The Bible says nothing about mental illness. It also says nothing about cancer. Or heart disease. Or alzheimers. The Bible rarely calls out specific illnesses. Death from illness is mentioned, but not the cause.
Back then, people didn’t know what we now know about illnesses because they didn’t have the technological advances we have today. In fact, we’re still discovering “new” illnesses and causes of illness.
Why does it even matter what illnesses are in the Bible? For example, what illnesses does Jesus heal? Illness is illness and Jesus performed countless miracles and healed so many. Imagine hundreds of people gathered around Jesus waiting for their chance to be healed! I can’t even begin to envision what that was like. One third of Jesus’ ministry was healing, so it matters greatly that Jesus healed, but it matters little what he was healing.
What does God say about illness and how it relates to mental illness? So often in our American evangelical culture Christians dismiss mental illness with phrases like:
“You just need to pray and read your Bible more.”
“You just need to have more faith that God can heal you.”
“You have unrepentant sin causing your misery.”
“You have an unforgiving heart weighing you down.”
I went for years thinking I wasn’t a good enough Christian. That I didn’t have faith. It’s a taunting song still ringing in my head–a lie I have to constantly pray against.
Saying these things to someone struggling with mental illness is wrong. Have you ever wondered why someone can follow Jesus but end up taking their own life? It’s because their mental illness has been dismissed, isolating them from much needed community support, and even deterring them from getting professional help.
I’ve contemplated suicide. Like Paul I have pleaded to God to take it from me. And He hasn’t. And I wanted to die. And this is why dismissing mental illness is so dangerous. It needs to stop.
In the Bible
There are a couple words commonly used in the Bible to describe illness.
The Hebrew, ǒni, or affliction, is entrenched in the Old Testament – just think about the Psalms. It means simply, “Poverty, misery, or trouble.” This seems like a pretty broad definition. It is used most often as a state of internal anguish.
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol…
6 You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep…
15 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless…
18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness.Psalm 88:3, 6, 15, 18
Do we know for sure that King David suffered from mental illness when he wrote these verses? No, we don’t. From these words we can deduct that it is possible that David is suffering from circumstantial mental illness. In my despair these psalms resonated deeply with me.
Then there’s Job. If anyone was susceptible to poor mental health it’s him.
26 But when I hoped for good, evil came,
and when I waited for light, darkness came.
27 My inward parts are in turmoil and never still;
days of affliction come to meet me.
28 I go about darkened, but not by the sun;
I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.
days of affliction come to meet me.Job 30:26-28
The Lord allowed everything to be torn away from Job, why not his sanity as well? Like David, we cannot know for sure that Job experienced mental illness per say, but it is obvious his mental health suffered.
Chronic stress can change the brain chemistry, therefore causing circumstantial mental illness such as depression and anxiety. Other people suffer from chronic mental illness–meaning their chemistry is unbalanced even when not in stressful circumstances. Circumstantial illness will pass, chronic illness will not–save a miracle from God.
The Greek astheneia means “want of strength, weakness, or infirmity,” also, “feebleness (of the mind and body)” and, “feebleness of health.” It applies to both the body – weakness, frailty, feebleness of health, sickness – and the soul. When my manic-depression and anxiety is flaring, I most certainly feel physically and mentally desperate, weak and feeble.
We see this word in the gospels during Jesus’ healing miracles.
And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”Matthew 8:14-17
Jesus heals infirmities of both body (the natural) and soul (the spiritual).
Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities.Luke 8:1-2
John mentions a man who was an invalid for thirty-eight years. Mental illness is debilitating for many. What caused him to be an invalid? No one knows. Could it have been a mental illness? Maybe.
Jesus Healed All
While we have names for a variety of mental illnesses today, like so many other illnesses, those living in Biblical times wouldn’t have identified them as we do now. However, Jesus is all-knowing, so I believe he would have recognized illness for what it was. He healed all that came to him. He did not dismiss anyone who was suffering. We shouldn’t either. We should take a person’s suffering seriously and learn how to walk alongside them. If you are suffering, there is hope and there is help!
In Part 2 I will explore the difference between mental health and mental illness using Scriptures about anxiety as an example.