Saturday, July 15, 2017

Mental Illness and the Soul

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, 
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; 
and man became a living soul.  - Genesis 2:7 KJV

Seventh-day Adventists have a unique perspective among Christians as to what constitutes a soul. Much of it comes from the first few chapters of Genesis. One is a truth. The other is a lie which many modern Christians do not count as a lie.  

In the passage above, the author of Genesis recounts the creation of Adam. In the beginning, the first man was mere dirt on the ground. God formed the dirt into a body suitable for becoming alive. It was heart and brain and bone and muscle, but it was not a soul. Next, God breathed the breath of life into the man of clay which He had made and it became a living soul. 

Notice. God did not call Adam's pre-existing soul down out of heaven to inhabit this body He had made. Creating a soul required the pre-existence of a suitable body and the breath of life - the spark that causes you to breathe and walk and talk and without which, apparently there is no soul. Solomon put it this way in Ecclesiastes 9:5 -
  • For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

God then tells his newly created pair to stay away from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil for in the day you eat of it, you shall surely die. Almost immediately, the serpent shows up and starts working on an "alternative" theology.  His first statement is a lie. Thou shalt not surely die. If you can't die, then you are a god goes the reasoning. Ever since, Lucifer has steadily populated the world with religions which teach that man's soul is immortal and that we shall not surely die. This first lie has spawned other horrors, like the teaching of eternal torment in an ever-burning hell, which, while useful for terrifying the masses into paying for new cathedrals and Sunday school buildings, has probably driven out more Christians than it has brought into the church.

So what has that to do with mental illness?  Just this. For centuries, the Christian world has had some notable difficulty with mental illness in people, especially church members. We see mental illness, not as a hazard of living, like measles or smallpox, but as a judgment from God. We expect demons to plague the outer world beyond the church doors, but not to afflict those who confess Christ. It is little wonder we distance ourselves from the mentally ill. If the soul is separate from the body and magically inhabits the body, flying off somewhere on its own when the body dies, then if the person is insane, it is a flaw that the soul allows to flourish, since the soul is separate from the body. Either that or a demon has pushed out the person's soul. Where one's soul goes when that happens is something we don't like to think about too much. It confuses us.

But according to scripture we possess a body, mind, and spirit and that it apparently requires all three to make a soul. Therefore, if the body dies, if the spirit (Hebrew "breath") ceases, then the soul dies. It may be, as Paul declares, transplanted into a new perfect body at Christ's coming when the dead are raised incorruptible.  For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. - I Corinthians 15:53  In the meantime, though, a dead body equals a dead soul asleep. Remember what Jesus said about Lazarus. "He sleeps."  He then clarified his statement by saying, "Lazarus is dead." When he raised him, Jesus didn't jerk Lazarus's immortal soul down out of heaven to stick it back in a dark evil-smelling tomb. That would have been cruel. Lazarus' mortal soul was sleeping.

Immortality must be "put on". It's not built in. And if the sequence in the above passage from Paul is any indication, then we need new incorruptible bodies if we are to be given immortality. It makes sense that it be in that order - first the perfect vessel, then the soul to be integrated with it. It also makes sense that if there were some flaw in the body, particularly in the brain, our thinking apparatus, then the soul might be in some way damaged as well.  If you remember how Jesus handled insane people, he first cast out the demons that "inhabited" the poor soul and then he healed the mind so that the demons might have no place to return to. In other words, Christ repaired the machinery first and then began to fix the software.

God is a merciful God.
For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. - Psalm 103:14 ESV. God promises to wipe away all trace of tears and sin. I suspect, knowing the limitations faced by a person with mental illness, that God will take that into account when he reconstructs that soul for eternity. It is difficult if we have a magical understanding of the soul as a thing separate from the body and mind. Even Adventists, who ought to know better, have a problem with blaming the mentally ill person for his or her illness. There has long been a stigma among church people against seeking psychiatric or psychological help for mental illness. I can understand why. If the soul is a disembodied "other", then how could the infirmities of the body cause the soul to sin? It's that mystical separateness of the soul from the body that lurks behind that stigma. We would hardly condemn a person who was severely injured in an accident for crying out in pain, but when a mentally ill person does it, we cringe and too often blame that person for the outcry.

And lets face it, mentally ill people sin all the time. Something is wrong with the hardware of their brains. They hear voices that are not there, feel emotions that have no root cause, and think garbled, often frightening thoughts that seem to come from nowhere. The way they experience this world is truly horrific. They see, hear, and feel demons. Can God heal and save these poor souls. Of course He can. He remembers that we are dust.  It is not our business to judge these folk. It is our business to attempt to heal their infirmities as best we can. It is our business to comfort them as much as we can. It is our business to lift them up in prayer to the One who can heal and save them.

I maintain that if we abandon the mentally ill to the consequences of their illness, as often happens in Christian congregations, then we are no better than those who would murder inconvenient unborn babies, euthanize troublesome old people or refuse care for sick poor people. 

Mentally ill people scare us. I get that. No one wants to face the horrors of Alzheimer's or bipolar, schizophrenia or autism. The idea that it could happen to us, is an idea no one wants to entertain. We prefer to think of our souls as magic things, separate from our vulnerable bodies. The truth is, however, that we are our bodies whole and entire. When you put the breath of life into a body, a wondrous thing happens - a soul is created.  It may be a very simple soul with only simple understanding of the world around it as in that of an infant or a person with developmental disabilities. It may be a complex soul in an elderly person with a clear eye and sharp mind and decades of experience and education behind him. 

Yet for all its amazing possibilities, a soul is still hedged about by the limitations of the complicated organic mechanism within which it is contained. In my own case, I face certain limitations due to my lifelong struggle with attention deficit disorder. I have been and still am learning to make allowances for those limitations. I cannot do some things in the same way others do. Others who have mental disorders may have to take medications or perform certain adaptive behaviors in order to function as effectively as their bodies allow them to. Even those with physical disabilities, face an impact upon their minds and consequently upon their souls as a result of their disability. Those disabilities and illnesses even impact the loved ones and families of those who are disabled. It is how it is. How we deal with the challenges posed by "how it is", is the real issue.

This world, I believe, is a crucible which God uses to purify and shape souls for eternity. In this life God leads us where He would have us go. He gives us trials and blessings designed to shape us for immortality. In the end, at  the last trumpet, He will lift our souls - the persons imprinted upon the machinery of our minds and bodies - and place them in perfect vessels, where, through the ages of eternity, they may, beginning where they are with all the imperfections polished off, grow and become the incredible array of perfect, yet distinct and individual human souls that God wishes to scatter throughout the universe as a blessing to his creation everywhere.

© 2017 by Tom King

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