Mental Illness in the Bible

When Sin is Called Disorder - One question I am commonly asked by Christians is, “can sin be considered a disorder?” Typically what the person who asks this question wants to know is, Can behavior associated with psychiatric disorders (for which there may or may not be a treatment) be considered sinful or wrong? Of the behaviors I have written about in the past, many presently are (rage, lying/stealing, addiction) or were at one time (homosexuality) associated with specific psychiatric disorders. But does calling a behavior the Bible considers sinful, a disorder, somehow make that behavior no longer sin? Absolutely not!

In the context of medicine, a disorder is a condition in which there is a disturbance of normal functioning. To be disordered is to be broken; thrown into a state of disarray or confusion. In no way does labeling a behavior as disordered cause one to assume that the behavior is normal or accepted. In fact just the opposite is true; disordered behavior is abnormal and implies the need for change. Sinful behavior, like all behavior, is a complex interplay between physical (biological), mental and spiritual factors. I find that the choice of label, disorder or sin, often results from ones perspective. If one focuses on the external or physical (biological), ignoring the spiritual, then one may call an abnormal behavior a disorder while a focus on internal or spiritual aspects may result in the same behavior being labeled as sin. One label does not somehow change or limit the other; both describe the same behavior from different vantage points or perspectives.

The labeling of a behavior as both sin and disorder also results from the availability of effective treatments or interventions that temper or limit the expression of the problem behavior. Given that all behavior is rootedin biology, it is understandable then that some sinful behaviors (e.g., addiction) can be altered through the use of physical remedies. The fact that there is such an overlap between behaviors considered disordered and those considered sinful is further proof that both biological and spiritual factors are involved. This having been said, it is important to realize that while some sins may rightly be thought of as disorders, not all disordered behaviors are sin.

The Bible and Madness What we call mental illness was not always treated as a medical problem. In the not too distant past the abnormal thoughts, feelings and behaviors often associated with these disorders were suggested to be signs of personal weakness and something to be ashamed of. Unfortunately, this is still a far too common perception in the Church today and has resulted in the alienation of thousands who desperately need the spiritual support that only the body of Christ can provide.

Some have said that mental illness did not exist in biblical times and is just a modern invention to legitimize sinful behavior. I once read an author that based his argument on the fact that you cannot find the terms mental illness or mental disorder in the Scriptures. He is correct of course, you cannot find those terms in the Bible but you do see the related terms madness and insanity used often. These terms are used to describe a set of thoughts and behaviors recognized to be extreme, debilitating and abnormal in nature. The existence of madness and insanity in biblical times is clear:

Mental Illness in the Bible - Some References to Madness and Insanity in the Bible

Old Testament A punishment for violating the covenant (Deuteronomy 28:28) Feigned by David to escape capture (1 Samuel 21:13-15) Prophets servant is thought mad (2 Kings 9:11) Madness compared to foolish behavior (Proverbs 26:18) Madness is the opposite of wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:17; 7:7) Nebuchadnezzar's punishment (Daniel 4:32-34)

New Testament Jesus is thought to be insane by His family (Mark 3:21; John 10:20) Jesus heals a lunatic (Matthew 17:15) Festus suggests that Paul is mad (Acts 26:24-25) Believers could be thought to be mad (1 Corinthians 14:23) Paul's ideas so extreme as to be thought insane (2 Corinthians 11:23)

So individuals displaying abnormal thoughts and behaviors, the mentally ill, were clearly known throughout biblical history. Today those same abnormal thoughts and behaviors have been categorized into a set of specific mental disorders for which many effective interventions and treatments have been developed. Mental health research and practice have made significant strides in relieving the mental and physical suffering of those afflicted with mental illness. Yet there continues to be a high level of suspicion, distrust and even fear in the Church when it comes to psychology and psychiatry. The simple fact is that Christians develop mental illness at the same rates seen in the general population and suggestions such as you need to pray more or this is just the result of weak faith are ineffective in dealing with these serious medical conditions.

Mental Illness in the Bible blog post from the Article Mental Illness, Sin, & The Bible by Matt Stanford Ph.D.