How Should a Christian Respond to Mental Illness?

Question from a reader:

How should a Christian respond to mental illness? How do you determine if there is demon possession or if it is genuine mental illness, in which case, the person is still acting in sinful ways based upon biological problems. Of course some mental illnesses are said to be chemical imbalances but I’m more curious about our response to severe mental illness. Also, closely related to mental illness is brain damage victims and a change in behavior as a result. How is the Christian community supposed to respond to sinful behavior that is a result of brain damage?

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

I highly recommend Blame It On the Brain? by Ed Welch. He is a guy with extensive psychological knowledge who is rock solid on Scripture. His book Addictions - A Banquet in the Grave: Finding Hope in the Power of the Gospel I used when teaching a seminary class called “A Theology of Desire.”

Here are some articles from seminary professor and theologian Gerry Breshears on demon possession which might be helpful. If interested in more, see Clint Arnold, 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare.

Three Models of Deliverance (from demon possession)

Deliverance Ministry, addressing issues such as demonic deliverance

Basic principles for dealing with the demonic

Here are some recommended articles that raise some good issues:

The Christian and Mental Illness IV: Is There Mental Illness In The Bible?   

Is Mental Illness in the Bible?

The first article on this page may or may not be helpful:

Achieving Mental Health: The Role of Psychotherapy, Drugs, and Religion

For most biblical counseling-related material I highly recommend the CCEF (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation) website.

Finally, here’s something I found on the web on mental illness and the Bible:

Q. Can you recommend materials on biblical references to mental illness and God’s forgiveness for the mentally ill for making wrong decisions?

 A. The depiction of mental illness certainly does go back to biblical times. In the Old Testament, we’re told that “an evil spirit from the Lord tormented King Saul” (1 Samuel 16:14) and that David played the role of therapist to the melancholic king: “Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him” (1 Samuel 16:23).

There are many religious approaches to mental illness—some of them helpful, some not so helpful, in my view. Those that emphasize mental illness as a punishment for sin are, of course, not so helpful, from the clinician’s standpoint. However, Alcoholics Anonymous has argued for many years that the Bible contains material that is very helpful to those who are in need of healing. AA usually cites the Sermon on the Mount, the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, and the Book of James (The Co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical sketches. Their last major talks. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1972, 1975, pp. 9-10).

The passage from First Corinthians, which some interpret as expressing the love of God, certainly sounds a note of tolerance and forgiveness. The apostle Paul writes: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or does not insist on its own way...Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Similarly, in his article Depression Deceptions, The Rev. James Winsor notes that, “Holy Scripture tells Christians to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). We’re told to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). God doesn’t want you to carry your depression alone. God makes sure there are Christians around who understand.”

There is a large literature in the Judaic tradition that emphasizes mercy and forgiveness, though I’m not aware of direct references in the Bible to forgiveness of the mentally ill or their behavior. We do have many general statements that could be interpreted in this light, however; e.g., “The Lord lifts up all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down...” (Psalm 145).

If we interpret “falling” and “bowed down” in terms of, say, severe depression, perhaps we can find the sort of teaching you are seeking. Focus on the Family offers many book recommendations and free resources related to depression and mental health.

Finally, here are some possibly relevant Scriptures that could relate to mental illness.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV)

When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken. (Psalm 24:17-20 ESV)

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV)

And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly.... (Matthew 17:14-20 ESV)

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” (Luke 11:24 ESV)

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8 ESV)

So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. (Matthew 4:24 ESV)

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own. (1 Corinthians 6:19 ESV)

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 ESV)

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1 ESV)

For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1:7 ESV)

And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19 ESV)

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV)

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17 ESV)

The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged. Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.... (Isaiah 1:1-31 ESV)

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will. (Ephesians 1:11 ESV)

For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:12 ESV)

Of David, when he changed his behavior before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away. I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together! I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.... (Psalm 34:1-22 ESV)

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 ESV)

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:22 ESV)

If we interpret “falling” and “bowed down” in terms of, say, severe depression, perhaps we can find the sort of teaching you are seeking. Focus on the Family offers many book recommendations and free resources related to depression and mental health.

Photo by Vlad Chernolyasov on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries