I have quite regularly heard those who argue against Christianity say that Jesus, Paul, and other Biblical figures were mentally ill. Indeed, there were people who thought that at the time they were preaching – Mark 3:21 records that Jesus’ family thought he was insane and in Acts 26:24 Festus accuses Paul of insanity. It is an easy charge to lay, that someone who teaches something we dislike is in fact mentally ill, and many religious leaders, both in the Bible and outside, have been accused of it.
I was reading through some suggestions for churches produced by the excellent Time to Change (pdf) (the mental health anti-stigma campaign) and noticed something interesting. Revd Eva McIntyre has produced an idea for a sermon in which she talks about how others perceived Jesus, and Paul, and other Biblical figures as being insane. What interested me is that she says:
Perhaps we need to ask why it would be so terrible to think that some of our most inspirational forebears might have experienced mental health illness! Do we mistakenly believe that God cannot or will not work through people with mental health illness? Do we transfer our judgment of the capacity of others onto God? Do we think that mental illness is one condition that makes people less able to do God’s work, more unlikely to be able to articulate spiritual truth, and unable to participate meaningfully in worship?
I found this an interesting challenge. Like most people I would normally be quite forceful in saying, of course Jesus/Paul/whoever was not mentally ill, and yet as a person with mental health issues myself, I am implicitly saying that my witness, my teaching, my views are worth less than someone with perfect mental health. It seems that I have internalised a stigma against mental ill people without realising it. As she also says, many people find the idea of Jesus being mentally ill offensive – how does that inform how we react to people who are mentally ill?
It is, of course, true that mental illness can affect our perception of the world. In my case, I become convinced that everyone dislikes me, that I am worthless, and so on. This is an incorrect perception but it is real to me at the time. For others, their view on reality may be changed by psychosis. This does mean that we are less reliable in certain matters – I cannot say, when ill, that I am a good person, that I am trustworthy, that I am forgiven, and in that state I couldn’t whole-heartedly teach about the forgiveness and grace of God because I am unable to feel it for myself. That doesn’t make the gospel any less true, but might affect how someone understands it if I am teaching them. I have never had experience of psychosis, but I can imagine that if my perceptions of the world were significantly disordered, and I was ruled by delusion and paranoia, that my ability to show others about God, and to be believed, would be affected.
Does this mean that a mentally ill person cannot be a good witness? According to the prosecution guidance notes from the CPS a mental illness does not preclude a person giving evidence at a trial, and it appears that they take measures to ensure mentally ill people’s voices are heard. Yet I would imagine that in the popular perception we as mentally ill people are less credible than someone who is not – and that affects our presentation of the gospel. For example, I have had non-Christian friends say, when hearing that I write about Christianity and mental health, that “obviously” all Christians are mentally ill, with myself being a prime example. For such people, knowing that I have bipolar means they are more likely to discount my experience of God.
It is difficult, because there are good reasons for others to say that my – or your – experience, our knowledge of God is faulty, because we have a mental illness. We know that our mental health does not affect every single aspect of our lives – I may have bipolar but my illness does not mean I am a bad Christian, nor that I have some strange beliefs that are decidedly heterodox. Stigma means that my words may be less listened to than others, and I don’t know how to change that. Time to Change is trying to combat stigma, and I would suggest we still have a long way to go outside the church, but we also need to look at what happens in the church. Would we, for instance, be happy with having a minister with schizophrenia? With paranoia? Or any of the other mental health issues? Would we judge that minister as not being a good example to others?
Personally I think we as mentally ill people have a great deal to give – I remember Paul’s statement that God’s power is manifest in our weaknesses, in Jesus prioritising the poor and the weak as examples of the Kingdom. I think that we are all in our different ways broken, in this broken world we live in, and that mental illness is just a more obvious example of that brokenness than others.
Do I think Jesus was mentally ill? No – but I think it should not matter if he was.
- 8 Ways You Can Help When Someone is Mentally Ill (believersbrain.com)
- Mental Illness (essencelifeblog.com)
- Work and the Mentally Ill : An All Too Common Problem (bipolarlessons.com)
- It’s time to tackle mental health stigma in our classrooms (schoolsimprovement.net)