In this first of a two-part series, I would like to offer a few thoughts on a super important topic today—namely, that of our mental health and how it benefits from a mature and lively faith. What good news does our faith offer to us when we feel down, depressed, and suffer in our minds? Here I offer five reasons why our faith in Christ is Good News that brings light in times of darkness. First though, a few caveats that are important.
The first of these points out the obvious—namely, that having faith does not immunize us from mental health problems as we see in the lives of people like St. Louis Martin (1823-1894, father of St. Thérèse of Lisieux) and St. Benedict Joseph Labre (1748-1783). Both were firm believers but suffered in their minds. Second, not every mental illness has a spiritual cause, so having weak faith or no faith is not necessarily the cause of poor mental health. Third, religious or spiritual therapy is never a substitute for medical treatment of mental illnesses. That said, medical intervention, on its own, cannot be sufficient in caring for humans who are spiritual beings by nature. Any materialistic reduction of the human person is not consistent with how we understand who God created us to be. With these caveats in mind, the following five points try to show how faith can be an invaluable resource in improving and sustaining our mental health.
The first and most basic message of the Christian faith is that we are accepted and loved unconditionally by God. As St. John reminds us, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Christians believe that God loving us does not depend on us earning that love by anything we do. This is the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, which is continually offered to all in every place and time. Here is a positive, hopeful, and transformative truth that directly addresses the human need to be loved and to love in return.
The experience of being loved unconditionally and empowered to love in return is essential for our emotional lives and mental health. Here is an inexhaustible source of self-esteem that cannot be replicated by our own efforts. It means that no matter how alone we feel or how desperate we become, the love of a God who knows us and accepts us is ever present. Closely related to this truth is that God has made us in his own image and likeness. This means that there is an innate goodness in all of us that is beautiful and sacred. Through faith and Baptism, we have become children of God our Father who possess the goodness and beauty of God himself. As we endure any difficulty, mental or physical, in the words of St. Paul, “nothing can separate us from the love of God, known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).
The second and related resource of our faith is that it declares us to be someone, helping us understand ourselves in relation to another. Our encounter with Christ reveals who we are and confers an identity as beloved children of God. This frees us from the anxiety of trying to understand ourselves only in relation to ourselves. According to St. Bonaventure: “I know myself better in God than in myself” (Hexaemeron, 12, 9). Similarly, the Second Vatican Council taught that “it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of humanity truly becomes clear” (Gaudium et spes, 22).
The Gospel frees us from the burden of being self-referential and the confusion of not knowing who we are, where we have come from, or where we are going. For the person of faith, everything unfolds along the journey of life that we walk as fellow pilgrims, empowered with the fundamental truth of our identity as God’s beloved children, brothers and sisters in Christ and destined to share eternal life with him.
The third resource provided by faith is the gift of meaning. There is broad evidence that a lack of meaning in human lives impacts negatively on mental health. Not everyone would agree that such meaning exists. For many modern atheists, there is no God and therefore no meaning. For Jean Paul Sartre: “Here we sit, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence and really there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing” (Nausea). But if life has no meaning, then the human mind inevitably begins to ask: What is there to live for? What is the meaning of my existence?
The Gospel insists that life has meaning and that every human life is meaningful. In the words of Cardinal Newman: “God has created me to do him some definitive service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission.”
A fourth and basic affirmation of Christianity is that every human experience has been touched and transformed by the God who became human. This includes depression and mental illness. From the Gospels, we see when and how Jesus suffered from mental anguish. He grieved when the disciples could not understand him (Matt. 17:17; Mark 9:19; Luke 9:41). He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35) and over Jerusalem, the city of David that would reject him (Luke 19:41). With his agony in the garden, he cried out in mental anguish, “My soul is sorrowful unto death” (Matt. 26:38; Mark 14:34). At the height of his torment on the cross, he cried out: “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34).
With the mental suffering of Jesus, God did not take away mental agony but filled it with his presence. Our God does not console us by abolishing anguish of the mind but by entering it and sharing it. United to us in our darkness, Jesus invites those of tortured mind to transcend the darkness with him towards the light of resurrection. By embracing humanity, sorrow and mental pain are no longer foreign to God but have been taken up into his life to be transformed into hope. For those who suffer in their minds, they have a friend and refuge in the sorrowful heart of Jesus in whose suffering they participate.
A fifth resource of faith is the transforming power of negative experiences like sin and betrayal. Because of original sin, human beings make mistakes, fail and love imperfectly. In our imperfection, at times we injure each other, leaving us wounded and in need of healing. Being wronged or hurt gives rise to strong emotions of anger and disappointment that, if not acknowledged and addressed, can lead to depression and other mental health problems.
In the Gospels, forgiveness is a core teaching. Jesus Christ reveals a merciful God who desires to forgive sins and heal wounds caused by human failings. This is the same forgiveness with which he empowers us to forgive ourselves and each other (Matt. 18:21-35). With his forgiveness we are unburdened from guilt, self-loathing, and shame. With God’s forgiveness that we have received and extend to others, we are freed from anger and bitterness and other emotionally destructive feelings such as hatred and revenge. Our faith also enables us to distinguish between the sin and the sinner—to forgive the wrong done to us without denying the wrong that was committed.
I will offer five more benefits of faith to mental health in part 2.