December 2, 2020

iMonk 101: The Christian and Mental Illness (Introductory Questions)

I did a five part series on this topic in November of 2005. I’m going to rerun those 2005 posts over the next few days.

Several times a week, I have to read folders containing psychological evaluations of prospective students. They are often quite daunting and detailed. The stories range from ordinary to nightmarish and disturbing. I must read and review the psychiatric evaluations and counseling histories of all students who are seeking admission to our school. After reading, I make a recommendation as to their appropriateness for us. In some cases, I do an additional interview, and make an evaluation based on the interview and the information.

I’ve ministered with young people and adults long enough to have seen a lot of mental illness–from my father’s depression to the suicides of co-workers and young people to the many episodes of emotional and mental illness I have encountered in church and community. I’ve visited hospitals for the mentally ill, counseled families and individuals dealing with the mental illness of a family member and helped individuals decide to seek help for everything from depression to delusions of being God.

For many years, the majority of my work week was counseling individuals at our school. In these hours of counseling, I saw all kinds of human emotional brokenness, much of it related to what we commonly call mental or emotional illness. I continue to deal with people who have sought psychiatric and psychological help, and many of our students are on psychiatric medications.

As a Christian, a minister and a servant, I am compelled to look at the subject of mental illness and make some important decisions. While the subject is tossed around without much seriousness, it is a matter of immense human pain and suffering. It is a dimension of life that Christians cannot pretend is not present and all around them on any Sunday or Monday.

Is there such a thing as mental illness? Many Christians are suspicious of the psychological worldview that diagnoses human behavior in terms of “illness” and “disorders.” Can Christians have anything to do with a way of looking at human beings that is rooted in an atheistic worldview? Is the use of medication ethical and permissable for Christians? Can we accept descriptions and diagnostic terminology rooted in psychology rather than scripture?

Is mental illness a manifestation of spiritual forces (demons) or the result of personal sin? Many Christians have embraced models of dealing with human behavior that respond to what we call mental illness with scripture-based behavior modification, scripture memory, repentance and spiritual warfare, even exorcism. Is it ethical to seek to “cure” mental illness?

Is there mental illness in the Bible? Did Jesus encounter the mentally ill? Where in the Bible can we see mental illness? Were Saul, Jeremiah and Ezekiel mentally ill? How would Jesus or Paul respond to a mentally/emotionally ill person?

What is the church’s responsibility to the mentally ill? How should they be viewed and included in the Christian community? Should the mentally ill be allowed to be part of the ministries of the church? What about their experience of God? Is it valid, or a manifestation of their mental illness?

What does the Gospel say to the mentally ill? What does it say to all human beings about the mentally ill? What does their presence among us tell us about ourselves? How is mental illness related to “true humanity?”

I’ll address these questions in future posts.


  1. I look forward to your thoughts.

    My spouse has adult ADHD and kept looking to the church for help.
    The church couldn’t help because the church didn’t acknowledge mental illness, either mild or severe.

    Now my spouse no longer goes to church, having no use for it, and self-medicates with alcohol, destroying liver and kidneys.

  2. Michael, thank you for bringing this back. It’s time for Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers to get their lightboxes out now!

    • It works best for me when I turn it on and use it as well. 🙂

      • Oh, yeah. I never needed mine last year. Of course, having something like a 10 day California vacation in the middle of the central NY lake effect kept my eyes on the prize. 🙂

        No midwinter vacation this year. 🙂

  3. Interesting topic. My wife is a psychoanalyst, and although she may not directly practice “Biblical” counselling, she sees her therapy work as a ministry to the mentally ill.

  4. I’m very intrigued by this series. My mentor is a Christian therapist, so I believe that the mental issues exist. Bring it on!

  5. It is hard to imagine that there are individuals who do not recognize that mental illness is a physical illness and requires medical supervision. Faith isn’t something that denies reality.

  6. Maybe people who deny that there is such a thing as mental illness are mentally ill? Ha!

    A class I took at a Christian college assigned a book that argued that dementia really didn’t change a persons’s inner life; it simply revealed what was in their heart beforehand. Basically it was ah attempt to spiritualize a very biological problem, and it was evident that the author considered a biological explanation for certain behaviors as out of bounds for Christian counseling. He went on to give advice on how family members could confront their family members suffering from dementia.

    The idea that the mind is subject to biological forces that literally can change human behavior threatens the mind-body dualism that is deemed integral to the Christian world view. But this is a crass dualism at best. More nuanced approaches or even materialist ideas are more workable since they can be thought of as compatible with the idea that a material creation was created good in God’s sight. Since that creation has fallen and is subject to futility and the curse of death, counseling must shift the focus off of admonishment to encouraging the family to hope for the day when the creation will be liberated from the bondage of decay. The gospel’s emphasis on resurrection will, as NT Wright says, leave us surprised by hope.

    • Patrick Lynch says

      “A class I took at a Christian college assigned a book that argued that dementia really didn’t change a persons’s inner life; it simply revealed what was in their heart beforehand.”

      That is Terrifying.

      Please tell me this was during the distant and benighted past in some backwoods fundie unaccredited college classroom and you’ve never heard anything similar ever again? ..

    • FollowerOfHim says

      “The idea that the mind is subject to biological forces that literally can change human behavior threatens the mind-body dualism that is deemed integral to the Christian world view. But this is a crass dualism at best. More nuanced approaches or even materialist ideas are more workable since they can be thought of as compatible with the idea that a material creation was created good in God’s sight. ”

      A very well-spoken point, Adam. Acknowledging the centrality of our creatureliness in the way our minds function is an important step in addressing the sufferings of the mentally ill, and it need in no way detract from a coherent Christian worldview. Surprised — and delighted — by hope shall we indeed be at the resurrection, the presently mentally ill as much as anyone else.

  7. With us being wholistic beings, I think few things are simply ‘mental’, or ‘spiritual’, or ‘social’ etc. Hence the complexity of the subject. I think it is the people who opt for only one way of looking at the topic who are the least resourced and have the greatest potential for being unhelpful. If we reduce all things to spiritual we forget people are physical-biological-social beings. Jesus ministry was wholistic so should ours be.

    Obviously choosing Christ is an either/or relational-personal decision, but subsequent progress in sanctification is more nuaunced.

  8. The main use of prayer is to ask God to send you an ethical insurance company who will let you see a good therapist and the ability to pay for your medication. To a large extent, Christianity simply gets in the way at best, and at the worst does fatal harm.

  9. I have a M.A. in Counseling from Liberty, in the first class to grad. from the (they then called it) School of Lifelong Learning. Grad. Jan,’88. served on the counseling staff of a Sr. High School (my assigned task was based on some work in my M.A. program (having to do with incest and pedophilia). I did secure one of the first licenses fo LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor in NC (I forget the number, but it was in the 800 numbers of the first 1000 in ths state). My training was the best. I had attended 9 other schools above the secondary level and taught in three plus delivered a lecture in an afternoon lecture series at an Ivy League Univ. the problem is the fear of modern counselors, some of whom do have a bias against believers. What I found through my studies and reflections is that our real prolem is lack of real knowledge and understanding. One of the best things I ever did was do research in church history for 6 yrs., accumulating some 3000 5×8 note cards covering over 250 sources. then I did two yrs. of reseach on I Cors. 13 in the Greek. Both areas of research provided me with insights for writing papers. A M.A. thesis in American Intellectual History gave me insights into the nature and application of biblical truths across a century. This proved extremely valuable in getting some insights into the way people think and function in church & society. The research on agape love was the basis for a paper in a Greek Honors Research course of some 50 pages and 305 footnotes. The knowledge of Christian love has a strange effect on one’s thinkin patters. The M.A. in counseling from Liberty was training in Eclectic Psychotherapy which was a great help in that it kept one from coming at problems with a preset pattern, one-size fits all. Instead one investigated, discovered the problems, then looked at the various therapies available and designed the therapeutic program of treatment that fit the individual and the individual’s situation. The problem with much of our approach of Bible is not the learning, but the lack of it. The Bible is so deep (after all it is inspired by an omniscient God) that even when it seems clear and understandable, the student and the scholar are in over their heads. The book reflects the depth of wisdom of the omniscience that inspired it.. I have done research on other subjects, but not to the extent of the two areas mentioned above – except for preaching and the Psalms, I John. I do have research in many areas, but not to the same extent of those mentioned. The real issue is that I learned that God provides knowledge to help out in what I suppose to be a work of common grace. He is extremely merciful and kind, even and especially to those who are perishing. Real learning for me after many years (5 degrees and work on number 6) had not become a problem but a spur to exhaustion:One hungers to know things in the depths that will prove beneficial and helpful to needy souls. We need more boldness with humility and less fear. We also need real confidence in God’ book, not arrogant presumption. Our biggest problem is we might have presumptive confidence in it which is not based on real wisdom and insight.. I think professional counselors can be of help to the people of God. If a Dr. trained in the medical and surgical arts can provide relief to believers with problems in those areas of need, then surely there are counselors who can provide help in the mental and emotional areas. Like every area, you have to check people out. Not all counselors and not all doctors as well as not all ministers can be trusted or expected to perform the needed service. You have to locate those qualified who have an ethical approach to dealing with patients/clients. Even then one can fail. Professionals can be helpful, and the fact that there were so many fields, schools, movments even when I took my Master’s 21 years ago (how many are there now?) suggested then that some of the developments were serious, because they worked. There was no panacea, no one cure-all, but a plethora of therapies that worked in certain situations to a certain degree. Yes, I think there can be counseling, and it can be helpful. There can also be counseling that is harmful, depending on the philosophy, ethical code, etc., followed by the mental health pofessional. The state of the client likewise has a bearing in this. Psychological relief is a worthwhile help; it is not a cure-all. Likely more problems are going to rise as we behold society being stressed to the point of breakdown by pressures being brought to bear upon individuals and families for that purpose or by accident. More can be said, but people are going to need all the help they can get in what appears to be coming. That is why I pray for a Third Great Awakening that will win the whole earth to Christ by the sweet reason of Divine love.

    • Mike McConville says

      Dr. James—-can we converse via email? I’m seriously thinking about Liberty’s MA in counseling and I don’t want to hijack the thread.


    • See that key marked ENTER?

      Use it 🙂

    • Dr. James, I, too, would be interesting in conversing. I’m in the DLP at Liberty in my 2nd class. Took COUN 502 and am now taking COUN 506. Interestingly, it’s Integration of Psychology and Theology.

      roman dot hokie (SPAM) at gmail dot com (leave out the SPAM part).

    • …all those degrees and flash cards and blah blah blah, but you still haven’t figured out how to create paragraphs?

  10. I worked as a chaplain at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital and saw first-hand much of the things you describe in your students. What’s amazing is that the people in the hospital are just the tip of the iceberg! So many people suffer from mental illness, and yet the stigma in our society keeps us from addressing it (as a church!). Thanks for putting a spotlight on it. One of the most important lessons I learned as someone with a theological degree from Princeton was just how useless my theology was if I was expecting people to engage in sophisticated conversation about ideas. I wanted to give people hope, but only on MY terms and in MY language. Just sitting and listening to someone ramble on about alien ships on superhighways in space for an hour seemed like such a waste of time, and yet I later realized that my constant presence was providing a safe and trusting relationship that failed to exist in their own family history. A mostly silent but active ear was more profound and more faithful that quoting 1 Corinthians 15 verbatim. How often we use theological language to make ourselves more comfortable in awkward situations…

    • “How often we use theological language to make ourselves more comfortable in awkward situations”

      There is a lot of ugly truth in that statement. The vast majority of the worthless pithy “advice” that is often given to those with mental illness is more to make the person saying it comfortable than to comfort the person who is genuinely suffering.

    • NOTE: This comment borders on hijacking, and I apologize in advance.

      Hey Chris,

      I think you pretty much summed it all up right there. You were trying to give hope, but only on YOUR terms. The body of Christ is suffering in image and numbers because we have all done that.

      Jesus continues to meet me where I am. Whether I’m leading worship on Sunday or in the middle of doing something that I know I shouldn’t be doing. If I am of a penitent heart, God is right there with arms open. We need to be the same to all at all times; even if the person is in the midst of addiction, in the grip of mental illness, whatever.

  11. The human brain is perhaps the most complex thing in the universe. Think of it. signals that create images , tell us to walk, breathe ect. its simply unfathomable how it works. So, when your’e shooting the “bull” in the foyer at church and someone says” my doc says I have a defective heart valve and I need medication.” everyone says oh yes good for you. When somone has a complex brain that is out of balance or abnormal, people say, ” you shouldn’t take them drugs its from the devil.” suddenly everyone is an expert on the human brain.
    what are the odds that 1 0f 4 people could have some form of mental illness. pretty good.
    Also,active recovery is part of mental illness. looking inward and seeking god. Medication can often stabalize people at the same time. There are also environmental factore people may not know about.
    I read a medical article about a guy who was having trouble with his anger towards his wife. He was hyper anxious, depressed ect. they asked the wife when it started. She said about five years ago. The exact time he started working at a furniture manufacturer. The fumes from the glue had eaten a hole in his grey matter.

  12. as the wife of a bipolar/ add husband, i’ll be interested on your take. it’s been a struggle for both of us to come to terms with what this means to us. thanks for tackling such a normally taboo subject.

  13. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, and I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 34. The late diagnosis meant that most of my challenges as a child, teenager, and adult were attributed to character defects rather than genuine developmental and neurological problems. Because Asperger’s Syndrome is considered a “diagnosis du jour” these days, even having an on-paper diagnosis signed by two psychologists doesn’t mean that others take it seriously. It also doesn’t mean that Christians are willing to show some grace in the face of behaviors or attitudes that they (Christians) don’t like.

    When it comes to mental illness, I think that we ought to be alert to dualisms. On one hand, we need to be careful about separating sinful behaviors from truly distorted way of perceiving others and the world around us. If a person’s genetics, hormones, or brain structure is such that they simply don’t experience the world the way others do, their behavior is going to be different.

    Similarly, someone who has grown up in a chaotic or abusive environment is likely to have all sorts of imbalanced defense mechanisms which can result in negative behaviors. We can certainly view the condition(s) that give rise to behaviors as symptoms of the fall, but we need to recognize that these conditions also make it hard for the mentally ill person to have complete control over their behavior. Telling these folks to “repent” and making threats of “church discipline” isn’t helpful, whereas medication or various types of psychotherapy might be.

    At the same time, I’ve also observed that some Christians are willing to let theology take a back seat when confronted with mental illness. They seem to believe that psychology is the true science that tells us what is *really* going on behind any spiritual label we place upon a condition or symptom. Scripture and theology often do have something to say about behaviors and conditions that we might label as “mental illness”. To ignore the spiritual life of the mentally ill as unnecessary because we need to deal with the “real” (as defined by psychology/psychiatry) problems is unhelpful, insulting to the mentally ill, and ultimately suggests a real detachment from our faith.

    • Wow. Dualism. Yes. I see it all the time, sadly. Here’s a comment I read recently. Faith is the why of God. Science is the how.

      Ernst Mach basically outlines the laws of science and nature as merely explanations for things observable (and unobservable) based on experience. I.e. even experiments are merely meant to test our understanding of phenomena to the point of being able to replicate them, right?

      • I recently posted a quote from C.S. Lewis, where he states that science answers “how” and religion answers “why”. I honestly don’t perceive Lewis as ever being dualistic. That statement does not make the secular-sacred separation typical of dualism. Rather, it is two unique perspectives on the same physical realm.

        In the context of the current discussion, science and medicine can answer many of the “how” questions behind the causes of clinical depression; religion answers the greater ontological question of why our emotions matter at all, or why in the depths of our deepest darkness should we have the courage to go on, to hope in spite of how we feel, or why we can admit that something is not right and seek help – in spite of the stimga. When religion typically tries to answer the “how” question regarding depression, it typically falls in the rut of demon-possession, unconfessed sin, witchcraft, etc. Therein lies the dualism – that a matter of the heart, soul, or mind can’t have a physical cause. It’s back to the same cynical view of science which came up in earlier posts. It is very similar to the Salem puritans who burned alleged witches at the steak when people fell ill, when later science discovered that the illness was probably due to moldy wheat, which cause LSD – like hallucinations.

  14. I look forward to reading these. A family member who is a Christian has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and has had all sorts of inappropriate ‘ministry’ by people who didn’t understand what it was. To be fair, neither did the doctors – they had 15 years of symptoms before a correct diagnosis. Any mental illness which involves intrusive thoughts is easy to mistake for the devil (if you’re from a church that goes in for the ‘spiritual warfare’ stuff), or the feeling that some other power has control over you.

    There seem to be loads of examples in the Bible of people with mental illnesses: David’s mid-life crisis/breakdown when he flees Jerusalem, Saul’s mood swings, Elijah’s depression, the language of the Psalms etc. That could be reading things into what’s there, but I guess they didn’t have the language or concepts at the time to describe what was going on. I’ll be interested to see what you say about this!! Thanks in advance….

  15. As far as I am aware, the only group that seriously views all illnesses as curable only by prayer is the Christian Scientists. While I do enjoy their newspaper, I am under the impression that they are generally considered quite wrong, with dangerous ideas (I was living in Boston when the case of a Robyn Twitchell occured.)

    Why when this focus is shifted from all illnesses to only a subset (those affecting the brain) do we suddenly see a jump in the number of people who might as well be Christian Scientists (at least in this issue- I will not attempt to address the theology)? And why are their beliefs not considered the same way that the Christian Scientists’ views are?

    I am looking forward to these essays. Thank you iMonk.

  16. Couldn’t we ask if mental health exists at all. I mean Jesus must have seen each person as in some measure delusional, etc. I don’t mean to diminish mental health issues…rather I mean to diminish the self-image of those of use who consider ourselves “normal”.

    And the inclusion of Ezekiel is awesome! Some of the mental images I have of him lying in his front yard with his little model city and arguing with God about burning…well…waste. Yeah, the picture of mental stability there.

    • Patrick Lynch says

      For some among us, ‘normal’ is aspirational.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And the inclusion of Ezekiel is awesome! Some of the mental images I have of him lying in his front yard with his little model city and arguing with God about burning…well…waste. Yeah, the picture of mental stability there.

      My writing partner (the burned-out country preacher) is certain Ezekiel was bona-fide schizophrenic. (Besides having the dirtiest mouth of any of the prophets.) A lot of his behavior — total stone-faced over the death of his wife, lying on one side without moving for long times — is NOT that of a sane man. The teaching he takes from this is “Yeah, Ezekiel was crazy. But he was the one God chose to use.”

      I am reminded of this garage band music video that used to play on a local public-access channel. Especially one line from it:

      “I speak to the wise
      With the voice of insanity”

  17. I humbly submit for your consideration the phenomenon of the юродивый, the fool-for-Christ in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Most of these saints would have been considered profoundly disturbed by any clinical standard. St Xenia of Saint Petersburg is a modern example of this particular form of sanctity.

    Its scary. We live in the middle of the most profound horror imaginable; a society where a person can live an entire life in relative peace, security, comfort, and even meaningfulness without any reference to or need of God, yet people think it is “normal” and “well-adjusted” to accept this.

    I don’t want to minimize the havoc mental illness can cause. My father was in and out of psychiatric hospitals his entire life, and many other members of my family have had their tickets stamped there as well, but it does no one any good, neither the mentally ill nor us, to accept the current state of affairs as desirable, or to stop anywhere short of sanctity.

  18. Having recently experienced a major depressive episode I want to add my two cents. I can only speak for myself, but I believe both sin and biological conditions can be mitigating factors for mental illness. Sometimes the sin in our lives contributes to some forms of mental illness, particularly depression. It has been redeeming for me to remember that I am a child of God and thus have much to be thankful for. This has allowed me to slowly dissipate my anger and resulting depression and place my own experiences into the proper perspective for me as a Christian. Additionally, I also suffer from an anxiety disorder (who doesn’t given today’s crazy world). Again, for me it has been helpful to turn to my faith to “control” my thoughts and resulting dysfunction. There are numerous passages in the Bible that reference anxiety. [Matt 6: 24-34 is one example].

    Medication, is a viable alternative for many. Like anything else, if not abused and properly administered, it helps many cope with their condition by easing their suffering and giving them a chance to begin the healing process so that they may once again experience Christ.

  19. I remember being told my Psych degree was not only a waste of time, but a study of lies of the Devil. I see now that God was preparing me for a ministry.

  20. For any church to continue in some medieval belief that mental illnesses are ‘demonic’ is not only irresponsible, it’s dangerous. The Bible talks about ‘posession’ simply because they didn’t have any understanding – as we do – about how the human mind works.

    • Patrick Lynch says

      JoeA, what you’re saying about ancient peoples mistaking ‘possession’ for mental illness isn’t so.

    • I’d broadly agree, with the caveat that since we moderns have the explanation that previous people had no understanding of germs/brain chemistry/psychiatry, they put everything down to demons.

      I think we can go the opposite way, by thinking that every single instance of ‘demonic possession’ is down to illness. Josephus Bloggius in the 3rd century thought epilepsy was down to demonic possession (and he was wrong) but equally Joe Bloggs in the 21st century who uses ‘that’s epilepsy!’ (or schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, or whatever) as a catch-all explanation can be wrong also.

      Which is a long-winded way of saying yes, I believe that there is such a thing as mental illness, and yes, I believe there is such a thing as demonic possession, but that the crucial factor is distinguishing between them, and that 99.9% of cases are illness.

      • And how exactly does one ‘distinguish between them’?

        • Joe,

          The standard method is the process of elimination. When all physical and all psychiatric illnesses have been found negative, and there are specific signs of possession, then that is the cause.

          Dr. Scott Peck has written one book about the subject, I believe.

          • Ross from KY says

            The problem with that approach is that it assumes we currently know all the medical posibilities AT THIS TIME. But what makes now any different than 50, 100, 1000 years ago?

  21. Reading over the accounts of Jesus dealing with demon-possessed people, He did not really have a long, drawn out conversation over several weeks to determined whether there were Freudian roots to the problem. He presented a stark clarity and His authority and that tended to solve the problem. Of course today there seems to be a debate over whether there are even problems to begin with.

    I realize that not every mental problem a person has can be traced back to demonic influence, but since the devil is called a liar and the father of lies, I would guess that mentall illness may be heavily influenced by a lack of clarity between what is true and what is false, especially in a time when things are so incredible subjective.

    Can it be said that mental illness is related to at least a partail detachment from reality?

    Perhaps if I am mentally ill, it is because I simply do not know what is reality and what is not anymore.

    • These are biochemical problems, just as cancer or diabetes are. I don’t get this medieval mentality of ‘demon posession.’

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        These days, it’s guys who found a Christian angle to role-play The Mighty Magician, Commanding Spirits with their Mighty Magicks.

        If Dungeons & Dragons weren’t denounced as “SAY-TANN-IC”, these guys might actually have a non-destructive outlet to play the Mighty Sorcerer. As is, they LARP it, and the poor shmuck who’s mentally ill (or just “different”) gets to be the Red Shirt/Low-Level NPC.

      • Cancer is a “medical problem” but if I smoke I am much more likey to get cancer. If I am promiscuous I am much more likely to get cervical cancer.

        Mental illness is a “medical problem” but if I am subjected to lies about myself (from people or perhaps demonic sources) I might be more likey to to suffer depression.

        Mental illness is “biochemical”, but it works both ways as “biochemical imbalance” can cause disordered thought processes (eg depression) but life experience (eg bereavement) or toxic substances (alcohol, illegal or prescription drugs) or even persistant verbal abuse can be causes of that biochemical imbalance.

        So I see no reason why we cannot consider sin (mine or someone else’s) as possible causes or exacerbating factors in metal (and physical) illness, and demonic influence may also be there in the mix in some cases, for example demonic encouragement of irrational fear causing or exacerbating an anxiety disorder.

        But when I have a female patient who starts speaking with a man’s voice, telling us “we are not a woman, we are men” I doubt that her “attacks” are epileptic, and neither do they resemble anything I saw in my psychiatric training. Particularly when she responds to prayer from the pastor, before anyone has a chance to offer antipsychotics…

        Then again, I could just ask her to pull herself together and stop being so medieval…?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Lets put it this way:

          When you are able to produce the Demon that possessed those Cabbage Patch dolls reported on 700 club…

          When you get an affidavit from the Demon-possessed D&D miniatures that screamed as Christians melted them down (I mean actual screaming, not the sounds of superheated air bubbles escaping from the softening lead) on Christian TV…

          Then we can talk.

          • The problem is your American demons are a whole different breed, much too media minded and in fact probably mentally ill themselves. Mind you, if I was given the job of infesting a cabbage patch doll I guess i would be pretty pi$$@d off myself…

    • I feel that modern psychology and related fields has opened up a doorway of thinking that excludes any and all spiritual options as “medieval.” There is a general sense, from my perspective, in which so many have come to believe that the biblical writers were essentially ignorant and primitive and their writings are far inferior to our scientific understanding of today.

      When I experienced the academic world for myself, I was faced with the reality that the idea of spiritual deception, i.e. malevolent forces affecting the thinking of people, was utterly and totally dismissed.

  22. I think mental illness is real. I also think that evangelicals need to understand human psychology and physiology better. Hank Hanegraaf in his book, “Christianity in Crisis: The 21st Century” talks about how certain churches and leaders work their congregations into an altered stated of conciousness, such as “through singing a song over and over again until one loses touch with reality”, or uncontrolled laughter or sobbing, or rapid contortions of the body. The goal is, in Hanegraaf’s conclusion, is “to dull the critical-thinking process because it is an obstacle to enlightenment.” – (“Christianity in Crisis: The 21st Century”, page 83).

    Some of this I think is done out of sheer manipulation to cow individuals into decisions or to buy into a leader’s teaching, or to join a church. I think some of it is done out of sheer naivety – churches just going along with “what works” at the successful church down the block. It is also a result of cultural relevancy – mimicking the entertainment-driven and over-stimulated world around us to give the people what they want – more stimulus to deaden the pain. Some of it may be out of good intentions – pastors grasping any method available which they believe will reach the lost.

    I believe these methods have long-term negative affects on the human mind. The body is designed to maintain an equilibrium. Stimulating the brain with blaring worship music and being worked into a frenzy by the worship leaders may produce a momentary sense of euphoria, but the body is not designed to sustain that condition; it will correct itself, bringing endorphin levels back in check by producing chemicals which will counteract and bring the body back into a normal state. This will feel like depression. Those going through this will probably feel like the “Spirit” has left them, that they have done something wrong, and that they need to do whatever it takes to get that spiritual high back. This is playing with psychological fire. Such abuses are not isolated to one form of worship but can be committed in both contemporary and traditional settings.

    I also think there are finally some very positive, gospel-oriented responses to depression – not as a cure but as a means to accept and support those who are suffering with clinical depression. One good example is Todd A. Peperkorn who recently published, “I Trust When Dark My Road”.

  23. I attended a church in the south for a summer where they regularly referred to psychology as “witch craft”. That was fun.

    It is very much a position that is motivated by fear. I would say that those folks often looked a lot more like animists than Christians. As a Christian I believe in what missiologists call “the excluded middle” but that doesn’t mean that our minds don’t do some strange things when there are chemical imbalances or even physiological defects. I can’t imagine how many people have lived in pain and suffering because their pastors and churches held on to a fear driven animism.

    • And that is ridiculous. It’s like saying that you don’t need insulin if you’re diabetic.

      I’ve done my fair share of grousing about psychotherapy being an outlet for vanity (you can afford to pay tons of money and spend hours complaining how nobody understands you? I wish we all had such problems!) but it’s a necessity in some cases. Many cases.

      A completely biochemical solution isn’t the complete answer also. “Take these tablets and keep taking them” may work to address, say, schizophrenia as far as keeping the symptoms under control, but not all the problems and difficulties can be addressed by that. There will be problems the sick person and their family and friends need to address, and the ‘talking cure’ and similar therapies can help there. Counselling and support, medical help, and understanding of the illness.

      And yes, spiritual help as well. But “just believe strongly enough and God will heal you miraculously. Otherwise, it’s all your fault and you’re in sin” is not it.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And that is ridiculous. It’s like saying that you don’t need insulin if you’re diabetic.

        I remember hearing every so often about a fatality caused by a diabetic “BEING HEALED! (TM)” or ‘Having the DEMON of Diabetes rebuked and cast out” and going off insulin.

  24. Hi: useful topic. Two things.

    A working definition of what constitutes mental illness and the sort of terminology used to describe it, might head off some miscommunication here. E.g. is psychiatry the same as psychology? Non-specialists might be helped by such distinctions. Again, for example, I might merely conclude that mental illness is simply the inability to cope in any given situation, something that affects most people at some time or other. But I think this blog is reaching for something else. Anyway, definitions might help.

    An interesting and sober book: Paul Vitz, Psychology as Religion.


    • Vitz’ book is narrow in its approach, dealing primarily with humanistic psychology (a school of therapy within psychology). I had to read it in seminary and didn’t think much of it, considering it to be of value only for those with a humanistic orientation or predisposition (or pre-existing condition?). But his criticisms are not valid beyond this emphasis.

      • Bit of a slam – and labelling. There’s a lot of it about, so………I guess it has value, as you say. But then, I’m not sure how you’re assigning value.

        That being his emphasis, they work. If he was trying to draw more general conclusions, maybe not.

  25. I’m a pastor and I have suffered from some pretty strong spells of anxiety about three or four times in my life. Only two of which were so sever they altered my daily function. But I can tell you that for a while I was an idiot that was going to beat it with prayer and faith. My doctor, who is a Christian, basically told me to stop being stubborn and an idiot and realize that sometimes your body and mind need a kick in the rear. It’s not always spiritual. I can have spiritiul components but not always spiritual. It is strange, but I just blogged about it on my blog. It’s a long post so I will not re post it here. If you want to see it you can click on my name.

  26. Whether mental or emotional problems are a sin or an illness seems to be an important distinction for many. But both options, a sin or an illness, could fall under the same general category of “I am a needy creature in need of my creator.” If sin, I need a savior. If illness I need a savior of a different sort, but a savior nonetheless. In both cases God is still my only hope. In both, the process of change may be painful and hard at times. In both cases others need to accept me, just as Christ has accepted them. And it’s not like any Christian doesn’t believe and acknowledge they are a sinner in the general.

    As far as medicine, I think that is a personal decision each person must make, taking all kinds of things into consideration. I don’t think medicine is wrong on its face, though. Coffee might help someone be less grumpy in the morning. The grumpiness might be rooted in sin, but it’s not wrong to drink coffee.

    I could understand a Pastor being afraid to hand someone off to a secular psychiatrist, who might put things into a framework antithetical to the framework of the church. But gosh, if someone had a serious mental illness, I might be afraid to let them go without a psychiatrist’s input either. I guess I should pray for my pastors!

    • That depends, doesn’t it? I mean, if you’ve wrecked your health through abusing alcohol, drugs or a dissolute life, then yeah, that’s a result of personal sin, but you still have the illness to cope with.

      Of course, if someone is using the excuse “I can’t help myself, my biology means that I’m genetically programmed to drink to excess”, then yes, a kick in the pants about personal responsibility is needed. But I think that’s more something a defence lawyer would say in court (M’lud, my client pleads guilty to the sixty-three sample charges of being drunk and disorderly, but in mitigation here’s a note from his doctor) rather than something even the most materialistic secularist would say when trying to treat an alcoholic.

      • 1) People are genetically predisposed to things like cancer and diabetes too, but that doesn’t mean they don’t fight them when they get sick.

        2) As a person suffering from chronic depression, I’d really like to know what ‘sin’ made me ill. The idea that illness is caused by sin is also medieval in origin.

        3) The one thing not addressed is the pressure modern society puts people under, and the results. It’s been repeatedly demonstrated in studies with animals that excess stress causes mental issues and aggression.

        • Patrick Lynch says

          “The idea that illness is caused by sin is also medieval in origin”

          This is not true.

        • “The idea that illness is caused by sin is also medieval in origin” whatever it’s origin, it is certainly true in some cases. It’s difficult to get cervical cancer without sexual sin being involved, whether mine or the person who infected me with HPV… If I tell my child she is worthless all her life, whatever her genetic predisposition it wouldn’t be surprising if she ends up depressed, with my sin as a major causal factor. And if my use of cannabis results in psychosis, I can’t really blame only my genetic predisposition, can I?

        • JoeA-

          While I cannot address 1 and 3, I can address 2.
          “As a person suffering from chronic depression, I’d really like to know what ’sin’ made me ill. The idea that illness is caused by sin is also medieval in origin”

          When you say sin, what are you referring to? Your own personal sin; i.e. commiting murder, blaspheming God, etc? Or, are you referring to something more general, as in Original Sin?

          If you are referring to your personal sin, than no. Your personal (or parents’, friends’, etc) did not cause your chronic depression. That is an absurd and, dare I say it, medieval concept (though technically it would be an ancient concept, but I digress).

          However, if you are referring to sin in the broader sense, then yes. Sin has a way of screwing up Creation, and the includes us. Because perfection and balance no longer exist, there are going to be issues. And that includes a person’s mental state. Bad things happen to everyone and everything. It isn’t God punishing you, or fate- its just the way the World is. Until Jesus comes and the New Heavens and Earth are ushered in, and perfection restored, such problems shall occur.

          I hope that helps. If I in some way accidentally provoked you, or touched a nerve, I sincerely apologize.

  27. I do not see mental illness as being necessarily on either end of the sin vs. illness spectrum, but, depending on the patient/client, the position on the spectrum is all relative.

    I.e. a person could be completely mentally competant and healthy and completely demonized. The person’s identical twin (twins are use a lot in developmental studies because of the inability to really do really controlled testing/assessment) might not be demonized at all and be suffering from some form of mental illness as a result of different personal experiences (and responses thereto).

    We have general revelation (creation) and special revelation (God’s word and the Holy Spirit continuing to speak to us all the time).

  28. American culture for a long time treated mental illness more as a stigma, curse, sin, or the like rather than as an illness. The church generally followed the culture in this, which was surely a mistake. For some time now, the culture has been changing and is starting to treat mental illnesses like other afflictions and diseases. But much of the church has not kept up with this positive change. Tragic.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      So what else is new?

      Christians are usually a day late and a dollar short when it comes to any changes in the culture around them. In a repeating example of Really Bad Timing, the Sanitized Christian (TM) knockoffs come out just as the originals jump the shark and fade away. Result: Christians are always trying to “Me Too!” the last fad, always fighting the last war, always just out of phase with current reality.

  29. Re: Possession

    The Roman Catholic Church uses physicians and psychiatrists to determine if an individual has a physical or psychological problem before determining if exorcism is required. If there is a physical or psychological problem, it must be dealt with at that level.

    If surgery, or medication, or psychological counseling, or some combination thereof will solve the problem, that is what is recommended to the individual or the parents/guardians of the individual.

    If the problem has a spiritual dimension that won’t be solved by the above, the case is presented to the local Catholic bishop who has jurisdiction in such matters. If the bishop agrees, after a complete review of the medical and psychological studies reveals something beyond the competence of the doctor or psychiatrist, an exorcist can be assigned – assuming the agreement of the individual or those responsible for the individual. The rite of exorcism is carried through until it is complete.

    The movie The Exorcist was based on a real case. A boy was influenced by an aunt through the use of a weegee (sp?) board. The manifestations resulting from the possession of the boy led to the Lotheran pastor suggesting that the Catholic Church be brought into the situation. (The particular Lutheran Church or synod did not have a position on possession or exorcism, nor a rite to use to effect an exorcism.)

    The archbishop required the doctor-supervised tests for physical problems proved negative. The archbishop required a psychriatratic review which came to the conclusion that nothing the pyschiatrist could do could help the boy. (If memory serves me, the psychiatrist did not think exorcism would do any good.)

    The archbishop assigned a Jesuit priest from St Louis University to the task of the exorcism. It was accomplished over several sessions and all manifestations of evil where gone. In the end the boy himself was able to say that he wanted to be free of this evil, which is part of what occurs – the rejection of the diabolical by the individual as Christ sets him free.

    (This is in conflict with the movie which wanted a more dramatic end – a priest committing suicide after taking the demon from the child, and which used a girl as the object of the possession.)

    The boy and his parents became Catholic. This was not a requirement on the part of the Church, but rather a reflection of their appreciation for what God had done through the exorcist for the boy and for his family.

    Is the problem physical, as with a disease noted above? Is it psychological? Is it spiritual? It would appear that each case should be judged on its own merits.

    Certainly both the Gospels and Acts note physical healings (blindness, malformed limbs, deafness, leprosy), what appear to be psychological problems (the woman at the well with multiple marriages comes to mind), and those afflicted by evil and requiring exorcism to relieve them of the oppression/ possession that they were experiencing.

    Perhaps those of us who claim to believe Scripture would do well to believe Scripture, and use a bit of discernment in the process. We would also do well to permit those who are trained in medicine and psychiatry to operate in their areas of expertise.


    • L. Winthrop says

      It’s called a “Oujia” board (from the French and German words for “yes”). The idea that these things can bring about demonic possession came, I think, from evangelical Protestants.

      I don’t doubt that exorcisms can sometimes be helpful (or harmful–several have resulted in death)–I just suspect any benefits of being psychosomatic in nature. The practices of witch doctors are probably of equal efficacy.

      • Donald Todd says

        I read the thread of this item looking to see if you had contributed anywhere else. If you did, I missed it.

        You spelled quija correctly. Thank you. I stand corrected.

        You thought that the idea that quija boards could bring about possession went back to the evangelical protestants. Is there a basis for that supposition?

        I have heard of exorcisms gone wrong. My impression is that the Catholic practice of involving medical professionals to look for organic causes, then psychiatric professionals to look for psychological causes before any consideration of assigning an exorcist would be a good example of how to determine where the cause of the problem is so that it might be properly addressed.

        What would make you think the practices of witch doctors are of equal efficacy? Do you have documentary evidence?

      • Actually, my roomate is from China and a non-Christian and while watching a Japanese horror film was very specific about saying not to mess with ‘Oujia’ boards (like one used in the movie), because if you don’t do it right you might become possessed or have a ghost follow you or something.

        She isn’t religious, but she does believe in ghosts and evil spirits and such. So I think it would be wrong to say that the idea of ‘Ouija’ boards bringing about possessions automatically has to result from evengalical protestants.

      • I’m not sure where the idea came from about Oujia boards being evil, but I remember being a youngster reading about them and seeing friends play with them, thinking that it seemed crazy to be opening your mind up to that much outside influence – especially if you didn’t know what (or who) was answering you. Sure, some of it is just your friends moving the marker…but why risk it? Why open youself up like that? I am a firm believer in spirtual warfare, and I’m sure that my beliefs and experiences reinforce my beliefs on oujia boards being no good.

  30. I came across this today before I saw your post. How appropriate.
    I’m not endorsing the book, as I haven’t read it; but the critique on the blog is good (though short).

  31. FWIW, it might be useful to distinguish between mental illnesses, which are organic, and mental disorders, which are not. The first group would include such diagnoses as schizophrenia, bipolar (I & II), ADD/ADHD, and some major depressive episodes; the second includes anxiety disorders, most depressive disorders, personality disorders, etc.

    While all are caused by Sin (as a principle and ubiquitous condition), not all are equally amenable to just psychological treatment.

  32. Interesting that this is the current topic, as just this morning I told my husband that I think I need to seek counseling for serious intimacy and emotional issues I have that I believe are from sexual trauma as a child.

    I spent a lot of time thinking that prayer alone would help me and that I didn’t actually need to reach out to my husband or anyone else. Unfortunately I spent more time indulging my sin and hiding it instead of actually turning to God and now I feel I am at the end of my rope and it is finally time to change.

    I look forward to these posts, as I’m sure they will adress some questions I have and hopefully aid in my decision to seek professional help. Thank you.

  33. What happens to a person who is in a religion that does not believe in psychiatry, and who develops a severe psychosis (worst case scenario) ?
    What happens to a child with serious mental illness ?
    There must be no worse hell on earth than for a vulnerable
    mentally-ill child to be at the mercy of judgmental, intolerant, and ignorant religious extremists.

  34. One book that I read and found very interesting is “Saints and Madmen” by Russell Shorto. It talks about the relationship between psychiatry and religion.

    One thing that the author stresses is that frequently a spiritual component is necessary for better recovery of the victim of mental illness, and the wise healer knows when to encourage and when to discourage spiritual expressions.

  35. Great topic!

    Just yesterday someone on brought up the issue of whether mental illness equals demon possession/oppression and another poster asked “If mental illness is demon possession why does it respond to drugs?” I’m still pondering that one!

    Also, to argue that ‘people back then’ couldn’t tell the difference between mental issues and demonic ones seems a bit disingenuous – the main person we see casting out demons was not just a person: he was God in the flesh. To argue that he just didn’t know better opens up the floor for all sorts of reinterpretations!

  36. Kathleen Norris discusses some of this in her book “Acedia and Me”. Great read!

  37. John Searle titled one of the chapters in one of his books, “Descartes and other disasters.” That title has stuck with me as I’ve seen the damage done by the Cartesian/Neo-Platonic dualism that infects Christianity. Our terminology shows this dualistic bias: we speak of “mental” illness, as if the mind is something distinct from the brain. I suffered from depression for many years before seeking treatment because I was taught the depression was a “spiritual” problem, not a physiological one. I was taught that if I just had enough faith and prayed hard enough, God would deliver me from my depression. Didn’t happen that way, and where prayer failed, antidepressant medication worked.

    It amazes me that many Christians turn into Christian Scientists when it comes to psychological and mental illness. The brain is an organ like any other. Things go wrong with it. Things that can be fixed by medication, changes in behavior, or both.

  38. Let’s grant for a moment that demonic forces exist that could cause a person under their influence to behave in a manner that psychologists would say was an indication of a specific mental disorder.
    Suppose also that there there are drugs that alleviate the condition and cause the behavior to cease.

    If demons can cause physiological symptoms that manifest themselves as tangible, physical reality, then you must grant that it is at least as likely that the medical treatment for that disorder has the effect of controlling the demon’s influence. It would be absurd for those who claim that demons cause certain kinds of mental illness to teach against medical treatment that is demonstrably effective in controlling those demons.

    If demons can make people do things, and drugs can make them stop doing things, then the drugs can control the demons. The implications are huge, but they are certainly not inconsistent with the teachings of many Christian groups about demons.

    • “Let’s grant for a moment that demonic forces exist that could cause a person under their influence to behave in a manner that psychologists would say was an indication of a specific mental disorder.” If you are talking about “posession” then in my very limited experience (in Africa) the symptoms are completely *unlike* any known mental illness, eg speaking with other voices and respond to prayer rather than antipsychotic drugs.

      But if the demonic “influence” (rather than posession) causes depression or psychosis by means of affecting a person’s thoughts and behaviour, that mind/brain becomes biochemically imbalanced. In the same way cannabis, for example, can cause psychosis and resulting biochemical imbalance. Thus what you are treating with drugs is not the demon but the chemical imbalance. The drugs would not affect the demon, if one was involved, but deal with the resulting chemical imbalance.

      If I am hit in the head by a brick and that causes a headache, tylenol will treat the headache, but you wouldn’t say it had done so by chasing the brick away.

      It is popular to claim that depression and mental illness are “caused by biochemical imbalance” and this is true, to an extent. But since even healthy thinking and emotions are biochemical processes in the brain, it is simplistic to think of a “biochemical imbalance” that comes as if from nowhere. There can be many causes behind any one case of depression: alcohol/drug misuse, head injury, genetic predisposition, bereavement, relationship problems, side effects of medication etc etc. The end result of all the interacting factors is a certain “biochemical imbalance” that may respond to antidepressants.

      But in the same way, depression is often most effectively treated by use of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which is essentially good, evidence based advice about how to adjust your thinking and behaviour into healthier patterns. And the chemical imbalance is set right again without the use of drugs, or quicker than with drugs alone. So “biochemical imbalance” does not mean “will only get better with drug treatment”.

      • For what it’s worth, my comment was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. I don’t for a moment believe that demons are involved in mental illness; I find it dubious at best that they exist at all. My point is that it’s no more unreasonable to speculate that medication that treats a physical condition can impact the spiritual forces behind it than it is to speculate that those spiritual forces ARE behind it.

        • Yes, I get the nature of your comment, but I am not convinced that it is unreasonable to think that there may be unfriendly spiritual forces in there in the mix in some cases. You can keep your posessed cabbage patch dolls and D&D figurines, but in a culture were witchcraft is a regular part of people’s experience, I find my old Western sniffy attitude to “surperstitious/medieval ideas” doesn’t always fit the facts on the ground. I don’t hesitate to use antidepressants for patients with depression, but I am not going to rule out the possibility that the jinn may have some objective as well as subjective powers.

          So yes, I do think it is “more unreasonable to speculate that medication that treats a physical condition can impact the spiritual forces behind it than it is to speculate that those spiritual forces ARE behind it.” because, as a Western trained medic I can see a mechanism for the latter, but I am not happy that there is any reasonable mechanism by which boosting serotonin levels is going to have an effect on an immaterial being, but maybe… strangely, the medical literature is very quiet on the issue of whether demons might be allergic to serotonin… could be a paper in it? Not sure whether to publish in the medical or theological journals, though…

  39. Let’s say that sin IS a factor in illness. I can accept the premise that original sin caused humans to fall, and illness – including mental illness – is a result. I can also accept that if I tell my kid he’s a reject for 18 years, that also falls onto me as a sin, but not him, and will result in him having mental and emotional issues.

    What I can’t accept is the premise that demons cause mental illness any more than they cause ‘physical’ illness – which mental illnesses are. We have found out so much about the human brain over the last few decades, and there is still so much more to find out, and this has changed science’s understanding of mental illness. This is what causes me to question the sin aspect.

    Also, there’s the example of a Christian believer’s depression can being made worse by the rejection of it by Christian leaders/counselors as demonic/satanic influence, i.e., ‘you’re depressed because you’re allowing satan to control your thoughts’.

    • I totally agree with you that a model of “blame the sufferer” is helpful to no one, and I object to a religious leader telling someone they don’t need meds just as I would if they told the diabetic they don’t need insulin. I do, however, believe that mental illness is far more complicated than physical illness (which is complex enough) and simplistic “is it sin or is it a demon or is it my granny’s genes” is not helpful. Lets treat illnesses that fit a medical paradigm with medical methods, but not be afraid to consider that our modern medical “biochemical” answers may be missing some of the complexity of the picture.

      We are uncomfortable with mental illness because it is scary and difficult to understand, so we like to simplify. We also like to avoid the discomfort, so ignore or stigmatise the sufferer. And that is sin. (and maybe even prompted by evil spiritual forces?!)