Is there mental illness in the Bible? This question seeks to move us toward the question of mental illness and the Gospel.
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: (1) compassion, and (2) in proportion to the type of mental illness, responsible humanity.
The most certain case of mental illness in the Bible, in my opinion, is Saul. Saul’s behavior is consistent with manic depression or similar emotional conditions. The Biblical writer interprets this in the language of his understanding, but this does not change a major point: God was still dealing with Saul, even as a mentally ill person. Saul was a mentally ill King. God never told him to step aside, but to do what was right. In Saul, we are reminded that anyone, and any one of us, can be mentally ill.
We see God’s dealings with Saul in two ways: the compassion and forgiveness of David, and the tragic consequences of Saul’s actions. In both of these, we see these two Biblical truths. Saul was a fully human person while he was mentally ill, and his actions were actions of moral responsibility. David, however, incarnates God’s mercy toward Saul, and shows us God’s compassion for the mentally ill.
I would suggest that to see all mentally ill persons- which includes many of us at some point in life- as purely victims is dehumanizing to an extent that compromises human dignity. God addresses Saul as responsible throughout this episode. Saul never ceases to be a human person to whom God’s commands can be addressed.
Yet, at the same time, David deals with Saul as one afflicted. He respects not only God’s choice of Saul, but Saul’s suffering with the “evil spirit.”
This leaves us in an uncomfortable place. Many would want the mentally ill to be absolved of all responsibility. I believe this is the wrong way to view most mentally ill persons. Yet, we must also view them truthfully, fully taking into account what we can know about their condition, and treating them in full awareness of their diminishment or affliction.
This appears to be the Bible’s approach to persons who are in intense grief (Job), in oppositional-defiant mode (Jonah) or who are enslaved to addictions (Samson.) The Psalms show us prayers from the depressed and the paranoid, yet they are prayers in scripture. The cynical tunnel-vision of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes is part of his journal-narrative examining life from all sides. While none of these qualifies as full-blown mental illness, there is enough here to see the lesson: It is part of our humanity, and God, in his grace, is in the river with such persons.
Are there examples of mental-illness in the New Testament? As I have suggested elsewhere, a “demon possessed” person such as the man in Mark 5 may be afflicted with spiritual forces, but he also shows evidence of what we call mental illness. This man cuts himself and lives much as many manic depressives or psychotics would if left un-cared for or unmedicated. If this man is demon possessed- as the text suggests with the invasion of the pigs by the spirits- the manifestation of symptoms was similar to mental illness. Certainly those in this culture who were severely mentally ill would have been treated and viewed much life this man.
Jesus responds to this man with compassion his community and family did not have for him. He treated him as a human being, and not simply as a collection of demons. It was a man that was liberated, and it was a man who was commissioned to be a witness among his neighbors.
The Synoptic Gospels make it clear that much of Jesus’ ministry was among those who would have included the severely mentally ill. These persons would have been tied down, beaten and subjected to strange and awful cures. Jesus’ willingness to touch them, speak to them and accept them as liberated members of God’s kingdom says something very important about how we view the mentally ill.
They are our fellow human beings. They are our potential brothers and sisters. We should not view them as overcome with evil or robbed of their humanity. We should strive to love them as God does: in compassion and in truth.
We do not see mental illness spoken of particularly plainly in the Bible, because the cultures of the day did not view mental illness as we do. But mentally ill persons are surely there, in all the brokenness of human sin and in the persons who are touched with the kingdom announcement and the power of the Spirit. Their presence moves us to the next question: What is the church’s responsibility to the mentally ill?