Troublesome Verses: Sound Mind

There are some verses in the Bible which are troubling to Christians who suffer mental ill-health. Some of them seem to suggest that we cannot be proper Christians, or even Christian at all, if we have mental illnesses. One of these verses is in 2 Timothy, where Paul is speaking to Timothy:

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7)

The King James Version puts it in a more familiar way:

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

I would paraphrase these as, God has given us the Holy Spirit, who is power and love and sound mind/self-discipline, and who can impart these to us. This may seem silly, but the point I would like to make is essentially that we, personally, can fail in love and in power and in self-discipline but the Spirit cannot – therefore if we fail to love, or if we do not have a “sound mind” all of the time, we are still Christians.

To draw out this verse a little more, fear or timidity is suggestive of a cowardice in the person, what the Pulpit Commentary suggests is a person who might be “cowed by enemies of the gospel”. It is a lack of trust, a lack of confidence in God, a fear which stops us doing all we ought or can do for God. Not being fearful is mentioned quite often in the Bible, from Mary being told not to be afraid at the angel’s appearance (Luke 1:30), to Jesus telling the disciples not to fear after the transfiguration (Matt 17:7) and of course the verse:

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)

Do we fear? Christians from time to time are fearful of the future, their health, their family, their jobs – but they are still Christians. We do not have a “spirit of fear”, we are not fearful all the time, we do know peace. What does this say to people with anxiety disorders? Fear is not your normal state, fear is not something you live under all of the time. I would say that, for the Christian, we have the Spirit, and we do not fear – because even if it is underneath, if it is affected by our illnesses, even if we doubt and worry about our faith, underneath we have the source of peace. Anyone can lapse from the perfect state some commentators take from this verse, and it does not mean we are not saved, we are not good Christians. I do not believe that my anxiety problem disqualifies me from having the Spirit – because I am not anxious most of the time, and I am able to have treatment to help me. I also have a deep (sometimes too deep for me to reach) peace – even if I cannot see it at the moment I am anxious.

The “power” in the 2 Timothy 1:7 verse is, I think, a reference to the Holy Spirit, who is called power many times (Luke 4:14; Acts 10:38; Romans 15:13; 1 Corinthians 2:4 etc) and which is described as being given to servants of Christ (Acts 1:8; 6:8; Ephesians 3:16 etc) – as above, I feel that this verse is saying that we have been given the Spirit of God, who is and has power. This enables us to do what God wants us to do, to have the strength to work for him. However we have all known people for whom power has proved corrupting, who have become egotistical, self-centred and unpleasant when they get a bit of power coming their way. Hence Paul says that the Spirit is also love, for love tempers power. We have power used in the service of love, and we know that love:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
(1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

We are told in 1 John that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and to follow him, we are told time and time again that we must love others. Do you always love others? Is every action out of love? I know that I fail at loving others, but I continue to try, with God’s help. Does my failure of love mean that I do not have the Spirit? I do not believe so – but I do believe my human (carnal) nature interrupts, that I am a mixture of the old man (woman) and the new, that I am not perfect nor will I know perfection until I meet God. Our lapses in love, in power, into fear and whatnot are not indications that we are not Christians – we need to look at more than momentary problems – even if those moments are rather longer than we personally would expect them to be.

And finally, “sound mind”, the reason why I wanted to write this post. The word used is sophronismos which is translated as “self-discipline” in the NIV and “sound mind” in the KJV. “Sound mind” is a quasi-legal term (the technical one now being compos mentis) to denote that one is able to use reason. By that I mean it is used to describe those who have not got severe mental disabilities and severe mental health problems. If I commit a crime, I can put forward a defence which states I was not of sound mind at the time – however that is not quite the same thing as having a mental illness. The M’Naghten Rules state that, for an insanity defence to work, the person at the time of their offence must not either know that their action was wrong, or was unable to understand the nature and quality of their actions. So we can see that being not of sound mind is not necessarily an indicator of mental illness, one can have a mental health problem and still, legally, be defined as of sound mind.

There are other translations of sophronismos – one commentator has it as healed or redeemed mind, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (eds Kittel, Friedrich & Bromiley, at Google Books) have it as “a regulated life”, others say similarly that it means “moderation”, “self control” and similar. It does not strictly describe mental illness, but rather a sort of excess, an inability to control oneself, an inability to discern moral actions, an understanding. Clarke’s commentary, which I consulted on my computer, said:

But a sound mind implies much more; it means a clear understanding, a sound judgment, a rectified will, holy passions, heavenly tempers; in a word, the whole soul harmonized in all its powers and faculties; and completely regulated and influenced so as to think, speak, and act aright in all things. The apostle says, God hath given the spirit of these things; they are not factitious; they are not assumed for times and circumstances; they are radical powers and tempers; each produced by its proper principle.

I am sure I am not alone in reading this and wondering whether any of us “think, speak, and act aright in all things”!

I would read this verse as describing an ideal state, where the Spirit and ourselves are in harmony, where we have power, act in love and with a good understanding and self control. This, though, it not a perfect world and I don’t think anyone has achieved this ideal state – certainly not all of the time. This verse is troublesome in that it seems to suggest that we are less in the Spirit than others, that perhaps we who have mental ill-health are not Christian, or do not have the Spirit at all, but I don’t think it needs to be so. I view it as stating that the Spirit works in us to try to combat our mental health problems, that we may not be as conforming to this verse as others, but that we are all lacking in some way or another. Mental health is a defect, but it does not signify moral failure on our part – only if it were true that we are ill because we are more sinful would this verse then state that we lack God’s Spirit in us. It is all a matter of degrees.

Further Reading

Skip Moen: Timothy 1:7
An interesting thread on Bible Forums
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (on Google books)
A round-up of translations & some commentaries on the verse

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