Science in Christian Perspective



Christian Perspectives on Mental Illness*

From: JASA 14 (December 1962): 108-112.

In discussing the subject which I have been assigned, let me begin by stating three positive theses. First, mental illness is a problem which ought to concern any sensitive citizen no matter what his religious orientation. Second, the problem of mental illness ought to concern Christians especially. Third, there seems to be extraordinary resources in Christianity for helping to alleviate this problem.

Extent of Mental Illness
is glaringly self-evident: mental illness is a problem which ought to concern any sensitive citizen no matter what his religious orientation.

Statistics are notoriously dull and ineffectual; as a rule they fail to dent our self-preoccupation. Sometimes, however, they are illuminating; they serve to crack

Paper presented at the Seventeenth Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation held at St. Paul, Minnesota, August, 1962.

*Dr. Grounds is President, Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, Denver, Colorado.

through our apathy, compelling us to sit up and take notice. So to quote a few statistics, how many people in the United States are mentally sick? How many? Seventeen million annually, we are authoritatively informed. May I repeat that figure? Annually seventeen million people in the United States are mentally sick. This means that every day our institutions handle some 640,000 cases of emotional maladjustment, personalitydisorder, psychotic breakdown-everything from chronic alcoholism to catatonic schizophrenia. This means, furthermore, that 51 per cent of our hospital population is composed of disturbed and defeated individuals, miserable and unhappy individuals, unable any longer to function adequately in their human environment, individuals who are a burden to themselves and to our society. (5, pp. 3, 15) And these individuals, as you know, include all ages, all races, all creeds, all levels of education, wealth, and culture; for mental illness strikes with random impartiality.

These, therefore, are the cold statistics: 17 million people in our country mentally sick each year; 640,000 cases of psychic disturbance handled daily by our institutions; 51% of our hospital population composed of emotionally upset individuals.

But do not allow these statistics to run through your mind like hailstones pelting off a tin roof. Give your empathy free rein as you ponder the figures I have just quoted. Imaginatively metamorphize my figures into faces. Now gaze out on that sea of humanity, and remember that each face is the face of a person, a person who is acutely frustrated, a person who has failed in his quest for an abundant life, a person whose experience is overshadowed by tragedy and often the real-life tragedy of mental illness is more excruciating than the make-believe tragedies of Euripides, Shakespeare, and Eugene O'Neil. Hence this is a problem which ought to be of concern to any sensitive citizen no matter what his religious orientation. 

Christian Concern

Think, next, about my second thesis: mental illness ought to concern Christians especially. Why? For a single, all-sufficient reason: whatever its critics may allege to the contrary, Christianity is the one interpretation of existence which can rightly claim to be a humanism. I am aware, of course, that humanism is a term stretched to cover every imaginable philosophy from the rabid antitheism of a jean-Paul Sartre, on the extreme left, to the Roman Catholicism of a Jacques Maritain, on the extreme right. I repeat, nevertheless, that Christianity is the one interpretation of existence which can rightly claim to be a humanism. If that claim strikes you as unfounded, listen to Eduard Thurneysen, and I am confident that you will be challenged to change your opinion. "Because Jesus Christ has become flesh, there is nothing fleshly and human, however sinful and corrupt it may be, that cannot be reached and grasped by the Word of God and translated into God's own. Since Jesus Christ was born, died, and rose again, the name of God is set over everything that is on earth." (6, p. 118.) Thurneysen, I venture to assert, is irrefutably right; and evangelical's theocentrism is indeed the truest humanism.

You see, Christianity with its doctrines of creation, incarnation, and redemption, embraces and potentially sanctifies the whole gamut of human existence: it sets the name of God over everything that is on earth.

Terence, the ancient Roman playwright, formulated, you remember, the enduring shibboleth of humanism, a shibboleth which naturalists like Julian Huxley delight to repeat, "I am a man; I count nothing human alien to myself." (3, p. 541) But in a sense deeper than Terence ever dreamed possible a Christian can also say, "I am a man; I count nothing human alien to myself." A Christian can say that-and indeed must say it-because that is what his Saviour and Lord said in the dramatic language of a specific human birth, a specific human life, a specific human death. A Christian in so saying is only repeating the Word uttered by God-in-the-flesh, "I am a man; I count nothing human alien to myself"-nothing, mind you, not exempting sin and mental illness.

Thus the Gospel, which does not shrink back from any sordid tangle of psyche or soul, the Gospel which affirms that God loves man as he is, may rightly claim to be a humanism. And I seriously wonder whether any rival interpretation of life has the right to make that claim. As I see it, any rival interpretation is at best a truncated humanism; it ignores either the heights or the abysses in man's nature.

Moreover, as a bona fide humanism, Christianity is properly humanitarian. How could it be otherwise? Our Saviour and Lord went about doing good, as the Apostle Peter tells us, healing all who were oppressed of the devil. The Gospels record some twenty-six miracles in which supernaturally Jesus cured the sick of mind as well as the sick of body. He showed that the power of God was available to faith for breaking in upon and battering down the strongholds of suffering, misery, and bondage. By word and work He emphatically taught that passive acquiescence in the face of human needs is not according to His Father's will. He had come into the world, Jesus declared, in order that man, redeemed and released, might have life and have it more abundantly. Besides all this, He conunissioned His disciples to carry on a therapeutic ministry as He Himself had done. "Heat the sick," He said; "freely ye have received, freely give." Jesus laid upon His followers the responsibility of caring for the diseased, the handicapped, the burdened, those who are in distress whether spiritually or physically or mentally.

So any Christian who takes seriously the mandate of his Master must have a concern which, while humanitarian in nature, stretches a whole dimension beyond mere humanitarianism. He must be concerned about everything which shrivels human existence, everything which prevents his neighbor from enjoying freedom and fulfillment by faith, everything which hinders any fellow creature from entering into the life and likeness of God. Today, therefore, a Christian must be concerned about racism, war, and depersonalization just as in days gone by Christians have been concerned about slavery and child labor and factory legislation. Hence a Christian must also be concerned about the life-frustrating problem of mental illness. Indeed, a Christian ought to be concerned about this problem to a degree which secular sociologists and psychologists, for all their humanitarianism, do not begin to equal. For such a concern, an evangelical concern, is simply the corollary of a directive for which a cross supplies the dynamic: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

Resources in Christianity

My third proposition reinforces, I am sure, what I have previously asserted: Christianity seems to possess extraordinary resources for helping to alleviate this problem.

An old hymn frequently sung at evangelistic services is apparently true even from a mental-health standpoint:

"Healing of the mind"--Christianity promises that and evidently makes good its promise. For what is it that the disturbed and disjunctive individual requires? What, in other words, is imperative for mental healing? Suppose I broaden the question. What is essential if mental illness is to be prevented and mental health promoted? For one thing, the authoritative literature states, as I read it, that mental health and healing demand a conviction of life's meaningfulness, a framework of orientation and devotion, to cite Erich Fromm, a philosophy which endows existence with purpose and significance. This is the antidote for that overwhelming sense of personal cosmic irrationality which furnishes the fertile seedbed of neurosis. But what philosophy meets this demand as adequately as does the Biblical faith? If meaningfulness is the antidote for neurosis-creating irrationality, Christianity, I submit, is a powerful ally of mental health.

For a second thing, the authoritative literature states, as I read it, that mental health and healing demand a source of courage which will enable a person to encounter the inescapable anxiety of life, its basic, built-in anxiety, without going to pieces. But where is the source of this anxiety-subduing courage to be discovered, a courage which will help an existing individual rise above the threats of futility, guiltiness, and non-being, particularly the never-relaxed threat of non-being? Whatever Paul Tillich may care to affirm otherwise, I for one can discover that source nowhere but in the traditional Gospel of Jesus Christ which guarantees a death-annulling resurrection. In the Gospel, it seems to me, we have the antidote for neurosis-creating anxiety.

For a third thing, the authoritative literature states, as I read it, that mental health and healing demand, on the one hand, the assurance of love, and, on the other hand, the power to love. From Freud on down through virtually every school of post-Freudian psychotherapy the need for this two-fold experience of love has been recognized either explicitly or implicitly. A human being must know that he is die object of a love which gives him both security and status; he must, in addition, function as the subject of an outgoing love. Unless this is his experience, an individual may fall victim to a self-debilitating, neighbor-destroying hate that can end in neurosis.

This is not the place for any detailed exposition of aggression and hostility, two factors which loom large in the literature of psychiatry. Suffice it to remark that a major problem for any therapist is how to siphon off hate and how to substitute agape for that destructiveness in human nature to which a picturesque label has been attached, the thanatos or death drive. Once more, I fail to see any solution for this problem apart from Christianity. What is the Gospel, after all, if not the good news that man, an utterly insignificant and valueless biped, a pinpoint of protoplasm on a pigmy planet in a measureless universe, is nevertheless the object of a cosmic love which gives him ultimate security and eternal status? What is the Gospel, after all, if not the good news that man, curved in egocentrically upon himself, secretly and often openly hating his neighbor, can become the subject of outgoing love as the Holy Spirit works within his heart? The Gospel, in my judgment, the Gospel alone, the good news of God's love in Jesus Christ, supplies the antidote for neurosis-creating hate.

I might continue in this vein for a much longer time; but charity compels me to abbreviate. The authoritative literature teaches, as I read it, that mental health and healing demand forgiveness as the antidote for guilt; they demand fellowship as the antidote for alienation; power as the antidote for impotence; and hope as the antidote for despair. So as I read the authoritative literature I keep asking myself, "Where are all these psychic desiderata to be found?" Conveniently they are to be found in the Gospel exclusively-or at least with an adequacy that makes the Gospel an unrivalled antidote for neurosis? Dare I say that, if mental health and healing demand self-understanding, self-identity, self-acceptance, self-release, and self-investment, if this is their demand, then the Gospel of Jesus Christ seems to possess extraordinary resources for alleviating mental illness?

This, at any rate, is why so reputable a therapist as James T. Fisher include a eulogy of the Gospel in his autobiography, A Few Buttons Missing:

that such a work had already been completed! If you were to take the sum total of all authoritative articles ever written by the most qualified of psychologists and psychiatrists on the subject of mental hygiene--if you were to combine them and refine them and cleave out the excess verbageif you were to take the whole of the meat and none of the parsley, and if you were to have these unadulterated bits of pure scientific knowledge concisely expressed by the most capable of living poets, you would have an awkward and incomplete summation of the Sermon on the Mount. And it would suffer immeasurably through comparison. For nearly two thousand years the Christian world has been holding in its hands the complete answer to its restless and fruitless yearnings. Here . . . rests the blueprint for successful human life with optimum mental health and contentment. (2, p. 273. Used by permission.)

In short, the New Testament provides a compendium of all the vital principles for keeping the mind healthy. Jesus Christ, according to Dr. Fisher, was even greater than Sigmund Freud in Freud's own chosen field. Jesus Christ was the master mental hygienist of all the ages.

For the same reasons, also, I assume, in his book Christianity and Mental Health, Max Leadi ringingly assures us:

The principles of Christianity when applied to an individual's life are completely effective . . . The child reared in the Christian home will have the love and affection needed for future emotional stability, for these are fundamental in Christian living. Fear in its destructive aspects is conquered for the Christian. Death, the greatest fear and the greatest unknown, is wiped out. The worst that the world can have to offer is insignificant, for God is on the Christian's side. People, for the Christian, are not enemies but friends, for God is love, and is not man made in God's image? . . . The world and its people are not a threat to the Christian. The Christian does not labor under a great burden of inferiority, for he recognizes that success, attainment, and real stature in life are not a matter between him and other men but a matter between himself and his God. He knows that God does not see labels but instead sees lives. The Christian knows but may not understand how it is that there is ultimate purpose and ultimate good. And since he is a small part of all of this, then in his life too there is ultimate purpose and ultimate good. For the Christian all will be well, despite whatever problems and disappointments he may have. (4, pp. 134-135. Used by permission.)

Thus, in Leach's opinion, Christianity is a sort of blue-chip safeguard against mental illness, a guaranteed wonder-drug which will prevent neurosis.

But have Fisher and Leach permitted a commendable fervour to prejudice their case on behalf of Christianity's value in terms of mental hygiene? I am very much afraid that both of them, though definitely on the side of the angels, have failed to do what many of us have been failing to do. They have neglected to scrutinize critically this newest apologetic for the Gospel-its value in terms of mental hygiene. Quite briefly, therefore, having stated three positive theses, may I now lay down two counter-balancing propositions?

Religion and Healthy-mindedness

My fourth thesis, then, is this: as Christians concerned about the problem of mental illness, we must admit that often religion, even our own unique faith, is of little value, or minus value with respect to healthy-mindedness. Distasteful as it is to admit this fact, honesty forces us to do so; and Christianity is reduced to hypocritical nonsense when its adherents flout the practice of simple honesty. Far from serving as a panacea for psychic difficulty, religion, even our own unique faith, I repeat, often proves of little value, no value, or minus value with respect to healthy-mindedness. Honesty compels me to admit this.

Now in admitting it, I am not endorsing the strictures which some very vigorous critics have levelled against Christianity. By no means! Albert Ellis, for example, the hard-hitting exponent of rational psychotherapy, condemns our faith as the most frequent and fruitful cause of mental illness. It will be salutary for us, I think, to listen humbly while he speaks his piece in an article entitled, "There Is No Place for Sin in Psychotherapy":

Because of ... serious disadvantages of giving individuals a serious sense of sin and because any deity-positing religion almost by necessity involves endowing those members who violate its god's laws with a distinct concept of blameworthiness or sin, I am inclined to reverse Voltaire's famous dictum and to. say that, from a mental health standpoint, if there were a God it would be necessary to uninvent Him . . . I contend that giving anyone a sense of sin, guilt, or self-blame is the worst possible way to help him be an emotionally sound and adequately socialized individual . . . If, in this thoroughly objective, nonguilty manner, we can teach our patients (as well as the billions of people in the world who, for better or worse, will never become patients) that even though human beings can be held quite accountable of responsible for their misdeeds, no one is ever to blame for anything, human morality, I am sure, will be significantly improved and for the first time in human history civilized people will have a real possibility of achieving sound mental health. The concept of sin is the direct and indirect cause of virtually all neurotic disturbance. The sooner psychotherapists forthrightly begin to attack it the better their patients will be. (1, pp. 191-192. Used by permission.) 

This attack, I know, levelled by Albert Ellis, a distinguished practitioner in the field of psychotherapy, has made all of us squirm uncomfortably. Ellis, as I have pointed out, charges Christianity with being perhaps the most frequent and fruitful cause of personality- disorders. "From a mental health standpoint," he roundly contends "if there were a God, it would be necessary to uninvent him." "Giving anyone a sense of sin, guilt, or self-blame," he further contends, "is the worst possible way to help him be an emotionally sound and adequately socialized individual." And Ellis contends still further that for the first time in history civilized people will have a real possibility of achieving sound mental health if we can persuade them that no one is ever to blame for anything. Tersely he focuses his indictment: "The concept of sin is the direct and indirect cause of virtually all neurotic disturbance." Or, to restate his conclusion, Christianity is the enemy of mental health; and on that ground alone ought to be attacked root and branch by every self-respecting psychotherapist.

Now I am not going to undertake a refutation of this criticism, though a refutation is certainly called for and would not be especially difficult. All I am going to do now is urge that as convinced Christians we recognize the complexity of emotional illness and admit that often religion, sometimes even our own unique faith, proves of little value, no value, or minus value with respect to healthy-mindedness. Yes, let us admit that. No, let us insist that spiritually and healthy-mindedness cannot be readily equated. Let us insist that the relationship between Christian faith and psychic soundness is extremely complex. A simple illustration will show, I hope, the complexity of their relationship. Take the six criteria of "the mentally healthy individual" proposed by Dr. Marie Jahoda in her monograph, Current Concepts of Positive Mental Healtb:

          1. He is self-reliant, self-confident and self-accepting.

These six criteria, I am sure, constitute an excellent profile of healthy-mindedness. But now in the light of these criteria evaluate many of the Christians who have been looked upon as outstandingly spiritual. Evaluate Paul or Peter or James. Evaluate Savonarola, Huss, Calvin, Fox, or Bunyan. Evaluate David Brainerd, that much-admired paragon of piety in Colonial America. Could any of these spiritual giants qualify as models of mental health in keeping with Jahoda's definition? Were they well-integrated, well-balanced, well-adjusted individuals, tranquil and relaxed, the kind of people who would be pleasant companions at a beach-party some summer afternoon? I rather imagine, on the contrary, that an Albert Ellis considers all of them pathological fanatics, rigid, compulsive, and neurotic in their behaviour. And, I dare say, all of them mtight have profited immensely by reading one of Dr. Peale's many handbooks on healthy-mindedness! In a word, sainthood and psychic soundness are not commensurables. Let us admit it. Let us admit, too, that a discouragingly large percentage of rank-and-file evangelicals are still characterized by conflict, tension, fear, guilt, scrupulosity and aggressiveness. And, consequently, let us engage in a probing reconsideration before we announce to the world that Christianity is a blue-chip panacea for mental illness.

I suppose, however, that the failure of our own unique faith to prove of greater value therapeutically can be partly explained by two factors: first, the Gospel is sometimes misinterpreted; and second, it is sometimes misapplied.

Will any honest evangelical deny that the Gospel is sometimes misinterpreted? Again and again sermons present the good news of redemption and release as gloomy, morbid, world-denying, puritanical, and repressive. God is frequently portrayed not as He really is, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the covenant-keeping God, the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the God of wisdom, power, righteousness, love, and grace. He is portrayed instead as a sadistic monster, a legalistic tyrant, a cosmic egotist, obsessed with minutiae and taboos. It is no wonder, then, that the adherents of a misinterpreted Christianity fail to enjoy a larger measure of psychic health. More than this, the Gospel is sometimes misapplied. An individual may profess faith in Christianity but what if his faith never issues in a personal experience of the new birth? What if it issues only in formal affiliation with a church? What if it is never internalized? What if it is merely institutionalized? What if it never becomes an acute fever? What if, as James says, it remains a dull habit? Under such circumstances we need not be surprised if our own unique faith, sadly misapplied, demonstrates little value, no value, or minus value with respect to healthy-mindedness.

In any event, because the Gospel is misinterpreted and misapplied, we had better exercise care before we make sweeping claims on behalf of its psychic effectiveness. As Christians concerned about the problem of mental illness, we had better set ourselves to the task of serious research and sustained dialogue, attempting to discover why the extraordinary resources of our faith remain untapped.

Christian Perspective on Healthy-mindedness

Now, in conclusion, allow me with utmost brevity to set before you one other thesis, for which I am indebted to the analysis made by Thurneysen (6). As Christians concerned about the problem of mental illness, we must refuse to abandon the distinctive insights, convictions and objectives of our own faith. We must beware of prostituting the Gospel to a sub-Biblical end.

You may remember that I previously insisted Christianity is concerned about human life in its totality and therefore Christianity is concerned about healthy-mindedness. But-and let me be provocatively blunt-fundamentally and finally, Christianity is not concerned about the individual's emotional welfare any more than it is concerned about his physical condition. Fundamentally and finally, Christianity is concerned about the individual's relationship to God. Fundamentally and finally, it sees the individual as a sinner who, apart from a sincere faith, is living in a malignant relationship with God. Fundamentally and finally, it sees him as a creature whose overriding responsibility is to get this wrong relationship readjusted. Fundamentally and finally, it sees him as the bearer of a destiny which stretches out beyond time into eternity, and this destiny is determined by his God-relationship. So Christianity's perspective on mental health may be summed up, I think, in these didactic statements.

1. An individual, quite completely free from tension, anxiety, and conflict, may be only a well-adjusted sinner who is dangerously maladjusted to God; and it is infinitely better to be a neurotic saint than a healthy-minded sinner.

2. Healthy-mindedness may be a spiritual hazard which keeps an individual from turning to God precisely because he has no acute sense of need.

3. Emotional illness springing ultimately-ultimately! -from the rift which sin has driven between Creator and creature may prove a disguised blessing, a crisis which compels an individual to face the issues of his divine relationship and eternal destiny.

4. Thus in a choice between spiritual renewal and psychic recovery, Christianity unhesitatingly assigns priority to the spiritual dimension of personality.

5. Mental illness may be an experience which drives a believer into a deeper faith-commitment; hence mental illness may sometimes be a gain rather than a loss.

6. Tension, conflict, mental illness, God's service.

7. No psychic healing is complete unless it is acknowl edged as God's gift and He is praised for it.

8. Health of mind or body is of value only as it is used to serve and glorify God.

These, I suggest, are some of the distinctive insights, convictions, and objectives of our own faith; and as
Christians concerned about mental illness we must refuse to abandon them regardless of how they may be crit icized by secular psychotherapy.

Years ago in Germany, Christoph Blurnhardt carried on a rather phenomenal ministry of pastoral care. Blessed with rare abilities, he helped hundreds of people regain health of body, mind, and spirit. Individuals who could not come to him at Bad Boll would write asking his counsel and prayer. Here is his reply to a woman who had requested intercession for an afflicted friend.

I increasingly feel we should not pray too urgently for health and help in illness, but rather for our right attitudes toward God in order to make the streams of living water flow more richly. God is often hindered from doing what he would gladly do if we were more his people serving him. Now that God has caused me to experience so many and such great things, I long for the experience of seeing men care more for his Kingdom and take a back seat for themselves. In this way, even illness can become a service for God, and God is again close at hand. I shall faithfully think of your sick friend, but am grateful if she in turn also helps me and wishes even more than her health that God's right be acknowledged on earth and his will alone be done. (6, p. 252. Used by Permission.)

That, in my opinion, is a classic statement of the Christian perspective on health, whether physical or mental.


1. Ellis, Albert, "There Is No Place for the Concept of Sin in Psychotherapy," journal of Counseling Psychology, VII, No. 3, 1960.
2. Fisher, James T., and Hawley, Lowell S., A Few Buttons Missing, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1951.
3. Jahoda, M., Current Concepts of Positive Mental Health, New York: Basic Books, 1958.
4. Leach, Max, Christianity and Mental Health, Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Company, 1957.
5. McCann, Richard V., The Churches and Mental Health, New York: Basic Books, 1962.
6. Thurneysen, Eduard, A Theology of Pastoral Care, Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1962.