First, A Caveat about the Bible
There are very few times in one’s life that are as dark as the place of mental illness. Whether it be depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bi polar disorder, or other debilitating illnesses, life seems to get pretty bleak with these conditions. People have often asked me if mental illness is really in the bible. When I was pastoring in a local church this was a common question because people really wanted the Bible to speak of mental illnesses so that they could make sense of what was happening to them, within them. We genuinely want to know what God might have to say about diseases that seem to suck the life and love out of the daily grind of life. As I have pondered my own mental illnesses, more and more, the past year and a half, I am convinced that the bible does indeed has a lot to say about our condition that we might find ourselves in. As you read, keep in mind that I am writing to and from a place of believing the bible to God’s Word. God himself writing through human authors, through the means of the Holy Spirit. I realize that many of my readers will not agree with my premise that the bible is what I say it is or what it says about itself, but I hope that however you approach the bible that the following will offer a sense of hope and promise in deep, dark spiritually troubling times of mental illness that we all may face at one time or another in our lives.
The Fall and Sin
The very crux of all of scripture is hinged in the story of the fall of mankind. In scripture (Genesis 1) God creates humanity in such a way that they are in perfect relationship with him, experiencing the goodness of God fully and completely, even physically. The spiritual, physical, and emotional parts of humanity were all connected with the spiritual, physical, and emotional parts of God. They were in perfect relationship where they could talk freely, walk openly, and have a sense of connection with the God of the universe. In a moment, the bible says, a cataclysmic change happens and the relationship with God is changed drastically. Adam and Eve (Genesis 3) decide to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, directly disobeying God and the one command he had given them to NOT eat of the tree. They were completely aware of the lack of perfection, their own inadequacies, when they ate of the fruit. As is the case in most relationships where one person does something that is offensive to another, Adam and Eve then try to hide the problem they had created. The bible says that as God was walking through the garden, he could tell something was different, something was changed in the relationship between him and who he had created. Things were a bit icy, to say the least, between God and Adam and Eve. Humanity was hiding, because, for the very first time, they were experiencing extreme guilt and shame. They had done something against another being, one that they loved. They had caused offense in a way that would shape the course of human future. They didn’t know the lengths to which their action would affect the ages to come, but they had knowledge after eating of the tree of knowledge that they had caused offense. They hid themselves in fig leaves and branches, because they recognized their own nakedness. While many people much smarter than I am have much to say about why this is important, I think at it’s very core it simply points out the vulnerability that they felt, after they had wronged another being. The shame, guilt, and weight that was on them was too much to bear and they were now completely cognizant of themselves. Darby points out that “their inner competencies were now seething with a drive for more, a passion of lust, and a draw to themselves.” They were internalizing the right from wrong. Before they had taken from the fruit, they ‘knew’ right from wrong, it was only now that they were deeply experiencing it.
As many of my evangelical friends know and repeat often, sin taints everything. When there is but a hint of offense taken between two parties, it tends to erode the very trust and inner peace and harmony that was once present in that relationship. In this case, the erosion was not simply an erosion of trust. Certainly it was that, but there were far more corrosive elements at hand that caused the shift and seismic change even genetically within the human body and ultimately, humanity,
There would no longer be just simple rules for ‘right and wrong.’ Even if there were simple rules, they would not be simple to follow, and humanity would fail completely at them. There was no longer absolute freedom in the relationship that God had with humanity, because God became guarded in those moments knowing the extent of the evil that humanity now had the power of grasping. It’s not that God was threatened, rather, he was inclined to separation. The pain, sting, and reality of the relational conflict was grounds enough for complete separation from himself. I think in those moments, God himself must have experienced a bit of what we refer to as depression. For those of you who are arguing with me at this point, because you believe God is perfect, let me remind you that Jesus experienced emotion. Deep lows when he was in the desert, preparing for ministry, a deep excruciating low the night before he was brutally murdered for innocent behavior, anger in the marketplace, frustration with his disciples, and excitement multiple times in ministry when he was performing miracles and doing things only God can do. God can and does experience emotion because in and of itself, experiencing emotion is amoral. It’s not a good or a bad thing, it’s a thing. How we respond to this emotion is the issue where right and wrong are delineated between. During the period of the fall of humanity, God experiences emotion so deep and profound, he has to demand separation from himself. Did humanity deserve that? Yes. But it was God who forced the separation from himself, it wasn’t humanity that put the flaming sword at the gate of the garden of Eden. It wasn’t humanity that cursed the ground that the man would work. It wasn’t humanity that allowed child bearing to be extremely painful and complex. Those were the result of humanities sin, but they were by God’s choosing to separate from his loved ones. It was necessary for restoration. In those moments, we may get a glimpse of what it means to experience depression, anxiety, and relational disunity with the example being God himself.
Other Biblical Examples of Mental Illness
Depression, Anxiety and Angry Actions
Cain and Abel are two of the many sons that Adam and Eve had. Whether they had these sons directly or they were descendents of Adam and Eve is debated amongst scholars and makes for an interesting study. They were at least representative of the descendents that Adam and Eve produced. And mental illness was very acutely present within the confines of even this relationship. Through the very short story that is found in Genesis 4 we are given insight into the reason that Cain ultimately kills Abel. For whatever reason God chooses to accept the gift that Abel brought to him of his first fruits of the blessings that God had given him. Cain brought him something that was juxtaposed to what his brother brought God and God was not as demonstrative in his blessing toward Cain. In verse 5 of chapter 4, we find that Cain was angry and ‘his face became very sad.’ Within this phrase are probably many days of wallowing in his own misery, He experienced disillusionment with God. God was supposed to be for him, with him, and care for him. God was supposed to come through for him. God was showing extreme favoritism to his brother and this was Cain’s cause for diving into what I believe could be described as extreme circumstantial depression. Within those few words, we can surmise that this was more than just a sad emoticon face that Cain was experiencing. This was powerful wrestling with the disappointment that Cain was experiencing with God and with those around him. We do see that God addresses him. He asks him why he is experiencing depression. God makes some interesting statements. He asks Cain if he will be happy if he does not ‘do well.’ H says that Cain will need to ‘rule over sin.’ Cain is experiencing life out of control. Something else was ruling Cain and his mind wasn’t quite right. God was calling him back to a clear mind, with facts. In the end, Cain chooses to kill his brother to quiet his troubled mind. And in the end, as is often the case in scripture and in our own lives, God seems to come through for Cain. As I read this story, I am reminded that mental illness is not as simple as getting your mind right. It’s not as simple as ‘doing better’ or ‘doing well.’ But when we live in the depression, the facts of life are sometimes fleeting. “How good is life really?” we might wonder. Why is it me that always experiences the short end of the stick? These distorted truths that seem so real in the midst of depression tend to lead us to action that is damaging and in this case, murderous.
A Man after God’s own Heart (with narcissistic tendencies and a vice of anxiety)
I think of the many stories of David. His confidence in God is resolute in the beginning. In fact, he takes on the giant of the land, and downs Goliath with extreme confidence. God was doing the fighting for him, scripture says. David was well aware of that, but as life become less manageable and the storms of life seemed to keep crashing into his shore, we see David experience an anxiety that is a story of ages. We find camaraderie with the anxiety attacks that David seems to experience. Psalm 57:2-4 is written from a place of extreme anxiety. David is being pursued by enemies and finds himself hiding in a cliff, in rocks. Archeologists estimate that the cave that David was hiding in was one of several 20 foot vaults in the side of the mountain so as not to be found. My guess is that his breath was shortened at times, his blood pressure high, and his mind was racing. He may have found himself so agitated that he just had to sleep. He may have had an anxiety attack or two that confounded him and those around him. He had killed a giant for God’s sake. Why was he hiding in a little hole in the ground as the King of the chosen nation? But mental illness knows no titles, accomplishments, or accolades. David was clearly in distress in these verses (and several other moments in his life and throughout scripture). David couldn’t see the light at the end of his own cave, and almost gave up trying to see a glimpse of the future. HIs anxiety swallowed him and he found no solace in the simple fact that God was with him. We find David’s writing to swing from personal self effacing to recognizing the truth’s of who God is and was. We find a seemingly bi-polar type response to the circumstances around him where he wants to believe truth, but doesn’t feel truth to exist.
There are hundreds of passages in scripture that David pens where anxiety is present. He is seemingly quick to come back to writing about who God is, but the more that I read and digest these thoughts, the more that I am struck with the fact that these statements that we see as quick verses that are great wall ornaments are probably learned and experienced over multiple years, decades, and span the course of many circumstances. They are not quickly learned statements of fact. They are not piddly responses to mental illness that can be just memorized and then everything will get better. These are profound truths that were learned by a man, pushed to the edge and back several times, a man ravaged with depression and anxiety who became one of the greatest men in scripture. A man after God’s own heart.
Oh, and what about the time that David saw himself as supreme? Narcissistic tendency at it’s best is displayed in the story of David and Bathsheba. We see the story and tell the story as a caution against sexual sin and lust. However, David’s very position in the kingdom of Israel exploits another person for his own pleasure and gain. HIs words are smooth. HIs words are manipulative. He knows exactly what he is doing, why he is doing it, and knows that it will produce the outcome that he desired. I don’t think that in these narcissistic moments David was thinking about an outcome of repentance and deep pain/suffering. He was only manipulating a situation for his own ‘glory’ and ‘pleasure.’ Mental illness takes on many forms, and this is one of the forms that we find prevalent in scripture. We see it with Kings in the Old Testament, with leaders in the New Testament, and we find it pervasive in our own culture today.
Jesus Himself and Mental Illness
A moment of Heresy
If you will allow me just a moment of heresy in this section of the writing, I would like to point out where I see Jesus at least struggling with mental illness. The evangelical friends that I have will be rolling their eyes and finding every little problem with the following paragraphs. But as I read and study the life and ministry of Jesus, I am struck with the realization that Jesus (God incarnate) finds himself wrestling with the mental illness tendency that each of us may face at times in our own lives. It probably shouldn’t surprise us, as Paul says Jesus took on the very form of a man and experienced the same things we do (Phillipians 2), but it does surprise us because Jesus is supposed to be perfect. What if Jesus was perfect and still struggled with depression? What if perfection and depression could co-exist? What if anxiety and perfection were not in juxtaposition to one another? What if an obsessive compulsive disorder was not threatening to God’s very perfection? Hang with me here.
If you have been a part of any church for any amount of time, you know the shortest verse in the bible. ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς or “Jesus Wept (John 11:46). I have no idea how to pronounce the way that the greek says it previously, but it looks nice on paper and makes me seem smarter and more studied that I actually am (which is one of the reasons that ‘the greek’ is used on Sunday mornings in Sermons in North America even though it’s an ancient language that is simply that… another language, but I digress). Why did Jesus weep? Why was he crying? Was it simply to show the world around him that he could cry? Maybe, just maybe, it was because Jesus experienced emotional turmoil and pain just like you and I do. Maybe he is experiencing a sudden deep sense of loss in these moments after a good friend died and that wells up within him. Maybe he took a couple of days off of ‘work’ during this period of time because it was difficult to get out of bed in the morning? Maybe, just maybe Jesus dealt with just a bit of circumstantial depression. Or maybe it was just to show that his body could indeed produce tears. I don’t know for sure, but I’m leaning toward maybe he actually experienced a depression that was deeper than just concocting tears for those around him to see.
Or, on the night before his death. Jesus sweat some tears of blood? What’s that about? Was he rubbing his temples to firmly? Did he try acupuncture the day before? No. Hematohidrosis. That’s what he experienced. It’s a physical condition brought on by an emotional state. The blood vessels actually rupture with an emotionally exorbitant pressure that is placed upon a human. Do you think maybe, just maybe, he experienced some anxiety. I think that’s probably a safe bet. Do you think maybe he experienced some feelings of sadness and loss? Likely. Depression may have set in in these moments. He is crying out to God to save him. If there is any other way that what he is about to do can be done, let it be so. This is his call to his Father. The fact is, he was willing to go through it, but emotionally was not strong enough to keep his body from failing physically. Jesus swept blood in response to an emotional reality. That sounds like maybe he experienced mental illness. But maybe not. Maybe he was simply showing that he COULD sweat blood, like humans do, so that we would have a glimpse into his humanity and be able to talk about the “incarnation of God into humanity” or the “doctrine of incarnation”. I tend to think it’s probably just what he experienced.
How about when Jesus decides to go on a rampage? Maybe he did it nicely? He was angry that a place that he loved and cared for was being wrecked by people that were being selfish, foolish, and downright absurd. He began flipping tables. He began ruining the livelihood of those that were selling in the temple. Job creation and the unemployment rate weren’t Jesus’ first priorities in these moments. He uses strong language for his time when he says that those people had made the temple a place of ‘a den of thieves.’ We might translate this today as “Hey Dumbass…” Jesus gets angry. He gets violent, and he causes extreme wreckage in a place that was otherwise fairly orderly. He caused enough disharmony that people wanted to kill him. It’s one of several places where the pharisees are written about as ‘plotting to kill him’ and ‘finding ways to apprehend him.’ It’s one of the places where he is seen as ‘crazy’ and ‘out of his mind.’ Was he? Maybe he was just a little bit. HIs internal anger toward humanity had been burning for quite some time, approximately 2,500 years if you believe that he is God in man form. And now, he was seeing face to face, first hand, the desecration of what he had put into place, what he had created as a place of restoration. Maybe in those moments of anger his mind became cloudy, and self control was not a strong suit, and he began flipping tables. Was it sinful? Apparently not because Jesus is dubbed as perfection. Was it possibly a result of an acute mental illness? You’ll have to decide that one I suppose. Depression, Anxiety, and Anger all go hand in hand. Justice is hard wired within each of us to some degree as we have the image of God imprinted on our hearts. So, Jesus was acting in Justice, but could have been in a state of mental instability at best. After all, isn’t mental instability a result of our bodies degrading? Wasn’t Jesus in a human body? His character may have been perfect but we know for certain his body wasn’t perfect. He was a Palestinian Jewish man, so he was darker complexion with a shorter stock. In Revelation we find that his hair may have been ‘wool like.’ Sounds like he had some body issues. He probably wouldn’t make it on ESPN’s body edition. While deemed as fake, If you read about the Shroud of Turin and have seen images of what he may have looked like (Because those images were closest in terms of the year created to when he walked the earth) you know that he may not have been all that ‘pretty.’ So, if his body had body issues, and he was human, wouldn’t he have had the human body tendencies that cause mental deprecation?
A Word about Actions
Mental Illness is not a License to Kill
We each make choices. Whether we are depressed, anxious, angry, or experience some other imbalance in our personal lives, we each still possess the ability to make our own choices as it relates to our actions. One of the very profound and startling realities of scripture is that choices are allowed for throughout. Each of the examples above had to make their own choices in response to the mental condition that they found themselves in. Some made extremely wise choices at times, and others made extremely dumb choices at times. Most of us have experienced the spectrum of this reality. Mental Illness is not a license to kill, but mental illness is also not a ‘sin to be dealt with.’ It cannot be fixed by merely ‘focusing on truth’ or ‘reciting this bible verse’ or by ‘taking pills.’ It is a complex reality of our bodies and minds that has captured the heart and soul of humanity from the very beginning. We are fighting against millennia of genetic material when we try to fight against these disorders. It’s overwhelming. It’s terrifying. But it can be done. One day at a time. One choice at a time. It cannot be done perfectly, but it can be fought consistently. I’m with you. There’s hope. In each of the stories in scripture, there is hope for resolution. For closure. For peace. And if you are here today, you have reason to hope.