Faith and Mental Health: Part 4, Beyond Coping

As summarized in the last post, a helpful way of thinking about faith and mental health is to see faith as a coping strategy, a therapeutic resource in our quest for wholeness, no matter where we are on that journey. 

And yet, theologically inclined psychologists like myself are hesitant to consider the issue settled at this point. For two related reasons.

First, prayer is more than meditation. The presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives is more than emotional uplift and positive thinking. When considered from a wholly psychological point of view describing faith as a "coping strategy" ignores the fact that we're talking about a supernatural, or extranatural, connection between the individual and God. And if that's the case, how does that connection work?

This reflection is important because, depending upon how we describe this spiritual partnership, we can find ourselves back with the puzzles and extreme views we've already talked about. Specifically, if turning to God connects us to supernatural power and aid what capacities am I tapping into? For example, when I turn toward God as a "coping strategy" this is no mere psychological technique, I'm turning to the God who made the heavens and the earth, the God who parted the Red Sea, the God who raised Jesus from the dead. And if that's the case, why wouldn't it be reasonable to expect remarkable, miraculous assistance? To borrow the metaphor from the last post, mental health as a marathon, why wouldn't divine aid and assistance give me super-speed the way the prosperity gospel preachers proclaim?

Such questions illustrate why there's some more work to be done in talking about faith and mental health. Sure, from a purely psychological angle describing faith as a coping strategy seems to describe the faith/health relationship cogently and accurately. But from a theological vantage, until you describe the situation spiritually we're still left with all our original puzzles. Why doesn't God, when we turn to him, give us super-speed to run the race of mental health? If we don't answer that question well we can wind up blaming and spiritually shaming people for their mental health struggles. If God is handing out super-speed to the saints, and you're still plodding and struggling along, who is to blame in that situation? Well, you, obviously. Sure, you might say you're turning it all over to God, but clearly there's some bit of resistance still at work in your heart and mind, some spiritual failure of yours blocking the blessing God is wanting to give you.

So that's the first reason we still have some work to do. This "coping strategy" isn't a self-help trick. It's tapping into the force that lit the sun and the stars. So our use of this "strategy" can have some outsized expectations. And why not? This is God we are talking about.

A second related reason we have to spend some time in theological reflection about "faith as coping" has to due with the relationship between grace and human agency. One of the theological problems with the metaphor from the last post--mental health is a marathon and faith as a watering station or cheering crowd helping us run the race--is that the engine of mental health is human effort and will. The "faith as coping" frame keeps human agency at the center. Phrased differently, God becomes a tool or a technique, something I use to help myself.

By contrast, a theology of grace claims that it is God, and not myself, who is at work within me. As it says in Philippians 2.13: "For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." So what does that mean in the context of mental health? For example, if it is God who is willing and working in me, why am I still struggling with mental health problems? The answer tends to be, well, because some sin in you is resisting God, refusing to let him will and work in your life. Which brings us back to blaming the victim.

And so the question: How does a theology of grace, a reliance upon God's action in my life rather than my own, relate to mental health? Such questions take us deep out over troubled theological waters. Pelagianism vs. Augustinianism. Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Synergism vs. Monergism. Nature vs. Grace. These are debates that have typically focused on the role of human agency in salvation and sanctification, but they have implications for mental health as well. If emotional wholeness is a fruit and blessing of the abundant life promised and being poured out by God, to what degree is human will and effort implicated in producing or experiencing this fruit and blessing?

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