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Life through a different lens

08 November 2019

Chris Cook reflects on the implications of Christian teaching for mental well-being


Jesus heals on the Sabbath Day in the Pharisee’s house; Codex of Predis, 1476

Jesus heals on the Sabbath Day in the Pharisee’s house; Codex of Predis, 1476

IS THE Christian gospel good news for mental health? From earliest times, long before Freud or Dawkins, this seems to have been a controversial question. At the heart of this controversy is Jesus himself. There are those who have argued that the frenetic pace of his ministry, and the bold claims that he made, were a cause for concern about Jesus’s own mental health. According to Mark (3.21), even Jesus’s own family said that he was “out of his mind”.

Those who followed Jesus were not exempt from the same kind of accusation. In Acts (26.24), Festus makes a similar assessment of Paul. Paul in turn harboured concerns that the undisciplined exercise of charismatic gifts within the Corinthian church could give the wrong impression to outsiders (1 Corinthians 14.23).

On the other hand, Jesus restores the Gerasene demoniac to his “right mind” (Mark 5.15; Luke 8.35). This man (or two men, according to the account in Matthew) was difficult to restrain, howling, and self-harming. In today’s terminology, he would almost certainly be seen as suffering from a serious mental disorder — perhaps mania. This story is unique among the Gospel accounts of specific healings and exorcisms, but references elsewhere to the wide range of human needs to which Jesus brought healing should leave us in little doubt that he was concerned to restore mental health at least as much as he was to heal the body.

JESUS had a particular concern for those who were excluded and marginalised from the society of his day. Within our society, mental-health problems disproportionately affect the poor and the marginalised, and are associated with stigma and prejudice, which, in turn, are further harmful to mental well-being. Mental-health issues were at the heart of Jesus’s mission. The healing that Jesus brought was a sign of the coming of God’s Kingdom.

We are accustomed to thinking of Jesus’s teaching ministry in terms of its spiritual and moral benefits. If we look carefully at what the Evangelists tell us about Jesus’s teaching, it actually has at least as much to tell us about mental well-being. Jesus taught about worry, for example, and this theme was later taken up by Paul in his Letter to the Philippians.

Jesus had important things to say about forgiveness and love of neighbour, reflecting the need to attend to the deeply relational nature of mental well-being as we now understand it. He recognised patterns of spiritual practice which were misdirected towards creating the right impression in religious circles — a way of going about things which we now know is not helpful to mental well-being. In contrast to this, he presented a vision of life in the Kingdom of God which reflected different priorities, and within which prayer played a central part.

Much of this has either been spiritualised or misunderstood in such a way as to obscure the connections with what we call “mental health”. In fact, it is deeply relevant. This is reflected in the advent of, for example “forgiveness therapy”, spiritually and religiously integrated psychotherapies, compassion-focused therapy, and mindfulness (more often understood as an originally Buddhist practice, but which actually shows close affinity to contemplative prayer within the Christian tradition), in mental-health research and practice.

Empirical research suggests that spirituality and religious belonging are good for mental health, but it is very difficult in research to distinguish between the spiritual and the psychological. Is hope a spiritual or a psychological state? Is it possible — or even helpful — to try to insist that it is only one and not the other?

Some of Jesus’ teaching has been so misunderstood as to make it seem like bad news for mental health. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include accounts of Jesus’s injunctions not to worry, and this has been taken by some anxious Christians as a cause for guilt and self-condemnation. In fact, Jesus’s encouragement to question what we worry about, and why, shows much common ground with modern-day cognitive behavioural therapy. More importantly — as Paul clearly understood — it was located in the context of Jesus’s teaching about prayer.

In some ways, worry is quite like prayer in that it reflects the things that we pay attention to and are most concerned about. The crucial difference is in our willingness to see them in the context of God’s Kingdom and his providential care. If we learn the art of turning worry into prayer, it does not necessarily mean that we will stop being anxious, but it will mean a reordering of our priorities.

SOME contemporary ways of thinking can easily mislead us about the true nature of mental well-being. Take the notion of “resilience”: it is generally thought that it is good to be psychologically resilient, but what exactly does this mean? If we imagine that we can simply “spring back” after trauma, or show superhuman psychological strength so as to overcome any adversity, I think that we have misunderstood. Jesus talks, rather, about losing our lives so that we may find them; he talks about our need to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, and to follow him. This does not leave us unchanged. Jesus demonstrates divine power, not in avoiding the cross, but in being crucified.

Mental health, in the Kingdom of God, might look very different from what we imagine it to be from the perspective of 21st-century healthcare. I am not for one moment suggesting that Christians should not avail themselves of the best care that mental-health services have to offer. Medication, talking therapies, and social prescribing all have a part to play in bringing about the healing of human minds and brains. Yet, on their own, they do not address the whole picture.

Jesus presented a vision of human flourishing in the context of the Kingdom of God. From this perspective, we might even say that mental health is about finding the place within that Kingdom in which we can flourish most fully. This clearly does not mean that those who are not Christians are not mentally healthy. Nor does it mean that Christian mental-health professionals should be allowed to abuse their position of trust by proselytising amongst their patients. It does mean that, as Christians, we are called to see things differently.

The Revd Chris Cook is Professor in Spirituality, Theology and Health at Durham University, and was a member of the organising committee for the recent conference at Lambeth Palace “Faith and Mental Health: A Christian Response” (News, 25 October).

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