Health of a whole person

How should the church think about mental health?

Our mental state is connected to body and spirit, and, like them, can be in a state of unhealthiness. In this perspectives section, leaders and health practitioners from Anabaptist-related congregations around the world address how their church has a role in caring for the mental health of their congregants.

Health of a whole person

Many believers think that emotional or psychological problems indicate a lack of faith. This is not the case. On the one hand, it is clear that faith in Jesus improves the emotional element of our life, just as it does all the other elements of our life. On the other hand, I have worked with many people who have amazingly deep and strong faith and still suffer from severe emotional disorders.

It is hard to know how to respond when emotional problems occur, but implying that the prob1ems are only due to a lack of faith can actually increase those problems.

The biblical description of humanity

To understand emotional problems, we need to understand people. Throughout Scripture, we find humans described as a unity.

In the creation story in Genesis 2, we see that God made Adam from the dust (physical elements) and filled him with God’s own breath or spirit of life (spiritual elements). Adam thinks (for example, he names the animals) and feels (for example, joy when he sees the woman). It is also clear that he was made for relationship with other people and, most importantly, for relationship with God.

Adam is described as a whole person who includes an interconnected mind, body and spirit. This interconnectedness implies that, just as physical problems such as chronic pain can (but do not have to) block spiritual growth, psychological problems such as depression can (but do not have to) block spiritual growth. It also implies that spiritual growth can help physical and emotional growth.

The story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 is an excellent illustration of this.

Elijah’s depression

1 Kings 19 begins with Elijah emotionally drained. After the excitement of his victory at Mount Carmel, he experiences a normal emotional letdown. In addition, he is physically exhausted after running alongside the king’s chariot on the return to Jezreel. To top it off, instead of being praised as a spiritual hero, he returns to the news that the queen has ordered his death!

Scripture describes Elijah as showing symptoms of the psychological disorder called “major depression.” He is fearful and sad, and withdraws from interaction with other people. He sees no hope and wants to die. His thinking is confused. His belief that he is the only one who still follows God is inaccurate and may reflect a thought disorder. His depression also affects his faith, as can be seen by his lack of trust in God to protect him.

Elijah knows God is his only hope; therefore, he goes to the desert to seek God. Even though Elijah is discouraged, depressed and weak in faith, God responds with grace and love.

It is important to notice that God’s response provides for Elijah’s whole person. God cares for Elijah physically, emotionally, cognitively, relationally and spiritually. God does not immediately speak to Elijah. He knows what Elijah needs and so, before he provides for Elijah spiritually and emotionally, God provides for Elijah physically. He sends an angel to feed Elijah and help him sleep. Then God sends Elijah on a walk to Mt. Horeb. It is not until Elijah arrives at Horeb rested, nourished and physically strengthened that God speaks to him.

When God finally speaks to Elijah, he directly confronts Elijah’s behaviours and thoughts which had contributed to his depression. He confronts Elijah’s isolation by ordering him to join with other faithful believers (Elisha, and Jehu), and he confronts Elijah’s inaccurate belief that he is the only one who still served the Lord, stating, “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel – all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal.” And, by his presence, God restores Elijah’s faith.

What we can do

So what can be done to help with emotional or relational problems we face, such as depression, anxiety attacks, eating disorders or a marriage crisis? There are a number of practical steps a Christian can take:

  • Pray. Jesus is Lord and the source of all healing.
  • Read Scripture: it has much to say regarding many issues.
  • Seek support and encouragement from friends.
  • Ask for advice from your pastor, elders or other mature believers.
  • Read good books that offer solid information.
  • And, God can use counselling to bring healing and growth.

When it is needed, it is poor stewardship to not use all that God has provided to reach his goals.

It is a mistake to explain away all emotional and relationship problems as the result of disobedience to God. It is also a mistake for us to tell God how he will help us cope with those problems. As a professor explained to me years ago, “Jesus does not keep us from the same problems that everyone else in the world faces. What he does do is help us cope with those problems when they come.”

—David Bruce Rose is a professor of marriage and family studies at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, a Mennonite Brethren university. A version of this article first appeared in the MB Herald.

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier April 2017