope and healing.
These other ministries offered essentially secular counseling, indistinguishable from their secular counterparts except in their own personal motivation to offer compassionate care. However, I often wondered how loving it was to offer Christian care, without helping people see how the gospel might speak hope into the struggle they were facing.
A truly gospel-centered conversation about mental health will wrestle with God’s creation, man’s fall, and God’s redemptive and restorative plan.
Bob Kellemen, in his book “Gospel-Centered Counseling”, lays out the theological importance of viewing life’s struggles through a biblical and theological framework. Consider the following themes and how they intersect with what our culture often calls mental health.
- Creation/Understanding People: “Who are we?” “What makes people tick?”
- Fall/Diagnosing Problems: “What went wrong?” “Why do we do the things we do?”
- Redemption/Prescribing God’s Soul-u-tion: “How do we find peace with God?” “How do people change?”
- Sanctification: “Why are we here?” “How do we become like Jesus?” “How can our inner life increasingly reflect the inner life of Christ?”
- Consummation: “Where are we headed?” “How does our future destiny impact our present reality?”
From this framework, we might draw several conclusions that shape healthy conversations about mental health.
1. Without understanding the created mandate, we won’t understand or embrace our purpose.
One of the difficulties in the area of mental health is being able to define what is normal and what is unhealthy. To seek revenge is normal, to experience jealousy feels fine to many, and anxious concern seems unavoidable when life around us is crazy.
Many psychologists view us as basically responding with animal-like instincts, craving our biological needs, and seeking to adapt in self-protective ways.
However, accepting that we are created beings put on earth for a purpose allows us to think more precisely about our thoughts, feelings, and actions and evaluate if they are helpful or not.
2. Without understanding the effects of the fall, we won’t grasp our greatest problem.
Absent from most discussions about mental health is any mention of sin, whether our own willful choices or the choices of others to sinfully harm us.
Psychologist Mark McMinn describes it this way, “Our sinful hearts show themselves through what we do and what we fail to do. We end up broken not only because we are victims but also because we have hearts of rebellion and stubborn independence.”
Those with mental health problems have sin problems. We all do. While our biology can weaken our ability to think and act in healthy ways, we are all full of sin and far from God’s design to bring glory to Him. When we understand the fall, we understand that we will not and cannot deeply change our character and motivation without God’s help.
In recent discussions in the church about mental health, the contribution of sin is virtually absent, and the assumption is that most mental struggles are the result of being sinned against. While that may be a contributing factor, we cannot have healthy conversations about mental health without wrestling with the choices of sin and how they contribute to mental health struggles and hinder the progress of those stuck in sinful patterns.
3. Without seeing the need for redemption, we won’t see the true possibilities.
Many people languish with the understanding that mental health struggles will forever be their new identity. However, the biblical reality of redemption proclaims that “if any man is in Christ, he is a new creation.”
In our mental health discussions, do we really believe that any learned behavior can be unlearned, that joy is possible, and that a renewed mind can dramatically alter the battle that rages in our thoughts?
Sadly, many treat those with mental struggles as if they cannot learn, cannot grow, and are second-class Christians. While it can be a greater challenge to teach God’s truth to those who are prone to anxiety or recovering from trauma, this is the challenge that the church needs to embrace.
We can have healthy conversations that point people to Christ and help them trust Him with their struggles.
4. Without embracing the process of sanctification, we won’t follow a new path.
Sanctification is the process of becoming more like Christ: changing our old ways of thinking and becoming new. It’s the growth process in the Christian walk.
We should expect that those with mental health struggles can make progress when they embrace Christ as Lord. Assumptions that individuals with mental health struggles cannot and will not change run contrary to the message that Jesus brought to His followers.
While we recognize that some habits are extremely difficult to break, do we ever write someone off as incapable of change? The gospel awakened by faith will bring changes, maybe slowly, but certainly.
5. Without belief in the hope of consummation, we won’t be assured of our progress.
Consummation is the term that describes how Jesus is coming back to bring eternal life to all who have embraced Him and sought forgiveness for their sins.
One of the greatest sources of hope for those battling mental health struggles in this life can be that one day they will be free from their battle with sin, suffering, and sanctification.
While only Jesus gets to know the day we depart this earth, He is preparing for those who believe and will live in safe, sweet fellowship for all of eternity with Him.
Progress often feels slow when we are overcoming the sin and suffering in this fallen world, but Christ reminded us that this world as we know it is not our home.
Does the gospel really matter in conversations about mental health? Absolutely!
The goal in life for all Christians is to live by faith and walk with God, overcoming sin and enduring suffering for the glory of God. Sadly, many of the current conversations in the church ignore the gospel and the hope that it provides.
If treating mental health is about helping individuals embrace healthy patterns in how they think, feel, and act, then we must not do that apart from the gospel.
Jesus invites all who sin and suffer to trust Him, embrace Him, and receive forgiveness and comfort from Him. We must include Him in conversations about mental health.