There is a great deal of rather ignorant talk from some Christians about mental illness. I think everyone has at least heard of, if not actually experienced, Christians who believe that mental ill-health is a spiritual problem rather than a medical one. Such people believe that a Christian must be in emotional good health, and any deviation from that good health means that that person has an unconfessed, unrepented sin in their life, that they have a demon, that they lack the correct mental attitude to Christ and the Christian life, and that that is why they suffer from depression, bipolar, schizophrenia and so on.
I do not believe this. I do believe that sin has a part to play in our mental state – the only reason that mental illness exists is due to our living in a broken, sinful world where things are not “good”, where the original plan of Eden has been broken by sin. So I do believe that mental ill-health, and physical ill-health, are caused by sin, but by corporate sin rather than necessarily individual.
Some people may think that individual, personal sin cannot cause mental ill-health – at one time I strongly resisted the notion myself. I resisted, because being told that you are suffering because of something you did, without being able to find that something, is one of the worst feelings I have ever had. I do not think that most people with psychiatric disorders are seeing the punishment of their sin in their mental state. I do, though, say that it is possible. For example, if we look in the Bible we are told that the Israelites were to be punished for breaking the Law with curses (Deuteronomy 27-28) including:
The LORD will plague you with diseases until he has destroyed you from the land you are entering to possess.
Later on there is an even more appropriate verse, although I would like to point out that verse 21 above talks about all manner of diseases, yet people with cancer, diabetes, etc are not usually turned on in the way people with mental illness are, and told that they are especially sinful. The other verse is particularly appropriate for us:
The LORD will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind.
For some reason – general societal stigma and fear, I would imagine – people seem to hold up this verse, declare to all of us who have mental health problems that we are being punished by God for disobeying him, for sinning. Less often do they look at verses which say that other illnesses can be caused by God as a chastisement. There are a few other references to madness as a punishment – for example in Zecharaiah 12:4 and the madness given to Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:32-34.
I wish with all my heart that those verses were not there, that I could in an unqualified way say that mental illness is never a sin issue, never has anything to do with your morals or character. I wish, but I cannot, and because I am a fairly orthodox Christian I take what the Bible says seriously. That means that when I am ill I do search my heart to see if there is sin, particularly serious sin in my life that I have not repented of. I have yet to find anything particular, and I do believe my illness is not my fault and is not God punishing me, but the possibility is there. I would also do so if I developed a physical illness.
That said I am not advocating for any of us to interrogate anyone in mental distress (or physical for that matter) and to suggest that they are especially sinful. I tend to think that the only time illness is given as a punishment it will be obvious what sin we are still committing and need to repent from. I do not believe God would chasten – as the Bible says he will – his children without giving us a solution, ie what to repent of. But this is a difficult matter, and I thought rather hard before giving any suggestion on this blog that mental illness could have personal sin at its root. I do not believe that it does have sin as its cause in the majority of cases.
The hope, the reason I think that God has not cursed me with this terrible disease is that the Bible is replete with stories of the just, of those who follow God suffering for no fault of their own. I refer you here to the story of Job:
In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.
Verses 9-11 of that chapter tell us that Satan argues that Job only fears God because he has everything he wants, he is wealthy, he has family, he has gone through no trial. God then allows Satan to torment Job essentially to test his faith and character. Job’s family are killed, his livestock destroyed. In the second chapter Satan once again receives permission from God to afflict Job – this time he covers him in painful boils from head to foot. At this point Job’s “comforters” enter the picture. These men tell Job that his afflictions are the result of his own sin, that God is punishing him for evil:
Think! Has a truly innocent person ever ended up on the scrap heap?
Do genuinely upright people ever lose out in the end?
It’s my observation that those who plow evil
and sow trouble reap evil and trouble.
(Job 4:7-8 The Message)
Job’s friends do what we see some Christians doing today – assuming that the reason for troubles in life, including illness, are the result of some sin we have committed. But we know that Job was innocent, was a righteous man above his fellows – we must not assume that our misfortune is a sign that God is punishing us. We may not always know why God is allowing depression, or other illness to come down on us, but we know that God is just, and that God does not wish our suffering, but permits suffering. We make a mistake when we look at only one aspect of God – God is indeed just, and he does sometimes punish the wicked for their evil – but he does not say that he will always punish the evil, that all sin will be punished in this life. There are occasions in the Bible where prophets lament that the wicked appear to prosper – for example in Psalm 49, Jeremiah 12 and Habbakuk 1. God is just, but he does not always punish when we wish him to – and of course, his justice is always tempered with mercy, else we ourselves would have no hope at all.
I have written more than I expected. I think the book of Job is useful to read when we wonder about our illnesses, I think it is important to note that yes, personal sin can cause mental and physical illness, but we must not focus on that, because it is apparent from the world around us and throughout the Bible that the innocent – or reasonably innocent – suffer for reasons we cannot see. Most of us with mental health conditions are not more sinful than others who do not suffer, and we need gentleness and love from others rather than condemnation. I will finish off with a couple of New Testament quotes which I have found useful:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.
Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?
I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?
I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.