No, this is not a blog about the comparative mental health of my Baptist brothers and sisters! As a Presbyterian I would hardly be an authority on that. Rather, this blog is about how the Bible describes insanity and points the way to sanity. Definitions are always a good place to start. We might simply define sanity as being in touch with reality and insanity as being out of touch with reality. Ah, but what exactly is “reality”?
Dr. Ronald Leifer says in The Medical Model as the Ideology of the Therapeutic State, “Therein lies the distinction between sanity and madness…people whose behavior places them outside the boundaries of conventional good and evil are diagnosed as mentally ill.” “Conventional good and evil” is the best our therapeutic culture can offer as a description of reality. But of course, ideas of good and evil keep changing in our culture and that is the problem. In order for us to understand what insanity really is and to help move people toward true sanity, we need a profound, unchanging, authoritative word about the nature of reality. And the Bible gives us just that in the stories of Nebuchadnezzar and John the Baptist.
The Insanity of the King
In Daniel 4 we read of Nebuchadnezzar’s plunge into insanity as a judgment on his pride. As he walked the roof of his palace in Babylon, he proudly said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built with my mighty power…for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30). Immediately God responded and told him that “…you shall be driven from among men…and you shall be made to eat grass…until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men …” (Daniel 4:32). Since the king was out of touch with the reality of God’s sovereign majesty he was punished with a period of insanity.
Later, Nebuchadnezzar repented and “…praised and honored him who lives forever” and then said, “…my reason (sanity) returned to me” and “…all (God’s) works are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (Daniel 4:34, 37). While it is crucial that we sensitively recognize the complex nature and nurture influences on mental illness and the suffering people endure, there is still an important truth to be learned from Nebuchadnezzar: to be out of touch with reality is to be out of touch with God. More specifically, we could say that insanity is to try and be God. This means, of course, that all of us are “insane” in various ways. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes agrees, “Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Ecclesiastes 9:3). What then is the way to sanity?
The Sanity of the Baptist
How I thank God for John the Baptist! He is a model of biblical sanity and wholeness for me and all those I have the privilege of ministering to. In John 3 some of John’s disciples are distressed that his followers are leaving him and going to Jesus. They wonder how John will respond to the loss of his influence and following. I would be distressed and discouraged if this were happening to me. But here we see John’s holy sanity shine through in contrast to Nebuchadnezzar’s prideful insanity. The king desired glory for himself; the Baptist desired glory for Christ. Humble worship and witness is the essence of sanity. Three of John’s statements point the way:
- “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3: 26). This truth has been a check on my incessant tendency to compare myself with other staff members, BCC counselors, and brothers and sisters in Christ, often leading to discouragement. It is freeing to recall that our Father apportions gifts and opportunities and fruit according to his perfect wisdom and love. He gives generously—but not equally—to all his children. This is his good pleasure, and sanity embraces it.
- “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him” (John 3: 28). This reminds me of a conversation from the 1993 move Rudy starring Sean Astin. In a conversation with Rudy, a Catholic priest said, “In 35 years of studying theology I have learned two important things: One, there is a God. Two, I am not him.” John’s wholeness comes from recognizing and embracing that he is not the Messiah but has been sent as a witness to him. What freedom there is in happily pointing others away from ourselves to to the glory of Christ!
- “Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3: 29-30). A fellow staff member preached on this passage a while back and challenged us about whether we would be able to receive the “gift of a shrinking ministry” with joy like John. I was convicted. As he said, I am happy for Jesus to increase as long as I increase with him! John’s glory is that as he decreases, his joy in Christ increases. A Sovereign Grace song, “Surrender All,” expresses John’s heart well: “Take all my cravings for vain recognition; fleshly indulgence and worldly ambition. I want so much, Lord, to make you the focus; to serve you in secret and never be noticed.”
So how can we personally grow into the freedom and fullness of biblical sanity and help others do the same? By cultivating in ourselves and commending to others a heart that:
- Thanks God for every gift of grace and opportunity for service.
- Refuses to compare oneself with others or envy others’ gifts and opportunities.
- Embraces the humble but significant roles we have as witnesses to the Savior.
- Pursues fullness of joy in our shrinking influence in people’s lives as we point them to the beauty of Christ.
Progressive sanctification (the goal of biblical counseling) is a movement out of the insanity of pride into the sanity of humility. As the Baptist points us to Christ he says, “Therefore this joy of mine is now complete” (John 3: 29), and we respond, “It is well with my soul.”
Join the Conversation
How would you define insanity and sanity? How does John the Baptist encourage or challenge you?