The relationship between body, mind and soul is one of the most complicated and least understood in the modern world. One reason is that while the three certainly seem distinguishable (at least to those who believe we have a soul) the boundaries are extremely hazy. Is depression a result of a chemical imbalance, a poor self-image, or guilt from personal sin? How you answer this question will be a reflection of not simply your faith but your worldview as well (and the answer is most probably “yes” to all three).
Carlson sets out in his book “Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded?” to examine the phenomenon of mental illness from a clinical as well as religious perspective to see “why many Christians treat the emotionally ill as sinners instead of wounded saints (p 10)”. He sites several key beliefs that can lead well-meaning Christians do more harm than good:
- All emotional problems are ultimately sin problems
- Emotional and mental health problems can be solved primarily or solely by spiritual means (prayer, Bible study, spiritual discipline)
- Psychology is antithetical to faith and should therefore be avoided
- People who are right with God shouldn’t have mental illness or require psychological help
- Mental illnesses are just covers for bad or sinful choices
These examples may seem stereotypical or trite, but Carlson gives examples of these beliefs at work in the real world, both through authors who espouse these beliefs and those who were on the receiving end of them.
The confusion and pain that accompanies mental illness can be crippling at times. Our culture is just beginning to overcome the stigma of mental illness, as evidenced by podcasts about dealing with emotional illness (“The Hilarious World of Depression” is one) and by high-profile leaders and entertainers (including wrestler and actor Dwayne Johnson) coming forward about their own battles with mental illness. But there is still a stigma attached to showing up at a counselor’s office that deters some from going until things have reached a crisis point.
It’s important for Christians to understand mental illness not just from a spiritual and religious point of view, but from a biological, emotional, and social one as well. Carlson does a good job of describing the interplay of these different aspects of the person and the importance of understanding the person as a system and not just a soul with a body attached to it. He encourages us to take seriously the pains that are suffered in the past that can lead to long-term psychological and emotional damage. In doing so he promotes empathy and understanding over instruction-giving and problem-solving, something all chaplains are enjoined to do and what all Christians are called to do for one another.
Carlson’s book is helpful not only for chaplains and Christian counselors but also for those struggling with emotional illness who may have been hurt by the words of others or feel that they are in some way “damaged” or “broken” in God’s eyes because of it. It’s a helpful resource to understand at a basic level how our faith can inform our psychology and vice versa.