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sound doctrine drives sound mental health

Updated: May 30

How is it that we in the West live in the most lavishly abundant time in the history of the world and yet our rates of mental illness have never been higher? One would think that the gifts of modern medicine, relative world peace, social order, extensive social programs, and cheap personal technologies would have ushered in a utopian society filled with mental peace. And yet in spite of this, many younger people seem to be walking around in a malaise, experiencing anxiety and depression at unprecedented rates. They appear isolated and alienated from close friendships and communities. Many are disillusioned by life…as though they are missing some crucial piece of software needed to keep them running well.

As a clinical therapist, I spend a good deal of time noodling around in people’s heads. I operate from a framework that suggests that people construct mental models of their worlds. Our brains are incredible prediction engines placed inside us by God to help us find our way in life. From day one, each of us mentally maps the world. As babies, our maps are really small and simple. As we get older, that map grows more sophisticated and nuanced.

But here’s the thing: we also rely heavily on social relationships to tell us what the world is like. We are wired to borrow other people’s maps to find our way. When an infant hears a loud noise he won’t suddenly look at where the sound is coming from. Instead, his eyes will dart straight to mom, his first social relationship. How is mom reacting to that sound? What does she think is happening? Are we safe right now? To a baby, what mom thinks is happening IS what’s happening.

Fast forward a dozen years. In our teens, peers and media become the largest influence on our model of the world. We get flooded with a tidal wave of opinions, worldviews, and issues. All of this comes through the door on our phones or laptops or from friends in the hall at school. It comes from our teachers and counselors. There are so many voices coming at us with powerful messages. And this flood of inputs can erode our mental health.

Today’s barrage of messages program our minds, for better or worse. Our beliefs are the software that run our lives. And this battle of belief systems has been going on since the dawn of time. 1 John 2:15-17 says, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not from the Father but from the world. The world is passing away, along with its desires; but whoever does the will of God remains forever.” The world’s map of the world leads to destruction, but God’s map leads to life.

The Bible draws a huge distinction between the model the world uses versus the reality of God. There is a war underway…not a physical battle, but a battle for our hearts and minds; a fight to preserve our God-given belief systems and protect them from the lies of Satan. As you’ll see, it is our beliefs about God, the world around us, and even ourselves that will ultimately determine our mental health.

Think about how believing a single sentence can fundamentally alter your real lived experience. Here are a few beliefs to chew on:

            “The fact that I don’t have a girlfriend/spouse/friend is proof that I’m unloveable”

“I can’t trust other people because when you depend on someone you’ll always get burned”

            “The anxiety I feel means that I am in real danger”

Each of these sentences is a powerful claim about the way your world is. And I contend that the unwitting adoption of phrases such as these creates mental and emotional havoc in real life. In fact, any dire thing that we truly believe will cause emotional distress. Lies are like bugs in the software. Crucially, our emotions and ultimately our actions are emergent products of our thoughts and beliefs.

You might doubt that this is the case, so let’s consider this thought experiment. What if you believed me when I told you that your mom had just died in a horrible car accident? I bet you would crumple over with grief and anguish. Maybe you would run out of the room and try to find her at the hospital. You would take action based on your sincere belief in the truthfulness of my words. Beliefs mean something in real life. Either your mom has passed away or she hasn’t. There are actual consequences based on whether or not this is true. It doesn’t matter if I have tricked you with a lie. If you believe it, to you it becomes real.

The core of my therapy practice is devoted to helping my clients to identify and then gently challenge misbeliefs like the ones above. These are deceptions of Satan designed to make us doubt our worth before the Father, bury our talents, and live a life hampered by painful emotions and crippling doubt. The Devil’s primary ambition is to come between you and your connection with God. But if he can’t do that, he will settle for entangling you in your own emotions like a fly caught in a sticky web. It is such an enjoyable experience for me whenever I see someone untangle themselves from the lies that have been holding them down.

So what the heck does this have to do with sound doctrine, anyway?

Sound doctrine comes from God himself and corrects for the lies of the world. It is his truth and it usually stands at odds with popular beliefs. In fact, the Bible provides for us a transcendent worldview that has the power to free us from earthly mindsets. By transcendent, I mean that godly wisdom comes from beyond the natural world; from outside the system. While worldly wisdom is based on the elemental principles of our physical reality (Galatians 4:3), the wisdom of God is revealed by his Spirit (2 Corinthians 2:10) and is considered foolishness to the world (2 Corinthians 1:23).

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2)

Notice that the antidote to conforming to the world is not conforming to the church, it’s transforming ourselves through the renewing of our minds. We need to think critically about what we believe. We need to embrace God’s wisdom in order to have strong mental health. In the Greek, “sound doctrine” could be translated as “healthy teaching”. Therefore, adhering to sound doctrine is a powerful intervention that will heal the way you think. And as said, how you think will drive the emotional experiences you have.

Let’s consider those three misbeliefs again and apply the Scriptures to them. The Bible is the sword we can use to cut down Satan’s lies- the very thing that erodes our mental health.

“The fact that I don’t have a girlfriend/spouse/friend is proof that I’m unloveable”

Actually, God overwhelmingly loves you more than you can comprehend (Romans 8:31-39). You should cast your cares on him because you are worth so much to him (Mark 10:31) and he will take care of you (Psalm 55:22). We can take the lead on loving others rather than focusing on how loveable we are because Christ loved us first (1 John 4:19).

“I can’t trust other people because when you depend on someone you’ll always get burned”

Matthew 10:28-31 explains that while there are people who may hurt us, we should defer to God who presides over not just our body, but our very soul. We can learn to trust again by believing that God can and will rescue us (Psalm 143). Ultimately we need to place our faith in God, who can raise the dead (Hebrews 11:17-19). In fact, God can strengthen us to the point where we consider it an honor to suffer at the hands of others for the gospel (2 Timothy 1:8, Acts 5:41).

“The anxiety I feel means that I am in real danger”

You can refute this untrue idea by applying Luke 12:22-31. It says that God is in 100% control of your safety and therefore worrying about it is pointless. What’s more, God says that trials of many different types should be considered as “pure joy” because he deliberately uses those to mature us (James 1:2-4). When we are feeling anxiety, the Bible says we should go to God with a thankful heart and he will give us transcendent peace (Philippians 4:6)

The good news is that when we cling to the Word of God and honor him through pursuing sound doctrine - not just some intellectual exercise but as a salve for the wounds in our mind - he is faithful and will heal us. Thankfully, we can escape the corruption and the effects of the world’s ideas. Sound doctrine brings about a sound mind, and ultimately a sound and more enjoyable life.

Dr. Sean St. Jean is a full-time professor at King University in Tennessee, teaching therapy at a graduate level. He is himself a therapist in private practice, and has worked with hundreds of disciples and ministry staff around the world who are struggling with spiritual trauma, workplace stress, and ministry burnout. His new book, "Spiritual Trauma: A Guide to Healing Your Heart From Church Hurts" was just released this fall and can be found at Sean, his wife Erin, and their 3 children currently live in British Columbia, Canada, and are active members of the Vancouver Church of Christ.


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