Q&A: Discerning divide between spiritual and physical realms poses challenges

Criswell prof filters natural revelation through lens of Scripture

Editor’s Note: David L. Henderson is a medical doctor who is board certified in psychiatry and a professor and director of the counseling program at Criswell College in Dallas. Henderson, who maintains a private medical practice in Dallas, is co-author with Paul Meier of the book “Finding Purpose Beyond Our Pain: Uncover the Hidden Potential in Life’s Most Common Struggles.” The TEXAN’s Jerry Pierce interviewed him in his Dallas office regarding the intersection of mental health issues and biblical Christianity and the 2013 Southern Baptist resolution on mental health. Henderson blogs at purposebeyondpain.com.

As a medical doctor and a Christian counseling professor, how would you say we should we define mental health and more specifically, mental health problems?
The challenge for Christians wrestling with how to define mental health and mental illness has always been, “How much of this issue is a spiritual problem, how much is psychological, and how much is physical?” Where does the brain stop and the soul begin? Is it even possible to separate the two practically? I would suggest that our desire to draw a hard and fast line between those three components is because it sets up a definition and model of treatment that is easy and comfortable for us. As humans, we gravitate toward the black and white.

If I see a person in counseling and I can say with absolute authority that he or she is suffering from unconfessed sin, it makes my job a lot easier. Confess the sin and you will get better. On the other hand, if I can draw blood and say with absolute authority that the test results show a low thyroid level, again my job is very easy. Treat the thyroid and you will recover. The problem is that much of medicine in general (not just psychiatry) is not this clear cut. More importantly, Christians need to acknowledge that this is true of life. That is why the Bible speaks so much about wisdom, which is the application of knowledge to given situations, not in a cookie-cutter sort of way, but in a way that uses discernment, taking each case as it is presented to us. It is easier and more comfortable to make everything a black and white issue, but it is not the biblical model in dealing with people. The essence of humanity is body and soul. Some would say body, soul and spirit. We separate these elements out in order to understand them intellectually, but in real life, in the context of counseling, we treat the whole individual. This might be messier, but God never called us to remain in the ivory towers of intellectualism. He called us to love people, broken people who need him. That takes a lot of work.

So defining mental health and illness becomes a process of understanding the component parts of a person (their biology, their psychology, and their spirituality) and how they interact as a whole to affect an individual’s understanding of themselves, how they relate to God and others, and how they act in that context.

I see the SBC resolution (last summer on mental health) as extremely important to the shift in mindset that we are taking as evangelical Christians on dealing with the mentally ill. Do we still acknowledge the reality of sin? Absolutely. But we acknowledge it in the sense that it taints us spiritually, emotionally and physically. This means that we must accept that our physical bodies, our psychology, society, and our history of life experiences impact the way we think and the way we feel, even the way we live out our faith. I have clients who I believe have severe brain disorders and they manifest with psychotic symptoms. Their reality is different from the reality that you and I live in. And yet I have people, in the midst of these delusions, doing exactly what we as believers are called to do. They’re turning to God—they’re bringing their reality to God and asking him to step in to that reality and save them, minister to them, be with them, even though their reality is fantastical—it’s not based in the reality that you and I experience. And yet I would say that they are demonstrating just as much faith in the midst of that reality, sometimes more so.

The SBC resolution noted an array of disorders, from autism spectrum to bipolar to dementia. How are these problems related to our fallen nature?
However you view the “mind-body-spirit” dynamic—you have to acknowledge that sin taints our entire essence. We sin as an act but we are also sinners in our essence and that essence spans our spirituality, our psychology—I would use that term psychology—and our physiology, our bodies. When you see it from that standpoint, it allows for the uniqueness of the individual and their struggle. It allows for the infusion of truth, grace and mercy into their specific circumstances. And the gospel becomes very real to them because you’re not taking a cookie-cutter approach to every single person.

You’re recognizing that we’re all tainted by the fall, but that tainting is very different for each person. So Sally, for example, may struggle with pride or arrogance or gossip, but Johnny over here struggles with pornography or violence, anger, rage. What makes them different? They’re both sinners. They’re both tainted by the fall. But their genetics, personalities, sex, and life circumstances are all different. And so it creates both a dynamic of collective sinfulness, commonality, while maintaining a uniqueness in these other areas. And when I see clients that come to my office, I take each one as an individual and try to tease out what is the essence of their struggle in this life, how the fall has tainted them, but also how they can be redeemed, in body, in soul, in spirit.

To address the physical nature of our humanity, let me point out that researchers have done studies looking at people with severe anxiety and demonstrated that certain areas of their brain are not just functionally overactive, but actually physically larger. One area in particular, called the amygdala, is larger and hyperactive in those who are extremely anxious. So then we must address the nature of their struggle. If somebody has a larger amygdala and it’s overactive, are they going to struggle more with worry and with anxiety, which the Bible says we clearly should not do? Yes, absolutely. Does that affirm their sinfulness? Of course, it affirms that they are broken people just like all of us. The statistic, as far as brokenness, is 100 percent—it just differs in the areas that we struggle. They joy and excitement of what I do is to learn about the nature of their anxiety and help equip them to battle it effectively, incorporating all tools at our disposal, given to us by God through both divine revelation and natural revelation. 

So this resolution seems to me to be the equivalent of Christendom’s acceptance that the world is round. In Galileo’s time, there was a lot of fear about what the acceptance of this fact would do to the Faith.  It challenged people’s worldview. This is an equivalent issue in that it’s challenging our worldview today. But I think in the end, it will not do anything as far as shaking the core doctrines of our faith and what we believe, but will instead help us to be more effective as ambassadors of the truths we find in scripture about our brokenness and our need for a Savior. 

What are some ways in which you see churches failing in their attempts to biblically and adequately address mental health?
Our failure has come from turning a blind eye to the science and the research that has been done over years and years of studying human development and functioning. As I’ve said, we have turned a blind eye to it out of fear, fear of what it would mean for us to step outside the bounds of the Bible and using other forms of truth, natural revelation, that are just as God-given. We know so much more about how the mind and brain work than we did even 10 years ago. Why would we waste that knowledge in our efforts to help redeem the brokenness of mankind?

At Criswell, we take an integrated approach to counseling. We don’t shy away from what natural revelation might reveal to us. We absolutely filter it through the lens of Scripture; we make sure that the theories we’re espousing are consistent with the Word of God, but we don’t shy away from knowledge that might make us more efficient at helping the mentally ill. And this is one of my biggest pet peeves with people in the Christian community and with people in Christian academia: when they completely refuse to even study a field of knowledge because they say, “Well that’s not based on biblical truth.” I think it was Augustine who said, “All truth is God’s truth.”

For example, it’s very emotionally taxing to be in the presence of someone with a mental illness. You can share Scripture. You can share truth with them through the Bible, and it doesn’t seem to penetrate; they don’t seem to get it. Without training, we get tired very quickly. It’s why the statistics associated with pastor burnout are so high. So in an academic program like Criswell, we teach more effective ways of working with someone with mental illness. Why? Well for one, it reduces your own emotional exhaustion so that you can sit in the presence of someone with a mental illness and have greater strength bear the load. In the end, it makes us more efficient as counselors and as lovers of people.

Is there a place for medication or does that detract from the sufficiency of Scripture?
I think the question becomes “the sufficiency of Scripture to do what?” Where people run into problems is that they talk about the sufficiency of Scripture out of context. The sufficiency of Scripture—it’s not sufficient to fix a car or do heart surgery or treat someone with Parkinson’s disease. Is it even sufficient to free your life from all suffering and pain? In fact, Scripture only makes us more aware that we are not free of pain and suffering and that we will never be free of pain and suffering until Christ returns and takes us home to be with him.

So our calling as followers of Christ and lovers of Christ is to relieve suffering where we can and to use that opportunity to point people in the direction of the One who will ultimately relieve all our suffering. And if medication has the power and the ability to relieve pain and suffering, then we should use it. And in doing so, give glory to the One who ultimately provided the relief.

TEXAN Correspondent
Jerry Pierce
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