The conversation about mental illness is becoming more prevalent in our society—and that’s a good thing. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that “approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experiences mental illness in a given year.” Mental illness, while not easily defined, can range from a plethora of different hindrances and disorders that make normal, everyday life a challenge or borderline impossible for the individual. For the context of this piece, the disorders I will reference are those more common in our larger discussions as a society such as depression and anxiety.
What does the Bible say about mental illness?
The conversation on mental illness and its validity have been controversial at times, especially among those within the faith. It is important to note that the Bible never explicitly speaks about mental illness in terms of how we would define it in modern times. Even so, more churches are experiencing the effects of mental illness within their congregations. Treatment and care have been topics that many have debated, and while these questions are not easily answered, the Bible provides insight on how we should view and respond to those who are battling with their own minds.
Mental illness can be a physical issue
We know that one of the consequences of the fall is the corruption of God’s good and perfect creation of our bodies (2 Cor. 4:16; 1 Cor. 15:42; Psa. 73:26; Isa. 40:30). Our earthly lives are limited, and eventually, our bodies will fail us. This also applies to our minds. Throughout Scripture, we see biblical figures such as David (Psa. 38:4), Job (Job 3:26), Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), and Jonah (Jonah 4:3) dealing with deep feelings of despair, anger, depression, and loneliness. While some of these things can be attributed to spiritual warfare, it can be of a physical nature. Since we know that our bodies are prone to go awry at times, it’s possible that what we are experiencing is related to chemical imbalances or other things happening within our brains.
If this is the case, Jesus gives an example of how we should care for one’s physical needs in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When the Samaritan comes across the badly injured man on the side of the road, he takes him to be bandaged and cared for until he recovers (Luke 10:34). Other places throughout Scripture show God’s people using elements from the earth such as leaves and figs to assist in the healing process from physical ailments (Ezk. 47:12; 1 Tim. 5:23; Isa. 38:21). Taking medication in the midst of mental illness doesn’t show a lack of faith in the ability of the Lord to sustain us through the suffering. Rather, it may allow some to experience God with more clarity.
Mental illness can be a spiritual issue
Perhaps, in some cases, our depression, anxiety, or any other thing that we would consider to be mental illness may have a connection to our disobedience and sin toward God. While we know that those who have placed their trust in Christ have freedom from condemnation for their sins (Rom. 8:1), we may experience its earthly consequences. When we are confronted with the brokenness of ourselves and our sin, the conviction may be overwhelming and give us feelings of grief and despair. We see this take place when David is confronted with his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband (Psa. 51; 1 Kings 12). We also see characters where their mental state is somehow connected to their spiritual state (Dan. 4:28-33; 1 Sam. 16:14) Lastly, there are numerous accounts where the spiritual and physical seem to be connected, such as the account of Legion in the New Testament (Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39). From these examples, the hope we have in the midst of mental suffering is that the Lord knows, hears, can heal, and is always ready to forgive our sins when we come to him (1 John 1:9).
God is close to those who are suffering
What is constant throughout Scripture is that God provides comfort to the suffering and meets the needs of the brokenhearted (Psa. 34:18, Psa. 145:18). His Word promises that those who are in the midst of suffering, whether experiencing death or depression, have the hope that everything is working together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). It is outside of God’s character to senselessly torment those he loves (Lam. 3:31-33). We know that the trials that we are experiencing on this earth, while difficult and uncomfortable, are for the testing of our faith (James 1:2), to produce endurance and character (Rom. 5:3-5), and are never without purpose.
How do we respond?
Mental illness can affect any of us. Whether a pastor, Sunday school teacher, or faithful churchgoer, the suspected struggle of mental illness should not be a source of shame or be kept hidden. The Church should be a place of safety and community, where those who are struggling can be honest, ask people to rally around them in prayer, and be assisted in seeking professional help.
When we encounter people who suffer with mental illness, we should be hesitant to provide our opinion on what the source is or how it should be solved. This issue and human beings are complex. Heath Lambert said it best: “Caring for people means being alert to physical problems that require medical treatments and spiritual problems that require Christ and his Word.”
Most of us are not mental health experts, so we should stick to what we do know: God is good, loves us, and does not forsake his people. Pray with those who are struggling within your church. Treat them as fellow image-bearers. Encourage them to seek professional and medical help, if need be. Be available. Walk with them, shouldering one another’s burdens in order to fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). Only then will we love as Christ loved and care well for those who are hurting.