It is incumbent on the minister of the Gospel to maintain good mental, as well as good physical, health.
In fact, the ministry is a work of the mind and nervous system more than of the muscles of the human body. Thus, attention to a study of mental health is clearly in order. My own lack of knowledge in the field resulted in my passing through one of the deepest and darkest valleys of my life some years ago. I grew up on the farm knowing well the signs of physical fatigue. I knew nothing, however, of how to detect the signs of mental and emotional fatigue. Therefore, I missed them until I was at a point where a neurotic malady had me in its clutches.
What I share with you in this article comes not only from personal experience, but also from years of reading everything that has come my way on the subject. I want to discuss with you the signs of mental maladies and then offer what I pray will be helpful suggestions on how to maintain good mental health. These suggestions I have gleaned from psychology, church history, and the Bible.
These three sources contain helpful truth that promotes mental health. The truth that comes from Scripture, however, is the most trustworthy of the three. After all, God designed and made the creature called man--body, soul, and spirit. Accordingly, He has knowledge about the one He created more than anyone else does. Psychology primarily contains theories about human nature. The Creator has perfect knowledge of it. He not only knows what causes all of man's problems, but He also has the solution to all of them.
By contrast, both modernists and postmodernists can only hypothesize and philosophize about them. Thus, before one gets too carried away by the force of the postmodern movement, he or she should listen to the conclusions of Gene Veith, who says, "And if the scientific rationalism of the modernist has given way to the relativistic paradigms of the postmodernists, it is clear that postmodernism is yet another explanatory paradigm, another mythology destined to be replaced." Accordingly, the believer cannot follow either modernism or postmodernism. Steve Badger writes, "This idea that only the scientific method can hope to arrive at truth has produced a worldview that claims the physical realm is all that exists." Even modernism or "scientism," then, tends to reject the very existence of God.
Psychologists generally divide mental illnesses into three categories.
The mildest is that of personality disorders, or abnormalities. More severe are those of the neurotic category, where one remains in touch with reality but wrestles with thoughts and feelings to a much greater degree than the normal person. The victim often speaks of being "tormented" in the mind. The most severe form of mental illness is psychosis, where one loses touch with reality to the extent that he or she can no longer effectively function in life. Sometimes people joke about all this by saying that the neurotic builds a palace in the sky, the psychotic lives in it, and the psychiatrists collect the rent! None of this, however, is by any means a joking matter.
In reading through the list of symptoms, one must beware of developing the "medical student's syndrome." The expression comes from the fact that students studying the symptoms of various diseases tend to diagnose themselves as having every one of them. Further, noting such symptoms within oneself does not suggest that he is about to "go crazy." Almost everyone experiences from one to several of these at least to a mild extent at various times in life. The degree of the symptom, the frequency of its occurrence, and its persistence all indicate the extent of one's problem. It would be a most unusual case, indeed, if a neurotic experienced all of them to a pronounced degree. They are signs, however, that can indicate something serious around the corner unless one makes adjustments in lifestyle. If a person knows them and heeds them, though they are not things that one would ordinarily pay much attention to, he or she need never go under as I did. Certainly, symptoms of mental maladies involve much more that just trembling hands or crying for no known reason.
One of the symptoms of a neurotic condition is free-floating anxiety.
A distinction is sometimes made between fear and anxiety. Fear is an emotion one experiences in which the object of danger is clear. On the other hand, in anxiety the object of danger is either unknown or is only vaguely perceived. The "free-floating" part of the designation comes from the fact that one constantly experiences a "stirred up" feeling of some impending disaster. Some terrible thing is going to happen. Maybe the person feels certain that death is just around the corner. I have had mothers suffering post-partum depression declare to me that they knew they were going to die and some other woman would raise their babies. The passing of the decades proved their feelings were false. They actually lived to a ripe old age.
Neurotic conditions have been recognized by medical professionals for so many years that the terminology used to describe them has undergone changes from time to time. At one time, when a person simultaneously experienced several of the symptoms to a pronounced degree, that individual was said to have suffered a "nervous breakdown." If, on the other hand, the condition was attributed to battlefield experiences, some called it "shell shock" or "combat fatigue." A more recent term is simply "burnout."
Whatever the terminology, though, a prominent symptom is chronic fatigue. It can, however, be episodic as well. One experiences fatigue to an extremely unpleasant degree. He or she feels tired even in the morning. Sleep does not seem to restore energy. The person gets little refreshment even out of vacations or extended periods of rest. Physical weariness becomes so great that the individual feels that life itself is a burden. Ordinary activities of life become extremely laborious. To engage in any activity requires sheer drive. One absolutely must, however, fight against that fatigue. Giving in to it will only make matters worse.
Sleep disorders often play a role in such mental conditions. Robert White writes, "Disturbance of sleep is one of the most universal burdens of the neurotic personality." The malady, however, can also manifest itself in the opposite direction. In that case the person strongly senses a need to sleep most of each and every day.
Fear fits into a neurotic category only when it is abnormal. Fear of wild animals or of poisonous snakes is both natural and healthy. A phobia results, however, when fear becomes morbid in nature. The thing that is feared either presents no actual danger or the fear is out of all proportion to the danger involved. The list of abnormal fears is long. Claustrophobia, fear of closed spaces, is a common one. One man reported to me that he had just taken his seat on a plane once when suddenly he was terrified at being in a restricted place. He had to exert every ounce of energy he had to keep from rushing back down the aisle and out the door of the aircraft. Ochlophobia, fear of crowds, is another. In a church I pastored once, a lady and her husband faithfully attended. He always brought a folding chair into the sanctuary, however, for his wife. She sat in it with her back against the rear wall of the room because she could not tolerate anyone sitting behind her.
One is said to experience an obsession when an idea forces itself persistently on the patient's mind. The thought is always irrational, can sometimes be immoral, and may involve such worrisome things as excessive doubt about whether the person turned off the lights before leaving the house.
One struggles with a compulsion when an act (in contrast to an idea, see above) forces itself persistently on the patient. It may result in the repeated performance of an activity, such as the ritualistic washing of one's hands. At its base is likely a phobia of germs. Perfectionism is akin to it. For example, some women are compulsive as housekeepers.
Many neurotic persons have an insatiable desire for attention. They seem under a compulsion to talk incessantly about their condition. They usually do it in minute and repeated detail. Their conversation is much like that of an aged person beginning to experience senility. Pastors who are unaware of such maladies may find their counseling time all but dominated by a few people like this. For a while in one of my pastorates, one woman called almost daily and talked for about an hour. Each time the content of the conversation was about the same. Then I learned that as soon as we finished talking, she would call another woman in the church, and then another until her time on the phone daily continued for five or six hours. The sad part of it all was that she found no lasting satisfaction through any of it. Hers was an insatiable desire for attention.
Hypochondriasis is a condition that manifests itself as an excessive concern about the state of one's health. People with that condition often irrationally conclude that their bodies have been invaded with some dreaded disease. Even when extensive medical examinations fail to discover anything wrong, patients find no relief from their faulty conclusions. Once I visited a woman from my church who was a patient in a hospital. She was at that point of being constantly, yet unnecessarily, worried about her physical condition. Doctors had even performed some surgeries on her body because she was so persistent in declaring her symptoms. More trips to the hospital for thorough examinations brought reports from medical personnel that they found nothing wrong. So convinced was she of her own imagined illnesses, however, that before I could rejoice with her over the good news, she said, "You know, Pastor, doctors can be wrong!"
The technical meaning of the psychological term hysteria has no connection with what people sometimes refer to as "hysterical behavior" when one is in a state of panic. Rather, it results in an actual malfunction of some part of the patient's body when there is no apparent organic basis for it. In a small town bank robbery, the criminals shot one of the bank's officers in the back. After surgery and following the healing of the physical injury, he still could not walk, despite the fact that the doctors could not find any physical reason for that inability to persist. The term for such a condition is hysterical paralysis.
Often the tendency to withdraw manifests itself in the lives of people having neurotic difficulties. They may conclude that their "condition" leaves them no longer able to work and, thus, depart their employment. Strong feelings suggest to them that being in a crowd is not good for them, so they stop attending church. Since the pleasure they once had when they went to ball games is no longer theirs, they cease to go to sports events. They may even stop talking, except under the most necessary circumstances. In the end they live more and more inside their own tormented minds.
Apparently without realizing it, the prophet Elijah played into the hands of this powerful drive to withdraw when he ran away from Jezebel, left his ministry for a time, dropped out of contact with fellow human beings by retreating to the wilderness, and even prayed to die, wanting to leave life itself behind (1 Kings 19:1-10). When he came to the end of himself, he slept for some time under the shade of a broom tree. He was awakened by an angel who served him a healthy meal. Both his sleep and the nutritious food helped to drive his depression away. It is most encouraging to see that Jehovah dealt gently with this overwrought prophet.
Sometimes actual physical maladies may have their roots in neurotic activity. Such maladies include high blood pressure, palpitation of the heart, ulcers, and respiratory difficulties. Intellectual distress may also come. Sufferers find that they cannot fix their minds in concentrated study as they once did. Psychologists call the physical manifestations psychosomatic illnesses. Contrary to the belief of some, psychosomatic conditions are actual physical illnesses, though they apparently have a neurotic cause.
In the neurotic malady known as the guilt complex, one experiences a powerful feeling of guilt without being able to determine what he or she has done wrong. A healthy conscience produces a profitable sense of true guilt and aids in repentance. A baseless feeling of guilt, however, is one of the most destructive forces in the world. It can leave some of the most conscientious believers wondering if they are really saved or even if they have sinned against the Holy Spirit.
Paranoia can manifest itself in one of two ways. In one a person has delusions of grandeur. As a result of it, the person may believe that he or she is some noted person from history, such as Adolph Hitler. That extreme form of paranoia, however, is usually associated with psychosis rather than neurosis. The more common form of the malady comes with delusions of persecution. Sufferers conclude that others do not understand them, that no one cares about them, that all those around are talking about them, and that everybody is out to get them.
Depression is sometimes referred to as the "common cold" of mental maladies.
It often appears as a general feeling of sadness, despondency, and hopelessness. A loss of energy usually comes with it. It can manifest itself with either a decreasing appetite or a ravenous one, making an almost compulsive eater out of its victim. Either insomnia or hypersomnia--sleeping for unusually long periods on a regular basis--may appear among its symptoms. Anhedonia, or the absence of pleasure in life, plagues the patient. Not a few people with depression experience a strong sense of self-reproach. Added to all of this are often recurring thoughts of death or suicide.
Being faced with such a formidable array of potential mental illnesses may be daunting to anyone. Psychology, church history, and Scripture, however, offer valuable and effective guidance on how to avoid such damaging conditions and maintain good mental health.
Psychology, as a scientific discipline, not only describes the potential problem conditions, but also gives worthwhile information on how to steer clear of them. In a recording of some time ago, Dr. Murray Banks, a popular speaker on the subject, offered helpful suggestions on maintaining mental health.
He said that one should never seek happiness directly. Rather, happiness should be a by-product of useful living. It is somewhat like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the farther away it moves. Instead, just sit, and it will likely light on your shoulder. On the other extreme, do not spend your time wallowing in misery. Some tend to go around always saying how miserable they are. One said, "I am the most unlucky man who ever lived. I bought a suit with two pairs of pants and then burned a hole in the coat!" Instead, make the most of what you have. Keep a lively interest in life. Keep setting up new and interesting goals for yourself. A loss of interest in life at any age is among the worst of symptoms.
Dr. Banks advocated the maintenance of a healthy attitude toward others. You should seek to be with people regularly. Don't withdraw, even if it hurts you to be in a crowd. Maintain a confidential relationship with at least one other person in life. Have an educated heart. Know how to bring happiness into someone else's life. Practice not saying hurtful things to others.
To enjoy good mental health, you should maintain both unity and balance in life.
You focus on unity when you build your life around some satisfying work and enjoy it. If that one thing is lost, however, then you may be left with a lack of purpose in life. Therefore, that focus should be tempered by balance, which comes when you diversify your interests in life. You do well, then, to cultivate a variety of interests along the way while concentrating the majority of your attention on one of them.
Dr. Banks says it is unwise to spend time worrying about the future. Live with the problems of life as they appear. Live each day as if it were the last, and someday it will be. Jesus said the same thing more eloquently. He declared, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own" (Matthew 6:34).
Dr. Banks also advocates the cultivation of a sense of humor in life. You should seek to see the serious as the ridiculous and laugh at it. You should be able to laugh at yourself when you do funny or ridiculous things, and you need to give others the benefit of the doubt when they react to you in puzzling ways, not allowing yourself to give in to a "persecution complex." One finds it difficult to laugh and be angry at the same time. General Douglas MacArthur reportedly once said to his son, "Never take yourself too seriously!" Dr. Banks cautions against trying to please everyone in life. A well-adjusted person is not a perfectionist. The perfectionist borders on being a compulsive person.
Just as psychology has helpful advice to offer in avoiding psychological difficulties, so does church history.
Biographies of Martin Luther reveal that he experienced depression often. His whole life was a struggle against it, a fight for faith. He had two methods of fighting it. One he termed "the head-on attack." When plagued by guilt feelings and fighting insomnia, he would say, "Devil, I must sleep. That is God's command, work by day, sleep by night, so go away." If that didn't work, and Satan mentioned a catalog of sins in accusing him, Luther would respond, "Yes, old fellow, I know all about it. And I know some more you have overlooked. Here are a few extra. Put them down in your book."
Luther's other method of fighting depression he called "the way of indirection." At times in life, Luther advised against any attempt to wrestle one's way through. "Don't argue with the Devil. He has had 5,000 years experience. He has tried out all his tricks on Adam, Abraham, and David and he knows exactly the weak spots." Then he went on to counsel that one should commit things to God. Give up the fight. Shun solitude. Seek company, and discuss irrelevant matters. Discover a lively group and eat with them. Fasting is the worst expedient because depression bears down more on one who is already in a weakened state. Engage in physical activity. A good way to exorcize the Devil, Luther said, is to harness the horse and spread manure on the fields. Then, do something worthwhile and for others, whether you feel like it or not. In our day, the lady of the house should not allow herself to watch television until she has completed the shopping and the house is cleaned. When symptoms of depression appear, shun self-pity like the plague.
Like Luther and even Paul before him, Charles Spurgeon experienced bouts with depression. He mentions two books on depression from his day, one by Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, and another by Timothy Rogers entitled A Treatise on Melancholy. Melancholy is an older term for depression. Spurgeon has a lecture on "Fainting Fits" in which he discusses causes of ministers' depression. In relation to that, he declared that a mouthful of sea air or a stiff walk in a brisk wind may not give strength to the soul but would yield oxygen to the body, which is the next best thing. Almost everyone who writes on the subject of neurosis, in fact, recommends a good schedule of physical exercise. They see it as essential for recovery from the malady.
Scripture offers perhaps the most valuable suggestions in preventing psychological disorders.
In Romans 7:1-8:1, Paul relates his personal experience with what we today call depression. As he shares its symptoms, it becomes clear that a guilt complex was at its core. Paul relates both his struggles with depression and how God gave him victory over it. He realized that he was wrestling with false guilt. Only God has a way to handle real guilt. He has a perfect plan for handling false guilt, too.
For Paul, a careful study of Scripture brought a consciousness of two kinds of sin--and a condemnation of both. First, he saw sin as an outward act--overt sin. This includes covetousness and the several ways in which that sin manifests itself outwardly. He wrote, "Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet'" (Romans 7:7). Outwardly, covetousness manifests itself as stealing, extortion, gambling, and playing the lottery, among other things.
In addition, Paul came to see sin as an inner tendency, as a condition--covert sin. The reading of Scripture brought the following result: "Sin seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous (or lustful desire)" (Romans 7:8). In short, the reading of Scripture, which shows absolute perfection, made his own imperfection abundantly clear to Paul. He discovered that he was "sold as a slave to sin" (v. 14b). His interaction with the Bible created in Paul a desire for the absolute perfection he saw there. That produced in him an "over-desire," an all-consuming passion even for good things. Because he came so short of that perfection, "sin became utterly sinful" to Paul (v. 13b).
Struggle came to Paul as a result of discovering the disparity between what he was and what he wanted to be, based on the perfection he saw in the Bible. This struggle was not with sin of the overt sort. In 1 Cor. 6:9-11, the apostle shows he stopped that at salvation, and all others must do the same if they expect to go to heaven. He stopped lying, cursing, stealing, and drinking the day Jesus came into his life.
Rather, his struggle was with sin of the covert sort. It was the law of the mind (moral sense in man) versus the law of sin (the carnal, Adamic nature) in the conflict (Romans 7:22-23). It was the mere existence of the Spirit-flesh conflict (Gal. 5:17) that left him feeling condemned. He despised the sinful tendency within but could not rid himself of it. Concerning that tendency toward sin, he explained, "The evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing" (Romans 7:19b). In regard to his positive aspirations, however, he declared, "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out" (v. 18b). No doubt he felt guilt simply because he could not always pray or preach as he would like.
Condemnation was the logical consequence of it all, a key word in Romans 8:1. It resulted from the conclusions he came to about himself. He said, "As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature" (Romans 7:17-18a). It produced the cry, "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (v. 24). He no doubt wondered, "Is there any hope for me? Will I ever be free? Am I really saved? Could it be I am demon-possessed?" Some of the most sincere and conscientious believers on earth have walked down that road.
Victory did not come to Paul through deliverance from the conflict. He acknowledged that it continued. He wrote, "So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members" (Romans 7:21-23).
Instead, victory came to the apostle in two significant ways. First, he was free from condemnation--guilt over the fact of sin as a tendency within--by realizing Jesus' death gave him the perfection before God that he so earnestly sought. With much joy he exclaimed, "Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:25) and "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). He was free from the power of sin as an outward act by walking not after the flesh but after the Spirit (as v. 8:1b has it in some versions). He learned that he must reckon himself dead to all sinful impulses (Romans 6:11-13). The power of the Spirit made all this possible as the Book of Romans, chapter 8, goes on to make so clear.
In conclusion, then, it is of prime importance that one understand the nature of neurosis.
While almost everyone experiences some of its symptoms to a certain degree in life, scholars say 10 percent or more of the population know them to an abnormal degree. Accordingly, the minister should make an understanding of the symptoms covered in this article a matter of serious study. Ministers should also make use of the suggestions in this discussion on how to maintain good mental health. These I have gleaned from psychology, church history, and the Bible. Those that Scripture offers, of course, contain the most trustworthy counsel of all. That is hardly surprising when one remembers that God designed and made the creature called man--body, soul, and spirit. Therefore, He not only knows what causes all of man's problems, but He has the solution to all of them as well. The mature believer should posses the best mental health of anyone in society.
Badger, Steve. Witnessing to Our Postmodern World. Springfield, Mo.: by the author, 2003.
Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: The New American Library of World Literature, 1950.
Spurgeon, C. H. Lectures to My Students. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977.
Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. Loving God with All Your Mind, rev. ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2003.
White, Robert W. The Abnormal Personality. New York: Ronald Press Co., 1964.
About the Author
Dr. Charles Harris is a recently retired Professor of Bible and Pastoral Ministries as well as Chairman of the Division of Church Ministries at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He was associated with the college for thirty-eight years.
In addition to his career as an educator, Dr. Harris is also an author. His writings have appeared in the Sunday School Counselor, God's Word for Today, and the Adult Teacher. Among his works are three books--What's Ahead, Proofs of Christianity, and Under the Glass: An Analysis of Church Structure--as well as a commentary on the Book of Second Corinthians in the Complete Biblical Library. He was a contributing author of Power Encounter: A Pentecostal Perspective.
Dr. Harris holds a bachelor's degree in Bible, a master's degree in counseling, and a doctorate in education.