Mental Illness: Sin, Demon Possession, Disease?

I walked into church a defeated man. After preparing for full time pastoral ministry from age 18, I could no longer pastor. My professional ministerial career was over after 28 years of being in some kind of ministerial role. At age 46 I was washed up.

No, it was not a moral breakdown with a scandalous affair, family/marital issues, or misappropriation of funds. Conflict did not drive me out of the ministry. Although pastoral ministry is a high-stress and exhausting profession, it was not burnout. Neither was incompetence a factor. I had graduated from a Christian liberal arts college and a respected seminary. The congregation I left was growing rapidly and plans for a new church building were being prepared.

Depression brought me down. Mental illness was stealing my life. From the time I was a child I had bouts of depression, but I never met the clinical standard for a full blown episode. Now, after my fourth hospitalization in five years and eight years of relentless depressive episodes I had finally come to accept that depression would dog me the rest of my life, and I could no longer continue in professional ministry. It was devastating.

In pain and anguish I was seeking solace as I attended church that Sunday night. Instead, what I heard the guest speaker say was that depression was a sin. I knew the minister speaking, and he knew me. Our eyes met as he said it, and he immediately backed away somewhat from such a blanket statement. But, the stigma of having a mental illness in a conservative evangelical church drove home the sting all the more. A couple of weeks later I heard the same man say the same thing in another pulpit, but this time without any caveats. I do not know if he saw me in the congregation or not.

Fundamentalist and Evangelical (to a lesser extent) Christians are statistically more likely to believe that mental illness is a sin or is caused by personal sin (Lifeway Research). Some assert that Bible study and prayer alone is the recipe for curing mental illness. Others may allow for spiritual counseling. Insanity is understood as a “curse from God” for unrepentant sinners. King Saul (see I Samuel 16:14) and King Nebuchadnezzar (see Daniel 4:1-37) are cited as examples. Sinful choices, lack of contentment, and unbelief explain psychotic, mood, and anxiety disorders, some contend.

Would we treat any other illness like this? Does Bible study, prayer, or spiritual counseling cure you from a virus, bacterial infection, heart disease, or any other physical affliction? Some ailments are the direct result of sinful activity. Herpes, hepatitis B, and HIV, among others, are sexually transmitted. Hepatitis C is common among those who abuse alcohol and other drugs. Obesity is a major contributing factor to heart disease, diabetes, and asthma; just to name a few. When was the last time you recommended spiritual healing methods for someone with any of the aforementioned diseases? Why is it then that a person with a mental illness is shamed for having a chemical imbalance, traumatic brain injury, life threatening trauma, or genetic disorder?

Please, do not misunderstand me. Serious illnesses, whether mental or physical, have a spiritual component. Bible reading, prayer, and spiritual counseling is one part of the prescription to wellness. Studies have demonstrated that people who have a spiritual foundation entering a serious illness fair better than those who do not.

I presume the lack of any clear biblical references to mental illness and the use of nomenclature regarding demon possession in the Gospels lead to some confusion. Throughout the Bible the term, “leprosy,” is used as a generic term referring to multiple skin disorders on one’s person and even mold, fungus, or rot in one’s house or garments (See Leviticus 13:1-14:57). Not all lepers in the Bible had what the disease leprosy connotes today. The same is true of demon possession. Although the phrase “demon possession” clearly denotes satanic influences or possession, the Bible appears to use the term broadly to also include physical and mental ailments that were not otherwise understood.

When Jesus cast out demons they recognized Him as divine and spoke as in the case of the men from Gergesene (See Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:2-20, and Luke 8:26-39) and the man in the synagogue at Capernaum (See Mark 1:21-28 and Luke 4:33-36). This does not happen with other cases where demon possession is described. Blindness (See Matthew 12: 22-28), mutism (See Matthew 9:32-34 and Luke 11:14-26), and epilepsy (See Matthew 17:15-21, Mark 9:14:2-9, and Luke 9:3, 8:43), most certainly physical ailments, are equated with demon possession. John 9:2-3 records the disciples asking Jesus about a man born blind, “Who sinned?” Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” In a significant number of cases physical and/or mental illness is not the result of satanic possession or oppression, or personal sin.

The American Heritage Medical Dictionary defines disease as “any deviation from or interruption of the normal structure or function of any body part, organ, or system that is manifested by a characteristic set of symptoms and signs, and whose etiology, pathology, and prognosis may be known or unknown.” Mental illnesses are diseases of the mind. Mental illness may be defined as a “clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or psychological pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present disability or with a significantly increased risk of suffering, death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom.”  Atypical behavior and impairment of normal functioning must be present to receive a mental health diagnosis. The presence of sinful choices, lack of contentment, or unbelief may indeed be contributing factors; but they do not come near meeting the clinical definition of a mental illness.

It is true that known, willful, and voluntary choices lead to mental illness. Substance abuse is a ready example. But, there are other reasons that are obviously not a personal choice. Genetics, infections, brain defects, traumatic brain injury, and prenatal damage are common causes. Social factors such as death, divorce, and loss of employment can contribute to mental illness. Other factors may include parental substance abuse, poor nutrition, exposure to toxins, and severe psychological trauma.

The cause of my clinical depression came as a result of an infection when I was a child. I was in a swim class at the local YMCA when I became very ill. My fever was high enough and lasted long enough that I experienced hallucinations and paranoia. After my recovery I started having seizure-like episodes that persisted for a number of years. My mother took me to a neurologist who, through a battery of tests, determined that I had brain damage. I did nothing consciously or purposefully to invite this into my life, my parents had not sinned and neither had I in such a way as to cause this condition. Furthermore, far from being a curse, depression has been a blessing in many ways.

Depression has taught me compassion and empathy for those in the church and in the world who, like me, have a mental illness. I have learned lessons that I may not otherwise have learned by having clinical depression. Recently, after telling my story, a man said he would pray for my healing. I told him that I do not pray for healing anymore. Depression is my teacher and through each episode I am learning more and drawing nearer to Christ.