December 15, 2017

iMonk 101: Is there Mental Illness in the Bible?

I am continuing reposting the 2005 series on Mental Illness.

Is there mental illness in the Bible? This question seeks to move us toward the question of mental illness and the Gospel.

The focus of the Bible is Jesus Christ. When we talk about anything else as it is presented in the Bible, we must be aware that no matter important it might be to us, it is not the main concern of the Bible itself.

For example, I may desperately want to have the Biblical teaching on parenting, but I must start with the admission that the Bible is not a book on parenting. As it shows me parenting, and as I learn from that presentation, I am still on the road to Jesus Christ and the Gospel. So if we find mental illness in the Bible, we should expect that the portrayal of mental illness will not answer all of our questions, but will serve the purpose of the ultimate presentation of Jesus Christ as our salvation.

Mental illness is an aspect of a post-fall world. There was no mental illness in Eden. There is mental illness now. What has changed? Sin, that virus of self-centered blindness to the truth and glory of God, has twisted and broken every aspect of human nature, from the clarity of our mental processes to the bio-chemical make-up of our brains. Sin has multi-generational effects. It is embedded in every aspect of the social make-up of human communities and relationships. It has altered everything about the world.

Because of this close relationship between mental illness and sin, it is difficult to disentangle the two. Take a Biblical example: Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 15:10-18 10 Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land! I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them curse me. 11 The LORD said, “Have I not set you free for their good? Have I not pleaded for you before the enemy in the time of trouble and in the time of distress? 12 Can one break iron, iron from the north, and bronze? 13 “Your wealth and your treasures I will give as spoil, without price, for all your sins, throughout all your territory. 14 I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.” 15 O LORD, you know; remember me and visit me,, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance take me not away; know that for your sake I bear reproach. 16 Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts. 17 I did not sit in the company of revelers, nor did I rejoice; I sat alone, because your hand was upon me, for you had filled me with indignation. 18 Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?

Jeremiah’s complaints to God often have the character of the inner dialogue of the depressed person. Is it sinful to feel sorry for yourself? Is it sinful to say that God is deceitful in refusing the “heal” your troubles? These feelings are so much a part of our fallen condition, so involved in our fallen perspective, that we can’t fail to see both our true humanity and our fallen humanity at the same time.

Fear, anger, unforgiveness: all of these things are the stuff of depression, and they are failures to trust God. But we also know that depression is partially a function of brain chemistry and other factors. There may be a predisposition to depression that precedes the interpretation of events. At what point do we separate an intentionally wrong thought and a genetic or biochemical reality? Both are part of the picture.

I remember teaching Job several years ago. I had never closely read Job’s speeches. It is no exaggeration to say that if Job had turned in that essay to a professor, the school counselor would have gotten involved. Job moves from stability and community acceptance to bitter self-loathing and accusations of God’s evil intentions toward him. He sounds nuts. His “confessional” speeches reveal a man whose world has come apart, and he has lost his anchor of clarity.

Throughout the Bible- Job’s speeches, Jonah’s self pity, the depression of the Psalmist, the cynical death wish of Kohelleth- we see the kinds of emotions that make up much of common mental illnesses. How are these persons viewed? How are their emotions presented to us? The question becomes, not so much about what is and is not mental illness vs sin; the question becomes, what is God’s word to the mentally ill, and to those of us who may find ourselves ministering to them, or becoming one of them?

I believe the answer is two fold: Compassion, and in proportion to the type of mental illness, responsible humanity.

The most certain case of mental illness in the Bible, in my opinion, is Saul. Saul’s behavior is consistent with manic depression or similar emotional conditions. The Biblical writer interprets this in the language of his understanding, but this does not change a major point: God was still dealing with Saul, even as a mentally ill person. Saul was a mentally ill King. God never told him to step aside, but to do what was right. In Saul, we are reminded that anyone, and any one of us, can be mentally ill.

We see God’s dealings with Saul in two ways: the compassion and forgiveness of David, and the tragic consequences of Saul’s actions. In both of these, we see these two Biblical truths. Saul was a fully human person while he was mentally ill, and his actions were actions of moral responsibility. David, however, incarnates God’s mercy toward Saul, and shows us God’s compassion for the mentally ill.

I would suggest that to see all mentally ill persons- which includes many of us at some point in life- as purely victims is dehumanizing to an extent that compromises human dignity. God addresses Saul as responsible throughout this episode. Saul never ceases to be a human person to whom God’s commands can be addressed.

Yet, at the same time, David deals with Saul as one afflicted. He respects not only God’s choice of Saul, but Saul’s suffering with the “evil spirit.”

This leaves us in an uncomfortable place. Many would want the mentally ill to be absolved of all responsibility. I believe this is the wrong way to view most mentally ill persons. Yet, we must also view them truthfully, fully taking into account what we can know about their condition, and treating them in full awareness of their diminishment or affliction.

This appears to be the Bible’s approach to persons who are in intense grief (Job), in oppositional-defiant mode (Jonah) or who are enslaved to addictions (Samson.) The Psalms show us prayers from the depressed and the paranoid, yet they are prayers in scripture. The cynical tunnel-vision of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes is part of his journal-narrative examining life from all sides. While none of these qualifies as full-blown mental illness, there is enough here to see the lesson: It is part of our humanity, and God, in his grace, is in the river with such persons.

Are there examples of mental-illness in the New Testament? As I have suggested elsewhere, a “demon possessed” person such as the man in Mark 5 may be afflicted with spiritual forces, but he also shows evidence of what we call mental illness. This man cuts himself and lives much as many manic depressives or psychotics would if left un-cared for or unmedicated. If this man is demon possessed- as the text suggests with the invasion of the pigs by the spirits- the manifestation of symptoms was similar to mental illness. Certainly those in this culture who were severely mentally ill would have been treated and viewed much life this man.

Jesus responds to this man with compassion his community and family did not have for him. He treated him as a human being, and not simply as a collection of demons. It was a man that was liberated, and it was a man who was commissioned to be a witness among his neighbors.

The Synoptic Gospels make it clear that much of Jesus’ ministry was among those who would have included the severely mentally ill. These persons would have been tied down, beaten and subjected to strange and awful cures. Jesus’ willingness to touch them, speak to them and accept them as liberated members of God’s kingdom says something very important about how we view the mentally ill.

They are our fellow human beings. They are our potential brothers and sisters. We should not view them as overcome with evil or robbed of their humanity. We should strive to love them as God does: in compassion and in truth.

We do not see mental illness spoken of particularly plainly in the Bible, because the cultures of the day did not view mental illness as we do. But mentally ill persons are surely there, in all the brokenness of human sin and in the persons who are touched with the kingdom announcement and the power of the Spirit. Their presence moves us to the next question: What is the church’s responsibility to the mentally ill?

One last note: They said Jesus had a demon. We ought to be under no illusions of what the world of “normal” persons will say of those who resemble Christ in their life in the world. Jesus was a deviant, and his deviancy was viewed as contagious; a threat to others and to the established order.

Comments

  1. Something worth noting when discussing the presence of mental illness in the Bible is the fact that Mental Illness is culturally defined. The DSM is a changing document. It actually contains an index of diagnoses by country because many illnesses only show up in one culture and not in others. There are also some that exist in most every culture (ie depression). Until approximately 1970 homosexuality was classified as a mental illness (not trying to change the topic)
    The reason this is relevant is that if we are looking for specific examples, many would be different from what we would recognize. Not to mention, we are laying a modern day science over ancient writing. That’s not a bad thing, it just should be acknowledged when discussing the topic.

    • Louis Winthrop says:

      Or hyperactivity in children.

    • Patrick Lynch says:

      To elaborate your thought: culturally defined’ or because genetically-different populations find themselves disproportionately predisposed to certain conditions in a greater preponderance than others? The answer is likely both; but we shouldn’t let a veneer of behavioural relativism belie to us the very real differences in quality of life that objective dis-ease brings upon people who suffer from it. Nobody who is honest with themselves could watch a helpless schizophrenic trying to keep hold on a notion and call their suffering a mere cultural maladjustment or ‘just normal for them’.

      • Patrick, possibly pete means things like, for instance, koro in Indonesia (defined as “the name of a condition in which the patient believes his penis is shrinking and that when it disappears he will die”).

        That is probably culturally defined, don’t you think? Or if you like, things like the belief in changelings in Irish folklore, which was behind the famous case of Bridget Cleary who was eventually burned alive in 1895 in Tipperary by her husband because he was convinced she was a fairy changeling and not his real wife. This was acceptable to the community because of the belief in fairies, though when the authorities got wind of it, there was a murder trial.

        • Patrick Lynch says:

          You’re right, but I tend to suppose that culture itself is subject to self-destructive dialectical diseases that explain things like Koro. For instance: a panicked segment of one culture blames an outgroup for their perceived shrinking penises, and a panicked segment of another culture blames an outgroup for their perceived shrinking economy – and both segments become violent against the Other they’ve named, and their aggravation seems impervious to both sense and logic. The formal similarities are obvious; I wonder if there’s really any difference?

          Contrast that with an disease like pica – where the sufferer feels the insatiable compulsion to do something unnatural (eating inedible things, ripping out their hair or whatever) but seem and feel not-crazy otherwise. It’s genetic, disproportionately affects a certain population, neurological, psychological, causes real suffering, and flies almost totally under the sympathy radar of pretty much everybody who doesn’t have to live with it, whether or not the cultural ecology is amenable to it or not. We have a much better sense of its presentation and etiology nowadays, but once-upon-a-time and generally, it was just a weird, quietly life-ruining compulsion practiced by weird people who couldn’t very well explain it or help themselves.

  2. So would you say the spiritual response particularly in the gospels could be used today or where uniquely of Christ in healing people of mental and/or spiritual depression/oppression?

  3. Mental illness is an aspect of a post-fall world. There was no mental illness in Eden.

    Where did you get that?
    Cain didn’t sound too mentally healthy. (or was he after Post-Eden)
    Eve was talking with snakes.
    Adam left his wife alone with a snake.
    Come on !

    • Dude, see, thing about Christians is that they believe in Christian theology. Sometimes literally, sometimes as an allegory meant to convey some kinda moral truth. You’re a bore. Get real. Or write me a long treatise on how believing in talking snakes is as far from “getting real” as you can think and it will totally ~*~BlOw My MiNd~*~, whatever works for you.

      • I’m at a loss to understand how the concept of ‘original sin’ could exist without a Garden of Eden and the fall. So if you’re prepared to accept evolution, how does that concept fit in? When *was* the fall? Who committed the original sin?

        • “Sometimes literally, sometimes as an allegory meant to convey some kinda moral truth.”

          Hand-waving? Maybe. I’m going to be honest, “original sin” is probably the thing we understand the least in all revelation. But folks wasn’t as interested in the conveyance of discrete or empirical information back in the day. Mythology carried more weight, but they understood mythology as such, and it gives us lessons as well as Kafka or any other non-literalist. Consider that the editor of Genesis put two different accounts of the creation myth side by side rather than praying to the God and waiting for him to give him the “correct” one.

          • So, basically your response is what I tell my son when I don’t know an answer to one of his questions: ‘because I said so’.

            It’s impossible for me to accept such articles of faith any more.

  4. Good thoughts, as always 🙂

    My husband is severely bi-polar, used to not be able to leave the house because of anxiety. He’s come leaps and bounds now but still has to fight. Every. Single. Day. He has prayed, and fasted, and you know the conclusion he has come to? That God has allowed him this pain, this burden, to bear so that he will never ever forget who holds him together. I think a part of him knows that he is too prone to prideful thinking – his depression is God’s way of keeping him aware of his own humanity and weakness.

    That’s certainly not to say that everyone with bi-polar depression is like that, but I think it makes a lot of sense for him. I think there are a lot of people in the church that struggle with depression specifically – and with acceptance of that illness within their church homes. We’re so quick to offer people fixes for their mental illness, and sometimes the only fix is loving them and accepting them for the fragile, broken people that they are.

    I’m the complete opposite of depressed, but having married someone who is has given me so much more understanding and empathy for those that struggle with mental illness. In many ways – odd as it sounds – it has made me thankful that we have this burden to bear.

    • Did your husband self-diagnose his problem?

    • Thank you for saying that Jennet. I am like your husband, except my brokenness is in another place of my psyche. I too have found after years of struggle that God has left me in this place to draw me deeper into His sufficiency and grace. It is there that He “holds me together”. God bless you and your husband.

      • Thanks for your comments Ronh. May you continue to draw closer to God! I wish you strength in your journey. Keep the faith, for I know it is a difficult journey some days!

  5. I have panic attacks and anxiety. When I read the story of Martha and Mary I see Martha as very near a panic attack. I know I might be if I must suddenly prepare a good meal for unexpected quests and my sister wouldn’t even come to help. Then later when Jesus comes to Lazarus’s tomb Martha seems much calmer, even after the terrible event of losing her brother. She shows great faith in Jesus. Maybe I read too much in the story but there seems to be a healing of Martha, even if not stated.

    • And I must add that the way I now deal with panic attacks is to place myself, mentally, at Christ’s feet. It helps wonderfully unless a situation takes me by surprise. Then it is much harder to pull myself into that thought.

      • I had them many years ago for several years. The Lord gave me to learn that there was nothing wrong with my heart and over time I knew that the worst that could happen was that I would faint. Your faith will grow as you trust Him even in them. I do not minimize at all what you are going through. Remembering He never leaves you and I trust that someday you will look back as I do and only the memory will be there. Practically I encourage you to learn your own limitations and that “no” is not a bad word. It was a problem for me as a younger woman.
        I see so much hope in Christ as He ministers to the man by the pool, the demoniac of the Gadarenes and so many other others. I love His tender kindness to the strugglers.

    • My father began to anxiety symptoms after my mother’s stroke. He had macular degeneration and was legally blind. Mom was ‘the driver’ in the family. They had a beautiful home on gorgeous property and were very comfortable, until . . . . .

      Pop didn’t know what anxiety attacks were, ’cause he had never had one in his life before. He described to me what he felt like, and I realized that he was going through some situational anxiety because his and my mom’s lives were about to change forever: moving into an assisted living facility, selling their home and automobile (my brother bought both to help them out) and facing so many changes so quickly.

      But most of all, my parents lost their independence. When the doctor talked to Pop about it all, Pop understood more about his symptoms. He was given some medication to get him through the worst of it. In time, as he and my mom adjusted to their new lives, the symptoms went away.

  6. Many of today’s approaches to mental illness and the Bible assume that those cultures were unbearable primitive and could not distinguish mental illness from demon possession. It would be dangerous if any of us were to buy into that supposition. A good example is 1 Samuel 21:13-15, which would have taken place around 1,000 B.C. There it says that the future King David acted like a madman on purpose:

    So he pretended to be insane in their presence; and while he was in their hands he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard. Achish said to his servants, “Look at the man! He is insane! Why bring him to me? Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me? Must this man come into my house?”

    It is obvious that they did not regard David to be either demon possessed or possessed by a god. Rather, they understood that some people have mental illnesses.

    What is probably true is that people in those days probably assumed some people to be demon-possessed (or possessed by a god) who simply had a mental illness. But, on the other hand, it is also true that we probably assume some people to be mentally ill who are demon-possessed. We have tended to switch from making mistakes in one direction to making mistakes in another direction.

    As to Pete’s comment, he is absolutely correct. I lived in South America for 10 years, and one of my more hilarious memories is reading an article that was translated from and English IVCF magazine into Spanish for the IVCF magazine down there. It was a long article about a college kid who was talking about her struggles and what this meant. In the USA, the article was followed by comments from a couple of American psychiatrists/psychologists who basically gave her all sorts of good advice. In South America the same article followed by responses from clinical therapists in that culture got the response that the student was too self-involved and to get over it and reconnect with her family. (Family is significantly more important in South America than in the USA.) Thus mental illness can sometime be in the eye of the culture.

    But, demon possession never is just in the eyes of the culture.

    • Well said. Thank you.

    • In your example of 1 Samuel, it would be obvious to the writer that David was only pretending to be insane. So that kind of undermines your argument.

      • Not really, the King of Achish believed him to be insane. The writer was writing decades later and so knew that King David had never been insane. But, the report shows that there was a distinction made in the culture of that time between people who were demon-possessed and people who were insane. Notice that the King of Achish never accuses him of being demon possessed.

    • Thank you, Father.

  7. Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4, by a curse of God, goes insane, some have suggested clinical lycanthropy as the specific mental illness here.

  8. Judas, who committed suicide?

    Don’t forget Herod the Great or his merry band of dysfunctional children (those he didn’t kill).

    Ahab?

  9. michael, wow. you made my day. I wish more pastors in my Lutheran church would make clear about what the central message of the bible is and proceed from there. my hat is off to you. thank you!

  10. Another good post on mental illness, thank you. I just got reevaluated recently since it had been 5 years since my last evaluation and my meds seem to need readjusting. I found your comments on David being compassionate towards Saul interesting as well, but that has nothing to do with the post and mental illness.

  11. “We should strive to love them as God does: in compassion and in truth.”
    I think this is a great response – for all of us – as all of us struggle to some degree with mental illness just as we do with addictions. It is the Jesus way for all of us who are broken, wounded and sinful creatures. I remember Carl Menninger, perhaps the most famous of American psychiatrists, once told a politician who was visiting his world renowned clinic that he believed 80% of the people who were hospitalized could leave here today if they knew they were truly loved.

    Obviously, mental illness can be paralyzing and needs to be assessed and treated holistically. If we are a Christ community, we need to see that we are individually and corporately called to respond incarnationally with compassion and truth. We may struggle to know how to help care for those who suffer from debilitating mental illnesses but the “one another” passages throughout the NT are especially helpful in guiding us toward a compassionate response. It’s not enough to know they are getting help “over there”.

    • for some reason Christians think that mental illness is a “either or” equation. They possesed or medically unbalanced. i think it can be both. I do know that for me medication helped stabalize me enough to work a program of recovery and find out root causes, triggers, and healing. Sometimes, just being aware that the condition is not normal can help begin the process.
      There is a misconception out there that medication is used as a ” happy pill” that you go numb and nothing bothers you. In fact, many people start taking antidepresants to ” Gain an edge” or be happy. Most of those people are bothered by the side effects and shocked when the pills dont get them high. If you have a condition the meds help bring you to a normal state not a high (when taken correctly.)
      I think evangelicals have taken the scare tactics and left the sucess stories in the trash. Folks, we are all recovering from something.

  12. Father Ernesto said: “But, on the other hand, it is also true that we probably assume some people to be mentally ill who are demon-possessed. We have tended to switch from making mistakes in one direction to making mistakes in another direction.”

    I think it depends on what kind of Christians you are hanging out with. I think there are groups where this switch, to assuming mental illness when it’s really spiritual, has not been made, and it is still the other way around. Some groups i’ve been around will almost never acknowledge any kind of mental illness, no matter how severe, and always assume it’s a spiritual problem. THis is tinged with judgmental attitude, which is easy to fall into, if it’s never happened to you or a loved one. When you’ve seen/experienced mental illness up close in yourself or a family member, all your preconceptions are quickly washed away, and you realize it is a real thing. The brain is an organ, and it can malfunction or develop abnormally, just like any other organ. Not to many various diseases that include psychiatric symptoms, which often to undiagnosed. Thyroid, hormones, hypoglycmia, diabetes, food allergies, celiac disease ,etc.

    • Yes, there are people who do not believe in demon possession. And, there are people who do not believe in mental illness. However, I would wager that most Christians believe in both mental illness and demon possession. I certainly believe that both are present though it may be difficult to distinguish between them at times. That is why those in the Church must be cautious before giving facile interpretations of what they are seeing.

  13. Father Ernesto said: “But, on the other hand, it is also true that we probably assume some people to be mentally ill who are demon-possessed. We have tended to switch from making mistakes in one direction to making mistakes in another direction.”

    I think it depends on what kind of Christians you are hanging out with. I think there are groups where this switch, to assuming mental illness when it’s really spiritual, has not been made, and it is still the other way around. Some groups i’ve been around will almost never acknowledge any kind of mental illness, no matter how severe, and always assume it’s a spiritual problem. THis is tinged with judgmental attitude, which is easy to fall into, if it’s never happened to you or a loved one. When you’ve seen/experienced mental illness up close in yourself or a family member, all your preconceptions are quickly washed away, and you realize it is a real thing. The brain is an organ, and it can malfunction or develop abnormally, just like any other organ. Not to mention various diseases that include psychiatric symptoms, which often go undiagnosed, such as Thyroid, hormones, hypoglycmia, diabetes, food allergies, celiac disease ,etc.

  14. I think that one could make a case that our state of original sin is a form of mental illness. This, of course, would depend upon how you define your terms. Here is what I mean.

    Humans were created in full communion with the Triune God. The Great Act of Disobedience broke that communion, and in so doing bent our human nature so that every generation following lacked the ability to commune with God as originally designed. The implications of that rupture reached into every corner of creation. This rupture alters our perception, our reason, our emotions, and every aspect of our body-mind.

    if you accept this way of viewing human nature, then you could say that we are all mentally ill. If we don’t see that, it’s primarily a matter of the standard by which we measure. If we use our father Adam’s mental health (pre-disobedience) as the standard, then we are all stark raving bonkers. If someone seems to us to be mentally ill, it is because we are comparing that person’s state to some other standard based on what we see as normal now.

    In this model, Sin is the basic fundamental expression of true mental illness, and we are all just as unable to cure ourselves of it as the schizophrenic or bi-polar. Paul’s cri de coeur in Romans 7 is the cry of many who finds themselves caught in the maze that is mental illness. In the final analysis (pun intended) the only cure is the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the end, the gospel is the only therapy that will work.

    I admit, this is a theological-philosophical-metaphysical view of mental illness, and does not do much to address how we should help those who are afflicted. It does suggest, however, that we should treat such people with compassion, for we are afflicted with a different expression of the same condition.

    • I’m amazed how otherwise intelligent people can believe in a childhood myth that the earth is a mere 6000 years old when there is such an abundance of evidence to the contrary.

      I doubt you hear voices telling you to kill yourself, or are so despondent you can’t even get out of bed in the morning and cry for no good reason. I doubt you are so terrified over nothing that you sweat profusely and feel your heart pounding like it’s going to pop out of your chest.

      This is nothing but a lot of fancy talk for ‘blame the mentally ill person because they’ve sinned.’

      • I don’t think that’s a fair reading of what the poster actually said. And they didn’t mention anything about the age of the earth. There’s definitely some speculation going on here about viewing “original sin” as a form of “mental illness”, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the person is laying blame on schizophrenics because they’re just a bunch of sinners.

  15. Thank you, Michael. Thank you.

  16. There is mental illness in my immediate family.

    My dad had bipolar disorder. In my early years he was a pastor for a while, until he couldn’t do it any longer.

    My dad suffered a great deal, but the thing is, he had a heart for the downtrodden. I can’t help but believe his condition gave him love and patience for alcoholics, drug addicts and ex-cons. I have a letter from one of these that he wrote to my dad thanking him for his love and support. It kills me every time I read it. This man had found out that my dad was in the black hole again.

    When I was in elementary school there was a man who would come to our home for Thanksgiving. My dad would pick him up at the boarding house where he lived about an hour away. I don’t know this man’s history, but he would play ragtime on our piano.

    Of course, I’m not saying that all mental illness has any productive use.

  17. I am so very thankful for this post. I just came across it and wanted to add if I could. I have suffered immensely from various mental illnesses over the years. One passage that helped me confirm for myself that I was not a “cursed demon child” was the beloved verse Matthew: 4:24. This passage makes a delineation between some mental and spiritual states. They brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted w/ various diseases and torments, and those who were demon possessed, epileptics,and paralytics. I believe I am saved and know Jesus as my saviour and Lord so I gain much solace in this passage hoping that I am among those that fall in the epileptic continuum or such. A clear demarcation that acknowledges the existence of brain malfunction apart from demonic activity. I feel like sometimes as I suffer God whispers in my ear, you, my child have a brain dysfunction and you are still mine and I still love you.