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Mental Illness: Biological and/or Spiritual? Are you equipped to discern the differences?

This is a highly controversial issue and one that cannot be adequately addressed in a blog post. However, it is a great error; and, if I do say so, both dangerous and ignorant, to dogmatically attribute all "mental and emotional dysfunctions" to be a result (solely and exclusively) of spiritual problems.

lArchibald Alexander was pre-eminently marked by deep spiritual wisdom. His work abounds in the kind of spiritual insight that is possessed only by those who have excelled in the theological trivium of Scriptural understanding, a thorough grasp of the whole body of divinity, and knowledge of the human heart. Having been introduced to this, readers may well want to obtain a copy of Alexander's book Thoughts on Religious Experience (Banner of Truth)

This man was a man of the Word and a man of prayer. He is held in the highest regard by the most learned reformed biblical scholars of the past and present. He wrote this in 1844, to ministers. It is advice on how to understand and deal with (what we might call today) different forms or types of mental illness. There are very dangerous attitudes in the modern Christian communities today, which are being blindly followed because of the reputation of those propagating them: For example, a very respected Pastor said, “We simply approach the issues spiritually. We don’t refer them to psychologists or psychiatrists or whatever. We don’t attempt to deal with them in those terms. The only real transforming, life changing guidance is that which God provides through his word to his people. Anything else is going to be the wisdom of man, not the wisdom of God.” That was a quote from an interview shortly after a congregant at this pastors church committed suicide. The truth is not only do they not refer their congregants to doctors, they actually discourage them from seeking medical assistance.

Let us hear the advice of a very learned biblical scholar, pastor and teacher:

"Look upon your distressed friends as under one of the worst distempers to which this miserable life is exposed. Melancholy incapacitates them for thought or action: it confounds and disturbs all their thoughts and fills them with vexation and anguish. I verily believe, that when this malignant state of mind is deeply fixed and has spread its deleterious influence over every part, it is as vain to attempt to resist it by reasoning and rational motives—as it is to oppose a fever or the gout or pleurisy.

One of the very worst attendants of this disease is the lack of sleep, by which in other distresses men are relieved and refreshed; but in this disease, either sleep flies far away, or is so disturbed that the poor sufferer, instead of being refreshed, is like one on the rack. The faculties of the soul are weakened, and all their operations disturbed and clouded; and the poor body languishes and pines away at the same time.

And that which renders this disease more formidable is its long continuance. It is a long time often before it comes to its height; and it is usually as tedious in its declension. It is, in every respect, sad and overwhelming; a state of darkness that has no discernible beams of light. It generally begins in the body and then conveys its venom to the mind. I pretend not to tell you what medicines will cure it, for I know of none.

I leave you to advise with such as are skilled in medicine, and especially to such doctors as have experienced something of it themselves; for it is impossible to understand the nature of it in any other way than by experience. There is danger, as Richard Greenham says, 'that the bodily physician will look no further than the body; while the spiritual physician will totally disregard the body, and look only at the mind'.

There is no subject on which it is more vain and dangerous to theorize than our religious experience. It is therefore of unspeakable importance that ministers of the gospel, who have to deal with diseased consciences, should have had some experience themselves in these matters.

This, no doubt, is one reason why some, intended to be "sons of consolation" (Acts 4:36) to others, have been brought through deep waters, and have been buffeted by many storms, before they obtained a settled peace of mind. It is a proper object of inquiry, why, in our day, so little is heard about the spiritual troubles of which we read so much in the treatises of writers of a former age. It can scarcely be supposed that the faith of modern Christians is so much stronger than that of believers who lived in other days, that they are enabled easily to triumph over their melancholy fears and despondency.

Neither can we suppose that Satan is less busy in casting his fiery darts, and in attempts to drive the children of God to despair. There is reason to fear, that among Christians of the present time, there is less deep, spiritual exercise than in former days; and as little is said on this subject in public discourses, there may be greater concealment of the troubles of this kind than if these subjects were more frequently discussed. It is observable that all those who have experienced this sore affliction and have been mercifully delivered from it, are very solicitous to administer relief and comfort to others who are still exposed to the peltings of the pitiless storm; and these are the people who feel the tenderest sympathy with afflicted consciences, and know how to bear with the infirmities and waywardness which accompany a state of religious melancholy.

It is also remarkable that very generally, those who have been recovered from such diseases, attribute no small part of their troubles to a morbid temperament of body, and accordingly, in their counsels to the melancholy—they lay particular stress on the regular, healthy state of the body.

Learn from this man of God and so many other great theologians of the past, who had a much greater understanding of the differences between emotional problems caused by "spiritual" issues vs. legitimate biological disorders of the brain.


Mel said…
This post is particularly meaningful to me, personally.

As you probably know from reading my blog, my family has a history of bipolar disorder. My maternal grandmother was married 5 times (at least) and had multiple children by different fathers. The last son she gave up for adoption at the age of 5.

My own mom struggles with depression, and I've always been afraid that I would begin to, too. But, I'm terribly ashamed to say, I've also been pridefully disdainful of people who struggle with depression, including my own mother and grandmother, because the times earlier in my life when I began to see signs depression, I was able to quickly talk myself out of it again, and find joy and light and life by reminding myself of great truths.

God has graciously used difficult times in the last few years of my life to show me my foolish pride and free me from making rash judgments about myself or others (at least for the most part). I can now personally attest to the blackness of depression. To feeling like the air is made of sludge, life has lost all flavor, color and joy, and even the simplest efforts are laborious (efforts like breathing or picking up a pen). It is to my eternal shame that I ever made light of the struggles of others in this area, and I pray for God’s grace and mercy to those who are now going through it.
Mel said…
"...and as little is said on this subject in public discourses, there may be greater concealment of the troubles of this kind than if these subjects were more frequently discussed..."

Why, oh why, can't we just be real with each other? Why do we consistently wear masks to hide our true selves and the innermost parts of our lives? Because of fear? or pride? How I long for encounters with people who are secure enough in Christ to feel safe taking off their masks...

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