“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God.” Romans 5:1
Is Mental Health Possible Without Faith?
A report in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that mental health – defined variously as a positive sense of emotional and psychological well-being, and being at peace with one’s self and the world – is directly correlated with physical health across the life span. That is, the more positive a person’s mental condition and attitude toward life, the more likely the prospects for enjoying physical health. Conversely, the more a person’s life is fraught with mental and emotional anguish, stress, and mental illness, the greater the likelihood of experiencing physical illness as well.
Such data and observations are no longer surprising, since most of us are aware that positive or optimistic attitudes are linked to positive life experiences, and negative or pessimistic attitudes are predictably allied with negative ones. In this regard, we may also observe that there is a mental health application to the old adage that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” People who seem to have it all together continue to prosper and do well, while those caught in a downward spiral seem unable to extricate themselves without some form of intervention.
So what constitutes the foundational basis for mental health? Is it associated with what we do (our behaviors), how we feel (our emotions), how we think (our beliefs), our heredity (genetics and legacy), and our circumstances (environment)? Different philosophies and theories would propose different explanations, supporting all of the above as the way to “get” mentally healthy. However, every one of the theories miss the mark unless attention is given to one crucial element – faith in God.
The apostle Paul, knowing that there are three bases of human development that fall short of producing mental health, presented the only true basis for mental well-being. The three approaches that fall short all attempt to generate mental health by changing, ignoring or replacing God, while the true basis of mental health emanates from faith in God. Without faith in God, our mental condition is either depraved, deprived or deluded. Let’s look at each of these conditions.
The Depraved Person
The first erroneous basis for mental health is contingent upon exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man” (Rom. 1:23). When we transform God into our own image, we become automatically subject to the motivations of our human nature, which Freud labeled the libido (unbridled or raw passions that operate solely on the basis of the pleasure principle). As a result, human beings become little better than intelligent animals who are ruled by their emotions. Their mental health, therefore, accrues from “a depraved mind” which produces behavior that is characterized by “every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity, full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless and ruthless. (Rom. 1:29-31). Such is not the fabric of mental health. No one in their right mind would construe such human beings as mentally healthy. Consequently, our emotions are not a valid basis for, or guarantee of, mental health.
The Deprived Person
The second erroneous basis for mental health purports obtaining “glory, honor and peace” by doing good (Rom. 2:10). Since depravity is obviously a poor route to mental health, the evident solution is to see to it that human beings do good rather than evil. If we live good, moral lives and do good deeds, out of unselfish motives, the results will be a sense of well-being. In other words, instead of manifesting the raw and unseemly core of our personality, we dress it up with good works to make it look good in the eyes of others and to ourselves.
The problem with this type of mental health is that it is deprived of vitality and life. It looks good on the outside, but is rotten at the core. We can fool each other and even ourselves, but not God because “man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Thus, in the final analysis, the do-gooders are actually deprived since their mental health is based on works rather than faith. As Paul observes in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works so that no one can boast.” Behavior, therefore, is not the foundation of mental health, no matter how good or meritorious it is.
The Deluded Person
The third erroneous basis of mental health is that of religion. This basis is founded on the delusion that by being religious or spiritual and consistently, sincerely, and conscientiously practicing the tenets of one’s church or belief system, one will attain a sense of mental well-being. Once again, confidence emanates from a source other than God. While Paul is referring specifically to the Jewish religion, his principles apply to all denominational and religious systems, whether Christian or non-Christian. He states, “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly; nor is circumcision merely outward and physical; no, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly and circumcision is circumcision of the heart by the spirit, not in the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God” (Rom. 2:28-29). In other words, religious, or spiritual beliefs and principles are of no more use mental health-wise than good works. We are only deluding ourselves if we bank on them for our mental well-being. Our beliefs and cognitions, though practiced religiously, provide no better basis for mental health than our passions (emotions), or behavior (good works).
The Basis For Mental Health
Paul’s conclusion about all three approaches to human development is the same: they “are all under sin” (Rom. 3:9). So, what is the true basis for mental health? Paul’s answer: “Believe on Him (God) who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom. 4:24). Faith in God is the foundational basis for mental health. With that foundation, our emotions, our behaviors and beliefs become the building blocks of mental health; and our life circumstances and experiences become challenges through which we acquire a true sense of personal confidence and worth. Therefore, only when we have peace with God, through faith in Jesus Christ, is mental health a real possibility.
By James Trotzer
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.