iMonk Classic Series: Christians and Mental Illness (3)

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?

36 thoughts on “iMonk Classic Series: Christians and Mental Illness (3)

  1. Fascinating.

    Working as a psych aide, more than a few patients had some concerns about the spirit world.

    Frankly some of them seemed to have perhaps crossed a line.


  2. M. Scott Peck was taken in by that notorious faker Malachi Martin; I don’t think anyone should consider him any wiser an authority on the existence of demons.


  3. and yet, at times, even a simple act of kindness has infinite power to calm the storm

    have we not experienced anything at all from God’s grace? 🙂


  4. Yeah, I don’t really see that the much of the Bible supports the compassionate attitude toward mental illness that iMonk rightfully takes. You have to twist yourself into eisegetical knots to make the two align.


  5. One third of the homeless here in the U.S, and the fastest growing segment of the homeless, are families with children, and most of those families are female-headed (meaning a mother and her children).


  6. Our Lord was once a refugee in Egypt.
    As for homeless, there is this:

    ‘Jesus replied,
    “Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” ‘
    ( Matthew 8:20)

    I am not for ‘blaming’ people who are truly mentally ill or seriously emotionally ill, because I do believe that their faculties are impaired and they have major trouble making decisions. And I appreciate that people need to have as much autonomy as possible in our society. But sometimes, a person needs supervision.
    It could be something as simple as help organizing a medicine time-table. Or it might be much, much more if the ill person has something like an active psychosis that places himself and others at risk.

    It is true that some many years ago, the mental hospitals were opened and emptied. And it is true that police will sometimes bring in a disoriented homeless person to the ER for care.

    The one thing I think about most is that there are vets who suffer from residual PTSD and really are struggling, some trying to keep one step ahead of suicide. These people served our country. They deserve the best care possible as a national debt to be paid out of honor, and not doing it shames us.

    And the pain pills from prescriptions that turn into addictions? There are ways to get help to be free of this curse. Most of the people caught up in it were fine until they were prescribed opioids and got hooked.

    Alcoholics? ‘The drink’ as they call it in Ireland. A generational curse? There is treatment and it works, but the clean person has to have the will to stay clean. And if drinking was a symptom of a deeper pain, then getting rid of the symptom won’t cure the person, no.

    The world of addiction intersecting with mental health issues is complex, you bet. C-O-M-P-L-E-X
    NO easy answers out there, but there is help.

    nouthetic counseling? a preacher trying to heal a patient with a deep-seated psychosis? Please.


  7. ….Rio de Janiero actually solves its homeless problem with periodic Death Squad…sweeps

    That includes many children, since a large percentage of the homeless in Rio and other Brazilian cities are the street children.


  8. Headless U Guy, good to get a first hand account from an area affected. Every major city I visit seems to have a big homeless problem with the results you described . I am baffled on why this is tolerated by the residents of the cities affected? We are becoming a third world country in this area and you are correct , the homeless have more rights protection than the taxpayers. Who is really crazy?


  9. I thought you were kidding about the Society for Creative Anachronism. But then I saw a Facebook page for the society — which seems a little incongruous!


  10. I may have told this story once before here, but now I’m retelling it — hopefully the same way. Back in the 1980s, I had a parishioner who suffered from off and on mental illness. She began to think she was demon-possessed. She had told me during one visit about the manifestations. I don’t remember now exactly what they were, but mostly seemed of the non-life-threatening variety I offered healing prayers, but nothing out of the ordinary.

    Later I learned that her illness had resulted in a calling out of a State Police SWAT team, but that they had resolved whatever the issue might have been. This was before my residence in that community.

    One day I received a call from her psychiatrist. He was a man of Indian ethnicity and was calling from his office. He told me about the patient’s belief that her difficulties were demonic in nature. I’m supposing he had her permission to share the information. He wanted me to have a meeting with her with the purpose of expelling the demons. He obviously thought this was an imaginary issue or delusion and that prayer might help rid her of the problem.

    I told him I’d give it some thought, but would proceed if I considered it ethical and safe. I’d read before that dealing with demons should never be done alone. I called a local anabaptist pastor, a friend, and talked with him about it. He agreed to meet with me so we could discuss how to proceed. We made an appointment with her and went to her home. There we used simple prayers basically asking Jesus to bring his healing power to bear on this woman and remove these barriers to healing. Nothing dramatic happened. But the woman believed that this was happening, and in the power of these prayers and seemed to be relieved of this burden. I never heard anything else like this from her in my remaining stay at the parish.

    This doesn’t mean that her mental illness was cured. But it did seemingly bring relief to this one aspect of it.


  11. Nouthetic Counseling:
    “Just like Scientology Auditing, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”

    (Including the reporting to Flag/Pastor for future use against the Pre-Clear/pew warmer being Audited/Counseled.)


  12. True. But if demons and possession (i.e. Paranormal) actually exist, combinations such as in my comment make a whole lot of sense.


  13. And where I am the homeless encampments just keep growing, parking lots are gantlets of panhandlers, the big-bucks bond issue that was to provide homeless shelters (at $500,000 per bed) never materialized (though all the money disappeared), and every couple days you hear about somebody assaulted (sometimes fatally) by a homeless. While our Enlightened Betters emerge from their Gated and Guarded Communities to Virtue Signal and scold us Lowborns who object to this with wagging fingers. Radio talk-show lines are all lit up with off-the-record horror stories, including how the Homeless have become a protected species with more Rights than the rest of us.

    When this hits critical mass, it’s going to get UGLY. I fully expect a push for a Final Solution (and I use that term deliberately; Rio de Janiero actually solves its homeless problem with periodic Death Squad sweeps).


  14. 1 Samuel 16: The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? ”

    1 Samuel 16: “Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.”

    iMonk says “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. ”

    iMonk’s take on the situation is compassionate, but it doesn’t seem to match up with the words in the Bible. Just sayin’.


  15. In my own experience of the evangelical world (in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maine, and Colorado, and almost entirely among young, urban people) I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered people who completely deny the conclusions of modern psychology and the existence of mental illness. In fact, I’ve more often seen the reverse problem – pastors who find psychology so fascinating that they’ll base whole sermons on psychological ideas instead of on Scripture.

    Could it be that this phenomenon of people refusing to accept modern psychology is actually not an aspect of evangelical culture, but rather an aspect of the culture of certain regions of the country or age groups or educational levels? For example, it might just be a matter of people in more “macho” or stoic cultures having a really hard time seeking help or admitting they have a problem they can’t fix.


  16. Hunh Someone once suggested that the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese was more the chaplaincy of the Society for Creative Anachronism than it was an exarchy of a Middle Eastern ethnic church.

    Only slightly laughing.


  17. It was a well intentioned bunch of ACLU backed social reformers who wanted the mentally ill who needed treatment and help to not be held without their consent in a state mental institution. The conservatives under Reagan Admin. and the states wanted the state and local mental institutions to be shut down to save money and let the “families” handle the problem or the private section. The two forces in tandem gave us the homeless most who are mentally ill and will not regulate their own health care. Many of the homeless are homeless by “choice”, the choice driven by their mental illness. Take SF, 80 percent of their homeless who are ruining the city and their own lives need to be mentally evaluated and treated even involuntarily for their own good. Mental illness has always been around just like germs, except we treat germs as the threat they are. I have a standing offer with my fellow veterans to show me the Homeless Vet who no one will help, the truth is the person will not accept the help voluntarily due to drugs, booze or their mental condition .


  18. Demons? Isn’t it more likely that the ancients referred to mental issues as demon possession simply because they didn’t know any better?


  19. If you go to a church where demonology seems to dominate your theology or mental illness is seen as a result of acts of sin, or a sinful heart, then all I can do is wish you good luck.

    A church that’s LARPing D&D or Warhammer, role-playing Mighty Clerics against all the DEMONS out there, with all the rest of us as 1st-level mobs.


  20. 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.

    Or (as has been suggested by M Scott Peck), the man in Mark 5 may have been BOTH mentally ill AND possessed by demons. As rRch Buhler put it, “Demons are opportunists; they’ll go after easy prey.” And someone who’s mentally ill or seriously addicted will not put up much resistance.


  21. “They are our fellow human beings. They are our potential brothers and sisters.”

    The only thing about which I would disagree with Michael in this is the word “potential”. I understand he was coming at the subject as a compassionate Evangelical, for whom the completion of familial relationship would come with a person professing faith in Christ.

    This is one instance, among others in Protestant theology, where the minimalist understanding of the Incarnation of Christ has an effect. Because Christ united his divine nature to human nature – that about humans that constitutes them being human and not something that is “fallen” – every human being is united to him, and therefore, in him, to one another. We are already brothers and sisters – and we are that not simply “spiritually” but as embodied persons, because as part of being completely human, Christ had a human body.



  22. With good pastoral and lay leadership most churches will offer a decent response to those who are mentally ill. Almost every family in a parish has someone who is either mentally ill or is close to someone with mental illness. Mild forms of depression are not comparable to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. In time churches learn who has a problem and who does not. Families connect with each other and learn of the illness suffered by family members. Love and acceptance is the first priority. When you see someone sitting in a pew who is obviously mentally ill — or you have learned this some other way — don’t make it a point to sit somewhere else.

    Sometimes the illness will manifest itself in a way that will be noticeable to those attending a service. I won’t try to list this kind of occurrences but most of us will recognize them when they happen. Most are not serious enough to disrupt a service but can be annoying. The main thing is not to overreact and to continue with as much normalcy as possible.

    If you go to a church where demonology seems to dominate your theology or mental illness is seen as a result of acts of sin, or a sinful heart, then all I can do is wish you good luck. For this will often result in self-replicating behavior, actions, and reactions that will become a power struggle involving the various actors.


  23. +1. Good article about one mother’s decision to find a nugget of hope in the midst of dark despair and then use that to help others.


  24. I think Michael was way to kind to many of the Christian wack-jobs who practice nouthetic counseling. I have a daughter who has ADHD, an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, an auditory processing disorder, and is clinically depressed. Without her meds and what current medical knowledge has performed, she could not function. We have lived with it for 41 years and to have some emotional ideologue say it is ‘a demon’ or sin is pure balderdash, to put it mildly. I have been a believer for over forty years and have seen and been part of a lot of fundamentalist nonsense. It seems like Christianity in general, for all its wonderful contributions to mankind, including salvation, continues to bring in every generation many true nut-jobs out of the woodwork. Good articles! Thx.


  25. In English law we use what is called the “McNaughton rule” for determining culpability for crimes committed by the mentally ill – the illness operates legally as an excuse if the defendant was as a result of their illness unable to understand that their actions would be considered wrong, and they are judged according to their grasp of what was going on at the time (for example if due to their condition they believed the victim to be trying to kill them then they could plead self defence). If they knew what they were doing was wrong but e.g. their condition made it more difficult to control themselves, this would not be a complete defence to the charge but might amount to mitigation to reduce any sentence. A specific example of this is that a murder conviction (for which there is a mandatory life sentence) may be reduced to manslaughter and a lower penalty applied if the persons actions were contributed to by a mental illness which affected their ability to understand or control their behaviour.


  26. An excellent example of a truly Christian response to the problems of those affected by mental illness. Thank you: I was glad to read it.


  27. Not entirely sure what Michael means when he says that most of the time those with mental illness should not be excused from personal responsibility for their actions. It is clear that, in severe forms of mental illness, those afflicted have minimal personal agency; much of their perception of the world is extremely distorted, and they lack cognitive ability to manage what they do perceive. In less severe forms of mental illness, personal agency may not be as inhibited by the disorder, but it still may be severely enough hampered to make expectations of personal responsibility and accountability a cruel burden that the afflicted could never carry. I think we have to tread carefully in holding those with severe to moderate forms of mental illness socially and legally responsible for their actions.


  28. “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.”

    Just as the Bible does not speak of bacteria, or tobacco, or radiation, or any myriad number of things. The Bible was never intended to be an “owners manual for life”, but a witness of Jesus. Beyond that, we are expected to study creation (including ourselves), learn how it works, and apply what we learn with an eye to Christ’s kingdom.


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