Can You Be Spiritually Healthy But Mentally Unhealthy?
I heard this question asked recently in a discussion about the emotional health of clergy, precipitated by the tragic death of a well-known local preacher who took his own life.
The question is tricky, because we know that a person can be spiritually healthy but physically unhealthy. If you’re older, then your “outer self is wasting away”, and there’s nothing you can do about it, but at the same time, your “inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor.4:16). Similarly, a flu bug can lay you flat or a bad burger can give you food poisoning, no matter how close you and the Lord have been lately. The puke falls from the just and unjust.
But…(there’s always a “but”) we can bring all sorts of physical trouble on ourselves if we’re not tending to our spiritual and emotional sides. So we must get in the habit of asking ourselves, “Is this physical trouble I’m feeling, disease (which I can’t avoid), or dis-ease (which I can avoid or at least diminish with some behavioral tweaks; i.e. get more sleep, practice forgiveness, manage time better…)
I think the same distinction exists in the arena of mental health. The more we learn of genetics and brain chemistry and neurological disease, the more we’ve come to recognize that there are many forms of mental distress that – just like that flu bug – are unavoidable, and the solution is not just to pray more, but to take your meds and see the doctor.
Churches would do well (and many are) in recognizing that there is such a thing as mental illness, equivalent in every way to physical illness. Rick and Kay Warren have devoted much ministry bandwidth since the the suicide of their son Matthew in 2013 to educate and equip churches in how to minister to this often overlooked segment of the congregation.
Churches would do well (and many are) in recognizing that there is such a thing as mental illness, equivalent in every way to physical illness.
But…(here comes the “but”), as before, once you rule out biochemical or genetic causes to mental distress, we should recognize that there are things we do and habits we practice which can increase or decrease our emotional well-being. King David asked himself before God, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Ps.42). He wasn’t about to attribute it to bipolar disorder (even though not a few clinicians believe he had it). He wanted to know its spiritual roots.
These days, if a guy goes postal and shoots up his workplace or family, often you’ll hear people say afterwards, “He was a sick man”, when the truth of the matter was he was an angry man (who never learned to reel in his temper) or a selfish man (who never learned how to love people properly.)
Too much of immoral or illegal behavior these days gets laid at the feet of mental illness, when the person suffered more from a disease of the soul, where a lot more looking to and listening to Jesus might have gone a long way.
But back to the original question. And the answer is yes…you can be spiritually healthy but mentally unhealthy, provided we’re talking about a more organic mental illness which requires outside treatment and support to keep in check. (But even this doesn’t give the suffering person a “pass”. Isn’t it profoundly sad how mental illness corresponds to our fallen nature. Why doesn’t the mentally ill person break into Mom and Dad’s safe, take their money and give it away randomly to people down at the theater, instead of taking Mom and Dad’s guns and shooting them?}
The lesson in all of this for followers of Christ is to continue to grow in their awareness of emotional health as a vital part of spiritual wholeness. The Church should be the safest of places for a person to admit his or her brokenness, inside and out. Sadly though, too many churches seem to specialize in shooting their wounded. Which no doubt explains in part why so many pastors and church leaders stuff their emotional pain and suffer in silence.
The Church should be the safest of places for a person to admit his or her brokenness, inside and out. Sadly though, too many churches seem to specialize in shooting their wounded.
What can change this? Try coming to the Cross on which Jesus died. Because one thing that Cross reveals is that we are all terribly broken and flawed creatures. Far more than any of us realize.
And being able to admit this is the first step toward spiritual – and emotional – health.
Bear Clifton is a pastor, writer and screenwriter. His blogs and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, and “A Sparrow Could Fall”, all available through Amazon.