By Dawn Wilson, Christianity.com
Editor's Note: When we articles address questions involving mental health issues, no part of any article should be interpreted as a substitute for seeking professional counseling from a licensed mental health professional. If you suspect you need medication or are dealing with a mental health issue, please consult with a mental health professional.
Why Do Christians Hesitate to Use Medication for Mental Illness?
Concern 1: Christians may fear displeasing God with a “lack of faith.”
Many Christians are afraid to address mental health issues. Perhaps they are afraid of displeasing the Lord—concerned that in taking medicines, they might not be exhibiting enough faith in God.
Even those who suspect they might have a mental illness may be afraid to admit it. They have perhaps been taught in some churches that God will heal them now with prayer and obedience; and they are afraid to step out on that limb in case nothing happens. They fear “shaming” for ongoing emotional struggles.
Concern 2: Christians may fear becoming dependent on medication.
The use of medicine is not wrong, but the abuse of medicine can be. Some Christians might fear becoming dependent on medicine without obtaining full healing. They don’t want to become addicts or relinquish control of their bodies to medicines. Yet the truth is, if there is mental dysfunction from a number of causes, dependency on drugs can be a real, unavoidable possibility. Believers must not deny their bodies what they truly need, and that includes medical help—in spite of fears.
A Christian’s Ultimate Hope in Heaven
One blessing in eternity comforts temporal fears: God will restore sin-cursed bodies in heaven and on the New Earth. All illnesses, whether physical or mental, will be healed forever (Revelation 21:4; 1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
Before making any assumptions, believers should take time to process different perspectives concerning mental illness.
What Does the Medical Community Say about Mental Illness?
The National Institute of Mental Health says one in five adult Americans lives with a mental illness, ranging in severity from mild to severe; and the World Health Organization pushes this further to one in four people.
However, biblical counseling professor Heath Lambert notes the failure of psychologists to define mental illness, especially when there is “no evidence of pathology” and a lack of medical precision in determining mental disorders.
Doctors normally test for physical disorders and abnormalities, but sometimes can only observe behavioral manifestations—as in the case of schizophrenia. Behavior descriptions are often subjective, and some people consider “mental illness” a social construct.
For example, “many of the behaviors that the DSM (a catalogue of mental illnesses created by the American Psychiatric Association) describes are moral categories that God describes,” Lambert says.
While various health agencies are quick to say mental illness is not a personal failure, mental illness is often stigmatized by the church.
What Does the Church Say about Mental Illness?
Many churches believe mental illness is the result of sinful responses. Christians typically understand occasional depression or anxiety, but some are put off by an official diagnosis of mental illness.
Ed Stetzer addressed the question Christians struggle with when they experience mental illness. He wrote on Christianity Today:
“Part of our belief system is that God changes everything. Sometimes we find ourselves asking ‘why hasn't God fixed this?’…Some will respond to our questioning by saying it is all because of sin. Or a lack of faith. Or a lack of repentance. Yes, there are consequences for sin. But just because someone is struggling with anxiety or depression or another form of mental illness does not mean it is a result of something they’ve done or not done.”
The great theologian, Charles Spurgeon—who personally suffered with deep depression—said:
“The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour.”
Is Mental Illness a Physical or Spiritual Issue or Something Else?
Humans have both a body and a soul (Genesis 2:7; Matthew 10:28). Many mental health issues may originate in a person’s psyche, but there may be a physical cause as well that perpetuates mental illness.
Medicines, at their best, are gifts from God, tools to be rendered useful to counteract some of the harmful aspects of the Fall. It’s important to identify physical disorders like chemical imbalance, schizophrenia, and true bipolar disorder. Diagnosed physical disorders like these should be treated like any physiological disease, by seeking medical advice from trained physicians and following medical regimens in the way they are prescribed.
Christians often prefer a combination of approaches, allowing for medicines on a limited basis to treat symptoms, but also relying on the Lord, Scripture, and biblical counseling to work on spiritual issues—such as struggles in the heart and emotions like fear or anxiety—that might contribute to mental disorders. They believe with this multi-faceted approach, the need for medicine might diminish. However, some psychological disorders such as schizophrenia and manic depression (bipolar disorder) require long-term drug use under a doctor’s care.
Mental illness symptoms could stem from sources other than a mental disorder.
There may also be psychological side-effects stemming from necessary medications for other medical conditions—side-effects that contribute to poor or declining mental health. It’s important to understand illicit drugs produce similar symptoms to mental health problems—sometimes permanent brain dysfunction.
What Does the Bible Say?
While the Bible does not specifically address medicine for mental illness, there are biblical principles that can apply, such as the following five.
1. Don’t decide alone.
It’s important to seek out godly counsel (Proverbs 1:5) and study God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17) because physical disorders often affect the way a person thinks. Believers need a strong foundation in truth to correctly perceive reality, which is often altered with mental illness.
2. Medications are not sinful.
God does not need man-made medicines to heal. He is the Healer (Psalm 103:2-3; 147:3). But the Lord has graciously allowed mankind to develop knowledge of healing arts and medicines, and He uses them in the healing process. Medicines are not sinful, and there is no biblical restraint against using them. We would not condemn a diabetic who takes insulin as a person lacking trust in God. Believers can take advantage of physicians’ and researchers’ wisdom and skills.
The Bible mentions medicines in many passages (Jeremiah 8:22; Ezekiel 47:12/Revelation 22:2; Isaiah 38:21; 2 Kings 20:7; Luke 10:33-34). Yet some Christians argue there’s a “fine line” between using medicines for healing processes and constantly relying on them for everyday living—to avoid dealing with a non-physical cause for mental anguish or stress. It is possible to abuse or overuse prescription drugs and develop dependencies on them. The Christian needs to be cautious about all drugs and ask doctors about side effects.
3. People are made in the image of God.
Evangelical theologian and ethicist Russell Moore wrote, “God created us as whole persons, with body and psyche together. … We are psychosomatic whole persons, made in the image of God.” God created mankind to have dominion over the created order of the world (Genesis 1:26).
We are to strategize and organize to bring order out of disorder, reflecting His character, and attempt dominion by diminishing the effects of the Fall in our body, which includes our brain.
4. The ultimate source of all illness and death is sin in general.
Mental illness does not mean a person is a “bad Christian,” but God’s Word teaches the source of illness and death is sin (Romans 5:12). Medications do not address the problem of sin. For Christians, problems are never simply physical—there must always be a spiritual response.
While drugs should not be used to numb a regular neurological response—or as it’s called by psychologists, becoming “comfortably numb”—it is not wrong to acknowledge a brain dysfunction might in some way hinder the proper operation of the soul and emotions, and to move forward to identify and try to restore proper brain function. God wants us whole in body, mind and soul.
5. It’s not wrong to seek healing.
It’s clear from observing Jesus’ healing ministry (Matthew 8:14-15; Luke 5:12-13; Mark 2:5-12; 8:22-24; 9:14-27) that seeking healing is not wrong, although Jesus’ focus was always directed toward spiritual healing. We also know His disciple, Luke, was a physician (Colossians 4:14), and he likely used the medicines of his day. Before prescription drugs were available, people used fermented drinks to relieve pain (Proverbs 31:6-7; 1 Timothy 5:23). Many modern drugs are based on naturally-occurring substances, perhaps created by the Lord for people to discover and develop to improve health.
Mental and Emotional Anguish: Examples and Verses in the Bible
Bible characters were not hesitant to speak about their mental and emotional anguish.
- We see this especially throughout the book of Job and in the Psalms of Lament (Psalm 25:16; 42:5; 88:3).
- King Saul suffered with paranoia and depression (1 Samuel 16:14-17).
- David suffered depression as a consequence for his sin (Psalm 32:3-4).
- Elijah struggled with despair (1 Kings 19:1-8) and Jonah with bitterness and anger (Jonah 4:1-3)—both eventually asking for death.
Many Scriptures can help believers who struggle with mind and emotional issues that might contribute to poor mental health—for example: Proverbs 29:25; Matthew 6:34; John 8:32; Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 10:13; 2 Corinthians 10:5; Philippians 4:4-9; Colossians 3:1-2; 2 Timothy 1:7; Hebrews 13:6; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 5:7; 2 Peter 1:3-4; 1 John 1:9and 4:18-19.
Approach the Decision with Wisdom.
Pastor of Counseling at the Summit Church, Brad Hambrick, believes the issue of medicines for mental issues is not a moral decision, but rather a wisdom decision. As he wrote in this PDF, good questions to ask are:
“What types of relief should I expect, and what responsibilities would I still bear?
“How do I determine if the relief I receive warrants the side effects?
“How do I determine the initial duration of time I should be on the medication?”
The Christian’s use of prescription drugs for mental health issues is ultimately between that believer and the Lord. The Bible neither commands nor forbids medicinal treatments, and the Lord can work to heal the mind and body in many ways—through counseling, surgery, an environmental change, and yes, medicines. Stetzer wrote, “All truth is God’s truth, and there are both spiritual and medical truths that are part of dealing with this issue.”
Hambrick calls the church to be wise and not make quick assumptions. “Christians who say faith-only, doctors who say medication-only, and counselors who say therapy-only are equally wrong about and equally hurtful to those who struggle with mental illness,” he said.
Christians with severe problems—physical, emotional or mental—often need targeted medicines; but even then, no medical doctor or therapist can prescribe what the Lord, our Great Physician, can provide in terms of truth, wisdom and hope.
Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.