This article was written by Dr. Heath Lambert, an Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Jesus, Healing, and the Spiritual Nature of Mental Illness
In Part 1 of this series I discussed the difficulty of defining mental illness because it is not a concrete object, but an abstract idea that is open to interpretation by many different people. I suggested that Believers must understand mental illnesses as spiritual issues.
In Part 2, I showed from the Scriptures that it is appropriate to talk about healing these issues since the Bible discusses healing in both organic and spiritual terms.
Jesus not only can heal these spiritual issues, but in fact provides the only healing available.
But when we underline the spirituality behind mental illness it raises a very important question that biblical counselors better be able to answer. What is the relationship of physical issues to mental illness? We must answer whether the body has any role to play in these matters, and how Jesus’ healing is relevant for them.
In Scripture, the Body is Honored
The Bible is clear that God made human beings to consist of a body and a soul.
The LORD God formed the man of the dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature (Gen 2:7).
Every individual is a tight union of two constituent parts. Each person is one human being composed of both a physical and a spiritual essence. We make distinctions between these two constituent parts carefully understanding that they are only divisible at death, and—even at that—will ultimately be restored together on the Last Day.
Throughout Church history some have wanted to dishonor the body by devaluing it, but the Bible will not allow such an approach.
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? . . . Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? (1 Cor 6:15, 19)
We could never imagine a more exalted status for our bodies than that they would be considered members of Jesus Christ himself and the dwelling place of God the Holy Spirit. The Bible’s emphasis on the importance of our bodies means that we must love, honor, and care for them. We can do this in any number of ways. In the context of 1 Corinthians 6 we do this by pursuing sexual purity. First Timothy 4:8 makes clear that we can accomplish this with physical exercise, which is of some value.
In the context of illness and disease we love, honor, and care for our bodies by embracing medical care for medical problems. This means that any counselor worth his salt should enthusiastically embrace the use of physicians, medicines, surgeries, and other procedures for cure and symptom relief. We are in favor of everything from a soothing cup of tea while nursing a head cold, to deep brain surgery for Parkinson’s patients, and everything in between.
The Bible’s teaching on the nature of who we are as humans with a body and a soul is a great help in counseling. When we think of counselees as whole persons we will always want to be aware of both physical and spiritual issues as we care for people.
Paying attention to both helps us to avoid two equal and opposite errors. On one hand is the error of the prosperity gospel, which sees nefarious spiritual problems at the root of every physical difficulty. On the other hand is the error of secular psychology with its materialistic view of mankind that ignores any spiritual problems in favor of an exclusive focus on physicality.
“Mental Illness” is Confusing
Secular psychologists have an unbiblical view of persons as merely physical. Because of this their efforts at classifying problems in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) runs afoul. The book is confusing. Lacking the clarity and truthfulness of the Bible it is not able to make scriptural distinctions between physical and spiritual issues. This requires Christians reading it to exercise great discernment.
The DSM lists hundreds of disorders under the category of illness. Disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Bipolar I, Bipolar II, Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, and Schizpoid Personality Disorder are all placed together in the same status of mental illness. Some of these hundreds of disorders, like Autism, are obviously physical in nature. Others, like Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, have no supporting evidence for any physical component at all. A person reading the DSM has no way to tell from within the manual which problems have a medical and organic basis, and which ones do not.
The DSM lumps spiritual issues, physical issues, and combinations of the two all into the category of illness. A Christian view of personality forces us to think more clearly than this. We need to connect the spiritual problems of people to the spiritual solutions found in Christ and his Word. We need to connect the physical problems of people to the solutions offered by competent medical professionals. Often, we need to do be both of these at once.
The biblical teaching that humans have a body and soul is a great help to us in ministering to troubled people, but we need to be careful. The intersection of body and soul is somewhat mysterious and it can often be hard to tell whether problems belong in one category, another category, or some combination of the two.
I think Ed Welch is very helpful on this topic in his book Blame it On the Brain. Welch argues that spiritual issues will show up as moral categories that the Bible endorses or condemns. Physical issues show up as amoral categories that the Bible doesn’t pronounce an ethical verdict on (i.e., the forgetfulness of Alzheimer’s disease is never indicted in Scripture and so we know it is a physical weakness that requires physical care).
As helpful as these distinctions are we still must be cautious. My personal creed is: when in doubt, check it out. Whenever problems appear extreme, out of the ordinary, or potentially biological in any way I refer my counselees to a physician. Receiving a full medical work-up allows us to rule out organic issues or else ensure that people with physical problems get the medical treatment they require.
Jesus’ Healing and Physical Issues
So, after all this we still must answer the question about Jesus’ healing when physical issues are on the line. Does all this mean Jesus doesn’t heal when the issues are physical in nature? My answer is no for several reasons.
First, when people are plagued with physical problems it is Jesus—in his common grace—that makes available all the medical knowledge and help currently available to us. When medical treatments work we should express gratitude to physicians and drug manufacturers. Ultimately, however, we must give praise to God who is the giver of every good gift.
Second, Jesus can and does intervene when modern medicine cannot and heals miraculously. We should boldly ask Jesus to heal us, understanding that though he can heal he also often loves to use persistent illness to grow our trust in him through our own weakness.
Third, when people are plagued with physical problems it is Jesus who draws near to them comforting them and empowering them to endure their diagnosis. Patients need Jesus to be near to them and minister tender mercy whether their prognosis is positive or negative. The most significant issues in life do not have to do with medicine but with life lived before the face of a good and sovereign God. It does not demean the body to confess that people always need spiritual healing more than the physical variety.
Fourth, when people are plagued with physical problems the most successful medical relief they receive is only temporary. Every medical treatment—no matter how wonderful—will ultimately fail when our bodies succumb to the final enemy, death. On the day our spirit is torn from our body we will need to look to Jesus to provide for us what no medical doctor ever can. We will need our Savior himself and the hope he offers of a glorified body, cleansed from weakness, that will never again know death, mourning, crying, or pain.
On the Last Day the only medical intervention that will matter is the one from the Great Physician. He will show us then that he honors our bodies more than we ever could. We need to long for that day when we are with him. Until then, we honor him, the Bible, our bodies, and sick people by going to human doctors who require a co-pay.