Wonder, Heartbreak, Hope and Joy for Distressed Souls: A Reformed Theology of Personhood and Mental Health

I completed this essay in late 2019 for the Canadian Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Witness as an offering from the Christian Reformed Church in North America to an ecumenical discussion of “Mental Health and Human Personhood.”

At Canadian colleges and universities, the number of students with identified mental health disorders has more than doubled over the past five years.[1] Depression, self-harm and suicide rates are on the rise. Even worse, the official report of recommendations for action in which this statistic was found urges a “whole community” approach: universities, governments, health-care providers, and community organizations—but no inkling of anything related to religion, spirituality, faith, or even meaning, tradition or families, not to mention “churches” anywhere in the whole report.

That discussions of student psychology by leaders in national institutions (psychology is literally, but certainly no longer, “the study of the soul”) would neglect any recognition of the close relationship between spirituality and mental health is deeply disconcerting and a warning signal to the church.[2] It speaks of public institutions so thoroughly secular even their deliberate attempts to be holistic remain sorely myopic. They cannot imagine a model of the human being beyond that of the biologically circumscribed self, in a closed, immanent frame—what Charles Taylor called a “buffered self.”[3] They have no vocabulary by which to speak of the human spirit or the havoc of evil. This national scholarly lacuna also reminds us that the public theology of the church has either failed to reach the key players in our most influential public institutions, or its witness has been summarily ignored by our secular cultural elite. This is humbling, but also potentially galvanizing for our task of gospel proclamation and participation.

Reductionistic vs. Holistic Approaches

The issue of reductionism is an urgent one: anti-humanism has become a dominant paradigm in the postmodern university, and an anti-anti-humanism is necessary to restore human dignity and value.[4] Ultimately, the conviction that human beings are more than complex rats or sophisticated computers is vital to the flourishing and shalom of our society. Reductionistic views of human beings are the preamble to dehumanizing institutions, discriminating policies, and death camps.[5] But a truly holistic perspective of human personhood cannot be derived from experiments using the scientific method; it is a matter of religious conviction, grounded in received traditions, and in our case, the Christian, Reformed tradition.

The Reformed tradition, in the line of such figures as Augustine, John Calvin, and Abraham Kuyper—has a robust theology of creation and culture. Scripture’s narrative puts human life at the pinnacle of the creation story, as creatures made of both dirt and divine breath, “in the image of God”—designed for communion with each other and God himself. They are commissioned with a special responsibility: to care for the creation. This foundational story gives human life a divine connection, a divine purpose, and divine meaning.

This bright beginning is not the whole story, however. Human life is also marred by manipulation, abuse, and violence and its accompanying suffering and agony, psychological torment, and horrific loss and waste. These experiences cry for both meaning and redemption, and the scriptures offer an account that calls for both lament and compassionate action. In sum, Reformed believers see mental health in the light of the whole narrative arc of scripture: creation, fall, redemption and new creation.[6] These four turns in the plot of human history suggest the complementary postures of wonder, heartbreak, hope and joy—the arc of much of Christian worship.

Before elaborating on these four plot movements in the Biblical narrative, it is important to clarify the object of investigation. As a concept, the term “mental illness” privileges both the cognitive (as opposed to the behavioural, emotional, relational) and the clinical medical model, or disease-centred model. More theologically, we might alternate with the terms “soul shalom”[7] and “soul distress” to suggest a more inclusive view of the person and their relative spiritual health and wholeness—a holistic view of health that includes one’s family, culture and environment.[8] It is imperative to note that “soul” is not a Platonic disembodied spirit but the whole person-in-relationship—a porous self rather than a buffered self.[9] Reformed theologians, including Calvin, have argued that at the centre of the soul is the heart, the symbol for the whole, the unifying centre, a synonym for person, the “mini-me.” The heart “is the focal point of religion, that is, of life.”[10] While eschewing a rigid dualism, some blended duality of our existence is unavoidable: we are “ensouled bodies.”[11]

“Soul distress” may be too idiosyncratic and comprehensive for our purposes, even as it signals important spiritual realities, and so “mental illness” communicates better culturally. “Distress,” however, is certainly adequate, as psychologists explain that “psychological disorders” are defined by the distress experienced by the person themselves or by others in the person’s social circles.[12] Some would normalize mental illness, but insofar as it is debilitating, it indicates dis-order, something amiss in one’s soul, and everyone feels its shadow fall across their life in some way, instigating hope for healing in a life lived coram deo, before the face of God.

An exhibit in the hallway at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art

I. Creation, Wonder, and the Image of God

Made in God’s image
to live in loving communion with our Maker,
we are appointed earth-keepers and caretakers
to tend the earth, enjoy it,
and love our neighbors.
God uses our skills
for the unfolding and well-being of his world
so that creation and all who live in it may flourish.

            – Contemporary Testimony, “Our World Belongs to God,” CRCNA, 2008, para. 10

The given rubric for this essay which uses the term “personhood”[13] is strategic but too narrow for a full theological understanding of mental health and illness. “Personhood,” understood as a non-reductionistic term derived from the ancient theological formulation of the Trinity (as three persons with one nature), rightly emphasizes the irreducible, dignified, relational nature of human beings.[14] Furthermore, this invisible, mysterious person is mostly manifest in our various (often contradictory) personas or personages, the outward expressions and roles in dynamic relation with our person.[15] Finally, the understanding of “person” needs to include some notion of how we are different from the Godhead: namely in our embodied creatureliness.

To be a creature is to be contingent, limited, vulnerable. God made humans out of the dust of the earth and to dust we shall all return. “Adam” literally means “groundling” or “earth-being.” Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden, a sign of innocence but also of being unprotected. As one Reformed scholar writes, we are fragile beings, and although Western Christians may live “sheltered, salaried, relatively free from the fear of molestation,” we remain mortals living on borrowed time—and easily forget we are “perishable goods” that “walk around in our underwear, so to speak, tenting, exposed to harm.”[16] We are not small gods, autonomous and full with infinite potential. That we suffer deep soul distress is, in part, a liability that comes with being made of soft-shelled flesh and blood.

God made us from dirt, humus, the root word of human and humility. Yet the wonder of it all is that he also made us from his own divine breath, in his image (Gen. 1:27). We are both mud and majesty, dirt and dignity. Other creatures were created “according to their kind,” but humans were created according to God’s kind.[17] While all God created he called “good,” only human beings did he declare to be “very good,” the culmination of his universe-making project.[18]

What does it mean to be “created in God’s image?” The Contemporary Testimony says this means three things: first, we are intended “to live in loving communion with our Maker”—which is to say, the goal of our existence is to be intimate with God in both prayer and our everyday activities—a quality of relationship akin to friendship.[19] Secondly, “we are appointed earth-keepers and caretakers.” This means we have both a gift and a call to “tend the earth, enjoy it.” We are culture-makers,[20] given “the royal-priestly vocation of representing God’s rule on earth.”[21] This kind of authority is not raw dominating power over other creatures, but a power-for and a power-with, used to nurture, enhance, and equip other creatures, for their benefit, not for the self-aggrandizement of the one exercising power.[22]

Implied in this calling to tend the earth is a third aspect of imaging God: “love for our neighbours.” Like the Trinity itself, which we image, we are inherently relational beings. One way to speak of this is to say we are naturally “neighbourhooded.” This assumes a gracious reciprocity with others: “the opening to give and to receive from one’s fellow human what is needed”—even those who are hateful or half-dead.[23] This involves a “spendthrift freedom and heedless exuberance of giving away a respecting love” that may bring us grief as well as joy. In the church, we say that we all have gifts to share within the body of Christ (Eph. 4:7-13).

Given the intensity of mental illness that some feel, which may incapacitate them from prayer, culture-making or loving others, do they somehow miss the dignity and blessing of being made in the image of God? Certainly not.[24] First of all, every human being has some agency, some effect on the lives of others, for good or ill.[25] Secondly, our dignity comes from being created and loved by God and being made for loving relationship with him and others. This is a gift, but it is also a call, and every human being falls short as stewards and friends of God.[26]

II. The Fall, Heartbreak and Soul Distress

When humans deface God’s image,
the whole world suffers:
we abuse the creation or idolize it;
we are estranged from our Creator,
from our neighbour,
from our true selves,
and from all that God has made.

            – Contemporary Testimony, “Our World Belongs to God,” CRCNA, 2008, para. 15

Reformed Christians believe that the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God in garden speaks of human freedom to refuse to image God, and that abuse of this freedom constitutes, narratively speaking, a “fall” in the life of creation, a fall into sin, brokenness, futility, and pain. When Adam and Eve are caught, they feel shame at their nakedness, and hide. Something is amiss and needs mending.

What this means is first of all, just as the goodness of creation was a pervasive, comprehensive goodness inherent in all creatures, so the reality of sin is a pervasive, comprehensive shadow upon all things. “We are estranged from our Creator,” but also “from our neighbour, from our true selves, and from all that God has made.” At its foundation, sin is an inherited condition that taints every aspect of our creaturehood.[27] Things are not the way they are supposed to be. Evil is a parasite on goodness, corrupting, oppressing, disintegrating.[28] There are also forces of evil beyond human agency, what the Bible calls Satan, the devil, and evil spirits. Our relational, porous selves are not immune to their influence, even if we cannot be coerced by them.

Our mental frailty and anguish—for we all suffer some soul distress—is in part a result of the vulnerable nature of our creaturehood, but some aspects are related to the tragedy of a sin-streaked creation. Some distress arises from the liabilities of human agency, but other elements are more attributable to an infected culture and groaning creation (Rom. 8:22). In terms of human agency, neglect or abuse of those in our care—or of our environment—can give rise to various forms of mental illness in ourselves and others. Some of our own vices, like the “noon-day demon” of acedia, can be a form of mental illness—in part.[29] In terms of the tragic element in creation itself, things like our genes, our brains, or our body chemistry can deteriorate, malfunction, or break down, and we suffer and die. Culturally, trends in loneliness, meaninglessness, narcissism (and much more) all contribute to an environment conducive to mental and emotional breakdown. The health of persons is indelibly linked to the health of families, neighbourhoods, cities, nations, and the planet. Perhaps ironically, nothing is more debilitating to our personhood than the cultural trend that idolizes the individual, what has been called “The Big Me.”[30] Either way, a groaning creation forms a backdrop for much of our mental, emotional, and behavioural distress.

A further result of a sin-streaked creation is the stigmatization of and prejudice against those with chronic mental illness, the dehumanizing techniques and institutions that sometimes characterize what is called medical care, including a greedy pharmaceutical industry, and psychological science devoid of a notion of sin or soul. Furthermore, we should acknowledge the strain and burnout that plagues those who seek to care for those who are mentally ill. Our medical system is over-taxed, under-funded, and people don’t receive the care they need when they need it. The Contemporary Testimony goes on to say, “all spheres of life… bear the wounds of our rebellion… broken and scarred.” Sin and evil are possibilities latent in true freedom, and tragically, things fall apart. We are, however, responsible creatures, and that offers hope for relief, management, healing, and even flourishing.

III. Redemption, Hope, and Healing

In our world,
where many journey alone,
nameless in the bustling crowd,
Satan and his evil forces
seek whom they may scatter and isolate;
but God, by his gracious choosing in Christ,
gathers a new community—
those who by God’s gift
put their trust in Christ.
In the new community
all are welcome:
the homeless come home,
the broken find healing,
the sinner makes a new start,
the despised are esteemed,
the least are honoured,
and the last are first.
Here the Spirit guides
and grace abounds.

            – Contemporary Testimony, “Our World Belongs to God,” CRCNA, 2008, para. 34

Just as the goodness of creation and its fall into sin were pervasive, so, too, is the redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ. Reformed Christians believe that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise throughout the Old Testament to redeem Israel and bless all nations. Jesus Christ’s life affirms God’s help and healing for all people, and his death on the cross absorbs the evil of wayward human beings and crushes the power of sin and death in his resurrection. A new “kingdom” is affirmed in the church that forms out of Christ’s resurrection and is led by God’s Spirit, where “the homeless come home, the broken find healing, the sinner makes a new start, the despised are esteemed, the least are honoured, and the last are first.” This is a new world of shalom, where relationships are rightly ordered, and our souls find rest and flourishing in harmony with all creation.

The norm for the redeemed image of God is Christ himself, the New Adam, a human being in fellowship with God and his friends, with focused attention on the sick and seekers. The goal of the Christian life for Calvin was to be found by grace “in Christ”—a mystical union made real by the Holy Spirit.[31] Like a vine with branches, a bride to groom, a body to its head, stones in a temple, it is a gift and task to be deeply connected to Christ and his kingdom of love and light. This is our model of full, flourishing, embodied personhood.

A Christian perspective on being human deeply shapes how patient care is carried out. Dutch Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper famously said, “It is not a sick mammal that medical science would help but a person created in the image of God. Judge for yourself, then. Depending whether or not you view that person to be or not to be a moral agent, with a higher destiny for body and soul, bound to God’s Word the doctor will proceed differently.”[32]

What this means first in Reformed congregations is that all those in soul distress—which is all human beings—are promiscuously[33] welcomed and accepted as they are by the church. A good example of this in many Reformed congregations is Friendship Ministries, a group whose mission “is to provide resources that support faith formation and congregational inclusion with individuals with intellectual disability.” (Note: these disabilities are not comparable to other mental illnesses although some of their conditions are listed in the DSM 5). Many Reformed congregations cooperate with Friendship Ministries, meeting weekly with the Friends in the church, and often hosting an annual Friendship service on a Sunday morning. The oft-cited Hippocrates vision for healers—“to cure sometimes, to treat/relieve often, and always to comfort”—reminds us cures, techniques, and interventions are not always what is being asked of us.

The church’s sensitivity to mental illness should carry into the practices of the church, including prayers, artwork, music, and sermons that name or address congregants’ afflictions.[34]

The church is also commissioned to continue Christ’s ministry of help and healing—so that God’s image is restored in us, towards Christ-likeness. Historically, pastoral care and counselling have been part of the church’s attention to “the cure of souls.” This goes beyond pastoral care, too, and includes those gifted and trained in psychological counselling and psychiatric medicine. Christian Reformed leaders in Ontario gave vision to start Shalem Mental Health Network, whose mission is “to accompany persons and communities as they journey towards emotional health and mental wellness”—which they do through counselling services for individual persons and congregations. “We seek to restore hope,” says their homepage, which “often emerges through lament.” It is not only the church that needs redemptive shaping; it is also the institutional context of mental illness and the economies, politics, science and culture in which mental illness is given its definition and treatment.[35]

IV. Restoration and Joy in the New Creation

We long for that day
when our bodies are raised,
the Lord wipes away our tears,
and we dwell forever in the presence of God.
We will take our place in the new creation,
where there will be no more death
or mourning or crying or pain,
and the Lord will be our light.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.

            – Contemporary Testimony, “Our World Belongs to God,” CRCNA, 2008, para. 56

Redemption is always understood in Reformed circles as an “already but not yet” divine project. We live in-between the times of Christ’s ascension and return, a sort of liminal space of active waiting. Seerveld says to be human is to be “pregnant”— “to live in joyful expectation of an everlasting fullness of creaturely glory.”[36] We are made for hope,[37] ultimately, for the comfort and joy of a final restoration of all things. This is not a “disembodied, unhistorical relief that happily distracts one from reality” but a warm strength and solace that comes in persevering in doing what is right. God is most certainly in charge, and someday Jesus will make everything new and “there will be no more exploitation, no more brokenness, no more distress—never!” (Rev. 21:1-4)

In sum, a Reformed perspective on human personhood and mental illness begins with the expectation of life as a gift and a call: we are embodied creatures dignified with a divine commission to bless our fellow creatures. Yet this “very good” design is marred by a pervasive corruption that disrupts our relationships, our emotions, cognition, and behaviour in lamentable ways, causing soul distress experienced as mental illness. The good news is that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ offer us forgiveness, grace and power, as his Spirit renews the church and expands a kingdom of welcome for all the distressed. This new community continues Christ’s ministry of help and healing, cultivating hope for a new creation where our “very good” ensouled bodies, although racked by sin and decay, is resurrected and refreshed toward everlasting shalom and joy. Being human is a wonderful mystery, a heartbreaking tragedy, and ultimately, a hopeful redemptive possibility for all who live before the face of God. Our end is joy in union with Christ and his everlasting kingdom of love and light.


[1] In It Together: Taking Action on Student Mental Health, November 2017, jointly commissioned by four college and university organizations: Colleges of Ontario, Council of Ontario Universities, College Student Alliance, and the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. They site a 2016 report (National Health College Assessment) that said 46% of student suffered from debilitating depression in the last year (up from 40% in 2013).

[2] Harold G. Koenig systematically surveys the mental and physical health research from 1872-2010 and concludes: “A large volume of research shows that people who are more R/S have better mental health and adapt more quickly to health problems compared to those who are less R/S.” In “Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications” ISRN Psychiatry Dec. 16, 2012. Harry VanBelle warned me, however: “We must not psychologize spirituality nor spiritualize psychology. Non-Christians do the former, Christians do the latter.” (Personal correspondence).

[3] A “buffered self” keeps a clear boundary between mind and world, where the self is master of meanings, both moral and cosmic. If there are terrors in the night they are not real spirits, but something one ate for dinner, a hormone imbalance, or some chemical issue. Even if we see a dark, dampening of a person’s personality, the modern buffered self can interpret it all as “coded manifestations of inner depths, repressed thoughts and feelings.” The cause comes from within, and we can take some distance from it, disengage it. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. Belknap, 2007. See also https://tif.ssrc.org/2008/09/02/buffered-and-porous-selves/

[4] James K. A. Smith, “The (Re)Turn to the Person in Contemporary Theory—A Review Essay” Christian Scholar’s Review, 40, 2010, 77-92. Smith draws on a Catholic colleague Christian Smith, who argues that a good theory of humanity needs to be “sufficiently complex” and account for the “emergence” of a quality of humanness that is much more than any part or even the sum of all parts, especially just the physical parts. He adds that a Christian account should be unapologetically scandalous: positing that the telos of human personhood is bound up in the incarnation and divine personhood of Jesus Christ.

[5] Christian Smith What is a Person? University of Chicago, 2010, says that our society’s reductionistic presuppositions contradict our best values, including human rights, equality, tolerance.

[6] This three-point narrative is part of the structure of the CRCNA’s Contemporary Testimony “Our World Belongs to God” (1986, 2008) and is elaborated on in a seminal Reformed text: Albert Wolters, Creation Regained. Eerdmans, 1985, 2005. The language of wonder, heartbreak and hope are used in various places. See Gideon Strauss, Comment Manifesto 2010, March 2010 at cardus.ca.

[7] Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff emphases the goal of creation-wide shalom in Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education (Eerdmans, 2004).

[8] See Wendell Berry, “Health is Membership,” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint 2003): “I believe that the community-in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures-is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.”

[9] Taylor (2007) defines a pre-modern “porous self” as a model of a person, vulnerable to cosmic forces, spirits, and demons. It suggests an enchanted world where the boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy and the boundary between mind and world is a permeable membrane.

[10] Gordon Spykman. Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics (Eerdmans, 1992) p. 218. He writes that we are “an integrally coherent unity of bodily-spiritual wholeness” and “Body is the outer existential form of the soul, and soul is the inner mode of existence of the body” (p. 242-243). The more popular theology of John Ortberg in Soul-Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You (Zondervan 2014) suggests your soul is your identity—your self, your life, that precious personal energy and colour—which we can describe as the sum weight—quality, strength—of all our relationships—with God, with others, and with creation. That part of us that seeks the integration or integrity and wholeness of all dimensions of our life (mind, body, will). 

[11] This term came from Reformational thinker and psychologist Harry VanBelle, who wrote: “Following philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd I use the term ‘body’ as our createdness… Paul uses ‘earthly tent.’ It is the structure of our life. “Soul” in the bible is more like spirit—a directional term. It tells how we live out our bodily createdness.” (Personal correspondence, but see his Coram Deo: Living Life in the Presence of God in a Secular Age. Legacy Press 2019). For more on the functionality of some duality that is neither dualism or monism, see John Cooper Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Eerdmans 2000).

[12] David G. Myers, Psychology. 2nd ed. 1989. (12th edition is 2017). Myers uses the term “psychological disorders” to describe behaviour that is “atypical, disturbing, maladaptive, and unjustifiable” (p. 445). DSM 5 defines mental disorders as cognition, emotion, or behaviour that disturbs, distresses, or is dysfunctional for psychological development.

[13] Christian Smith (2010), a Catholic, defines a normal person as “a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who—as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions—exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world.”

[14] Paul Ladouceur and Fr. Geoffrey Ready “Orthodox Thinking on the Human Person and Implications for Mental Illness,” unpublished manuscript, October 15, 2018.

[15] Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Persons (SCM 1957)makes this distinction, p. 72, 91.

[16] Calvin Seerveld, On Being Human: Imaging God in the Modern World, Welch, 1988, p. 39, 40.

[17] Plantinga, Neal. Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. (Eerdmans, 2002), 28.

[18] Eph. 2:10 says we are God’s “poiemata” (lit. Greek, from which the English “poem” derives), translated as “handiwork” (NIV) or “masterpiece” (NLT), (re)created in Jesus Christ to do “good works”—like the original Creator.

[19] Hans Reinders emphasizes the relational dimension as potential friendship with God in Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics, Eerdmans,2008.

[20] For a wonderful exploration of this gift and call, see Andy Crouch Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, Intervarsity Press, 2008.

[21] Richard Middleton, in Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, Brazos, 2005, 235, 295.

[22] Calvin Seerveld (1988) calls this aspect of being human as a commissioning by God “in the order of Melchizedek.” Humans are to be earthly vice-regents, ambassadors, and priestly kings who “mediate the bestowal of God’s blessings” to others through their leadership in reconciliation. We are prone to exploit others, but called to a life of mercy, “actually giving undeserved favour that brings someone else on course” (81), fighting the fire of professional competitiveness with the water of forgiveness (83).

[23] Seerveld, 1988, 64.

[24] Plantinga says, “’Image’ is a verb as well as a noun. Its something we do as well as something we have.” (34)

[25] Human agency and responsibility under the sovereignty of God was an emphasis of Abraham Kuyper’s. See Michael Wagenman, Engaging The World with Abraham Kuyper, Lexham Press, 2018, p. 91.

[26] One Reformed psychologist expounds on this inalienable gift: “Everyone is an image-bearer of God, known and loved by God. Our language in liturgies and preaching can make clear that nothing can take away our personhood or remove the imago Dei from us—not trauma, not violence, not abuse, not deep disappointment, not cancer, not heart disease, not disability, not dementia, not depression, not psychosis, not personality disorders, not eating disorders, not substance use disorders, not suicide… nothing will ever separate us from the love of God poured out through Christ Jesus our Lord” Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, “Speaking Well in Worship about Mental Illnesses” Reformed Worship, June, 2018.

[27] i.e. doctrinally speaking, original sin. To quote the Catholic G. K. Chesterton, it’s “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” Orthodoxy (1909).

[28] Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (2002), former President of Calvin Seminary, writes that “evil is what is wrong with the world, and it includes trouble in nature as well as in human nature. It includes disease as well as theft, birth defect as well as character defects. We might define evil as any spoiling of shalom, any deviation from the way God wants things to be. Thinking along these lines, we can see that sin is a subset of evil: it’s any evil for which somebody is to blame, whether as an individual or as a member of a group. All sin is evil, but not all evil is sin.”

[29] Kathleen Norris’ book Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writers Life (Riverhead, 2008)explains acedia as an ancient vice, generally called depression, that desert fathers said operated on the border between the physical and the spiritual. Its was both “sin and ailment” (35), a listlessness (152), the blahs (113), and in fact, she claims it is “the primary characteristic of our time”—a time in which “we are reluctant to care about anything past our perceived needs” (126).In other words, it is a mood for which we are morally culpable. She is quick to say this doesn’t describe all depressions, but it is one recognizable in the church, in the romanticist culture of the West, and in our narcissistic culture today. See also Nicole Roccas, Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, (Ancient Faith, 2018).

[30] David Brooks. The Road to Character. Random House, 2015, ch. 10. See also “The Cult of Personal Autonomy: The Triumph of Identity in Politics, and Everywhere Else,” Literary Review of Canada, October 2018.

[31] Lewis Smedes, Union with Christ: A Biblical View of the New Life in Christ, Eerdmans, 1970. J. Todd Billings, Union with Christ: Reframing Theology And Ministry For The Church, Baker, 2011. Rankin Wilbourne, Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God, Cook, 2016. 

[32] Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty” in James Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, p. 487.

[33] I’m deliberately using this word because its named in one of the Reformed Confessions—the Canons of Dort (1619).  The second point, article 5 states that the gospel “ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction” (1986 CRCNA Synod English translation).

[34] One Reformed clinical psychologist urges careful use of language in worship, beginning with addressing “people who live with mental illness.” Use of the word “people” keeps personhood front-and-centre. To say “live with” is much broader than “suffer from” because it includes the pain and triumphs. Finally, naming “mental illnesses” directly, and specific disorders in particular, can destigmatize them rather than perpetuate the shame that comes with hiding this very common human experience. She champions the use of personal stories as they raise awareness and empathy while cautioning readers about consent and confidentiality issues. She emphasizes the mental illness is a broad category, including mood disorders, addictions, post-traumatic stress, and criminal behaviour (like pedophilia). We need to use the sensitive language, eschew “health and wealth” promises, offer laments for suffering in general ways, and point to the gifts of therapy, medications, and support groups. She emphasizes: “People who live with diagnosable disorders can still flourish, experiencing resilience, good relationships, purpose and meaning.” Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, “Speaking Well in Worship about Mental Illnesses” Reformed Worship, June 2018 (theme issue on mental health). See also Krista Dam-Vandekuyt, “Time to Talk: Ontario Church Hosts Mental Health Series,” The Banner, March 3, 2017 and Mark Vander Vennen, “Wired for Connection: What Can Churches Do To Support Mental Health?” The Christian Courier, Jan. 30, 2019 (theme of the issue was mental health). Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, “Mental Illnesses and Worship: Promises and Pitfalls in Preparing for and Practicing Public Worship,” Reformed Worship, Part 1 and 2, Sept. 2018, is. 129.

[35] James Olthuis was a professor of philosophical theology and ethics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto and wrote The Beautiful Risk: A New Psychology of Loving and Being Loved (2001). He writes that many models of therapy emphasize expertise, testing, control and technique. These approaches can tend to a reductionism of the person and of their struggle to a pathologized client in need of professional expertise. Olthuis argues that healing comes within genuine relationship, where there is connecting beyond instrumental frameworks, a caring for the whole person, and a willingness to suffer with them. Counselling, he insists, is not normatively a problem-focused appointment, but a venture into the wild space of love, a beautiful risk. This does not negate what professionals offer, but suggests a different way in which professionals can orient and operate in their field, and it suggests something beyond only clinical responses—something that includes care and community.

[36] Seerveld, 1988, p. 93-95.

[37] Cornelius Plantinga Jr. starts his own interpretation of creation, fall, redemption with an introductory chapter on hope and longing. Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. (Eerdmans, 2002).


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