John Piper and mental health: Is it someone's own fault if they're depressed?

John Piper, famed conservative Bible teacher and pastor, found himself in a world of trouble yesterday when he – or rather his Desiring God ministries team – tweeted out a crassly ignorant statement on mental health. It said: 'We will find mental health when we stop staring in the mirror, and fix our eyes on the strength and beauty of God.'

FacebookJohn Piper's Desiring God ministry appeared to say poor mental health was the result of narcissism.

An inundation of outrage flooded DG's Twitter feed, and rightly so. Someone doesn't have poor mental health because they're narcissistic, self-indulgent and unspiritual. They have it because – well, they're ill, they don't need a reason. Spiritualising a psychiatric problem and implying it's the sufferer's own fault is just beyond dreadful.

It was, on the other hand, an odd thing for Piper – or whoever – to say. He doesn't like the name-it-and-claim-it prosperity gospel one bit. He is a biblical literalist and a Calvinist, so has no problem with God striking people down if they deserve it – and ultimately God orders everything anyway. But just on Monday he reflected on the story of the epileptic (or demonized) boy in Matthew 17: 17-20, concluding: 'We shouldn't assume that in every case of unanswered prayer – for healing, let's say – the problem lies with defective faith. That was the case here, but given the way Jesus answers and the other things he says about prayer, I would not assume that's always the case.'

So it was odd, and some clarity was provided in a later DG tweet: 'Thank you to those expressing kind concerns. We apologize for leaving off the link that gives the context quoting Clyde Kilby from more than 40 years ago when "mental health" didn't have the same technical connotations as today.'

The concerns were not all expressed very kindly, in fact, but a link to the old article by Piper is instructive. On December 31, 2007, he wrote '10 Resolutions for Mental Health', quoting Kilby from a 1976 lecture that had impressed him. The offensive tweet is a quote from that piece, which majors on learning to see the goodness of God in the world he's made.

And fair enough: people weren't as sensitized to 'mental health' in 1976 as they are today and it was possible to use the expression more widely than we would now. But they knew what it meant in 2006, which doesn't say much for Piper's sensitivities; and someone at Desiring God should clearly not be trusted with its Twitter password if they think it's appropriate today.

At one level, the furore over the offending tweet is quite heartening. Lots of people know it's just not OK to say something like that. But on the other hand, the anger comes from the fact that a lot of people think it is. There's a deeply confused, theologically illiterate assumption that needs to be challenged, and it's this: if we're sick in body, it's fine to go to a doctor. If we're sick in mind, it's our own problem because we're not right with God.

This assumption is confused because it recognises physical sickness but not mental. It's theologically illiterate because it sets a lower bar for miraculous intervention to heal the mind than to heal the body.

Because that's what these people – to whose abusive practices many of the commentators on DG's original tweet refer – appear to think. Only the most extreme believer would fail to consult a doctor about heart disease or cancer. But a mental illness is held to be different, because – well, why? Is it easier for God to heal a mind than a body? Is it that the mind is somehow conflated with the 'spirit', which is God's domain? Or is it just a feeling that mentally ill people should just snap out of it and pull themselves together?

I don't think Piper and Co deserve quite the hammering they received, given their explanation; it was thoughtlessness and a disconnection from wider culture rather than a serious theological failure – though that in itself ought to raise uncomfortable questions for them. But the fact that everyone knew what they were saying – or appeared to be saying – and that this is such a common view in Christian circles is deeply worrying. Rather than a corrective tweet that's actually no more than semi-apologetic, perhaps they should write, clearly and at length, about poor mental health, and say: if that's you, it's not your fault.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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