A few weeks back, someone approached me in the coffee house at church and asked, “One of the things I’ve always wondered is when you read about demon possessed people in the Bible, were they just mentally ill, or were they really possessed by a demonic spirit.” From the onset let me say that the purpose of this article is not to diagnose, offer treatment, nor paint with a broad brush when it comes to the incredibly complicated subject of mental illness. Rather, my purpose is to simply offer a biblical perspective and hopefully inspire us as followers of Christ to extend compassion to those who battle various forms of mental illness.
Is Mental Illness a Spiritual, Mental, or Physical Issue?
Now in the interest of full disclosure let me declare that I am most certainly NOT an expert in this complicated field. In fact, many mental health professionals themselves would admit that this is a “science” that they themselves do not fully understand. However, it is universally accepted that there are a variety of factors that negatively affect a person’s mental health. Some of those factors are indeed physical. Things like brain abnormalities from birth or caused by trauma. Side effects of certain medications have been found to cause depression and other mental health problems. Hormonal imbalances as well dietary deficiencies have an effect on both our physical as well as our mental health. Another factor to consider is the effect of drug and alcohol use. It’s long been understood that chemical dependency is not only mood altering, but also potentially brain changing if not even brain damaging. In some cases, mental health experts believe part of the reason some struggle with chemical dependency, is they are subconsciously “self-medicating,” for a mental illness, they do not realize they even have.
On a personal note, I have discovered that some forms of mental illness may be hereditary in nature. At no fault to yourself, you may have inherited a genetic predisposition for things like addiction, depression, or other psychological disorders. For example, years ago, my grandmother on my mom’s side, before she passed away, was diagnosed as “paranoid schizophrenic.” Unfortunately, while my mom displays many of those exact traits herself, she has never been professionally diagnosed. It’s not unreasonable to assume that perhaps her chronic drug use is an attempt to alleviate this illness that she may have inherited. She’s now in her seventies, in addition to psychological struggles, she has a number of health problems, and a live-in boyfriend who is abusive. Had she ever been professionally diagnosed, authorities would be able to step in and help her with not only her mental health issues, but also her psychical health and her safety concerns. I would encourage you if there is a history of mental illness in your family to pay attention to those traits.
This is simply to say that YES there are mental as well as physical factors that contribute to mental illness. Therefore, my advice to anyone afflicted by and struggling with any form of mental illness, even things like anxiety and depression, is to immediately consult both a mental health expert as well as a medical doctor. A full panel of blood work, brain scans and other evaluations can be used to determine if what you’re struggling with can be addressed with medical treatment. I understand that it can be embarrassing to seek help. Likewise, there is an unfortunate burden of pressure put on you in our Christian community as well. Sometimes we feel like if we are truly spiritual, we should be able to conquer this illness with prayer, fasting and Bible study. By all means pray, fast and study the Word. But I want to remind you that biblically, there is a place for medicine. Don’t forget that Luke, the author of the book of Luke, and also the book of Acts, was a medical physician. In fact, the Apostle Paul called Luke his personal physician. Therefore, I think if the great Apostle Paul sought the help of a medical professional when he needed it, it’s safe to say it’s biblical to go to the doctor when you’re sick. Likewise, I believe the same principle is true when you are mentally ill. If an antibiotic can help you with your strep throat, then you shouldn’t be ashamed to take a medication that may potentially help you with your mental health. Obviously, over medicating has become a problem in our culture, and I would encourage you to do your own research before taking any medication, whether it’s to treat a physical or mental issue.
However, while there are some who are too hasty to dismiss the reality of emotional, mental, and physical factors leading to mental illness. There are just as many, if not more who deny that there are also spiritual factors to consider when we talk about mental health. In fact, when you look at the word “psychology.” The word itself is actually made up of two Greek words. Psychē from which we get the prefix “psych” means “soul” in the Greek, and “logia” from which we get the suffix “ology” which in this case would mean the “study of” or the “science of.” So, when we put it together, “psychology” is the science or the study of the SOUL. Therefore, to only focus on the emotional, mental, and physical components and ignore the spiritual is to ultimately deny the very definition and purpose of psychology all together. So, in a sense, you could say that in some cases what we call “mental illness,” may actually be “soul illness.”
To attempt to treat a spiritual illness with physical treatment is akin to asking your plumber to rebuild the engine of your 1968 Chevrolet Camaro. Spiritual problems require spiritual solutions. Therefore, the first step to spiritual wholeness is to have a personal relationship with God, through Jesus Christ.
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me besides the still waters. He restores my soul…”(Psalm 23:1-3a)
It has been noted that “only he who first says, ‘The LORD is my shepherd,” can later say, ‘He has restored my soul.” The first step to having a restored or healed “soul” is to make sure that the Lord is indeed your Shepherd. You do this, by inviting Jesus into your life, confessing your sin to Him, and admitting that you need Him and that you will surrender to His Lordship over your life.
While it’s true that brain abnormalities, chemical and hormonal imbalances directly affect our mental health, it’s just as true that our mental health problems may be the result of a soul that needs to be restored by God. However, even for someone who has given their life to the Lord, there can be factors in their lives that may cause “spiritual” imbalances so to say. Let’s consider a few passages of Scripture. Hebrews 12:15 says, “…Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.” This verse is indicating that one thing that can corrupt our soul is harboring bitterness and un-forgiveness. As a matter of fact, the Bible warns us that the enemy of our souls, the devil himself can use our un-forgiveness, against us. In 2 Corinthians 2:11, we are taught that when we refuse to forgive someone, we are being ignorant to the devil’s schemes and giving him an opportunity to take advantage of us. Corrie Ten Boom is famous for saying that “when you forgive, you set a prisoner free, and discover that the prisoner who was set free, was you.” Likewise, anxiety and worry are additional things that can lead to both mental and spiritual distress. Philippians 4:6 tells us to, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” This verse reminds us that even a Christian can experience a lack of peace and distress because of anxiety. Of course, this verse also gives us the prescription for restoration. Philippians tells us that in everything (including the thing that you’re losing sleep over), we are to pray and give thanks. But the Bible indicates that anxiety left unchecked can lead to mental illness. Proverbs 12:25 says, “Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression…”
Additionally, un-repentant sin, can be a spiritual cause of mental illness, even in the life of a Christian, at least in the life of a “back slidden” Christian. For example, we’re all familiar with the story of the so-called “Prodigal Son,” in Luke 15. After this rebellious son sows his wild oats and squanders everything his father had given to him in wayward living, he repents, and returns to his father. But there’s one little line that is easily missed, but for the purposes of a discussion on mental health it’s worth drawing attention to. In Luke 15:17 speaking of the prodigal son who is repenting it says, “But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘how many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here of hunger?”(NASB). Perhaps you’ve never made this connection until now, but this verse seems to indicate that when a Christian backslides and is living in unrepentant sin, they can get to a stage where you are not in your right mind. It’s not until you repent, turn away from that sinful lifestyle and come back to your Heavenly Father, that you “come to your senses.” These are just a few examples of how we can become spiritually ill.
What About Demon Possession?
Now the question that many Christians wrestle with today is this, “In the Bible we see demon possessed people, who I’m sure today would be diagnosed as mentally ill. Therefore, is what we label mental illness today really just demon possession?” Recently, Greg Locke pastor of Global Vision Bible Church in Mount Juliet, Tennessee created an eruption of controversy saying this very thing. In fact, Locke, publicly said mental health disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and developmental disorders like autism are actually a sign of demonic oppression. In a recent sermon Greg Locke was quoted saying, “We say things like this, “Well I just got OCD,” You know why you do things that are out of the ordinary over and over and it ticks you off when it’s not done that way? Because you got a spirit of oppression, that’s why. You ain’t got OCD.” He then cites three occasions where parents in the Bible brought their kids to Jesus who had epileptic fits, anger issues and outburst of emotion. Locke says, “Now parents will say to me, “Are you telling me my kid’s demon possessed?” He says, “No, I’m telling you your kid could be demonized and attacked but your doctor calls it autism!” Locke then argued that there’s no diagnosis of autism in the Bible. “Jesus would instead cast out that oppressing spirit and the child was made whole that very hour.” Now I took the time to look up Greg Locke’s name in the Greek and it’s pronounced “Big Insensitive Jerk!”
Setting Greg Locke’s arrogance aside, we do see examples in the Bible of mental illness seemingly caused by demon possession. For example, in Mark chapter 5, we read the famous story of a demon possessed man in the country of the Gadarenes. He was living in the town’s cemetery, cutting himself and apparently attacking or at least threatening others. Authorities would try to lock him up and bind him with chains, but with super-human strength he would break those chains. When Jesus came on the scene, he asked the demon what his name was, and as we all know the demon replied, “Legion, for we are many”(Mark 5:8). Jesus then cast the demons out of the man, and those demons then briefly in-dwelt a herd of swine, which is the first case of “deviled ham” in history. But there’s one little line in Mark’s account that for the purposes of this article is very enlightening. After Jesus delivered this man from demon possession, the Bible says that the crowd who watched this were amazed. Then Mark 5:15 adds, “Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind.” Notice that last line,“and in his right mind.” In other words, the thing that caused him not to be in his right mind or to be mentally ill, was demon possession.
Now here’s where we who call ourselves “Christians” need to exercise compassion and caution. Is this an example of how demon possession can be a cause of mental illness? Yes. Does this mean therefore, that ALL mental illness is caused by demon possession, or as Greg Locke soft sells it “demonic oppression”? Absolutely Not! If anything, this example in Mark’s gospel is illustrating that demon possession in many cases can look a lot like “mental illness.” But that doesn’t mean all cases of mental illness are the result of being possessed by a demonic being.
The point being made in this article is that it’s dangerous and irresponsible to paint with a broad brush. Just as it’s irresponsible to say that all mental illness is a result of physical, psychological, or emotional components but completely deny the soul. It is just as hurtful, to say that all mental illness is demonic and completely deny there may be a neurological problem, a brain disorder, or a hormonal imbalance or even a chemical imbalance, all of which can be treated.
In fact, even when we acknowledge that mental illness may be the result of not only physical and psychological components but also spiritual components as well. We need to keep in mind that demonic activity is only ONE of the possible spiritual components to consider. As we discussed earlier bitterness, un-forgiveness, anxiety and unrepentant sin and back sliding are additional spiritual causes of mental health disorders as well.
Ultimately when it comes to dealing with those afflicted by physical or mental illness, we should follow the example of Jesus Himself. In Matthew 14:14 it says, “He had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Likewise, the Bible instructs us as Christians to “be kind and compassionate to one another”(Ephesians 4:32). Another exhortation given to Christians is found in Hebrews 3:13 which says,“encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. ”Finally, when it comes to dealing with others, even with someone who has fallen into sin like the Prodigal Son did, we who view ourselves as spiritual should “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”(Galatians 6:1b-2).
**For those seeking help for themselves or a loved one for their mental health, here are a few highly recommended resources:
70 West Counseling www.70WestCounseling.com
Grief Share www.GriefShare.org
Focus On The Family www.focusonthefamily.com
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org