The problem with “mental illness”

I wish there was a word or phrase to cover the mental and emotional disorders (e.g. depression, anxiety, schizophrenia) that result from both personal sin (for which we are responsible), and personal suffering (for which we are not – or not wholly –  responsible).

For example, when I sometimes write about “mental illness,” some Christians hear such “disease” terminology as denying sin, minimizing personal responsibility, undermining the sufficiency of Scripture, and ignoring the divine provisions of repentance toward God, faith in Jesus Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That’s not my intention.

On the other hand, I and others react against the way some Christians reject all (or most) “mental illness” categories. We see this as a serious denial of biblical anthropology, a denial of the extensive damaging effects of the fall upon humanity. Our reasoning for believing in such damage is rooted in Scripture and goes something like this:

Step 1: As a result of the fall, my body’s chemistry, physics, and electricity are damaged.

Step 2: My brain uses physical structure, chemistry, and electricity to process my thoughts and emotions

Step 3: My brain’s ability to process my thoughts and emotions will be damaged to the extent that my brain is affected by the fall.

Step 1 is a biblical fact. Step 2 is a scientific fact. Step 3 is the logical result of Steps 1 and 2.

There are three additional complications to contend with here. The first is that the brain acts as a bridge between our spiritual and physical worlds (our soul and our body) in a way that no other body part does, making it difficult to achieve clear distinctions between what is spiritual and what is physical. Second, the brain is the most complex organ in our body, with so much still to be explored, discovered, and understood that some scientists call it “the last frontier.” Third, just as with all areas of my body, the “natural” damage to my brain in Step 1 can be increased by three aggravating factors:

Factor A: Damage outside my control (e.g. genes, brain injury, aging, abuse**, shock, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, etc.)

Factor B: Personal sin which is my responsibility (e.g. substance abuse, the deliberate choice to think sinful thoughts/feel sinful emotions, the refusal to trust/obey God, rejection of the means of grace, etc.).

Factor C: Direct divine intervention (i.e. God, in His sovereignty, may impact my brain processes: as a chastisement to correct my faith, or as a test to display my faith – as physical suffering did in the case of Job).

As the damage under Step 1 is increased by these three factors, so the disabling suffering in Step 3 will also be increased. But what should we call the mental and emotional disorders/effects in Step 3?

Misleading and harmful
Given that sometimes the disorders in Step 3 are the result of personal choices (Factor B), to use only “mental illness” terminology can be misleading and harmful.

But given that sometimes the disorders in Step 3 are the result of a fallen brain, or damage outside of my control (Factor A), or the direct intervention of God (Factor C), to use only “personal sin” terminology can be equally misleading and harmful.

So what do we call the disorders? “Sin” is too narrow in many cases. “Illness” is too narrow in other cases. Use of either category exclusively is inaccurate, provoking suspicion and often hostile reaction.

In the ongoing absence of mutually acceptable terminology that would allow us to speak more accurately and comprehensively, I have a number of suggestions that I hope might help to bring Christians a bit closer together as we discuss these vital matters that impact millions of suffering people. Tune in tomorrow for more details.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to that follow up post Maximizing and Minimizing Mental Illness

** See Eric Johnson’s book, Foundations for Soul Care for a review of the scientific evidence of the physical changes that take place in the brain due to sexual and verbal abuse in childhood.


Check out

Why newspapers need to hire more Christians
“Media outlets who want to understand America should at least have a few journalists hanging around who share — or at least, aren’t hostile to — the Christian faith.”

British Christians fed up with “coarse, sneering” mockery of Christianity
A new ComRes survey, commissioned by the Coalition for Marriage, found that 67 percent of 535 practicing Christians polled feel they are part of a “persecuted minority”. It also found that 76 percent said that many people opposed to “same-sex marriage” are reluctant to say so for fear of being called a bigot.

Anderson Cooper’s Coverage of the Gosnell Atrocities
You’ll need a strong stomach for this.

How to build a billion dolar business and still get home by 5.30pm
Fascinating insight into the life and business practices of Survey Monkey’s Dave Goldberg.

The sorry state of the apology
After a spate of celebrity apologies, Dorothy Greco says that “though their public mea culpas might make for a great sound bite, they lack the components of a bona fide apology. Sadly, within the church, we rarely do much better. ”

The preacher’s vocal hygiene
Lot’s of practical advice from Jeremy Walker on how preachers/teachers can care for their vocal chords.


Children’s Bible Study Plan

This week’s morning and evening reading plan in Word and pdf.

This week’s single reading plan for morning or evening in Word and pdf.

If you want to start at the beginning, this is the first year of the children’s Morning and Evening Bible reading plan in Word and pdf.

Jason Henry, a missionary in Mongolia, has very kindly collated and produced the second year of morning and evening readings in Word and pdf.

And here’s the first 12 months of the Morning or Evening Bible reading plan in Word and pdf.

Here’s an explanation of the plan.

And here are the daily Bible Studies gathered into individual Bible books. Further explanation of that here.

Old Testament

New Testament

May God bless you and your children as you study the Word of life.


My biggest blogging mistake: “Holy Hip Hop”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole subject of “Holy Hip Hop” or “Christian Rap” since I wrote three blog posts on the subject a couple of years ago. The upshot of it all is that I’ve taken down the blog posts and I want to apologize to my African American brothers and sisters in Christ for four wrongs:

1. It was the wrong time: The Reformed movement among African Americans is still in its infancy, taking baby steps, as it were. It was not the right time to come along with such a strong critique of some of those trying extremely hard to influence the African American community towards a more biblical theology.

2. I was the wrong person: I did not fully appreciate how delicate and volatile race relations were in the USA. For a white Brit to critique African Americans is something like a German criticizing the Jews. Due to painful historical circumstances, for any legitimate critique to get a hearing on issues like this, it really has to come from African American voices. I hope I wasn’t being racist, but I was definitely being racially insensitive.

3. It was the wrong forum: I should not have gone so public with my concerns without first reaching out privately to African American Christians in order to understand the historical and cultural context of this genre of music. As one African American pastor told me recently, when he read my articles, he said, “Just another white guy who doesn’t understand where we’ve come from.” The one huge blessing that has come from my posts is the numerous wonderful African American Christians who have made contact with me and even built friendships with me. It’s been one of the richest experiences of my life to get to know these dear brothers and sisters in the Lord.

4. It was the wrong balance: I had never really written or spoken about African American Christians before. Therefore I had no “credit” in the bank to draw on when I made these critical comments. That was simply stupid. Also, while I did concede the good motives behind the work of many Christian rappers, and I did try to distinguish between the styles of different rappers, I really only highlighted negatives in my articles.

This may seem silly, coming as it does 2-3 years later, when most people have probably forgotten all about it. However, the Lord has been convicting me about this, and I want to follow through by apologizing and by asking my African American brothers and sisters for forgiveness.

One huge positive that’s come out of this for me is that the Lord has given me a heart passion for His beautiful plan of racially integrated churches. I hope and pray that God will yet graciously use me to realize this world-transforming vision.

I’ve turned off the comments on this post as I do not want to start the debate up all over again.