Emotional Illness

By Paul Faulkner

Christians, like everyone else, become emotionally ill. Some must be referred to professional therapists. For the most part, however, the teachings of the great Physician can recall them to sanity before this becomes necessary. This article assumes man’s salvation by grace and underscores man’s responsibilities under Divine guidance. As a Christian counselor I have structured what I believe to be a sound psychological pledge for mental health – it is quoted below:

God being my helper, in a world of needy others, I resolve – now, to will myself to be responsible, to face reality, to do as I ought AND LIKE IT!

The resolution above is not catchy and doesn’t rhyme; but if one makes it his honest vow to fulfill, I can almost guarantee that he will never suffer from emotional ills. The reason for such confidence is the source. Every statement in the pledge has its origin in the Bible; and every phrase is presently being used by one or more systems of psychotherapy to cure those who are mentally ill.

The phrases emphasized in the pledge are explained briefly below:

I. GOD being my helper

To be emotionally sound one must first have sound goals for living. To believe in God is to direct our ultimate goals toward another, better world. If a man’s goals are limited to such earthly goals as financial success or prestige; his goals too easily dissolve with time. If a man’s long range goals are “other world” directed, his foundation stone remains firm despite this world’s upheavals. Faith in God is not an attempt to escape this world’s encounters nor does it naively shrug them off; rather it fortifies the Christian for his earthly existence (Eph. 6:10-20).

Some are not secure in their faith in God because of doubt; but even when we doubt, we still believe. Psychologists and preachers alike have proven that a “healthy” doubt is far better than a blind faith. Don’t throw faith in God out simply because it is occasionally tried by doubt. Doubt, not taken too seriously, tends to mature faith. Never forget the one who came to Jesus saying: “I believe, help thou my unbelief.” And this faith of a person who owned up to some honest doubt was sufficient for a wonderful miracle (Mk. 9:23-27).

II. In a World of needy OTHERS

The opposite of concern for others is selfishness. Man worshipping what he has made with his own hands is the height of conceit. When an adult becomes ill his tendency is to revert to childish selfishness. The emotionally ill tends to revert to childish self-interest without a physical malady. When he needs his ego boosted, he focuses his self-interest on his body and it, in return, develops all sorts of ills that need pampering or special attention by spouse, children or the family physician. Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” well represents this infantile self-centeredness. Concern for others was beyond Cain’s maturity level. Paradoxically, Christ taught men that denial of self for others was the way to gain wholeness. When one loses himself in others, he finds himself – his real self – his best self (Matt. 16:24,25).

In my private practice I give homework to my clients by asking “to whom do you owe a favor or a good turn?” It is just another way of saying: “Whatever you would men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.” (Matt. 7:12) If one would find himself, he, like Jesus, must be about “doing good.”

III. I resolve – NOW

The Christian therapist does not believe that bad events in one’s childhood predetermines the remainder of his life. Normally, the psychotherapist cannot find a magic key that unlocks all one’s personality problems by delving into the unconscious past. Emotional problems, though originating in the past, must be cured in the now. This is an optimistic therapy because it does not depend upon the impossible task of unraveling all of one’s past mistakes, forgotten or otherwise. To put it in Christian terms, the past cannot be changed but can be forgiven! This is a unique contribution of Christ to the mentally diseased. He is the only therapist who can say: “I will forgive your past mistakes and remember them no more.” This is not to say there will be no consequences of past mistakes, but to say there will be no long range or eternal consequences to the man who presently wills himself toward an abundant life in Christ. In Christian terms this could be called repentance. Thus to believe in Christ’s forgiveness of past transgressions gives man a hopeful optimism in the present about his abilities to perform in the future – no weights attached from the past.

IV. To WILL myself

Physicians tell us that when a patient loses his will to live the chances of his dying are greatly increased. Willpower affects every area of life. If one is to be delivered of emotional problems one must cast himself in the direction of mental health. Certainty in God is revealed only as man “wills to do His will” (John 7:17). Willing implies more than desire, it insists upon active intellectual response. A weak-willed person hears an alarm in the morning and wishes he were up. A strong-willed person demands that his body respond to his mental desire. To will is to take one’s self in one’s own hands, claim one’s own part of any problem and resolve to get something done about it whether anyone else ever does anything about his part or not.

In most of Christ’s compassionate healings He tested the will of the person to be healed before He performed the miracle. Likewise, in emotional disturbances, will must precede cure.

V. to be RESPONSIBLE

In short, to be responsible to do what is reasonably expected when it is expected. One who tends to blame parents, relatives, physicians, a bad day or the family dog for personal hangups is immature. God disapproved of Saul and Aaron when they projected their weaknesses to others (I Sam. 13:11, EX. 32). When one becomes old enough to be a disciple of the Lord he is old enough to be responsible. The very word disciple denotes one who has been trained to respond.

People seldom ever “feel well” when they are irresponsible and do not accomplish what can reasonably be expected of them. More than one counselee has been upset with me when instructed to get jobs done they had been leaving undone by procrastination. I don’t recall a time, however, when a counselee did not feel better after “cleaning up” the neglected areas of living. Man is simply not made to be happy when he acts irresponsibly.

VI. to face REALITY

Man attempts to escape reality in a number of ways. Many live in a world of Walter Mitty daydreams. Others live up more money than they make. Some attempt to turn fall into spring with cosmetics. But one never really lives who doesn’t live REALly. It is impossible to live an abundant life in Christ and refuse to accept and deal squarely with the realities of life, i.e., sin, sickness, doubt, etc.

Christ prepared his disciples to face the harsh realities of their world. Furthermore, He would not permit them to allow heartaches or persecution to turn their spirits sour. They were even instructed to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44). If you would enjoy the beauty and fragrance of the rose, you must accept its thorns.

VII. to DO

By “do” I wish to encourage the practicing Christian to action. Women especially seem given to depressions. If one is getting six to eight hours of sleep it will not help to go to bed during the day because one doesn’t “feel” well. Perhaps the best therapy would be to “work out your own salvation” by hard house work, exercise, or by doing benevolent work all day. After such a day your body will more than likely surrender to sound sleep, neither have you had much time to worry about yourself. God’s Book is action oriented. O.H.Mowrer’s type of therapy is referred to as an “action therapy.” Mowrer quotes the entire book of James in one of his books to call attention to the New Testament emphasis on action (1). Thus the Book of God is action oriented even though we are saved by grace. God works within us assisting us to work out our salvation (Phil. 2:12,13,; Eph. 7:8-10).

VIII. what I OUGHT to do

Here we speak of one’s personal values as they are related to divine values. Over a period of years each individual has developed a value system or conscience. Each one also has developed an appetite of the flesh. Man gets into trouble with himself when he allows his wants to dominate his oughts. He begins to get out of trouble with himself when he brings his appetites under subjection to his known values. In Romans 7, Paul, the devout apostle, reveals how sore this battle in one’s heart can be. The Christian counselor cannot say that the battle is easily won; nothing easily won is long appreciated. There is little growth toward maturity without struggle – There is no such thing as cheap grace.

Our personal values are not necessarily God’s values, so to be ultimately integrated the Christian therapist encourages man to allow his personal values (which tend to be too self-centered) to become more like God’s values. The Christian trusts that God, the creator of man, knows best how to tune men for happiness.

If one feels the price of assured peace in Christ is too high, we must ask the question “how much happiness comes to the individuals who yield continually to their own base appetites?” Are not these the ones who fill the waiting rooms of professional counselors or in the case of the sociopaths, our jails? Isn’t the divine way better- even on this earth?

IX. AND LIKE IT!

The final part of the pledge to mental health is perhaps the most difficult. It assumes that one cannot only will himself to do but also will himself to like it. In a meat and potato world, it is difficult to acquire a taste for raw fish. It can be done, however, when one suddenly finds himself a missionary or a stranded serviceman on a native island. But why must we delay living responsible lives until a crisis appears to force us into a different approach to life’s problems. If a person can learn to enjoy different foods he can also learn to enjoy doing what he ought to do. He can learn honestly to enjoy being cordial to his wife and children, enjoy being diligent in his work or less secretive and less hostile toward others. If man cannot stand the way he is presently living and he cannot will himself to like to be otherwise, then life is doomed to sheer drudgery.

Some have asked “How do you go about willing yourself to enjoy doing what you ought to do – do you just lift yourself by your own bootstraps?” No, it is not all of yourself. Man does not have the capacity to go it alone (Jeremiah 10:23). It is at this point we find the uniqueness of Christ’s contribution to mental health. When one lends his will to God’s will, in time God’s will becomes our will and the happy consequence His fullness our fullness. Surely “the Lord is my shepherd I shall not want….” (Psalms 23).

1. O. Hobart Mowrer, Morality and Mental Health (Chicago: Rand McWally & Co., 1967).

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