A version of this question is being asked frequently in recent days. It is a good and important question.
As important as the question is, how we arrive at an answer is equally important. A good answer with a poor conceptual foundation to under gird it will result in sloppy application.
My goal in this article is to answer “yes” and then show my rationale for why I think it is not only possible, but frequent, that individuals are spiritually healthy and experience mental health challenges.
Let’s start the discussion by defining characteristics of being spiritually healthy. I believe each of the qualities below has a positive influence on an individual’s mental health; meaning each is “contributive” to better mental health even when they are not “curative” by themselves.
- Embracing the Gospel – An individual recognizes their sinful condition and leans fully on the hope of Christ’s death-resurrection to provide freedom from the overwhelming guilt this sober self-awareness would otherwise create.
- Spiritual Disciplines – An individual regularly engages with Bible study, prayer, and other disciplines focused on having a robust relationship with God, not just knowledge about him.
- Personal Devotion – An individual daily lives with awareness that their day-to-day choices are opportunities to worship God and is thankful for the opportunity to display God’s worth in these choices.
- Devout Character – An individual is growing in humility, love, self-control, and other Christ-like virtues.
- Robust Theological Framework – An individual is able to understand and articulate the biblical world-view that undergirds the previous four marks of spiritual health.
Let’s restate the question in light of this list, “Can someone (a) embrace the gospel, (b) practice spiritual disciplines, display (c) personal devotion and (d) devout character, and (e) have a robust theology and still experience mental health challenges?”Can someone embrace the gospel, practice spiritual disciplines, display personal devotion and devout character, and have a robust theology and still experience mental health challenges?” Click To Tweet
To continue the discussion we would need a comparable list of what we mean by mental health challenges. Admittedly, neither list is exhaustive. I will describe these qualities of mental health in their unhealthy manifestation, because of the question being raised in this article.
- Emotional Regulation – An individual has a difficult time preventing unpleasant emotions from intruding into times when the situation does not warrant such emotions or to a degree greater than an unpleasant situation warrants; “taking thoughts captive” does not eliminate the physical responses of disruptive emotions for them.
- Accurate Sense of Self – An individual has a difficult time, persistently or episodically, having a sense of self that is either self-loathing or grandiose.
- Relational Intelligence – An individual has a difficult time being at peace in social settings or accurately predicting the response their actions will receive. The result is isolation, conflict, or stigmatization.
- Reality Testing – An individual has a difficult time with intrusive thoughts or discerning fanciful thoughts from actual events. The result is bizarre behavior or paranoia that seems reasonable based upon their perception of reality.
- Impulse Control – An individual has a dispositional struggle to regulate their impulses towards actions that are known to have negative consequences. Attention, weighing consequences, and other factors of executive functioning feel as difficult for them as math or spelling problems to someone with dyslexia.
When I answer “yes” to the question in the title of this article, I am construing these five mental health qualities as aptitudes (i.e., like playing music, throwing a ball, drawing a picture, doing math, or learning a language); although admitting mental health can not be reduced to a set of aptitudes. When I say that a Christian can be spiritually strong and still experience mental health challenges, I am saying that someone can be a devout Christian and have a persistent struggle with these aptitudes / skills; a struggle that is only moderately improved through the best available interventions (Christian growth or therapy) and will not be ultimately remedied until heaven.
I am not saying all of these are only biological or physiological like diabetes or cancer. Doubtless our genetic makeup determines the baseline from which we cultivate these aptitudes. But it should be apparent that our social settings, personal experiences, and life choices also have a profound positive or negative influence on these factors.
Hence, I am not saying we are powerless to influence these factors. Countless pages of practical theology and self-help literature have been written to teach people how to grow in these areas. Each of us has a range (i.e., ceiling and floor) in which we can express these abilities. In the same way that each person has a range of speeds at which they can throw a baseball: with better technique, our actual performance increases; with injury or age, our actual performance decreases.
So, assuming this article is accurate in its definitions and logic, what are the implications? I will state a few.
- Lingering or unrelenting mental health concerns should not be a matter of shame or cause a Christian to doubt their salvation. Our bodies and minds, like the rest of creation, are groaning to be made whole (Romans 8:22).
- We should expect to find the same variance in mental health expressions amongst Christians that we find in physical health and abilities. We believe vibrant Christians can have physical maladies and low IQ’s, why would we think mental health would be different?
- We should strive to be excellent stewards of our mental health through every special revelation and common grace means that God has made available. This includes everything from getting adequate sleep to spiritual vitality to medical assistance (examples: 50 Good Mental Health Habits).
- We should strive to better differentiate which life struggles we have the ability to influence and how because we want to avoid the twin errors of: (a) being passive towards a weakness we could strengthen and (b) feeling shame for a weakness we cannot. Neither of these responses honors God.
- We should strive to better understand how these facets of mental health progress and regress across the life span. Those that increase and decrease most by age are likely the most physiologically rooted aptitudes. We cannot allow our definition of spiritual vitality be rooted in the “prime of life” years, but must also account for adolescent and elderly expressions of spiritual maturity.
My prayer for this article would be that it: (a) encourages sincere Christians who feel undue guilt for persistent mental health struggles that their personal devotion does not remedy, (b) equips pastors to think more robustly about how their preaching and teaching influences church members with mental health challenges, and (c) increases the quality of one another care that exists in small groups and other settings by improving the understanding of the intersection of mental health and spiritual maturity.
If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Mental Illness and Medication” post which address other facets of this subject.