The Bookshelf: “Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded?”, by Dwight Carlson


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.

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5 thoughts on “The Bookshelf: “Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded?”, by Dwight Carlson

  1. I’m know of no Christian who believes every single case of mental health is a sin issue. Not even Jay Adams believed that. However, from years of my own personal life and being involved in ministries to men with what would be considered severe mental issue, who land in jail, I offer a small sample of personally stated issues.

    Did drugs, got high made really bad choice to rob a store, got caught went to jail. Lost job… etc..
    Began shooting heroin, got into a car accident with kids in car, jail time. Lost job etc..
    Needed money, robbed Walmart, got caught went to jail… lost job etc…
    Decided to deal drugs, got caught went to jail… lost job…
    Had sex, got pregnant, guy didn’t love me, decided to abort child, feel very guilty
    Had sex, got girl pregnant, decided to abort child, feel very guilty.

    In each of the above instances, someone may have helped, prodded, assisted in those sinful issues.

    Both of my parents were ‘alcoholics’ and I was as well. Today, a large portion of psych’s will say they believe it’s hereditary, when there is no evidence that proves that point.

    Who made me drink my first beer at 14? Who made me smoke my first smoke, joint, pop my first christmas tree, dexotrim pills, coke and LSD? Was their some peer pressure in certain circumstances? Sure, but nobody made me do it. I did it. It was my choice even though I clearly knew I shouldn’t do it. With the amount I did, I would have been labeled a functioning alcoholic and drug user, but like everyone, I made some really, really poor decisions that jepoardized our family.

    Was/am I mentally stunted as hundreds of thousands are deemed today? Or, was it my sinful nature and me allowing it to get the best of me? Is it my parents fault? Maybe to some degree as well as my ‘buds’ who did it along with me. What about the guilt from doing them? The repurcussions from them?

    Or, is most of this just we’re BORN sinners as the bible says?

    • I’ll direct readers to a critique of Adams’ regard for mental health concerns and nouthetic counseling in particular. While I agree that not every fundamentalist believes every mental illness is a sin issue, there are differing opinions about what the term “mental illness” encompasses among Christians concerned with the issue. Brain and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia are obviously not due to individual sin, but some Christians don’t regard the biological basis of such diseases as depression and anxiety to fall within the same spectrum, and are therefore more “sin issues”.

      Also, numerous studies have found links between addiction and heredity. Genetics is not 100% causal of course, and heredity will play a varying role depending on a variety of factors. Choice still plays an obvious and necessary part, but choice alone does not account for the fact that some can drink in moderation and never become an alcoholic while others are addicted after their first drink.

      Lastly, I do of course agree that choice and sin are in some way present in every mental illness. Sin plays a part I believe not merely in choice though but in the systems those choices are made in. When a person exists in a sin-corrupted system (abuse, neglect, terror, fear) I think we need to take that into account along with the sinful choices one makes. We are therefore responsible for our choices, but we must also understand that those choices don’t occur in a vacuum where not everyone is as free to choose as it may appear.

    • I’m thinking more about how mind, body and spirit interact in a synergistic manner as opposed to seeing them as completely separate spheres. Carlson is reacting against the notion that emotional/spiritual problems are purely spiritual in nature and therefore only spiritual interventions are required or beneficial. But it is also a check against the notion that emotional problems are purely biological in nature.

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