What is the relationship, if any, between spiritual growth and mental health counseling? What should the Church’s interest be in mental health? Certainly, the Church is not a mental health agency, nor should it be. The Church is the visible body of Christ on Earth. The Church is the pillar of truth. Its primary purpose is proclamation of the truth of the gospel. And the body is the vehicle for demonstrating gospel by the way its members love one another. So, where does the topic of mental health fit into the purpose of the Church?

These are important questions for Church leaders to ponder since our culture has become more open, accepting and attentive to the issue of mental health and illness. It is an issue at the forefront of the social conscious. Up till now, mental illness has been a taboo topic for many. The reason being, mental illness carries with it a heavy stigma. Mental illness has been viewed as a sign of weakness, of poor choices and moral deficiency. Consequently, the Church has paid little attention to mental health and has, to a degree, co-opted the previous long-standing cultural view.

This is a problem. Not because the Church isn’t at pace with the culture. But because the gospel surely has application to mental health and illness. And, statistically speaking, a large percentage of Church members either have a mental illness, will have a mental illness, are related to someone with a mental illness or knows someone who does.

Furthermore, mental illness has an impact on spiritual health and growth. From a pastoral counseling/discipleship perspective, mental illness is “the elephant in the room.” Spiritual growth is impacted by mental illness. Moreover, the relationship is a two-way street. Spirituality can have an important impact on mental health. Yet, the how is unknown. How is spiritual growth impacted by mental illness? How does spiritual growth apply to mental illness? Undoubtedly, there is a relationship between these two topics, but many pastors, pastoral counselors, chaplains, disciple-makers, Churches and counselors are unsure of the connection.

Since the connection is an unknown, pastors are trying to help with one hand tied behind their backs. They know there’s a problem, but they have no tools to fix it. Attempts are made to help, and they are hit or miss. This leaves the parishioner who needs help, confused, disillusioned and thinking their faith has no connection with their daily experience of mental illness. This is a division that ought not exist. Surely the gospel has application to mental illness?

Knowing God

In Psalm 46:10 the writer said “Be still, and know that I am God.” What does it mean to know God? In the Old Testament (OT), the Hebrew root word for “know” is yada. Depending on the context, yada can mean learning, understanding, perceiving, performing, sexual intercourse, willing, and experiencing. That’s a wide range of meaning for just one word. However, this isn’t unusual in the art and science of translation. Depending on the context, it is a word that can be used to indicate intellectual information, yet it can also be used to indicate intimacy, even sex. In the story of Laban and Jacob, for example, when Jacob went to bed with who he thought was Rachel, but, in fact, was Leah, he lied with her and knew her. In other words, he had sex with her.

It’s important to understand, David isn’t suggesting that we have sex with God. He is saying, however, that we can know God intimately. This is the sense in which David is speaking. He’s saying that we can experience God with the totality of our being. We can have intimate communion with God. Knowing is so much more than knowledge, it is an experience of God’s presence. Knowing God, deeply, intimately, with the entirety of our being is what we were made for. It is the purpose for our existence. It is the source of our happiness. The first question and answer in the Westminster Catechism is “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” John Piper, influential preacher and author, said “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”[1] But knowing God and being satisfied in Him aren’t easy tasks. We are fallen creatures. The ways in which we think, feel and behave are tainted by sin.[2]

Thankfully, God hasn’t left humanity to languish in that state of darkness. We have the ability to discern between right and wrong. We have an innate sense of who God is on a very basic level. We have dignity because we were made in the image of God. Yet, these things are not sufficient to save us. When we place our faith in Jesus we are justified. Yet, we aren’t sanctified. We are being sanctified through ongoing work of the Holy Spirit over the course of our time on Earth. This is a process of correcting the lingering effects of sin in our thinking, feeling or behaving or confronting existing sin.

Barriers

Sin, the presence or impact of it, presents a barrier to authentic relationship to God. That isn’t to say, a barrier is sinful. Mental illness is the result of the fall. It is a result of Adam’s sin. Yet, for a parishioner to have a barrier like mental illness is not a sin in itself. I believe this is an important distinction to make, and is worthy of further discussion and qualifications.[3]

There are barriers that get in the way of knowing God. Barriers can be intellectual, habitual, historical (i.e. past experience of spiritual abuse), or psychological. Barriers can stunt spiritual growth, limit our sanctification and inhibit discipleship. Since barriers can range in their nature, the tools to overcome the barriers will vary also. A spiritual tool or intervention won’t always work. For example, if someone approached a pastor with an intellectual difficulty regarding the Christian faith, the pastor wouldn’t recommend Bible memorization. There’s nothing wrong with memorizing passages, but that intervention won’t get at the problem. The person likely needs apologetic resources and answers.

In the same way, if someone had a mental health issue, they would need mental health services. It may be necessary to use non-spiritual tools to meet spiritual ends. One of those tools can address barriers to spiritual growth is mental health counseling. Counselors are trained in evidence-based models to treat issues like depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction, relational and marital problems, personality disorders and so on. Counselors can play a meaningful role in someone’s spiritual growth and discipleship by addressing mental health issues that are holding them back.

[1] John Piper, Desiring God

[2] Romans 1:18-23

[3] Topics for further discussion would be, can mental illness be the result of sin? Can someone with a mental illness sin or, are their actions the result of the mental illness in which case they can’t be held responsible? Certainly, the choices we make can either worsen or heal mental illness. The choices we make can create fertile ground for mental illness in ourselves or in others. Therefore, personal responsibility must come into the discussion at some point. Regardless of mental illness, people are still responsible for their choices. And personal responsibility does open the door for sin to be discussed.

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