What Does the Bible Say about Mental Health?
- Seth L. Scott Columbia International University
- 2020 11 Dec
Before we can explore what the Bible says about a topic like mental health, it is first necessary to define mental health, both explaining how the concept of mental health is understood today and then connect this concept to the world and context of the Bible. Many people use the terms “mental health” and “mental illness” interchangeably, assuming possibly that while mental illness is the presence of psychopathologies, like depression and anxiety, mental health then becomes the absence of these disorders or diseases.
This perspective is both inaccurate and unhelpful, however, because the absence of illness is not the same thing as health and a goal of not being ill is an insufficient outcome for growth and change as this provides no direction for living well and growing through struggle or toward hope with chronic conditions.
How Is Mental Health Defined Today?
Today, mental health is understood as feelings of satisfaction and well-being across all components of a holistic or whole life, which incorporates the four elements of being as an integrated whole with our emotions, cognitions, social relationships and behaviors, and spirituality. While we tend to use the term “mental health” to explain psychological and behavioral functioning as distinct from physical functioning and illness, the lines between these distinctions are becoming blurred. Medical health care and mental health care recognize the significant overlap in their disciplines as the functioning of our bodies through nutrition, sleep, exercise, and general wellness are directly connected to how we think, feel, and relate to one another.
Mental Health and Being Made in the Image of God
As people made in the image of God, we are bio pneuma psychosocial beings, meaning we are biological or physical, spiritual, psychological, and social.
Genesis explains how “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth… And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good… Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 1:27, 28, 31; 2:7).
When God created us in His image, He created us with the capacity for relationship across four domains: relationship with Him, relationship with one another, relationship with creation, and relationship with ourselves. Genesis 2:25 presents the pinnacle of these perfect relationships by noting how “The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” Adam and Eve were in an intimate and perfect relationship with God, one another, and creation, working the ground and subduing it as God had designed. Adam and Eve were also in an intimate and perfect relationship with themselves, meaning that their awareness and perspective was not distorted or selfish, not seeking to justify or rationalize thoughts and behaviors with no worries, fears, or concerns.
The pinnacle of creation noted at the end of Genesis 2 provides a contrast to the change and Fall presented in Genesis 3, creating the chronic condition of sin, and resulting illness and struggle we experience today. In seeking independence in choice and behavior over-dependence on the purpose and provision of God, Adam and Eve’s “eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). The intimacy was broken and from this point forward, all of humankind experiences guilt, shame, and selfishness disrupting and distorting the clarity and connections for which we were designed with God, one another, creation, and ourselves. Adam and Eve hid from God, blamed each other, experienced the consequences of the curse through toil with nature, and now delude us into believing our thinking is right and just. Through Christ, God’s relationship toward us is restored as Christ’s blood allows the return of our relationship with God, but the lens through which we experience the world is now distorted by sin, disrupting each part of this design. Mental health and mental illness are not just an issue of the mind but represent the effects of disruption in relationship designed to operate in the wholeness of Shalom. In the same way that we acknowledge that because of sin, all will die (Romans 6:23; Hebrews 9:27), yet we still pursue health to the extent we are able in our diet and lifestyle, the effect of sin across our relationships and upon all of creation disrupts our capacity to function in wholeness and health in our thinking as well.
Where Does the Bible Talk about Mental Health?
As noted above, the Bible does not speak of mental health in the same way that we do today, but the concept of mental health is integral to all of Scripture.
A focus on mental health is a focus on pursuing God’s redemptive plan for us and the world, seeking to proclaim the kingdom of God and the wholeness and healing provided through Christ. Paul closes Thessalonians with this prayer, requesting that “The God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23). Paul demonstrates that sanctification incorporates the whole self, seeking to rectify the curse of sin and restore Shalom. This emphasis on pursuing God with our whole self was part of the foundational mission for the people of Israel, designed to keep them centered on their Creator and Redeemer even through slavery and the wilderness wanderings, summarized with the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” Jesus reiterates this command as the first and greatest command, adding “with all your mind” in Mark 12:30.
When the Bible speaks about a person, whether noting their heart or their mind or something else, these terms are not intended to discuss different and distinct elements of the self, but to highlight how we are comprehensive and complete. Whole. This wholeness was our created design, and since the Fall, we fight for unity and wholeness across all four of our broken relationships.
This is the biblical concept of Shalom, or wholeness, completeness, belonging, peace. Shalom is a flourishing as we were intended across all our relationships. Mental health is represented through this flourishing, with mental illness representing interference in our relationships through disconnection, fear, chemical imbalance, avoidance, escape, dependence, and many other symptoms. Sin brings death (James 1:15) and even at birth, sin is at work, meaning that death is at work in our mortal bodies (2 Corinthians 4:12), atrophying and disrupting until the end, across all components of the self: mind, body, and spirit. Webb (2017, Toward a Theology of Psychological Disorder) suggests that “mental illness reminds us of the infirmities we all share as limited creatures in a fallen world” (p. 92), but the Gospel provides hope. “Mysteriously, God’s power is manifest in human frailty, not in artificial or imagined strength (2 Corinthians 13:4)” (Webb, 2017, p. 106).
Examples of Mental Health or Illness in the Bible
While I do not believe it is helpful to apply modern diagnoses to ancient biblical characters, as their context, experience, and perspective is both very different and partially unknown, Scripture is rife with examples of people exhibiting symptoms of the absence of Shalom in their functioning.
Abraham is anxious and afraid of how the Egyptians will treat him if they know Sarah is his wife, so on two occasions, he lies in response to the stress and fear of the moment (Genesis 12:17; 20:2). Following the loss of his children, home, and livelihood, Job experiences extreme suffering and sorrow (Job 2:13). On the heels of a major victory over the prophets of Baal and Queen Jezebel, Elijah becomes worn down and distraught, asking God to take his life (1 Kings 19). If we acknowledge that mental illness is not a singular deficit unique to people who lack faith but is instead the recognition of how sin has impacted our relationships with God, others, creation, and ourselves, everyone exists on the continuum of illness to health. Therefore, the goal is not solely the absence of illness, but the pursuit of health from an integrated and holistic lens. This natural and holistic pursuit is evident in God’s response to Elijah’s despair, by first providing him with physical nourishment through bread, water, and sleep before addressing his psychological and social/relational nourishment by affirming his calling and belonging and provided a companion and friend in Elisha (1 Kings 19:16). Paul directs our focus not on our current brokenness and groaning, but on the promise of wholeness and life supplied through Christ and sealed through the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 5:1-9).
Encouraging Truths for Christians with Mental Illness
Even as we struggle, we must remember some important facts. One, we are not alone. The truth of the Gospel is that we are deeply loved. We were loved by God as evidenced in creation and we remain loved by God as He demonstrated in sending His Son to die for us while we were sinners (Romans 5:8). God loves us and sent His Son to die for us and provided His Spirit to reside in us, speaking on our behalf (Romans 8:23-26).
Two, the presence of sickness, struggle, and suffering does not negate God’s presence and love for us. Romans 8 provides a critical chorus for us as we reside in the “already, but not yet.” We live in the Saturday of passion week – grateful and redeemed through the death of Christ on the cross on Friday and awaiting our own resurrection and glorification on Sunday. Christ has gone ahead as the first fruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:23), the forerunner of our faith (Heb. 12:2), and we wait in expectant hope and promise. While we may suffer and struggle now, it is nothing compared to the glory to come (Romans 8:18). Our current suffering is designed to ignite the flame of our hope for Him, knowing that “nothing can separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:39) and “His strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Finally, we remember that this is not our home (Heb. 13:14). The arc and complete story of the biblical timeline is that we were created and deeply loved, broken and deeply sinful, and redeemed and being restored because we are deeply loved. We are still deeply loved as created by God for the purpose of displaying His love to others and to the world, but sin has distorted our view of God, others, self, and creation – creating deep confusion for our reflection of God’s image and our ability to perceive and receive God’s love.
This brokenness reminds us of our longing for wholeness, for Shalom, and should provide a perspective of compassion towards others who also live in this brokenness. As followers of Christ, we have hope in the knowledge of the restoration of the world through Jesus Christ (Col. 1:19-20). This means that as we see people along the spectrum of illness to health, whether physical, mental, emotional, or social, it should remind us of how God’s grace is sufficient for us, His power demonstrated through our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). The loss of Shalom and disruption in relationships occurred when we sought independence from God and distrusted His provision. Salvation is demonstrated through dependence on Him and the provision of life through His Son (Rom. 5:18-21). Pursue health in these relationships through the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:6), demonstrating the restoration of life provided in the message of the Gospel, both now and to come (Col. 1:28).
Seth L. Scott, PhD, NCC, LPC-S is an associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina and provides clinical counseling and supervision in the community through his counseling practice, Sunrise Counseling. Seth, his wife, Jen, and their two middle school children enjoy outdoor activities, reading together as a family, board games, and meeting people through Jen’s pottery business at galleries and festivals.