The Bible and Mental Illness

I used to quote scripture at my mental illness.

Before I was diagnosed, I didn’t know what bipolar was. I didn’t understand depression or mania. I could only tell you what I was feeling, what I was experiencing. I only had a spiritual language to describe what was happening. It’s the only thing I knew at the time. I didn’t understand my brain, my chemical imbalance, my mood swings. I didn’t know how to handle my mental illness because I didn’t know it existed.

What I did know was my depression felt like a spiritual attack. I grew up believing demons and angels actively interfered in the lives of people as some cosmic battle between good and evil played out. I believed demons could oppress us for different reasons and I felt oppressed. So, I did what I know to do: I claimed the promises of scripture and tried to throw them in the face of what I perceived as a demonic attack. 2 Timothy 1.7 (“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”-KJV) became a mantra-like prayer as I begged God to alleviate the torment.

When it wasn’t a spiritual attack I was convinced it was a problem with my relationship with God. See when I felt the closest to God was when I was manic. It was a mountain top experience that I thought of as true communion with God. Therefore, when the depression hit and I couldn’t “feel” God anymore, I knew it was due to some sin in my life, some failure on my part, some sort of problem I had to fix to get back into the will of God. I would turn to scripture to find the answers, usually landing on confessional verses like Psalm 51 to help me find repentance.

The honest truth is that cherry picked verses did little to nothing to fight the depression. What I perceived as a spiritual attack or some sort of separation from God was a medical issue. It wasn’t some play of the devil to keep me from fulfilling my calling in Christ. It wasn’t due to some moral failure or Spiritual failure. But I didn’t know this at the time because the Church didn’t really talk about mental health.

I went to churches that preached from the Bible, passage by passage and book by book. In doing so, many issues were brought up like money, sex, ethics, civic life, prayer, worship. There is a wide range of topics touched on and talked about in the pages of scripture. However, the Bible doesn’t say anything about mental illness. Sure, there are a few characters like Elijah and Saul who we can look at and speculate about their mental health, but there is not a passage in scripture that speaks directly to clinical depression, mania, schizophrenia, or chronic anxiety. It was never a topic that was preached on because it’s never a topic that comes up in scripture.

With the Bible remaining so silent about mental illness and preachers never addressing it from the pulpit, is it any wonder that it was the furthest thing from my mind as I went through my episodes of mania. It is a surprise that I attributed my depression to spiritual attacks, after all, gods and demons are all over scripture. Since we talked in church about God’s presence and how sin disrupts that, can you really blame me for looking for some sin or moral failure in my life as my emotional stability was in tatters? Since we didn’t talk about mental illness I didn’t think about it during my wild mood swings. No one thought that my patterns of behavior could have been the result of mental illness because we were all trained (both explicitly and implicitly) that emotions were regulated by the spiritual part of us.

The Bible is full of wisdom and food for faith in Jesus. It is the story and revelation of Jesus the gospel. But it is not the handbook for all of life we have made it out to be. It’s important that we talk about more than just what is in the Bible. There are parts of our existence and lives that the Bible never talks about because that’s not the purpose of scripture. Sola scriptura might be a good rule for our churches, but it is a horrible way to live our lives.

When it comes to matters of mental health, we need to be intentional in speaking about them, after all, 1 in 4 people deals with mental health issues of one kind or another. These aren’t spiritual problems. From addictions to eating disorders to bipolar these things are broken brain problems. We need to acknowledge the reality of mental illness in our congregations and we need to speak to it. Speaking out about it in the church is the only way to combat the unspoken (and spoken) bad theology that surrounds mental illness.

The Bible may not talk about mental illness, but it does talk about healing. Just as we might gather the Elders and congregation to pray for someone with cancer, asking God to give the doctors wisdom and steady hands, we should pray for those of us with mental illness. Anointing oil is a holy thing, we shouldn’t spare it just because someone’s illness is invisible. We need to believe that Jesus can heal and that therapists and psychiatrists are just as important as doctors in the well-being of the whole self. Believe what the Bible says about healing and encourage each other to get the help and treatments needed to be healthy in body and mind. After all, you can’t truly separate the mind and the body.

I wish someone had talked to me about what the Bible didn’t say. I wish someone had approached me about mental illness and urged me to see a therapist. There would have been so much less heartache, devastation, and shame if I had been taught that while the Bible is the rule of our belief it doesn’t have all the rules for our life.

  • melaniespringermock

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Aaron. I agree completely. So amazing how churches spiritualize mental illness diagnoses in ways they don’t any other kind of illness. Best wishes to you.

  • Thanks for sharing your heart and part of this frustrating chapter. Somehow the Bible has been set up to be a secret code that’s a roadmap or play by play directive for how to live. And that somehow people are supposed to de-code it to find out exactly how God works and how we are supposed to behave. Then I “read” Jesus, the living, breathing Word of God, and he sums it all up (scripture) as a reminder of whose we are, our original design, and how loved we all are. That’s good news. But the de-coding message that’s been passed down through Churchianity is broken and false and does more harm than good. xoxox

  • Aaron, this is a super encouraging and insightful post. Thank you for this important conversation!

  • Leanne Popkes Sype

    Man, you have such a gift in bringing Jesus and mental illness into the same arena in harmony. This is a fabulous post.

  • samcarter44

    Great post with really insightful worlds. Thank you!

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