The other day, I was in my car listening to a radio broadcast by a well-known pastor, and as I listened, I started getting angrier and angrier. I found myself wanting to pound the steering wheel in frustration as I listened to his dismissive and judgmental comments about depression and the field of psychology, and his very simplistic solutions to just pray and think more “positive” thoughts. He went so far as to denounce psychology as a “danger” to us and warned people to stay away from practitioners of this field. ARGHHHH!!
I recognize the well-meaning intentions of this pastor as well as many other respected teachers of God’s Word, but I also believe that in their misguided direction to us, they are doing a mighty disservice to many people who are suffering greatly by no choice of their own. And to dismiss the value of psychology in treating mental health issues is short-sighted and shows their lack of understanding of this field. Yes, there are some practices in my field that would not be biblically supported – just like there are quacks in any field – but in my opinion, good science is biblical because it is rooted in truth and in the way that God designed our bodies, minds and emotions.
And many times, we are ill equipped to know how to change our patterns of thought or regulate our emotions without the guidance of an expert who knows what they’re talking about. Just like you would go see a mechanic if your car broke down, so it makes sense to consult an expert when you’re experiencing relational, emotional or psychological problems. Consider the folly of these statements: Yes, my car is not working properly but I’m just going to pray that God will fix it; or If you just had more faith, your broken furnace would get fixed;or Yes, I have a broken leg but I’m going to read more Scripture to help me get better.
Mental health issues are problems that many people struggle with on a daily basis – from small children to adolescents to adults. In fact, recent statistics from The World Health Organization named depression the second most common cause of disability worldwide after cardiovascular disease, and it is expected to become number one in the next ten years. The National Institute of Mental Health reported that 18.1% of adults in the United States suffer from anxiety. Studies of religious groups, from Orthodox Jews to evangelical Christians, reveal no evidence that the frequency of depression or anxiety varies across religious groups.
Whatever we chose to believe or not as Christians, mental health issues are very real and need to be responded to with care, compassion and understanding, not judgement and condemnation. Our human natures – like Job’s friends – often look for answers in why people suffer and in our simplistic view, we will sometimes blame the sufferer for having sinned or done something wrong to unleash God’s wrath in their lives — or we judge them for their lack of faith or discipline. But we forget that Jesus always responded with great compassion, love and acceptance to the many sufferers that flocked around him – shouldn’t we do the same as Christ followers?
There is plenty of research evidence to support the tangible, physiological differences that occur in the brain of those who suffer from depression or anxiety (for example, see this review of studies on depression and the brain) – supporting the notion that sufferers are not merely lacking faith but that there is something very real going on in their brains. And for those people who’ve experienced abuse or trauma especially as children, there is clear evidence that their very brain wiring is impacted which influences greatly their ability to handle their emotions, interpret experiences and attach to others in a healthy way. Without steps taken to process through their trauma or abuse, many people will remain locked into unhealthy patterns, no matter how often they pray or read their Bible.
Hasn’t their suffering been enough without layering on the rejection or judgement of their brothers and sisters who are supposed to love and help carry those who are suffering? Aren’t we commanded by Jesus to love the “least of these”? Be honest with yourself: when you are faced with someone who is struggling from anxiety or depression or some other mental health problem, what goes through your mind? Do you tend to draw away? I know that I have to sometimes pray for God to show me how he sees the sufferers that he brings into my life so that I can respond to them with the compassion and grace that they need.
I welcome all comments and conversations about this topic as I am very passionate about it! I also understand that there are some who believe that psychology can be dangerous in leading Christians astray so if that is your belief, please feel free to join in with the dialogue so that we can better understand each other’s perspective rather than being divisive or angry towards each other.
Dr. Merry C Lin is a registered clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience in counselling individuals, couples and families on a variety of personal issues. She specializes in helping people overcome depression, anxiety and fear, abuse and trauma, stress, grief, marital and relationship struggles, parenting and family issues, and other life stressors. Her passion is to help people of all ages discover their full potential and to realize their purpose and joy in life. She is also passionate about helping clients develop healthy relationships with their spouse, children, family, friends and co-workers. www.drmerrylin.com