The role of Scripture in treating mental health issues

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I have read reports recently from people experiencing “Christian counselling” for mental health issues where this amounted to giving them a few bible verses to read and memorise.  So, I thought I would outline a few reflections around this.

The first thing to say is that this is sometimes described as Biblical Counselling.  However, this can become a little confusing as Biblical Counselling is a specific term to describe an approach to counselling. All approaches to counselling have in effect an underpinning philosophy. In this case, the underlying philosophy is based on theology, an understanding of what the Bible teaches about God, humanity and creation.  The methodology has similarities with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.  The underlying philosophy assumes a connecting between belief, feelings and behaviour.  The methodology will include opportunities for the counselee to do homework in the week so that there is sustained personal progress rather than waiting until the next appointment. This can be very helpful for people, particularly in resolving the spiritual dimensions of anxiety and depression.

So, what role does Scripture itself play in treating mental health issues? Well, I would suggest that seeing it as just giving someone some verses to read of the kind you used to find listed in the front of a Gideons’ Bible is unlikely to help and is rather simplistic in its understanding of how we engage with Scripture.  There is however a use for Scripture reading and memorisation which I will come to shortly.

However, the first use of scripture in the treatment process is in the way that it might inform our philosophy, our approach to treatment. Scripture informs our philosophy by showing us that we live in a physical world so that health issues are real and should be treated as medical issues. This enables us to be alert to organic and environmental causes of emotional health issues. It also reminds us that we are made in God’s image and we have his word as guidance. We can expect that sin (both in terms of my sin and my being sinned against) will lead to spiritual distress which will be experienced emotionally and even physically.  We also know that much pain and suffering arises out of living in a fallen world where suffering is present.

Secondly, where there are spiritual root causes then Scripture helps diagnose them. Now, we need to be very careful here.  The risk is that as soon as someone confides that they are depressed, they may fear being hauled in to some supposedly diagnostic event when in fact, their whole life is gone over and they are interrogated to find some secret sin perhaps unknown to themselves even.  So, my first expectation would be that other medical factors are ruled out. Secondly, the counselee may want to talk about how the are feeling and aspects of their life, just as they would with any other counsellor. It is only as things naturally arise and where there is helpful Biblical counsel that this should be offered. 

The primary way that Scripture does its diagnostic work is through preaching or through the person simply reading it. This enables there to be a clear sense that there was conviction of the heart and not manipulation or control.

Thirdly, Scripture will offer useful counsel to help a person to know how to respond to specific situations. It will offer comfort and hope as well to enable people to keep going.  Now, this should no more involve proof texting than our preaching should. Rather, Scripture should be studied on context to make right personal applications. Furthermore, sometimes our advice is not from one passage alone but will be based on a summing up of the whole counsel of God on a subject.

Finally, I do think that the reading and memorising of Scripture can have a therapeutic impact. So, don’t completely discount it. Reading, learning and meditating on a text may give me the words I need in my mind to enable it to reset or remain focused in  a tricky situation. It may act as a warning red light to help me withstand temptation to return to past habits and indeed, especially for those with compulsive type disorders may help to reset thought patterns onto a helpful path way. Meditating on Scripture can calm my mind to stop my worrying about everything else jumbled up there and focus on my saviour instead.

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. 17 God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.[1]

[1] 2 Timothy 3:16

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