Panic and the plague

The Bible speaks to mental health. So must we.

The COVID-19 pandemic is today’s healthcare crisis. And it’s tomorrow’s mental health crisis.

Just as the virus affects people differently—some don’t show any symptoms—so its fallout on one’s mental health won’t be the same person-to-person. Some are better situated and better suited to social distance and self-isolate, others less so. And a thousand other factors color how each of us deals with life and loss in a COVID-19 world.

Already the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have released guidelines for mental health in the shadow of the virus. Fear and anxiety top the list. Widespread quarantine measures from India to Indiana amount to what the World Economic Forum recently deemed “the world’s biggest psychological experiment.” The coronavirus will claim comparatively few victims physically; but all who brace before its coming and all who shelter in its wake feel its unguessed fury; in its path the plague sows panic.

It’s plain that in our isolation we collectively are struggling and sad, and as a culture ambivalent on how to respond and unconfident we can. 

Into this void the Bible speaks, so we speak.

“Set your minds on what is above, not on what is on the earth,” writes St. Paul. Christians have much more to say than that about all matters of mental health and counseling, but we never have less.

On this small sentence let me make two observations, as in a group of hikers one calls out a trail sign that those close by might see it too and take heart.

First, St. Paul was getting at more than seems apparent: It turns out that setting my mind is not merely mental, perhaps not even mainly mental. For his instruction is not just a brain exercise: setting one’s mind is more fleshly than that. What I do with my mind is other than what I do with mouth or hand but the two are tied together; how could I sin in speech or act if my thought was laser-focused above?

Mind often follows appetite. True, some mainly of the philosophic sort set their minds against God and for them the rub is, at least they tell themselves and us, an intellectual one. But for each of them how many distracted students endured Intro to Philosophy with minds firmly fixed on lunch? In my own life a simple way to tell where my mind is set is to look at where the rest of me is set—my hopes and fears.

The short and natural jump from setting my mind to setting the rest of me is a jump to the second observation. St. Paul’s passage reminds us of Moses’ writings that Jesus quoted: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And this is the point: It is a command. Come what may on earth and come what may in me, this is a standing order from God, in fact his greatest to us.

Thus the Bible speaks, and thus we speak. God never releases his people from this, thus both to healthy and to hurting people everywhere we repeat this command to love God by setting our minds on what is above. We must tell this first and frequently to ourselves.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and the mental health-related articles in this newspaper were planned long before the COVID-19 crisis came to America. Yet these two topics dovetail, our own anxious hearts typifying what the experts say. 

Christians take different approaches to the task of mental health care and counseling. The two main perspectives we found are “integrationist” and “nouthetic.” Broadly speaking, an integrationist approach to mental health includes professional licensure and “integration” between secular psychology principles and the Bible. Broadly speaking, nouthetic or biblical counseling eschews those things and focuses instead on principles pulled directly from Scripture.

This newspaper takes no position to favor one over the other, as both have advocates within the Southern Baptist Convention and both fall within the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. In these pages you’ll find information on both.

The world around us is hurting and, we should face it, many of us are hurting too. The present pandemic is not helping matters. But let us speak as the Bible speaks, and let us say to each other face to face and with each other side by side, “Set your minds on what is above, not on what is on the earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  

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