Central to a Christian worldview is the belief that humanity exists in a fallen world and that, as a result, everyone is born in sin and susceptible to conditions that affect them physically, mentally, emotionally and in other ways. Yet, Christians are at odds when it comes to mental illness, with some suggesting that such maladies are simply the result of personal sin, lack of faith or spiritual attacks.
While there have been recent efforts to help destigmatize mental illness, studies show that many American evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians view such health issues solely as a spiritual condition to be treated with Bible study and prayer. Prior studies also have shown that religious leaders are most often the ones sought out among those suffering from mental illness, who, in some cases, have their ailments dismissed.
Dr. Eric L. Johnson, author of Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal and professor of pastoral care at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explains that “the whole body can be affected by human fallenness.”
“There’s reason to believe that the human brain can also be impacted by human fallenness and that things can go wrong at the genetic level, at the embryological level during development In Utero as well as through the rest of the lifespan,” Johnson recently told The Christian Post.
The SBTS professor joins Saddleback Church Pastors Rick and Kay Warren on Friday (March 28) for an event called “The Gathering on Mental Health and The Church.” Johnson’s particular presentation for the one-day event in Lake Forest, Calf., is titled “Stigma or Stigmata: Helping the Church Rethink Mental Illness.”
In the following transcript of CP’s interview with Johnson, who also is the director of the Society for Christian Psychology (SCP) and editor of three journals on the subject, takes on Christians who are skeptical of mental illness and suggests ways in which the Bible helps inform believers on the issue. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
CP: The description for your “Stigma or Stigmata” presentation states: “There are many reasons why mental illness is commonly viewed in a negative light.” Can you share some of those reasons?
Johnson: I think as human beings we tend to be adverse to anything that’s out of the norm. I think that mental disorders tend to also be somewhat threatening to us. We feel somehow insecure or uncomfortable in the face of such problems … It seems to be kind of a natural tendency that we have to look down on people with such disabilities and difficulties. That’s what I hope to address a little bit.
CP: What would you say are some of the common misconceptions people have about mental illness? What do we just get wrong when it comes to that subject?
Johnson: I think one [misconception] is that mental illness is something that a person brought upon themselves. In the Christian community we sometimes say it’s all a result of a person’s sin. Or maybe they’re not trusting in God enough.
CP: What do you say to Christians who are just convinced that there is no such thing as “mental illness” and who attribute these types of maladies to a spiritual condition?
Johnson: I want to begin by saying that everything in human life has a spiritual dimension. So I don’t want to say that there is not spiritual and that it’s only physical. That’s the other extreme that we have in a secular culture, is that they blame everything on the brain or blame everything on biology or socialization. I think a Christian approach is going to be distinguished by being comprehensive and holistic. We’re going to want to bring in all the dimensions that might bear on a malady.
Regarding the Christian that is skeptical of mental illness, I would say that we have good reason to believe that the whole body can be affected by human fallenness. We know that we have cancer, and it can affect all parts of the body. There’s reason to believe that the human brain can also be impacted by human fallenness and that things can go wrong at the genetic level, at the embryological level during development In Utero as well as through the rest of the lifespan.
There’s a profound mystery in how the soul and the body are interlinked, but the best understanding that we have of that relationship is that the soul can affect the brain and the brain can affect the soul. How that works depends on — every individual is different and every particular condition has its own configuration of that relationship.
In my experience, people who are the most skeptical haven’t had much experience working with people with mental illness. Once you have, and you work with a family member that has a serious mental illness you realize that, ‘Oh, this is a lot more complicated that I used to think.’
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SOURCE: The Christian Post