Interesting Conversation, part 2

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This is the second part of a conversation that I had with a licensed psychologist.  I’ll keep his name anonymous, but suffice it to say that we share basic biblical/theological foundations, but approach counseling with a different methodology.  We are able to maintain a solid friendship, though we disagree on some points, as you’ll see below.  If you haven’t been following along, I wrote this blog post about psychology and faith (and how they aren’t going together all too well), he responded here, and the following is what I said as a response.  Feel free to agree or disagree with me.  Here I go:

“Thanks for the response ______(I’ll keep him anonymous)!  I appreciate the wisdom that you bring and the expertise in psychology that you have.  You see it through a biblical worldview as well, and I appreciate that.

I agree with the follow-up blog that you said.  I agree that not all mental health crises are issues of ‘faith’, but it’s so hard to detect and diagnose those issues (depression, bi-polar, PTSD, etc.) empirically, right?  To diagnose somebody as a diabetic, you can do blood work, but not so for depression.  I don’t mean to say that we then abandon all search for an empirical test.  But I will throw out this as an idea, that it would only be, at best, a diagnosis and not a prescription.  For many of those same issues, could it not be a ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’  If we do find a blood test that can prove definitively that a person has anxiety disorder, who is to say that it was brought on by purely physical (bodily) problems, as in the case of diabetes.  To further my example, lets say that a person comes into the ER with a broken leg.  We can perform X-rays to confirm, CAT scans to check head injuries, etc., and prescribe medications to dull the pain.  In fact, we can even set the leg and cast it so that it will heal.  Having a broken leg is a problem, for sure.  But maybe the real problem is that this guy can’t see well at all.  He walks out in the middle of the road when traffic is heavy because he can’t see the cars coming (I know, it’s a stretch, just hang with me…I probably could’ve come up with a more realistic example, and I will someday).  That’s what broke his leg the first time, and it will break his leg the next time he walks out of his house.  Medication can’t do anything about this…he needs glasses.  His leg needs to be fixed, but his real problem is that he can’t see.  Could it be like this for mental illnesses?  I make a blanket statement here, but I don’t deny purely bodily-induced illnesses, as in post-pardum depression, thyroid-induced depression, and others that I can’t think of off the cuff.  Medicine may take the edge off of mental illnesses, but the real issue that the illnesses came up is not addressed by medications.

I think that often (not always, though) mental illnesses are a result of (sometimes years, and even decades) responding sinfully to life.  Instead of appropriately grieving, a person spirals into depression.  Instead of handling fear in a God-honoring way, a person develops a myriad of phobias.  Instead of building God-honoring relationships, a person develops habits of retracting from people and society, and it becomes so bad that they can’t function, and are labeled with social anxiety disorder.  When the person presents to their psychologist/counselor, it’s way, way out of control.  Telling them to turn to God doesn’t “fix” their problem, because they’re trying to overcome so many years of developing sinful ways of responding to life (but ultimately the problem rests in their deficient relationship with God).  This is why I hate ‘Biblical’ counseling that consists of quoting a verse at somebody and telling them to ‘obey the Word of the Lord.’  It’s not quite that easy.  They have to be shown, over time, how to life life in a God-honoring way.  Medications may help this person take the edge off of their ______, but doesn’t necessarily help them to live a godly life.”

I welcome comments.


Christ follower, husband, father, writer, small groups pastor at Saddleback Community Church. Communications director for the Small Group Network.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • P

    This will be long and somewhat “dicey”, but I’m going to have to strongly disagree with you on this one. While I’d be totally fine with the argument that disease and mental illness are consequences of the fall of man, I’m not okay with the belief that these illnesses arise from day-to-day sinful living. I think attributing mental illnesses to a sin problem rather than actual biological issues is a sign of an uneducated church looking for a quick fix. To me it sounds like the “If I can’t figure it out, I’ll blame it on sin” complex, which certainly isn’t biblical or right.
    While I’m sure it’s possible for someone’s issues to originate or be exacerbated by sin, I think you’ve got it flipped when you say that this is the more common occurrence. About 2 years ago, I was clinically diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Physical lab testing showed that my disease was caused by chemical imbalances and malfunctioning brain circuitry. It is also well established internationally that bipolar is a genetically influenced disease and often shows itself to be hereditary. That said, like myself, my mother severely struggles with clinical depression and fibromyalgia. She has battled 40 years with this crippling disease, and often is left bedridden for days on end. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve carried my mother up and down the stairs because she couldn’t do it on her own. While I am not currently on medication , my mother’s pain became so great that medicine was the only thing that got her going every day and to sleep every night.
    If you tried to tell my mother that her disease was the result of sinful responses to life, she would most likely break down weeping, and I would probably get pretty angry. My mother and I share a daily battle that I can assure you has nothing to do with sinful responses to life. We pray expectantly for healing from God every day, and whether we’re on medications or not, our hope and strength is placed in God alone. Maybe it’s easy for those who don’t struggle with things like this to try and point out sin as the cause, but for a moment put yourself in my mother’s shoes as best as you can. For 40 years she has been following Christ faithfully with all of her heart, building up a network of God-honoring relationships, including women who meet together to pray weekly. For 40 years she has been praying for deliverance, praying just as Jesus did, “Father, if it be Your will, take this cup of suffering from me”.
    40 years of seemingly unanswered prayer would leave anyone with questions. But for someone who for 40 years has faithfully walked with Christ and earnestly asked God to reveal sin in her life, sin being the cause of her disease is out of the question. What is the chief end of man? Westminster Catechism would say “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Have you ever considered that maybe people are handed circumstances by God so that through their trials God would be glorified? Or maybe just like Job or Paul, we would develop a love and devotion to God that does not waiver according to our circumstance? Maybe these illnesses are God’s way of reminding us of our weakness and our need to rely fully on Him? Maybe it has nothing to do with daily sinful responses to life at all?
    I believe that often times the church is quick to try and label sin as the cause of all problems simply because we are too uneducated about how to appropriately deal with an issue. Are there issues and problems caused by unrepentant sin and bad choices? Of course. But why treat someone with clinical depression any differently than you would someone with diabetes or cancer or Parkinson’s? We understand these diseases better, and people are more open about their battles with them, thus you don’t see the “it’s a sin problem” diagnosis. My grandfather has Alzheimer’s disease. Would you say my grandfather made sinful choices that resulted in this development? Maybe he sang out of key too many weeks in the church choir? Just kidding. I feel like you’re saying that people don’t struggle with mental diseases and depression because it’s in their genetic makeup, but rather because it’s “their fault”. There are clear genetic links for many of these diseases, and God-willing, we will discover more answers. My point is that mental illnesses are a great mystery to those who don’t experience them or are not thoroughly educated about them. BUT this does not mean they should be treated any differently from any other illness or disease. Instead of using “it’s a sin problem” as a cop-out answer to these things, let’s educate ourselves and our churches so that we can minister to these people the best we can.
    For people like my mother and I, we know how to live life in a God-honoring way, and are running the race, my mother especially, with heroic perseverance. No Bible study or pastoral counseling is going to take away our suffering. Sin is not the problem, and I don’t think it is for most sufferers of depression and mental illness. The only thing we can do is pray and hope, fully believing that if it be the Father’s will, He has the power to take the cup from us. I have learned not to live a God-honoring life to try and end my suffering, but rather through my suffering live a God-honoring life to the end.
    Much love,

  • benlreed

    Thanks for the honesty. I truly appreciate a comment from someone who firsthand understands suffering and who is dealing with a loved one who suffers as well.
    In my counseling, honestly sin isn’t the first issue that I look at when someone is dealing with, lets say rheumatoid arthritis. There are obvious physical problems that need to be addressed. But the way that we handle these sufferings reveals our hearts (read my comment to my blog post here: Thank God for saints like your mother who have suffered well for the glory of Christ for 40 years or more. What do I mean to suffer well? To continue to glorify God and honor Christ in the midst of pain. To continue to love others, serve them, maintain God-given responsibilities, and do all without grumbling or complaining. That’s a huge task! But it seems as if your mother has done this as all true saints do, glorifying God and enjoying Him. All praise be to Him!

    I do not attribute mental health problems to sin issues “instead” of biological ones. Rather I believe that the humans are both body and soul. We are not one to the exclusion of the other, but both at the same time. Any problem that we have in life becomes, oftentimes a problem that affects both. One point that I wanted to make was that mental health issues can be the product of sinful thoughts and actions. I never said that they have to be in every case, but that this is a possibility (see Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 7:12, 15; 2 Chronicles 21:18-19, Psalm 38:3-5; Proverbs 3:7-8 for Scriptural examples of physical illnesses resulting from sin…taken from “Blame it on the Brain” by Ed Welch, pp 59-60). I brought up two examples, post-partum depression and depression due to thyroid problems. There are obviously some mental health issues that started biologically. But whether they started biologically or not, we still have a responsibility to honor God. We all live in a fallen world, with the effects of sin, sinning against one another and being sinned against. God doesn’t hold us responsible for others’ sins against us…rather He holds us responsible for our actions and reactions to life. Medications don’t help your mother honor God. They help the pain that she experiences, but they have no effect on her heart. Christ is her treasure, and it doesn’t matter whether she’s pain-free, full of pain, rich or poor, she has learned the secret of being content: she can do all things in Christ (Philippians 4:10-13). The problems come in when we begin to blame the problem, whether it’s rheumatoid, depression, bi-polar, cancer, diabetes, etc.) for our sin and excuse our sin. God doesn’t excuse our sin, and neither should we. So when we react sinfully to life, God calls that sin. No amount of medication can change that.
    Going off of that same thought, we both know that a person’s greatest need is Christ. Medications are surface-level treatments at best. They don’t get to the core of our needs as humans, which is to have a relationship with God. That’s not to say that when we become followers of Christ, all of our sufferings go away (look at Paul…his sufferings surely didn’t go away) or that we shouldn’t work to overcome the effects of suffering, but we have no true hope for healing until we have a relationship with the Wonderful Counselor. Our infatuation with a pain-free life can surpass our desire for Christ, and medication becomes a way to feed the idol in our hearts.
    “Why treat someone with clinical depression any differently than…diabetes or cancer…?” One big reason is that there isn’t a way to test chemical imbalances…yet. And even if there were, the looming question is, “Which came first?” Did the chemical imbalance cause the depression, or did the depression cause the chemical imbalance? Putting depression in the category of other biological problems oversimplifies things. Depression is complex, and requires a complex “prescription” that shouldn’t be limited to medications, such as cancer is…or a broken leg, or a torn ligament.
    About mental illnesses and genetics, I do say that there is a very strong familial link with mental illness. That has to do with 2 things. One, it’s likely passed through the blood-line. That’s pretty obvious, because it can be traced down through generations, because even when a son is not close to his father, he may have the same illness. But another factor is that we as humans learn behavior very, very well. We cope with life in very similar ways as those who raise us cope. We learn habits, mannerisms, and behaviors from our family, and mental illnesses should be thrown in with this as well. Children of alcoholic parents have a higher predisposition to alcoholism. When “life” happens, it’s as if we go back to “normal”…what we grew up with. That’s often our default response. So I definitely say that there’s a genetic link with mental illnesses, but that doesn’t excuse them, does it? There’s also genetic links with alcoholism and obesity, but neither of them are excused. We weep and mourn with those who suffer, but call them to change. We shouldn’t excuse the alcoholic because he or she had an alcoholic parent…we still say that it’s “their fault.” They may have a tougher time with that besetting sin than others do, but they still have a responsibility to work hard against it. I say all of that to point out that, just because there’s a genetic link, people aren’t off the hook.
    I agree that the church should educate ourselves in order to effectively minister to hurting people. “No Bible study or pastoral counseling is going to take away our suffering,” but increasing in the knowledge and love of God can change the way that we view it. Perspective in suffering is HUGE. “There are two ways of “feeling” pain. One is the “feeling” triggered by the body as one senses pain outside the brain at the pain receptor level. The other is triggered by one’s attitude and thinking after the pain impulse reaches the brain and is perceived.” (from “Pain, the Plight of Fallen Man” by James Halla, MD, p. 21) This is not to say that the pain experienced with mental illness is not real. It is very much real! But God has called us to be good stewards of our bodies, and that may look vastly different for a healthy 20 year old vs a dying 80 year old. But the call is the same. Realizing the physical capacity of our bodies is important, and knowing that we can still honor God with them is key.
    You’ve brought up some huge questions. I don’t know if my comment has helped any, but I pray that it did. Feel free to ask more questions.


  • http://deleted P

    If you read my response again, you’ll see that I agreed with you that illnesses/depression CAN be brought on by sin. I just felt that you put way too much water in that bucket. Sure, the relationship between body and soul goes hand in hand, but I think this can be viewed on a spectral level. Some people’s depression could be completely circumstantially induced, other’s could be completely biological, and still other’s somewhere in between. It is unfair to the person on the purely biological end of that spectrum for you to say that their sin or lack of faith is contributing to their condition.
    So there’s no CONCLUSIVE evidence as to what causes bipolar disorder, but the same can be said for most forms of cancer as well. Cancer actually is VERY complex, and much of the treatment is trial and error just like with mental illnesses. I know this firsthand as my roommate continues searching for clinical trials nationwide for something that might heal his father’s brain cancer. Just because we might know more about cancer doesn’t mean that doctors still aren’t guessing at what will be an effective treatment. In that respect, I don’t think it oversimplifies things at all to group depression and cancer together. The fact is these things are largely mysterious to our feeble minds.
    I feel like your focus is shifting from the question of “what role does sin have in mental illness?” to an attack on these people who may or may not be “blaming their brain” for their sin. I for one never use my disorder as an excuse for my actions, and I think most mature Christians understand that. We are always responsible for our sin. No exceptions.
    Regarding medicine, again I feel like you’re taking a small percentage of cases and generalizing it to a majority. While medicine can certainly become addicting and an idol for many people, for many others it is simply what allows them to function. My mother’s pain has never subsided because of any medication she’s been on, and she knows that no medicine will take her pain away. She doesn’t strive to live a pain-free life, and she doesn’t expect medication to give her that. What medication does do for my mother, and millions of other people, is allows her to get up each morning, go to work, and provide for her family. I would argue that medication actually does help my mother honor God. Could God miraculously heal her, rid her of her chronic fatigue, eliminating her need for medication? Absolutely. But is it wrong to believe that God has provided her with medicine so that she can get up and serve Him and show His love to the community every day? God says He that He knows our every need. How can you exclude medicine from the good Lord’s provision?
    As Hebrews 13:20-21 says, “May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
    In love,

  • benlreed

    I’m not anti-medication. I’m use-medications-with-caution (I just made up a category for myself). Medications can and do become idols and crutches for some people. But for others, they are a great help.

    Any form of suffering, from the smallest headache to the biggest pain, from losing a pet to losing a loved one, is an opportunity for our heart to be revealed. If we look rely solely on medicine to heal us, we miss the opportunity to check our heart. I’m not saying at all that you or your mother have done this, just that it’s a great possibility.

    I am not excluding medicine from the Lord’s provision. But even good things can morph into idols (James 4:1-3), so we must use them with caution.