Research suggests that some people are born with lower levels of serotonin (the so-called ‘happy hormone’), than others. These people are therefore more prone to mental health disorders such as depression or eating disorders. They’re naturally more likely to see the glass as empty rather than full.
We may want there to be a thick black line between body and soul that keeps the two reassuringly distinct. But the spiritual and the biological are inextricably linked. What’s going on in my body makes a difference to how I feel, and to how I relate to others, to myself and to God. At the same time, my relationships with God and others will have a physiological impact.
This helps us to sympathise with and relate to people struggling with all sorts of mental health issues. It doesn’t mean that we accept or condone harmful behaviours, whether these are self-harming or hurting other people. (Just because I’m inclined towards certain behaviours, doesn’t mean that they’re predetermined.) But it will give me a better understanding of their particular struggles.
The good thing about the gospel is that it takes my relationship with God out of my own hands and places it in Christ’s hands. This means that I’m not defined by my physical achievements or deficiencies. But neither am I defined by my mental achievements or deficiencies. Just as a broken back may cause me to howl angry questions at the Lord and others, so might a broken mind. But neither my body nor my mind – however broken – define me before God. And the more I grasp this, the more I am able to rest, both in body and soul.
For evidence of this we can look to believers such as Joni – paralysed as a teen in a diving accident and yet with a joyful, hope-filled life that puts mine to shame. Or I think of friends of ours, who have wrestled, often uncomprehendingly, with loss and depression and bankruptcy. Yet they have known a stability and strength in the Lord that has enabled them to stand up under incredible suffering.
I think of my own, much smaller struggles. Am I physiologically and psychologically predisposed towards anorexia? Quite possibly. Does this determine me? No.
Similarly, when I’ve grasped the gospel in a deeper way, it has had a big impact on my physiological and psychological health. But just as I’m more than my genetics, I’m more than such improvements. Instead, my life is hidden in Christ. Which is what enables me to keep hoping and trusting in Him, even as I work out the mess of the everyday.
This is not a call for those struggling with depression to resign themselves to biological determinism. Nor is it a call to “get more spiritual and let the healing flow.” It’s simply to recognise that body and soul are not easily separated. But the gospel can be medicine for both.