If you’re wrestling with this question, then I’m glad you’re curious and I’m also sorry for what you’re going through.
In what follows, I’ll try to respond to this question with some biblical/theological frameworks which help me think about the issue. I’m sure a lot more could be said (and it would be helpful to get a Christian psychologist’s perspective as well, whereas my expertise is in theology), but I hope this is a helpful start. So, here are some thoughts:
One concern many have is that Christians and non-Christians seem to suffer in the same ways even though Christians have the Holy Spirit. This entails a couple theological questions that are very important.
- What’s the purpose of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life?
- Why do Christians suffer in general, whether with mental health or otherwise?
Let’s start with the second one: why suffering?
The fact is, Christians do experience the same sufferings that non-Christians do (e.g., physical ailments and disease). In this regard, mental health is not much different. Sometimes we Christians think mental health should be different, as if we should just be able to pray the issue away. Yet mental health issues are a byproduct of the world we live in as much as physical health issues are. So the question is, why is there physical and mental suffering according to the Bible?
Brokenness of Body and Soul
The short answer is that we live in a world that’s not the way it’s supposed to be and not the way it ultimately is going to be. It’s broken. The whole world is broken and I, as a part of it, am too. Its brokenness affects and infects each of us, often in ways we don’t fully understand or appreciate.
For example, our family of origin has a tremendous effect on our physical, social, psychological, and emotional makeup. This influence impacts our whole life in some good and some difficult ways.
Also, our life experiences—what we choose to do, what happens to us as a child and an adult, and the way we internalize, process, and respond to these events—affect us in ways we don’t always fully recognize.
This is true for our physical health and our mental health. In fact, one really important bit of biblical truth about what it means to be human is the interlocking nature of body and soul. We are not a soul with a body. We are a unity of body and soul in some deep, interlocking way that philosophers and psychologists recognize but struggle to fully grasp. So what happens to your body affects your inner person too; and what affects your inner person manifests itself in your body as well. Physical states affect mental states and mental states affect physical states. For example, this can be as simple as how a couple bad nights of sleep make me more vulnerable to feeling down and discouraged.
“One really important bit of biblical truth about what it means to be human is the interlocking nature of body and soul.”
So biblically, we live in a fallen world that is broken and dysfunctional in all sorts of intertwined ways (e.g., food, sleep, relationships, physical ailments, family of origin issues, and the list goes on and on), and that brokenness leads to physical and mental suffering of various kinds.
But . . . aren’t we redeemed by Jesus and don’t we have the Holy Spirit?
But Don’t We Have the Holy Spirit?
The biblical answer to this question is very important and more nuanced than sometimes we’re led to believe by the songs we sing and sometimes even by what we’re told in church.
The biblical answer is…yes, but only partially. Let me explain by looking at a couple of passages of Scripture.
Ephesians 1:7a says, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our wrongdoings” (NASB). But a few paragraphs later in Ephesians 4:30, Paul tells us we’re still waiting for the day of redemption: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Which is it: do we have redemption or are we waiting for it?
It’s both. We have redemption now, but there’s more redemption to come! In fact, Romans 8:23 specifies that we’re awaiting the redemption of our body.
This tension is reflected all over the New Testament. Anyone in Christ is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), but we’re still waiting for the new heavens and the new earth (2 Pet. 3). We’ve been set free from the power of sin, but sin still has the power to rule us, and so we have to make sure it doesn’t (Rom. 6:1-14).
This is the reality of living in what Bible scholars often call the “already but not yet.” Christ is risen. The Spirit has been poured out. So the new creation has already begun, but it hasn’t arrived fully yet. So the age to come (“new creation,” “life in the Spirit”) has broken into the here and now, but the present fallen age (“age that is passing away,” “life in the flesh,” “sinful nature)) still remains as well.
“This is the reality of living in what Bible scholars often call the already but not yet.”
I call this the “overlap of the ages,” and it’s terribly important for not only understanding the New Testament but also for understanding why we still struggle with all the things of the fallen age (sin, physical and mental illness, aging and dying, etc.)—even though Jesus is risen and we have the Holy Spirit.
What We Wait For
We struggle because we have only part of our redemption. We have the down payment of the Spirit. But we’re still waiting for more! We’re waiting for…
- a new earth where everything works right and all relationships (with God, self, others, and the physical world) are as they are meant to be (2 Pet. 3)
- the removal of all the brokenness and corruption of the world that still affects us on the daily
- a new body full of the Spirit that is powerful and glorious and imperishable, not a body that is weak, inglorious, suffering, and dying (see 1 Cor. 15)
- the full revelation of the glory of God when he wipes away every tear (Rev. 21)
So right now, we live in the tension and the struggle of having in part what we long for in full. And that means we still suffer physically (I just had hip replacement surgery) and mentally, and in other ways too, such as spiritually with temptation and socially with broken relationships. But our struggle is full of hope because we know that Christ is risen and he will make all things new some day!
What Difference Does the Holy Spirit Make?
So what difference does the Holy Spirit make now? Or as the second question above states, what’s the purpose of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life? His primary purpose, it seems to me, is to enable us to put on the character of Christ. And it seems he chooses to do this in a slow, progressive, increasing way.
So, as we walk in partnership day by day with God the Spirit, he produces the fruit of Christlike character in us (Gal 5:16ff). The command in Galatians 5 isn’t for us to grow the fruit. The command is to walk with the Spirit. It’s an active, ongoing, everyday kind of thing, and the result of walking with the Spirit is that he grows Christlike character in our lives.
So the help of the Holy Spirit is more of an ongoing, constant sort of transforming companionship than crisis intervention. It’s not that he can’t or doesn’t do crisis work, but his primary role is to be our walking partner in life.
“The help of the Holy Spirit is more of an ongoing, constant sort of transforming companionship than crisis intervention.”
And the biblical truth is that the Spirit doesn’t typically remove us from suffering or remove suffering from us. In fact, the apostle Paul’s testimony is that the Spirit’s help is demonstrated in endurance and perseverance (see 2 Cor. 4:7ff; 12:7-10).
Romans 8 brings these two aspects together. It describes how the Spirit helps us put to death the deeds of the body so we can become like Jesus in our character and how He helps us pray and faithfully wait for the final day of our full redemption.
Since we humans are an interweaving of soul and body, mental health issues can sometimes be improved by psychological help, spiritual practices, and physical wellness. In the meantime, it’s good to remember that living in the “overlap of the ages” doesn’t mean we won’t suffer physically or mentally. But it does mean that the Holy Spirit is able to use even our seasons of suffering to bring about greater Christlikeness.