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 person’s 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 their 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 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.