When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul
This is the confident assertion, proclaimed by Horatio Spafford’s classic hymn: It is Well with My Soul. This beautiful song is a typical example of how the Christian faith makes a direct link between theological belief and psychological well-being. As the lyrics progress, we learn that the pardoning love of Christ and the certainty of his return fosters resilience in the believer. Our trust in Christ’s atoning death, and our hope in what is yet to come, psychologically fortifies us through the problems and challenges of life.
The pardoning love of Christ and the certainty of his return fosters resilience in the believer.
The Christian faith has always been able to do this. Christian psychologist Eric Johnson has written that, “Christianity, from its beginning, has been a therapeutic religion… the root meaning of psychotherapy is soul healing (psyche = soul; therapeuo = to heal), which is a pretty good descriptor for the Christian life.”
However, to say that Christianity is therapeutic will sound odd to many ears. Indeed, it may sound concerning to some. Surely Christianity should be theocentric rather than therapeutic?
This complexity and possible confusion are why this series of articles exists. In this article, and in the two follow-ups, we are going to think through how Christianity connects with questions related to mental health and psychological well-being. Let’s begin by thinking about what this term means, and how to think about it as a Christian.
What is ‘Mental Health’?
There are a variety of definitions, and not all mental health practitioners would have precisely the same perspective. However the one we have chosen to highlight, produced by British psychologist Dr Maryhan Baker, is useful because of its clarity. She says that, “mental health is the ability to cope emotionally and cognitively when we experience problems or challenges in life.” Even more simply, mental health enables you to cope with life’s challenges.
Mental health enables you to cope with life’s challenges.
Let’s consider three elements in this definition:
- Mental health focuses on thoughts, feelings and behaviours. While it recognises the significant role of the body, the focus is not on physical health but mental health: thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
- Mental health presupposes the reality of experiencing distress and challenge. Definitions must therefore acknowledge distress and problems as a shared part of the human experience.
- Mental health is about our ability to cope with problems or challenges. None of us responds to problems and challenges perfectly. The issue is whether we can manage. We start to experience mental health problems when we struggle to handle life’s challenges and respond in unhelpful or harmful ways.
Indicators that Someone is Struggling
The following examples show us what someone struggling with their mental health might say:
- “I can’t do this anymore”
- “I feel like I am falling apart”
- “It feels like my anxiety is engulfing me”
- “I’m just not coping.”
Behaviour can also reveal struggles. Here are some examples of behaviours that might indicate someone is struggling with their mental well-being:
- Increased irritability
- Struggling to sleep
- Heightened anxiety or fear
- Lack of motivation
- Withdrawal from relationships and activities.
We’ve considered a basic definition of mental health, particularly from a Western perspective. What are some African perspectives that can enrich and deepen our understanding?
When looking at mental health from an African perspective, it is important to bear in mind the strong influence of Western beliefs in many African societies. Nevertheless, the African perspective has valuable elements to add. Here is an African definition of dysfunction that reveals a picture of mental health. Kwato writes: “In traditional African psychopathology, dysfunction implies collective and individual disequilibrium, particularly with regards to disparities in community, physical, and social functioning.”
Notice how this definition speaks to a complex understanding of mental health, linking together intrapersonal, interpersonal, social, political, and structural factors. Within the African perspective, there is a more vital awareness of how the individual is part of a larger community. Furthermore, the language of equilibrium provides a helpful picture of mental well-being: that of being balanced, able to stand and fully engage with life’s complexities and challenges.
How Does the Bible Approach Mental Health?
Both the Western and African approaches have value. But so far we haven’t thought about mental well-being in a particularly Christian way. So what does it mean for us to think about mental health Christianly?
Some Christians try to formulate ‘biblical’ definitions. But we think that approach has conceptual weaknesses. Instead, we encourage you to consider which theological realities are most relevant when thinking about mental health. We suggest two that are of primary importance.
1. We have Embodied Souls
Biblical anthropology teaches us that we are psychosomatic beings (Genesis 2:7). Christians should, therefore, be sensitive to physical factors and bodily strengths and weaknesses. In this sense, our physical health can impact our mental health. This is why a genuinely Christian approach will always take the physiological component seriously. Furthermore, being an embodied soul also means we recognise the influence of interpersonal, social, political and structural factors when seeking to understand how someone is coping with life.
2. We have Active Hearts
Scripture teaches us that people are moral agents with active hearts that respond dynamically to God. We may not be fully aware of this. Often, we don’t understand how our hearts go astray or become confused or rebellious. But if we neglect the dynamic worshipping heart, we will never truly understand what goes wrong with us internally. In other words, to separate our spiritual health from our mental health is unwise.
Although it is too simplistic to say that spiritual health produces mental health, our moral agency and dynamic hearts play an enormous role in our non-physical well-being. When it comes to our mental health, the condition of our hearts matters. In this sense, we cannot rightly understand mental health struggles without understanding what Scripture teaches us about people being made in the image of God with dynamic worshipping hearts.
Our physical, social, and spiritual well-being all play a significant role in our mental health.
Our physical, social, and spiritual well-being all play a significant role in our mental health. We have embodied souls with active hearts. Let’s conclude by reflecting on why the mental health field exists and how Christians should relate to it.
Why Does the Mental Health Field Exist?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) argues that mental health “underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape the world we live in.” Because of this, good mental health—and, by implication, the goal of this field—facilitates personal, community and socio-economic development.
The mental health field exists to help people. This help takes on many forms and can be complex and multilayered. But the fact that the mental health field is not exclusively Christian does not mean that it is to be viewed with suspicion or distrust. And so we suggest two postures that should characterise our approach.
1. A Posture of Appreciation
We can be grateful for the research, detailed analysis, practical help and commitment to learning that we see in the mental health field. We can be thankful for the work done to develop individuals and communities.
2. A Posture of Discernment
The mental health field is not rooted in Christian theology. This means that spiritual and theological perspectives are not typically considered when conceptualising mental health struggles. So while we are grateful for the many good things being produced and offered by the mental health field, we need to be thinking Christians who exercise thoughtful discernment when engaging with theories, labels and treatment plans.
These Conversations are Crucial
In full acknowledgement of mental health’s complexity, we hope you can sense our support for this conversation. Your mental well-being is essential! And by talking about it, we want to acknowledge how hard it can be to respond wisely in a world of very real problems.
Being mentally healthy means being able to cope in times of distress.
Being mentally healthy doesn’t mean you never experience distress. Rather, being mentally healthy means being able to cope in times of distress. In its essence, it means acknowledging what Horatio Spafford did: that although the sea billows of sorrow roll over our lives, we can grieve and weep with hope. We can respond in faithful and creative ways to the various trials we encounter. Good mental health doesn’t remove you from life’s challenges; it enables you to cope with life’s challenges. So that even amid sorrow or stress, you might be able to truly say: it is well with my soul.