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What are we to make of a disruption of joy that does not appear to proceed from unconfessed sin, and which also appears unrelated to external afflictions? What are we to make of that broad category of minor depression, major depression, other forms of mental illness, the blues, or simply other forms of unhappiness? They are obviously all related to “joy,” but in what way? And what about demonic oppression? How does that fit in? If King Saul had gone to a modern shrink, what would the diagnosis have been? Would it have been “you have ‘an evil spirit from the Lord.’ Take these pills. Come back and see me in three weeks.”?
“And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23).
Summary of the Text
The apostle Paul is giving a string of practical exhortations at the end of 1 Thessalonians, and at the end of them he pronounces this benediction. Those exhortations include giving thanks for everything (v. 18), constant prayer (v. 17), testing everything (v. 21), and, to our point, to “rejoice evermore” (v. 16). The benediction then calls upon God to sanctify them entirely, and that they all be preserved, spirit, soul, and body, to the coming of the Lord Jesus.
In order to understand this benediction, we have to understand that the relationship we have with our bodies is not simply that of a guitar to its carrying case. It is not as though your soul is the guitar, and your body the case. In this sense, we don’t have bodies. We are bodies. But having said that, we also must recognize that Paul was once (likely) separated from his body (2 Cor. 12:2-3), and yet, the idea of such a separation creeped him out to some degree (2 Cor. 5:2-3).
All of this is to say that not only are we responsible for what we do with our bodies, we are also responsible for what our bodies do. There are varying degrees of responsibility, to be sure, but do not think that what your body is up to is somehow “over there.” Your body is part of what must be preserved in holiness. Your body is an aspect of you.
Agitated, But in a Resting Way
Some of you have no doubt picked up on a biblical tension as we have covered this sort of thing. On the one hand, we are to learn how to pray like the psalmist, pouring out our troubles before the Lord (Ps. 38:22). On the other, we are supposed to rest in Him, casting all our burdens on Him, because He cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7). How are we supposed to do both? The best way to summarize this is that we are to present all our concerns (whatever they are) to the Lord, but without the whiny voice. No grumbling, but a lot of discussion.
Better Living Through Chemistry?
Now your Christian discipleship includes everything, and this means it includes how and when you go to a doctor, when you get counseling and/or counsel, whether you go on medications or not, and what kind of medications you are willing to take. Be aware that the world—which is willing to tell you a lot
of things about what pills to take—does not know God. There is a strong tendency among unbelievers to medicalize simple unhappiness, as though a soma-induced bliss were a constitutional right. At the same time, it is not biblical worldview thinking to look at whatever non-Christians do, and then do the opposite. Non-Christian doctors do know how to set bones, and sometimes they know how to set brains. We need to think this through, submitting everything to Scripture as we do. This is part of what it means to love the Lord our God with all our minds. Think. Study. Learn. Discuss among yourselves.
Some Christians take a hard line, saying that they do not believe we should seek to shape and/or direct our moods through the ingestion of any chemical whatever. The problem is that the world is made out of chemicals. You can’t ingest anything else. Wine has chemicals in it, and it can make the heart of man glad (Ps. 104:15). Coffee has chemicals in it—some pretty neat ones.
Other Christians have all the discernment of a powerful vacuum cleaner. If worldly experts in a white lab coat say something is cool, then cool it is. This is how we have gotten to the place where so many Americans are on antidepressants in almost a routine way (about one in ten). And about 23% of women in their 40s and 50s take them. This, in a culture where human beings have never had it so good, at least when it comes to easy living. Something is clearly wrong with us. Some people are getting medicated up for the smallest little brain owie.
We need to make a basic distinction between masking drugs and restoration drugs. Some drugs simply dull the pain of what’s going on, while others are seeking to restore (say) a dopamine deficiency. That is no different (in principle) than getting braces for your teeth, or getting a broken bone set. But, having made this distinction, if you have a roaring headache and you take a couple of aspirin, you are not correcting an “aspirin deficiency.” You are treating a symptom, deadening pain. But why do you have a headache? And might the aspirin keep you from finding out what the real problem is?
A Broken Spirit
Returning to our text, the apostle tells us all these things in the context of community life, life together, koinonia fellowship. Mental health is a social affair, and all of us are involved in it. In v. 14 of this same chapter, Paul tells us to “support the weak” (v. 14). He tells us also to “comfort the feebleminded” (v. 14). The word that the AV translates as feeble-minded should be understood as something like fainthearted. The word literally is “little-souled” (oligopsychos). Comforting them is the task of the entire church community.
We should therefore be concerned about community joy, community singing, community gladness. This is not to ride roughshod over those who struggle, but rather to provide us with yet another example of how a rising tide lifts all the boats. We do not cultivate a merry heart so that that we might hoard it—we are called to share. “A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance: but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken” (Prov. 15:13). “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones” (Prov. 17:22).