Yesterday we looked at Joseph in the Old Testament and how his approach to life gave him good mental health and made his life purposeful and productive. In the New Testament, we see even better and more direct biblical instruction for good mental health.
The classic New Testament example is the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Everything Jesus teaches in those three chapters is a recipe for good mental health. For example, telling people to avoid anger and harsh language (Matthew 5:21-22) is essential biblical instruction for good mental health. Avoiding sensual materials and associations is a proven way to prevent sexual misconduct (verses 27-28). Avoiding oaths and promises that you may be unable to fulfill is also essential (verses 33-37).
In Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus talks about resolving human conflict. How many of us have been upset by those we disagree with, allowing that to lead to bad mental health? Revenge, hate, and retaliation can eat at our mental stability in destructive ways. In verse 44, Jesus uses the word “agapao” for how we should regard even our enemies. That word is translated as “love” in the Bible, but it means considering the other person of incredible worth. Then chapter six begins with a strong teaching about the importance of forgiveness.
One of the essential parts of the teachings of Christ is His approach to things, wealth, and possessions. Starting with Matthew 6:19 and continuing through verse 34, Jesus talks about how our lives cannot be consumed with getting rich or having material things. So why do billionaires have a poor mental health track record? Paul made a great statement about good mental health in Philippians 4:11-13 when he said, “…I have learned in whatever state I am to be content. I know how to be rich or poor, how to be full or hungry, and how to suffer need.”
Jesus continues his discussion in Matthew 7 by talking about judging and the importance of not being critical of others. One of the significant mental benefits of authentic Christianity is its capacity to remove guilt from our minds. Baptism is a wonderful tool to leave our sins behind and live a new life. Romans 6-8 gives essential biblical instruction for good mental health by teaching us how to become free of the guilt that will destroy us mentally and spiritually.
The real tragedy is that many of us have had guilt and other mentally destructive teachings crammed down our throats. Jesus wants us to have good mental health and tells us how to achieve it. We need to listen to Jesus and study the life formula He gives us in His Word.
Our culture is just beginning to understand the importance of mental health. We are reminded of the consequences of ignoring mental health issues every time we hear about a senseless shooting of innocent people. In reality, there have always been people who are mentally ill. A careful study of the Bible gives some excellent instructions about how to have good mental health and some great examples of both good and bad mental health cases. One great positive Old Testament example is Joseph’s example of good mental health.
In Genesis 37-45. Joseph faced significant problems that could have caused great mental pain, perhaps leading to suicide or at least lashing out in angry retribution. How he dealt with life’s trials gives us a good model. Let’s examine four hardships Joseph faced that could have affected his mental health and how he handled them with a positive result.
#1. JOSEPH SUFFERED BECAUSE OF WHAT OTHER PEOPLE DID. Joseph’s father used bad judgment when he showed a preference for Joseph. That caused Joseph’s brothers to become jealous and consider killing him. Instead, they sold him into slavery, where he ended up as a slave in the household of a wealthy man named Potiphar (Genesis 37:36). Potiphar’s wife made a sexual pass at Joseph (Genesis 39:7), and he fled from her. She lied and accused Joseph of trying to rape her, and Potiphar put him in prison. Joseph managed his imprisonment well, but a fellow prisoner he helped reneged on his promise to Joseph. So Joseph remained in prison for two more years.
Have you had people do bad things to you? Of course, you have! But Joseph didn’t allow bitterness or retaliation to overwhelm him and destroy his mental health. We need to learn from Joseph’s example of good mental health.
#2. JOSEPH KEPT HIS INTEGRITY IN THE FACE OF THOSE WHO LET HIM DOWN. Joseph accepted a better position in the prison (Genesis 39:22-23) and used that to help others. He didn’t dwell on revenge or lose his integrity. We must avoid dwelling on the negatives in our lives and not become obsessed with getting even.
#3. JOSEPH NEVER FORGOT HIS PAST AND THE GOOD HE HAD RECEIVED FROM GOD. In Genesis 41:51, Joseph named his first son “Manasseh,” meaning that he did not dwell on his hardships, and his second son “Ephraim,” referring to God’s blessings. When he had a chance to get even with his brothers, he forgave them and met their needs physically and emotionally. Even though affected by prejudice, Joseph’s example of good mental health (Genesis 32:32) never wavered but maintained integrity and a positive spirit. We need to do the same.
#4 JOSEPH INTERPRETED WHAT HAD HAPPENED TO HIM AS A TOOL OF GOD TO GIVE HIS LIFE MEANING. One of the great benefits of trusting and following God is that it gives purpose to our lives. In Genesis 45:1-5 Joseph saw purpose in all that had happened to him. Atheism, secularism, and naturalism do not provide a meaningful, useful purpose to life.
The story of Joseph’s example of good mental health is just one example of many biblical accounts showing the importance of trusting God to find a purposeful life. Tomorrow we will look at this subject in the New Testament.
Every day we hear a new report about someone killing a number of people in a way that raises the question of whether the killer is mentally ill. We can’t know what goes on in the head of someone who pulls out an assault rifle and starts killing a bunch of strangers. The fact is that even innocent children have been the victims of someone who had no logical motive for shooting them. However, Christ’s teachings are key to good mental health.
Mental illness has always been an issue for humans, but the increase we have seen in recent years has not just been because of the greater availability of guns. It has also been catalyzed by poor mental health in our culture. The rejection of God and the denigration of Christianity are factors in that mental health crisis.
Read Matthew 5-7 and ask yourself why Jesus told His followers to do the things He taught them. In the first 12 verses of Matthew 5, known as “the beatitudes,” Christ’s teachings are key to good mental health. If you choose to comfort, exhibit meekness, strive for purity, show mercy, and be a peacemaker, God will bless you with stability and good mental health.
In verses 21-25, Jesus talks about relationships and the importance of not carrying grudges and long-term conflicts. Next, in verses 27-32, Christ deals with sexual issues and the importance of not looking for sex in a context that violates God’s plan for marriage. Finally, in verses 38-48, He talks about handling conflict and avoiding acts of revenge and retribution.
In Matthew 6, Christ deals with materialism and the importance of trusting God to care for our basic needs. A person who follows all that Jesus taught will be on the way to good mental health. The most common cause of mental illness is a failure to live as God has told us to live. Of course, there are other causes of mental illness, such as disease, injuries, and environmental factors, but even those causes would be reduced or eliminated if we would live as Christ told us to live.
There are multiple causes for the violence, including gun violence, plaguing America today. Hypocrisy on the part of those who claim to be Christians is part of the problem, but it doesn’t dilute the value of what Jesus taught. The fact that Christ’s teachings are key to good mental health is another evidence of the validity of Christianity and the inspiration of the Bible.
Many teachings of Christianity offer solutions to the problems we face in the 21st century. Skeptics claim that the Bible is an ancient book of myths with no relevance to life in the modern era. That is not true! The practical value of Christ’s teaching on forgiveness speaks to divine inspiration and validates the Christian life.
One area that relates to depression and mental illness is how we forgive people who have wronged us. The evolutionary explanation tells us to live by the survival of the fittest, and getting even is a key to survival. In reality, that doesn’t work, but Christ’s teaching on forgiveness does.
Trying to demonstrate your superiority by getting even contaminates all human relationships. I have seen unbelieving friends and family members spend much of their lives trying to get even with someone who wronged them. People are often estranged from siblings, parents, or children because they follow an unchristian approach to perceived wrongs.
Christ taught a different approach. In Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus told his followers, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you, but if you do not forgive those who sin against you, neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses.” This is in such contrast to human nature that in Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asked Christ how many times he must forgive a brother. Peter thought he was generous by suggesting a limit of seven times. Jesus responded by saying seventy times seven. He didn’t mean 490 times. He was saying that forgiveness of a brother, friend, or even an enemy is unlimited.
The practical value of Christ’s teaching on forgiveness is proven by the fact that failing to forgive will eat you alive, mentally and emotionally. Most of us have no problem forgiving the mistakes of a small child an unlimited number of times. We need to have that same spirit in dealing with family members and others. If you are a Christian and someone has wronged you, don’t carry a grudge and build a wall between you and that person.
Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Our capacity to forgive is one of the most critical demonstrators of that love. If you are not a Christian, I suggest that there is help from God in feeling forgiveness, leading to better mental health and freedom from depression. The practical value of Christ’s teaching on forgiveness demonstrates that it is not based on human wisdom.
A recent mailing by the National Alliance on Mental Illness said that one in five adults in the United States will experience mental illness. Seventy-five percent of all lifetime incidents of mental health issues occur by age 24. It goes on to say that 90% of the people who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness. As a public high school teacher for 41 years I was frequently associated with students who threatened suicide, or in a few cases committed suicide.
There are cases in the Bible of people who were mentally disturbed. King Saul and his relationship with David certainly shows some severe mental problems. (See 1 Samuel 18:10-16 and 28, 29.) In Luke 8:26-39 we see Jesus dealing with a man who was deeply disturbed. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14 Paul tells us that Christians should help those who are struggling with mental issues.
Biblical Christianity is a guilt-relieving faith. Many people who call themselves Christians have bombarded their followers with a guilt message. You don’t see hell mentioned as a motivational tool in the preaching of the apostles. The word is only used twice in the New Testament by the inspired writers–once in James 3:6 in reference to the tongue and once in 2 Peter 2:4 regarding angels. The gospel is good news, not threats of damnation. Christians are called to a message of love, not to a fear-driven faith based on condemnation. God does not want anyone to be lost. (See John 3:17 and 2 Peter 3:9) God wants to restore everyone to the relationship Adam and Eve had with Him in the beginning.
Christianity should not be adding to the guilt-load that people in our world have today. Instead, Christian faith should be reducing fear and stress. “Hell-fire and damnation” preaching may have motivated people to run to obedience out of fear, but it is not helpful to peace and mental health. Love for God and His love and care of us is a far better motivator both mentally and spiritually.
–John N. Clayton