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What Does the Bible Say About Mental Illness?

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Madness “Madness,” wrote Emma Green for The Atlantic, “used to be considered an affliction of the spirit—demonic possessions, or Godly visions. Now it’s treated as a medical issue.” Her article was a summary of—and extrapolation from—a book by Andrew Scull called Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity. Her assumption (and Scull’s?) is a very common assumption, but is it true? Is it fair to conclude that people of faith once regarded all mental illness as supernatural interference, full stop? Let’s limit our exploration to just the biblical stories without going into the suppositions of post-biblical history. This is a good choice for those who judge the merits of post-biblical suppositions by the authority of biblical truth. There are not many references to madness in the Old Testament and the New Testament, but they fall into three categories: Mention of Madness with No Reference to the Supernatural “You are out of your mind, Paul…! Your great learning is driving you insane.” This was the reaction from Festus when Paul’s defense before the Roman governor turned to the subject of Christ’s resurrection from the dead (Acts 26:24). Notice not only the absence of any reference to the demonic, but also the presence of another suggested explanation from the governor: Paul’s “great learning.” This is intriguing, considering that mental illness in our day also accompanies those capable of deep thinking. It’s certainly not exclusive to bright minds, but think of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Could it be that even in the first century this correlation was noticed? “Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me? This was Achish’s reaction when David was brought before him. The soon-to-be King of Israel had fled to Gath, but feared for his life in the hands of Achish. So, “he pretended to be insane in their presence; and while he was in their hands he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard” (1 Samuel 21:12-15). The performance was convincing, and a disgusted Achish told his servants, “Look at the man! He is insane! Why bring him to me?” adding, “Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me?” Again, there is no reference to the demonic, but everyone knew what a psychotic break looked like. In fact, the king had plenty of experiences with those with troubled minds (“Am I so short of madmen?”) “At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored.” This was King Nebuchadnezzar’s recounting of his recovery from a season of delusional thinking (Daniel 4). Once again, there is no reference to the demonic. To be sure, God warns him through a dream that he would fall into this disorder as punishment for his pride. But the judicial sentence is no different than the physical maladies that came upon other Old Testament characters (leprosy, for example, or intestinal misery). “You’re out of your mind” When Simon Peter was under the threat of execution, the Jerusalem church prayed all night for him. He was miraculously released, and arrived at the house where they were praying. In response to his knock, a servant girl named Rhoda went to the door. On hearing his voice, she was so astonished that she ran back to the prayer circle without thinking to let him in. “Peter is at the door,” she exclaimed. Their reply, “You are out of your mind”—the Greek word is mainomai, from which we get the word “mania.” Once again, there is no reference to the demonic. In fact, in this instance, there isn’t likely a serious accusation of mental disorder. Likely, their objection was no different than what we’d say to an outlandish claim today: “That’s crazy!” Of course, this assumes they knew what “crazy” looked like, even if they didn’t regard Rhoda as deranged. Otherwise, their exclamation had no point of reference. This also the best way to understand the reference to baseless laughter in Ecclesiastes 2:2 (“It is madness”) or the references in Jeremiah to the madness seen in inebriated people (25:16; 50:38; 51:7). These instances should show that people in the Old Testament and New Testament stories were familiar with the phenomenon of mental illness and felt no need to resort to demonic influence as an explanation. Mention of Madness as Illustrative of Supernatural Influence There are several instances in scripture where madness is obviously used in an illustrative way. In other words, in an attempt to describe the result of divine judgment or demonic possession, the biblical writers turned to a phenomenon people knew—and feared: Their experiences with those suffering mental disorder. This is the best way to understand texts like Deuteronomy 28:27-29 (“The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind”) and Zechariah 12:4 (“I will strike every horse with bewilderment and his rider with madness”). It’s also the best way to understand Simon Peter’s reference to “the madness of the prophet” in 2 Peter 2:15-16 and Paul’s warning that people will think the Corinthians are mad if they hear them speaking in ecstatic utterances (1 Corinthians 14:23). All of these are reference to supernatural possession, but madness isn’t equated with possession but illustrative of possession. Mention of Madness with Reference to the Supernatural In a few stories, madness and demonic influence are directly related. First, there is the story of the disturbed mind of King Saul: “Now it came about on the next day that an evil spirit from God came mightily upon Saul, and he raved” (1 Samuel 18:10-12). Then there is the divided opinion the crowds had of Jesus. Some were intrigued, while others said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?” (John 10:20-21). Third, we have the story of the demon-possessed man among the Gerazenes. When Jesus set him free of demonic oppression he was said to once again be “in his right mind” (Luke 8:26-39). A quick tour through these biblical stories leave us with a far more complex conclusion than Emma Green provided in The Atlantic. The people of biblical times knew about the unsettling reality of mental illness, but only rarely related it to demonic influence. Most of the time, they regarded it as just one of the many tragic experiences humans suffer in this life. Some of the time, they used the phenomenon of madness to illustrate the consequences of divine punishment or demonic oppression. And in a few instances, they regarded demonic possession as the cause behind mental disorder. When modern believers discuss mental illness, we do so within these 3 categories as well. Cross-posted at www.anchorcourse.org/blog

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1 Sarah R = "This is an interesting story. King Nebuchadnezzar had became proud and cocky and was acting like a god. He had a dream which Daniel interpreted for him that God was going to judge him for his pride and strike him down. Then this happened: "Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird." When Nebuchadnezzar was able to recognize that God is the only God, and all he has is only because of God's grace, he was restored to sanity. See Daniel 4."
2 Sarah R = "Or, like in the story of the man born blind in John 9, people thought that the person was afflicted because God was judging them for an egregious sin. "
3 Sarah R = "Exorcisms are not common anymore, despite their popularity in horror movies. Jesus freed people from demonic possession, as did His disciples, which should make us wonder, does demonic possession still happen today? We are all sinners, and as such in our sinfulness do evil things to ourselves and others. We should not point at someone's sin and say they are evil and must be demonically possessed. But we should be praying for God to help us to be spiritually sensitive to what is happening in the unseen, as that is where the greatest battles lie.Ephesians 6:12 "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm.""