February 23, 2020

iMonk Classic: Is There Mental Illness in the Bible?

Jeremiah, Michaelangelo

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
Nov 25, 2005

Note from CM: As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on the Bible and depression, we present this classic Michael Spencer post on examples of mental illness in Scripture.

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.

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 15:10-18

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.

David Playing before Saul, Cavallino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments

  1. I remember Michael sparking a discussion of demon possession versus mental illness, raising the question of supernatural versus natural causes. Again I am inclined to believe that malevolent forces can indeed influence a person’s mental illness, moving what is managable into something overpowering. When the writers of scripture talk of a person being plagued by evil spirits (such as the case of Saul) I do not think they were wrong, but I believe that those with a greater degree of mental illness provide ample opportunity for the influence of malevolent forces. And Saul was already weakned by jealousy of David. It gives meaning to the admonition to not let the root of bitterness spring up.

    The solution remains compassion and truth so that a person can deal with the reality of their mental illness and not give a hold for the devil to inflict his torment.

    • I apologize for such a quick second post. One thing that has bothered me is the issue what the writers of scripture understood then and what we understand today. While the writers then did not have the scientific vocabulary we do today, I sense a subtle insinuation that readers of scripture possess a superior knowledge to the writers of scripture. In my ears I hear the idea that the writers were “primitive” and their conclusions on matters was wrong, such as the writers recording that Saul was inflicted with an evil spirit or people were demon possessed in the days of Jesus.

      This idea, if I perceive it correctly, seems to contradict the idea that the biblical writers wrote the truth. Dare I play devil’s advocate and ask if the writers were wrong about demon possession when it is now understood as mental illness, what else were they wrong about?

      • I think there are a number of demon possessed people in the world who are misdiagnosed as psychotic. We as the church have left it to the psychological community to deal with these because we are ,by and large, ill-equipped to deal with full fledged possession. On the other hand I think there are people in the church with minor to moderate neuroses who are labled possessed and treated to melodramatic expulsion acts that are harmful to the already beaten ego because there is no demon there. M.Sott Peck, author of The Road Less Travelled wrote a book called, Glimpses of the Devil. In it he describes some true, modern day, exocisms that don’t fit neatly into the mold of putting a hand on the head and ordering the demon out ‘In the naaaaaaammmee of Jeeeesuuss”. It is a true blend of deep spirituality and modern psychological work ( and work it is ). Anyone interested would do well to get a used paperback from Amazon or wherever.

    • For sure, regardless of whether it is demonic or psychological or physiological, I intend to apply prayer to all situations.

  2. severe psychological, emotional & mental conditions afflicting people cannot always be attributed to either a demonic origin nor a physiological one either. and i would be one that has heard first hand reports of short term missions folk relating very real encounters with demonic bondage that makes The Exorcist seem tame…

    however, i have never been told of a miraculous, immediate ‘healing’ of anyone suffering from severe mental illness or medically verified chemical imbalances or bipolar disorder or multiple personality disorders. i am sure such experiences have happened, but they seem to be the less dramatic or repeated stories that get greater air play…

    i think we take our mental state for granted more than anything else about our being. but i do know that without God’s protection & benevolence i too would be a victim of severe depression, suicidal tendencies, & literally checking out from what is perceived as reality…

    my mother had Alzheimer’s. i have seen its insidious effects first hand. i saw the look of fear & confusion & disorientation in her eyes every time i entered her room at the care facility she stayed at. i would not want to ever, ever, ever go thru such torment. yet i am susceptible by heredity. mental illness also in my family line. i am not immune to certain traits & tendencies that have been identified in aunts+uncles on both sides of my family. i have had some scary semi dream encounters with the demonic from early age. it is not something that is a concern at this time in my life, but there is no doubt in my mind there is a distinct difference between demonic involvement vs. mental imbalances…

    it is not wise to misidentify the causes of severe bondage or conditions that need constant care+supervision. it is just as silly to react as if there is a demon under every rock & situation & that every human condition has some evil spirit associated with it. and we need to understand our frail physiology & desire to correct what can be addressed by medical science. but i do believe there are distinct characteristics of demonic origin vs. fallen human condition that need to be soberly addressed just as Jesus & the Apostles did…

  3. There was a time when all natural phenomenon were mysterious. Once science revealed natural phenomenon – the way in which clouds form and weather patterns behave, the tides, and such things – it became common to think that God himself was outside of creation, like the Deists of the Enlightenment believed. even prominent theologians of our day confuse this issue. (reading Norman Geisler’s take on miracles, for example, he concludes that miracles somehow disrupt the natural order of things, as if God is not present and must intervene. God is ever present in all of creation and sustains it by his power. God can no more disrupt or intervene upon creation then he can disrupt himself.) somehow, because science has shown how things work, Spiritual explanations are no longer accepted or understood.
    I think the same thing is occuring within church circles concerning the nature of sin, and the demonic. Science is revealing the way in which the brain operates, and suddenly nothing is the product of sin or demons anymore. they are all, “diseases” and “illnesses”. that spiritual realities are connnected to natural phenomenon does not seem to occur to people.
    the sad thing is that much of church culture has lost its compassion in dealing with those who fall or are distraught. as a result, the scientific medical community appears more compassionate toward those who fail, or struggle, than most Christians. this gives the false perception that in order for the church to have compassion, they must then follow the lead of science and medicine. church needs to maintain that there is a spiritual component to all things: we are spiritual beings, God is Spirit, and there are demonic forces. technology is then becomes an aid along side the spiritual direction of the church.

  4. I think mental illness is one of the most heartbreaking and unfair things that people have to walk in on our planet. I have several friends who suffer from different types of mental illness and it is so hard for them in their relationship with Christ and in being a member of the church. It is so much harder than most things we have to endure. I find myself constantly asking God if he could only fix one thing, please let it be mental illness!
    I think this post is very thoughtful and it even helps me find the right story to read in my own times of struggle. One time when I was feeling very down in my life I read Lamentations for the first time and I cant tell you how much comfort I got reading someone elses woes and cries. I felt like someone truly understood me.
    I wish the church was better at supporting people with mental illness. They seem to try all kinds of stuff and when it does not work they want to be done and to push them away because they are frustrated. Well…. I feel frustrated too and when that happens I try to turn to God and ask Him to help me love them for who they are and for where they are. To be loving and kind and patient. But mostly to keep pointing them toward Jesus and to trust that He is in control.

  5. Having had many years of up close and personal experience with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, sexual addiction, panic attacks, drug dependency, and more in myself and my wife…and with both of us really and truly being believers in Christ during all that time, I find it hard not to respond to this kind of topic. In the worst of our depressions we thought we needed psychiatrist to give us meds to keep us from killing ourselves and maybe we did need them. But overall psychiatry did more to confuse us and delay any actual healing of our minds and souls. I think there’s a reason the term mental illness isn’t in the Bible…because most modern medicine treats us as if we are nothing more than the chemicals in our brain. Fix the chemical and you fix the person. The Bible is not nearly so shallow. The Word acknowledges belief, and trust, and mind and soul and thoughts and intentions of the heart, and guilt and hope and love… all as dynamic parts of what makes us human- and souls in relationship with our creator and savior. Even the chemical imbalances the Dr. say we have are suspect. After nearly 15 years of “treatment” the best they could come up with was more and stronger meds for chemical imbalances that they don’t test for. Try asking your Dr which chemical is out of whack and he’ll admit he doesn’t know. Ask him to test you for what chemical is skewed and he’ll tell you there is no test. And ask him if the meds will cure you. He’ll tell you there is no cure. And he’s right because there is no cure for being human.

    But we are both free now. Free from meds. Free from psychiatrist. Free from the confusion of their superficial understanding of how a person can thrive in this life. We have learned that “man shall not be live by serotonin alone”. We have learned that our mind is a battle field. We have learned that if we are going to escape our guilt and compulsions and distractions that we’ve got to depend on the Spirit of God in us. We’ve learned that our obstinacy and arrogance and rebellion is only truly healed through confession and repentance. We learned that our demons were waiting to get greater control of us if we yielded to sinful desires and behavior. We learned that meds were very likely to induce new disorders and more serious ones. We learned that we couldn’t survive in this psychotic world if we accepted its definitions and treatments for the chaos it helped create in our lives.

    It’s still not easy but we are both freer and living in God’s love more than we ever have. Our drs can’t explain it and probably expect us to come running back for more of their feel good pills when life gets too difficult. But so far every struggle has been endured by hoping in God. Feelings of despair are eased by knowing our God is with us. And every day His Word builds a fortress in our minds that resists demonic attack.

    Please don’t give the potions of the med profession too much credit. As believers there is hope and life and endurance and our God Himself to help us understand and over come the weakness and wickedness in us and around us.It’s a long slow painful process to get control back into our lives, and the more extreme we’ve allowed things to get the more difficult it may be. But Jesus is there to help us get one thought at a time, one behavior at a time back into his control. We are all mentally ill-including our drs-from the biblical point of view. Why do so many turn to drs instead of Jesus?