July 30, 2014

The Christian and Mental Illness IV: Is There Mental Illness In The Bible?

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.

Comments

  1. I appreciate your approach, although I’d forgetten that in some parts of the church this is still being debated. Seldom are issues neatly parsed with an either/or.

    “He’s either mentally ill OR dealing with a demon.”

    “He’s either depressed OR dealing with sinful thinking.”

    We’re whole people and don’t calatog well in a bianary system.

  2. There are also questions of how many of the problems of the “mentally ill” are just a lack of meshing between the person and the society in which he or she is living. To be sure, certain mental illnesses would be recongized as problems in any culture. But some would not.

    Where it is merely a problem of effective “meshing”, I wonder if Jesus would want to heal it. His calls tend to prevent people from meshing as well as they once did.

  3. King Saul, Jeremiah, Jonah; Joab – a murdering psychopath. I’m sure there’s more

  4. “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.”
    Ths is a great quote.
    Please see also-
    http://alindsey4.blogspot.com/2005/07/subject-of-scripture.html

  5. I’m a new poster here, so I’ll make this brief. Just wanted to make a comment anent mental illness and a Christian worldview. I do tend to read the biblical passages regarding demon possession literally. To do otherwise, to my mind, does an injustice to the biblical text. Having said that, let me also say that my own experience has borne out the usefulness of modern psychotropic medication. For years, I struggled with depression. Well, that’s probably too strong a word for my condition. Probably, chronic dysthymia is the proper clinical term. But about two years ago, it began to seriously impair my functional abilities. After lots of soul searching and the help of a compassionate Christian doctor, I sought chemical relief. I found that a certain drug, an SSNRI to be specific, really, dare I say “physically,” changed things for the better for me–and in a way that older SSRIs (like Paxil and Prozac) just didn’t do. The chronic dysthymia, on medication, is, by and large, gone now. I still have acute depressive episodes (who doesn’t?), but I’m now able to function much better than before. I have a family history of depression, so it is not surprising that I have a tendency that way as well. I praise God for the modern drug that has radically changed the functioning of my brain. And I still believe that my condition is primarily a consequence of the Fall. I don’t see a radical tension between modern psychiatric practice and a thorough-going biblical worldview, but that’s just my own non-professional opinion.

  6. Cheryl Davis says:

    I also beleive that the Lord used many mentally Ill people and it is apparent in His word.

    I was raised by a mother who was mentally Ill. My daughter as a child was mentally ill. In desperation and love for her I sought the Lord with all my heart as she was hospiralized at age 11.

    I was radically saved and spirit filled. The Lord began to speak to me about my daughter,and told me that her illness was part spiritual and part physical. That when the spirit causing the physical was dealt with the manifestations of the illness would leave too. Being her mother I had the authority to act. I won’t lie to anyone. I spent 8 hours a day in the presence of God,kept worship music on 24/7 and when She went into tantrums spoke to the spirit commanded it to leave in jesus name and spoke the word. This went on for three months. Til one day The spirit spoke back to me. It came out as a mans voice and my daughters eyes turned black. It asked me who my God was and I told it, Jesus Christ,and in His name I say release her. She fell to the floor in my kitchen and the countenance of her face changed. When she opened her eys she was crying I’m sorry mommy.

    After that day the teachers in her school called me and asked what had changed in my home. They said my daughter was a different child. Danielle today is 21 and a wonderful joyful person.

    After that the Lord began bringing many people to me who suffered with many kinds of mental illness. Many teens as well. Imust admit I agree it is the very heart of God to minister to these people. But it is not easy. I was able to fight in the spirit for my daughter because she was a child. But when a mentally ill person that is of age comes to know the Lord does’nt really choose Him and choose to fight in their own heart they will pay the price Jesus will not be able to stablize them or deliver them.

    In my fustation with some I would beg the Lord to have mercy because they were sick. He told me in no uncertain terms He holds them just as acountable as a person with out mental illnes. Like any other sin it can be broken with support meds and the power of God. IF THEY GIVE THEMSELVES OVER TO THE DISEASE OR THE SPIRIT THAT CAUSES IT THEY WITH SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES. If they refuse to admit they are sick,which requires humility and desperation they will become more and more deviant or depressed or suicidal.

    I married a man who was an alcoholic for 20 years. He was as a teen on fire for God. Then his life took a terrible turn. The Lord showed me he was undiagnosed bipolar disorder. It turns out his family was riddled with mental illness. I led him to the Lord and he was spirit filled. Though it took 3 yrs after and me leaving him before he humbled himself before the Lord and admitted he was sick. He is now completely stable and delivered and we are blessed. He first had to submit to medication to address the physical then he was able to address the spiritual. He is free today.

    I will say that the church today does not for one minute want to address mental illness nor do they want to follow the heart of God concerning these people. I have experienced much resistance torwards
    the people and their families. They just don’t understand and have no desire to do so.

    There have been times when I just want to giveup ministering to these people. It is a difficult calling. But the Lord continues to remind me of the pain I experienced first hand having family members of my own that have suffered. He also has shown me without a doubt that His ministry while on the earth was all about ministering and healing these. He healed a man with epalepsy,he said your sins are forgiven. He showed me their is no difference between that man and the demoniac. Both were spirits that caused the physical suffering. He showed me that ezekial was mentally ill and many times had to be bound and tied to submit to Him.

    But Jesus has also made me cut off the ones who refused to fight for their own salvation,they have to want it. We all have to want it. We are all subseptable to mental illnes if we do not desire to have the mind of God.

    Please keep me in your prayers

  7. Thank you all for your input. This was very well written and insitefull. I’ve been a minister for 8 years and have dealt with a lot of addicts and seen the Lord do gret miracles in their lives. I recently have had to deal with a mentally ill person in my life and have been seeking the Lord about her condition. I’m fascinated by them and desperately want to help them, but at the moment feel totally unequipped to do so. My hearts desire is to be able to help them and see them healed. Thanks for all your work. I will return with what I’ve learned. Dr. Peck (author of “The Road Less Traveled”, “People of the Lie” and “Glimpses of the Devil”) is a great resource for this topic.

  8. I have read the postings and have found some peace. I was married to a man who was addicted to pornography, and eventually began an affair that ended our marriage. What does this have to do with mental illness? In going through counseling, my therapist suggested that he was a sociopath, someone knowing the difference between right and wrong, but choosing wrong for any number of reasons, and not having the ability or desire to empathize with those he hurts. Sadly, we were leaders in our church. I left to attend anothet church, as the church froze up–couldn’t comprehend the betrayal and couldn’t minisiter to the betrayed. He still attends faithfully, as though nothing is wrong. He does not admit his actions are wrong, therefore he continues in it. He also had a history of violence. Secular and Biblical counseling tell us to walk away from those who persist in their sin (illness), and I have. No contact with him. I believe that the Prodigal Son had to reach the end of his rope before he repented and came home to his father. For some, it takes losing all they have before they wake up from the nightmare.

    The had part for me was to know how to pray. I never figured that one out, so I pray in the Spirit, knowing God hears my heart, and I hear His. It has helped me to know that illness and demonic oppression do coexist and that even though I don’t have the answers, God does.

  9. I think what some of these people said are stupid, i have aspbergur syndrome, a weak version of autism. and one of the symptoms is your always thinking and talking about your self and you have NO empathy for others. so i can want gods love with all my heart, i can want to love others, i can want to love god but i just cant because i only think of myself.

    even thou i know im one of the biggest hypocrites around. i know jesus saved me and he understands everything i do. IF WE HAD TO WORK AND WORK FOR OUR SALVATION IT WOULDNT BE A GIFT WOULD IT! anybody can be saved just by accepting,knowing and confessing jesus as lord and believe he died on the cross for our sins and was buried and rose 3 days later. thats all you need for salvation,FAITH! not WORKS! not even the most faithful christians can wrok there way into heaven, so the mentally just have to do the best the can living a faithful live(witch earns rewards in heaven not salvation) and just have faith in god.

    even thou im lukewarm,a hypocrite, and don’t give it my best most of the time. he understands the pressures and torments(social isolation)and he comes to my rescue when i ask. he doesn’t ask for full commitment because he knows we cant give it to him. but he does ask that we seek his face to the best of our ability’s.

    and when i talk to other people with autism or aspbergurs they are depressed because nobody wants to be their friend. they are without hope without jesus just like everyone else. but i see when comparing that jesus has made a huge difference in my life. not to to the well people but ot other sick people

    kyledone3456@yahoo.com

  10. Hi,
    I have struggled with mental illness all my life. I have prayed and prayed and asked for prayer.
    When I do not take the medication I cry and am sad. I cannot look at things in the same way.
    When I am on medications I am a totally different person.
    I can think clearly and not feel sad. My physical symptoms reduce. My desire is for the Lord.
    I know many faithful and beautiful people with problems such as mine. I have noticed that I even with my mental illness am more inclined to do the right thing and both I and my friends are humble and lowly in spirit. Having been around so many mentally ill people, I have noticed that we tend to have problems with skin and food alergies. There are also disproportions in ethnicity for the mentally ill. There are many Irish. I have had to fight all my life and am not a bad person.

  11. I have suffered from bipolar disorder most of my life. As a child, I was depressed often, then into my teens a raging hormonal train wreck. I found God many times in my life, but my illness kept getting the better of me.

    About a year ago, I met a really wonderful Christian woman on a support website and thru her and God, I have finally found salvation. While my illness still has moments it wreaks havoc on my life, my medication helps tremendously.

    As someone else said, I find myself trying harder to do good and not letting things go that I find unGodly. I don’t tolerate anyone taking the Lord’s name in vain, I discourage others from using foul language around me and I try very hard to stay in God’s light. You know what? It is so much easier than I ever imagined. God leads my way now and He loves me.

    I think as mentally ill people, we have a stronger need to please God, as we know all too well the repercussions of sin.

    God bless you all.

  12. I have mental illness in my family. From both sides of my family as a history over last 4-5 genrations, maybe many more, I suspect strongly. It ranged from at least one suicide, several alchoholics, 4-5 schizaphrenias, 4-5 scholarly extremes, to 3-4 silliness, 1 post partum deprssions, and now with my son some odd version of autism that I missed for so many years while reading in the 98th prcentile. Growing up as a child under my mother’s schizaphrenia caused me severe harm as my dad had no way to organize his and our lives apart from hers as we toxified in neighborhood shame. When I need to feel progress that I have traveled to a new place of peace and stability, wholeness, and healing, I pray that our Lord and his mother show me efficacy of living in dazzling truths of wholeness, health and efficacy. It hurts a little each time I ask for clarity of that wide gap that was my childhood anguishes and abuse, as compared to those loving, caring, brilliant living/just being in spirit with a sister or brother in normal efficacy, clarity and ability. Yes, this “Gapping” makes me a little more healed and I was very fortunate to have had a family of a friend who cared and gave me an almost unconditional love to a child to share in their family feelings, being, a few meals and many overnights. Childhood toxicity and abuses persist badly for many years, causes all kinds of dillusions, and fixations, many quite unhealthy, even sinful, despite that kind of real love from that other family. Now with my son certainly mentally ill at nearing 26, I need to find a keen, bright light way to face the burning, sheering truth, hyper reality that is my genes are toxically etched with mental illness as so many relatives have fallen/anguisedly mad. How I escaped the complete ravages of the same madness, a crazy mystery, that I bless and curse, especially now that my son is so stricken and cursed. It is so hard to accept that your flesh and blood that I brought into the world is so smashingly decrepid in his processing and efficacy. Saint Matthew tells us in Chaper 17 or 50 that, to heal mental illness of his boy who falls about in the fire and water, Jesus says Yopu perverse genration: faith like a mustard seed, you must have deep prayer and fasting to drive out this deamon. Is the deamon the boy’s father reacting so violently to his sons illness, frustation, sense of shame and accute loss??? How deep, how hungry, illusive these needed resovoirs of patience without bottom, shame stricken from personal lexicon and feelings, accompishment of ego unfullfiled and selfish, wasted on a sick boy. Where do I get the virtue since I am so weak and constitution underdeveloped myself, even as a 50ish old man. Lord send me your aid, m,aturity, angels, spirit to save hom and guide me in this peril. Surley he suufers and may committ suicide and become like the GAP of my childhood, total non-efficacy. Who will comfort hom and me and how will I cope such devastatiing loss of my flesh/issue. How I shake with fear, frustration, envy, angst, shame. There is no path to peace with a family member mentally ill. Like my mother, Dr Friedman who Labotomized so many in the 30-40′s, my was labotimize through thorozine as she indeed, lost her very soul, as even a child could see/feel the enourmous hurt of her emptiness, voids, anguishness, abject non-awareness of being in stark over medications that was thorazine. She was living death, good to noone. Heal me Lord and send me,even as an old man your divine mother to share and heal me in every way. The power of a well mother unmeasureable efficacy for a child to man development for what is right, good, necessary, real in this world.

  13. I would like to say that all of the content, and comments on this page are very insightful. My Hubby struggles with Bipolar disorder & I discovered this soon after we were married. We lived apart first so all of the cycles were not noticable until we were around each other daily. I prayed to God about what to do and how to approach him about his illnes. He became very angry then broke down and started to confess his history. There was incest, abuse, head trauma, drugs, alchohol,depression,suicide attemtps,sexual issues (homosexuality) and a snint in a mental facility while in the Marine Corp. I think he only had been given ant-depressants for the suicide attemps, which he stopped taking after he said they made him worse. All this was before he gave his life to Christ, so he was atleast on the rihgt path now. He asked if I was gonna leave him, and I said no, because God said you are to be my husband, and I trust him. He also wanted to know what the next step was as he had not been diagnosed yet. We jus said we would look to God for an answer through prayer, well one day he sent me an suicidal email, so I told him he needed immediate help. We arranged to go to a mental health clinic to explore our options, he was frightened as to what they were going to say or do. While meeting with the intake guy he broke down in tears just answering questions, and they wanted to keep him. Suddenly all the pressure was on me to decide what to do, the holy spirit came to me, and said this isnt it, its not the answer, so we took all their info and left. My husband looked confused but relieve, and I just told him what God had revealed to me, that wasnt it. They said he was probably bipolar and upon seeing his medical Dr. who subscribe him ADHD meds we never really got a true diagnosis. He now sees that he has a mental illness but still struggles with admitting it, which is hard because he and our family is suffering becasue of it. I try my best as his wife to support him and God has given me instructions on this. I prayLord you have given meathority over all the power of the enemy, by that same authority given to me in Jesus Christ, I command all lying spirits away from my husbands mind. I proclaim that God has given him a sound mind. He will not entertain confusion, but live in clarity. He will not be tormented with impure, evil, neagtive or sinful thoughts, but be transformed by the renewing of his mind, that he may prove that is good and acceptable and the perfect will of God. I cant dedicate my life to my husband or his illness, but do as the bible insrtucts a wife to love, and respect him.