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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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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 boastful...love does not insist on its own way...Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

Similarly, on his website (http://www.mtio.com/articles/bissar82.htm), 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. You might want to get hold of the pamphlet, WITH CORDS OF COMPASSION: MINISTRY WITH PERSONS AFFECTED BY SERIOUS MENTAL ILLNESS. By The Rev. Jeffrey A. Hosmer, Ruth Drescher, & Eric Engel (Editors). (1992). United Mental Health, PHSDS Building 3rd Floor, 1945 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh PA 15219-5543.

Finally, the website http://gbgm-umc.org/DISC/mentillb.stm has a long listing of books relating religious teachings to mental illness.

September 2003

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