Mental Disorders and Sin

In my testimonies I have written of how much of my mental pain and torment has been due to my own waywardness and sinfulness. This is a very important aspect to my own mental disorder and one which it would not be wise for me to ignore. Yet not all mental health issues are down to sin on the person’s part, or, at the very least, not primarily. It is the link between mental disorders and sin which I want to look at in this article.

The Variety of Mental Disorders

There are so many different expressions of mental disorders. Some are very natural and even have good fruit. Guilt following something which is your fault is not wrong but a quite natural and correct response, and if the sin was grievous then even extreme guilt is quite natural and correct. Grieving after the death or the onset of severe illness in a loved one is also perfectly natural and a right response to the situation. Anxious thoughts about an important event, even a sleepless night or two, are natural and, if not always good are certainly no need for excessive concern about having a “mental illness.”

Then there are the traditional, modern classes of “mental illness.” (The term mental illness I strongly object to so will almost always use it in quotes.) Conditions such as anxiety, depression (sadness is a very different thing) and such conditions as PTSD occur as an over-response to certain situations, often repeated until they become ingrained.

And then we get the “nutters” such as myself: those with bipolar (previously called manic depression) or schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. These are hard – possibly impossible – for anyone to understand. Medical professions try to come up with diagnostic lists, suggested treatments, proposed cures, mitigation techniques, “understanding counselling,” and the such like. But my friend with schizophrenia is a completely different person to myself, who also has schizophrenia, and so any treatment of him and myself as if we had the same ”illness” or had a lot in common or if our disorders had the same cause is erroneous and, frankly in my opinion, dangerous. Yet it is how the world treats those with mental disorders. And we suffer because of it.

The Variety of Causes

Just as there are a variety of mental disorders, so there are a variety of causes. Childhood abuse, exclusion or excessive domination during the formative years, drug and drink use, dangerous spiritualities, obsession with material possessions or status, violence committed by or against a person.

And then we come to the real root: we live in a fallen world. Adam tasted the forbidden fruit. And so we have all inherited that death which results, and that death isn’t just a physical death at the end of one’s life on earth; it is a death which permeates every part of our being until we are born again into the Kingdom of God through trust in the atoning death on the cross and the victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. And even then, moving from death to life is a lifelong endeavour, not a one-off event.

In the list I just gave – which is by no means definitive nor exhaustive – you can see that some are the fault or the person (sin) whilst others are the faults of other people committed against that person (also sin, but not ours). And then the root is that we have all been “sold under sin.”

David Murray in his short article The Problem with “Mental Illness” (http://headhearthand.org/blog/2013/04/15/the-problem-with-mental-illness/) plainly states:

“I wish there was a word or phrase to cover the mental and emotional disorders (e.g. depression, anxiety, schizophrenia) that result from both personal sin (for which we are responsible), and personal suffering (for which we are not – or not wholly – responsible).”For example, when I sometimes write about “mental illness,” some Christians hear such “disease” terminology as denying sin, minimizing personal responsibility, undermining the sufficiency of Scripture, and ignoring the divine provisions of repentance toward God, faith in Jesus Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That’s not my intention.”On the other hand, I and others react against the way some Christians reject all (or most) “mental illness” categories. We see this as a serious denial of biblical anthropology, a denial of the extensive damaging effects of the fall upon humanity.”

The Demonic Possession Controversy!

Okay, this is one which causes a lot of distress and a lot of arguments, but I feel I need to cover it. I will do so briefly but if you want to read more then there is an excellent article at the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese website written by Mother Melania which covers it in more detail. (http://ww1.antiochian.org/node/22478) Sometimes – but certainly not always! – mental disorders are caused by demons. Demons can influence people. They can distort people’s thoughts, words and actions. Yet these instances are rare. Mother Melania puts it like this:

“Well before the time of Christ, Greek physicians treated people for mental illness. As heirs to this medical tradition, Byzantine physicians did the same. The Church Fathers routinely refer to medical treatment of the insane with no hint of disapproval. In one case (that of “lunacy”), however, they insist that the cause is not physical, but demonic. This seems to be the exception that proves the rule. (Basically, lunacy seems to refer to epilepsy-like symptoms that are associated with certain phases of the moon. The Fathers routinely insist that the demons are causing these symptoms and are timing them purposefully with the phases of the moon to cast the blame on it.) In this one case only, the Fathers take great pains to deny medical causes. In all other cases, they generally accept the physicians’ diagnoses.”

(Note that physicians in ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire were very different to modern psychiatrists. I am not suggesting that modern psychiatry is right by my using this quote.)

I also believe that demonic possession can be short-term, especially if we are truly Christians. We can, through some grievous error or some other cause, temporarily be taken or influenced by a demon. And then the demon leaves as quickly has he came. This may explain such things as road rage, murderous thoughts, hideous outbursts of wrath; though now I surmise. The main thing to be aware of here is that being demon possessed is not an unpardonable sin beyond the reach of Christ’s love and it is not always some punishment for great un-confessable sin. And it is not always a lifelong curse and it is not always necessary to visit a local exorcist. And, demonic possession is rare. Most mental disorders are not caused by it.

The Way to Deal with Mental Disorders

Generally there is one word which sums up the response we should take towards those with mental disorders: compassion. This applies to those without mental distresses towards those who do have them, between those who mutually have mental disorders and, if we suffer ourselves, towards ourselves also. Yes, often sin will need to be challenged. Sinful thoughts, words and actions are hidden neither from ourselves – we may try and forget, but then they are just buried and rotting within us – nor from God. Judgement is real. We must be sober-minded and be aware of that and, especially, the solution for our sin: Jesus Christ and His finished work upon the cross. Yet those of us with mental disorders can usually do without having guilt trips placed on us – by anyone, including ourselves. Many people invent sins they accuse us of. Many try and place heavy burdens on us at our most vulnerable moments (one I found impossible to comply with whilst in hospital was the smoking ban). Many say something is a sin when it is not. Many try to browbeat us into conforming to how they do things because it “works for them.” Yet we must treat those “persecutors” with love and compassion also. And those trying to care for the mentally disturbed must first show love and compassion, even before any thought of a “cure.”

Let me quote again from Mother Melania:

“The Fathers in general pitied the mentally ill and possessed – and even at times admired them. St. Augustine speaks of the compassion of those who minister to “those whom they greatly love as if they were their children, or some very dear friends in sickness, or little children, or insane persons, at whose hands they often endure many things; and if their welfare demand it, they even show themselves ready to endure more …” (St. Augustine, 1980, p. 25).”

The Ultimate Cure

Forgiveness. 

It is a simple word. Almost impossible to achieve towards ourselves and towards others. Either we will always excuse ourselves and blame others or we will always excuse others and blame ourselves. Sometimes we blame both ourselves and others, and that is usually nearer to the truth.

Yet Jesus Christ came to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). He died to save us from our sins and he died to save others from their sins. We must forgive. But how? We can only do so through the grace given to us by God through Jesus. There really is no other way to achieve this; any other way; be it counselling, medication, getting one’s own back, telling everyone about it – they just hide the truth that we are hurting because we are not forgiving.

Yet do not feel that I am condemning you in this. Some do make every effort to forgive and yet the mental distresses continue. We grow in grace. It is a lifetime work within us, not something we achieve overnight. We cannot hope to lay aside every burden and have eternal rest whilst we still have this on-going war within us between the Spirit and the flesh unless we have, indeed, achieved the blessèd sainthood of the most blessed Christians ever to have walked the earth, and those of us with mental illness may find that journey much harder than most people.

“Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” 

–  Philippians 3:13,14