Mental Illness and the Church

In the days of ancient illness, King Saul experienced a long, slow descent into mental torment, part of which is described in 1 Samuel 16:14-23:

Now the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, “See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skillful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.” So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.” One of the young men answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the LORD is with him.” So Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, “Send me your son David who is with the sheep.” Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them by his son David to Saul. And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.” And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.

Some of the language in the narrative may be hard for a modern-day westerner to grasp or even accept. There is talk of an evil spirit, for example, and that evil spirit is said to be “from the LORD”. It would be a mistake to equate the language of ancient Israel with modern, scientific categories and so to assume that “evil spirit” in those days and “mental illness” in these days are simply different descriptions for the same idea. The situation is, unfortunately for us, more complex and nuanced than that.

We read of an encounter between Jesus and a man with an unclean spirit in Mark 1:21-28, as follows:

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

This account appears very close to the start of Mark’s Gospel and that is certainly no accident. In fact, we can compare the start of the Gospel of Mark with the accounts of the calling of the early kings of Israel, including King Saul. When a King was called in ancient Israel, this was recognized by a series of steps/events. Typically the narrative would show that the King:

• Was chosen and anointed by God
• Was tested by God to demonstrate his anointing and authority
• Gathered his followers around him
• Went out on his mission

Ultimately, in the case of King Saul, the King was defeated by his deteriorating condition. In the Gospel of Mark we see that Jesus:

• Was chosen and anointed by God (Mark 1:1-11)
• Was tested by God to demonstrate his anointing and authority (Mark 1:12-13)
• Gathered his followers around him (Mark 1:14-20)
• Went out on his mission (today’s reading, Mark 1:21-28)

In today’s reading we see that the condition that proved to be the undoing of King Saul is no match for Jesus. Jesus, then, is seen to follow the path that one would expect for a King, and is seen to be one that exceeds Saul (and others which we do not have time and opportunity to discuss) in his power. The narrative about Jesus and the man with the unclean spirit is therefore not a story about an accidental encounter but rather is a key account in establishing the authority of Jesus to accomplish his mission. His mission, we recall, is described as follows in the Gospel of Luke:

• Luke 4:43: “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God …. For I was sent for this purpose.”

• Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In Luke 4:18 we see certain groups mentioned as a specific “target demographic” for the mission of Jesus:

• …to bring good news to the poor
• …to proclaim release to the captives
• …and recovery of sight to the blind
• …to let the oppressed go free

In today’s narrative, a man is oppressed by an evil spirit and perhaps held “captive” by this evil spirit and so is a representative of the specific group that Mark describes.

Western thinking on why a man might act like the individual in the narrative generally focuses on explanatory issues:

• Biological causes
• Societal causes
• Physical causes
• Spiritual causes
• Etc., etc.

However, the Biblical concept of health and wholeness [See: Wilkinson, “The Bible & Healing” (1998)] extends beyond physical health to the wholeness of the complete person:

• The Old Testament concept of shalom expresses the fullness and well being of life in all of its spheres.

• The Old Testament concept of salvation (“Yeshua”) includes salvation from all forms of evil: sickness, mental illness, demonic powers, etc. and often had a communal focus (especially “salvation from foreign powers”)

• The Old Testament understanding of health is rooted in holiness, righteousness, and obedience, which are expressed through well-being, strength, fertility, and longevity.

• The New Testament concept of salvation (soteria) includes the idea of deliverance or preservation, with a focus on physical aspects as well as a focus on the spiritual aspects of salvation.

• The New Testament concept of health as life itself (zoe) differs from the basic concept of biological life lived in time and space (bios) or the life which merely animates a body (psyche).

• For example, John 3:16ff refers to zoe, and not to bios or to psyche.

The problem that we have in the west with embracing the relationship between healing, wholeness and salvation can be seen in our efforts to translate these ideas into English, e.g. Matthew 9:21:

• She said to herself, “If only I can touch his cloak, I shall be cured.” (New American Bible).

• for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well.” (Revised Standard Version).

• for she said within herself, “If only I may touch his garment, I shall be saved.” (Young’s Literal Translation).

• She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” (New International Version).

• For she said within herself, “If I do but touch his garment, I shall be made whole.” (American Standard Version).

We see that there is one big idea that embraces:

• To be made well
• To be cured
• To be healed
• To be made whole
• To be saved

And so our western ideas, including…

• Biological causes
• Societal causes
• Physical causes
• Spiritual causes

…all come together in: shalom + salvation (Yeshua and soteria) + health as life itself (zoe). So, how might we understand “shalom + salvation + health as life itself” today in relation to mental illness?

• Understand the scope of the issue
• Understand the myths
• Understand the facts
• Recall the metal illness is not separate from personhood
• Avoid stigmatizing
• Don’t assume we know the answers to other people’s unspoken questions
• Recall the meaning of “compassion”

In understanding the scope of the issue, consider that during the lifetime of a congregation, we might expect to see the following, as illustrated in this image [data from Saddock and Saddock, 2003):

• In yellow: Major Depressive Disorder: 10-25% (women); 5-12% (men).
• In red: Specific Phobias (11% men and women).
• In turquoise: Post-traumatic stress disorder (8% men and women).
• In purple: Generalized anxiety disorder (5% men and women).
• In blue: Dysthymic disorder (6% men and women).
• In green: Alcohol abuse (10% women and 20% women).
• In orange: Substance abuse (20% men and women).

This image makes it clear that mental illness is not somebody else’s problem. This is our problem and all those brightly colored crosses in the image represent the people sitting here this evening.

In terms of understanding myths, these are among the most common:

• Myth: Children do not suffer from mental illnesses.
• Myth: Mental illness is just a state of mind.
• Myth: Mental illness is always a result of human choices.
• Myth: Mentally ill people can never fully recover.
• Myth: There is no difference between mental illness and mental retardation.
• Myth: Mental illness does not affect the average person.
• Myth: People with mental illness are very dangerous.

Among the facts, some stand out:

• Fact: Severe mental illnesses are more common than cancer, diabetes or heart disease.
• Fact: The number one reason for hospital admissions nationwide is psychiatric disorder.
• Fact: At any given time, almost 21% of hospital beds are filled by persons with mental illness.
• Fact: One in every five families is affected by major mental illness.
• Fact: Mental illness does not discriminate and is not separate from personhood (consider John Nash, the Nobel-prize winning mathematician who lived with schizophrenia for much of his adult life. The movie “A Beautiful Mind” tells his story well).

When we think about stigmatizing those with mental illness, let us examine our own behavior:

In talking with your friends and colleagues, would you…

• Talk about mental illness in your family?
• Discuss any history of your own mental illness?
• Discuss that you are seeing a psychiatrist?
• Discuss having knowledge of psychiatric medications?

Or would you…

• Make jokes about people with mental illness?
• Deny, deny, deny?

When we don’t assume we know the answers to other people’s unspoken questions, we are following a good example. In Matthew 20:29-34 we read that Jesus encounters two blind men who call out to him, “Have mercy on us Lord, Son of David” And Jesus responds by asking, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Note that Jesus did not assume that he already knew what these people wanted; he asked them! Once again we see a theme now familiar to us – we note that Jesus was “moved by compassion” and recall that this translates a Greek term that signifies “to feel it in your bowels” and that our English word is from the Latin: Com (with) + pati (to bear, suffer) = “To suffer with”. Compassion is more than simply curing someone’s illness, feeding their hunger, clothing their nakedness….essential as these are….it is the deep stirring that moved Jesus (and so should move us) to act.

The “Good News” in all of this is captured in the words/terms we have been using:

• Salvation (Yeshua and soteria)
• Health as life itself (zoe)

These are just as available to us today as they were in the days when Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth; perhaps we miss them because they call for compassion.

Thanks for visiting!