Why is it that when Christians want to find out what the Bible says about mental health they often turn to passages about demon possession? Do those verses really reflect our everyday experiences of being mentally unwell? If you look a bit more thoroughly there are other passages that are far more comparable to the mental health issues that are commonplace to our everyday experiences. I can think of a number of examples from the Old and New Testament. Take the apostle Paul for instance.
Various biblical scholars and writers (e.g. NT Wright and John Pollock) point out that Paul had some sort of ‘breakdown’ during his ministry. Between the writing of his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians) and his second (2 Corinthians), something had happened to Paul that had devastated and changed him. What had happened was Ephesus. The writer of Acts mentions uproar and a riot in Ephesus because of Paul’s ministry there without going into the details of how Paul was treated. However Paul himself writes about the effects of the treatment he received in Ephesus in his second letter to the Corinthians. Historians believe that Paul went through severe physical suffering, almost certainly imprisonment and quite possibly torture and deprivation of food or sleep.
The impact of these traumatic experiences on Paul is apparent in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11. Paul describes the hardships he suffered whilst in Asia (Ephesus) as being so great, and he was so utterly overwhelmed beyond any capacity to cope, that he despaired of life itself. He felt as though he had received the sentence of death within himself – as though he had internalized a death sentence. Doesn’t this sound like what we might call a nervous breakdown or severe depression? He was in despair. On top of that his relationship with the church that he had invested so much of himself in had become extremely rocky.
Traumatic, or just plain difficult, experiences in adult life or in childhood (when we are even less equipped to deal with them), can lead to emotional or psychological damage. We, like the apostle Paul, are not immune from the impact of living in a fallen world.
This is speculation on my part but I wonder if Paul’s mysterious thorn in his side that he writes about later in the letter is a hangover, a reminder or psychological residue of the traumatic experiences of Ephesus. If so, his comments about it give us an insight into how Paul dealt with his ‘breakdown’. ‘Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness”’ (2 Cor 12:8). Whether or not Paul’s thorn in the flesh was as a result of his Ephesus trauma, we can see here that he has a theology of suffering. By that I mean he knows that suffering is a part of the human condition and that becoming a Christian does not remove us from suffering, including mental/ psychological/emotional suffering. It is naïve and unbiblical thinking to believe that it does. “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12). Crucially, and please take note of this if you are suffering, God can, and does, use suffering for good! That doesn’t mean that suffering feels good of course. But it does mean that if you are suffering he hasn’t abandoned you, just as he hadn’t abandoned Paul.
In our humanness our response to mental anguish is often to run away and hide, not only from people, but from God. But note Paul’s response: he frames his suffering in his knowledge of God and in his understanding that we are not immune from suffering and he chooses to trust Him. Trusting God, despite what is going on for us is faith. Jesus loves faith. “…though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may prove genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:6,7).
We live in a fallen world, the Kingdom of God hasn’t fully come yet. A fallen world means sickness, decay, evil, death. Paul learnt that God accompanies us through the suffering that is inevitable in this world, and because he understood that God uses even the things of this world to make us more like Jesus he could write ‘in ALL things God works for the good of those who love him’ (Romans 8:28 my capitals).
I believe that includes psychological, mental and emotional suffering.
To be continued…