We must clearly define what we mean by healing. The temptation is to conflate healing with curing. When we do this, the quest becomes the eradication of troublesome experiences with a view to initiating a return to some kind of perceived psychological norm that is often determined by the expectations of culture rather than by the actual nature of the experiences of individuals living with mental health challenges. However, thinking about healing in terms of cure is only one way the issue can be addressed. Theologically, we might think of healing as much more than cure, if in fact it includes cure at all.
Health is not the absence of anything; it is the presence of God.
Scripture has no equivalent term for biomedical understandings of health that equate health with the absence of illness. The closest term is the Hebrew term shalom, which has a core meaning of righteousness, holiness, right relationship with God. From this perspective, to be healthy is to be in right relationship with God regardless of one’s physical or psychological state. One can be the world’s fittest athlete, the world’s richest, most hedonistic individual, or the most psychologically stable person on the planet and still be deeply unhealthy. Health in this perspective is not a medical or psychological concept but primarily a relational and theological concept. Health is not the absence of anything; it is the presence of God. In Judges 6:24 we discover that Yahweh is shalom: “Gideon built an altar to the Lord there and called it Yahweh-Shalom [which means ‘the Lord is peace’].” In Ephesians 2:14 Paul tells us that Jesus is shalom: “For [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.
Shalom is abundant life
Health is therefore not an ideal, a concept, or a humanly achievable goal. Rather, it is a person. When Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life in all its fullness,” it is this shalom life to which he is referring: life with Jesus in all times and in all places. Shalom is abundant life; it is what enables us to hold on to Jesus in the midst of the storms. Mental health, biblically speaking, is not defined by the presence or absence of “symptoms.” Psychological distress is therefore not a sign of the absence of God. It is perfectly possible to be with Jesus even in the midst of deep distress. It is also the case that psychological disorder can bring about the experience of God’s abandonment. However, this is not a sign that one’s distress is caused by anything any individual may or may not have done. The absence of God is mysterious but not uncommon within the experiences of the people of God. It is distressing but not indicative of personal sin or transgression. God has promised never to leave us, but it doesn’t always feel that way. That is so for all of us, even if it feels more acute during times of psychological distress. The pastoral task is to help people hold on to Jesus in these difficult times without unnecessary guilt or blame.
I just thought I was a bad Christian
I remember giving a talk about this understanding of mental health at a conference in Edinburgh a few years ago. After it, a man came up to me and said: “You know, I have lived with schizophrenia for twenty-five years. I never realized that I was accepted just as I am without being cured. . . . I just thought I was a bad Christian.” How sad that the people of God had not been able to help him find the healing presence of Jesus without blaming him for his distress or demanding that he be cured of it. Shalom is liberation from false ideas about mental health and ill health, misguided expectations around curing, and unrealistic expectations concerning the nature of the good life we are called to live out with Jesus.
Within such a description of mental health, healing becomes something that may include cure but is not defined by it. Healing relates to those forms of practice in which the church engages, which can enable people to remain connected to Jesus at all times and in all places.
Excerpted from Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges
by John Swinton ©2020 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher.