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Does sin have anything to do with mental illness?

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That's a tough question. The answer depends on what you think "sin" is.


Many people view sin as unjust moral criticism. This perspective raises questions like: Who has the right to tell anybody what's "right" or "wrong?" (What's wrong for you may not be wrong for me.) Have you been through what I've been through? (If you had you might not be so judgmental.) This view denies the concept of real sin, suggesting "sin is only sin if you think it is and/or it makes you feel guilty."


Much of secular psychology takes this approach. Ego (Freudian) and behavioral (i.e., Albert Bandura) psychology teach that we struggle with incongruence between our behavior and internalized standards of what we believe behavior should be. We use "defense mechanisms" like projection, paranoia, fantasy, denial, etc., to cope, especially in mental illness. The solution for dealing with all this psychological and emotional pain is to reframe the self and life experiences. Without doubt such therapy is beneficial, but an underlying assumption implies that the way to deal with "sin" is to gain a different perspective.


God's view of "sin" as revealed in Scripture is quite different. Sin is about relationship, specifically our broken relationship with God and with others. We began in perfect relationship with God but disobeyed and ruined things, cursing the earth and humanity (Genesis 1-3). Just as Adam and Eve made excuses for their actions and tried to cover up their sin, we've been using "fig leaves" ever since (i.e., defense mechanisms), to cover up our shortcomings (Powlison 2003). The Bible teaches that sin is terribly deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9), causes us to be dishonest with ourselves and others (Matthew 7:3-5, Acts 5:1-11), darkens the mind (Isaiah 59:2-15), blinds (1 John 2:9-11), and enslaves us (John 8:34; 1 John 2:9-11). The result is psychological, emotional, and physical pain (Psalm 32, 38) and in the end, death (Romans 6:23). Indeed, the Bible supports the view that sin is "incongruence between our actions and internalized standards of behavior" (Romans 7:14-25). But the biblical solution is quite different.


When Jesus came he could have added to our sense of incongruence by condemning us. However, he said he didn't come to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:16-17). He took sin seriously, saying things like if a body part causes you to sin remove it (Matthew 5:29-30), his point being that sin will kill you. Jesus took sin so seriously he died to make restitution for it, correcting the broken relationship between God and humans (Romans 4:25). To receive this fix we have to be honest and acknowledge sin rather than make excuses (Proverbs 28:13), believe Jesus was who he said he was (Son of God, Savior) (John 1:12-13), and invite him into our lives, making a commitment to follow him (John 12:25-26). When we do this, Jesus literally removes our sin (1 John 1:9), guilt (Psalm 32:5) and the final consequence of sin-death (1 Corinthians 15:35-57).


If you take the psychological view of sin, then you might think it is the illusion of sin that impacts mental illness. In part, this perspective is true (i.e., false guilt, false condemnation). If you believe the biblical view of sin, then you can't deny that sin plays a part in mental illness, along with everything else that's wrong with the world. This doesn't mean Christians should go looking for demons in mentally ill patients. But it does mean we understand that all of us, mentally ill or not, need our broken relationship with God fixed. We need our sin and the guilt of sin removed.


What about the neurochemical abnormalities underlying mental illness? Is that because of sin? Scripture teaches in our fallen world, illness has its origins in sin. If sin hadn't entered the world, we wouldn't have neurochemical imbalances. Thankfully, God, in his mercy helped us discover pharmacological interventions to correct some of these imbalances.


Does personal sin contribute to mental illness? Unmistakably, sin wreaks havoc in peoples' lives, both personal trespasses and trespasses done to us (Matthew 6:9-15). Research documents that evil-sexual, physical, and emotional abuses; stress and traumatic events-is clearly implicated in many mental illnesses. In those instances, being made right with God, others, and the self, can decrease symptoms of mental illness.


In the end, where secular psychology helps us improve our "self-esteem," Jesus offers us a relationship that gives a more accurate view of self and an increasing esteem for God. In psychology where "sin" connotes moral criticism that can lead to serious guilt, the biblical view of "sin" causes us to think of Jesus Christ and his saving grace-a totally different connotation.-KSS


Powlison, D. (2003). Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture. Phillipsburg, NJ: P& R. [Context Link]