Mental Illness in the African American Church
Can Christian Suffer Mental Illness
The answer to whether Christians can suffer mental illness is yes, and there is data to support this. First, this is not a discussion on “whether” someone “should” experience mental illness as a Believer, only that we do. Let’s define “Christian”, at least according to a biblical definition if not Webster’s dictionary. A real Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ and actively seeks to get closer to Him.
Although around 80% of the United States population claims Christianity, the number of real believers is much smaller. What more proof of this truth is required than the total rejection of God in our national leadership? According to a 2018 Pew Research study, there is no significant difference in claims of mental illness among believers and nonbelievers. Nevertheless, the same study finds that those who regularly attend religious services are less likely to report experiencing such symptoms.
Next, it is critical to lay the groundwork on what I mean by “mental illness”. Even in the biblical text, mental illness is described as a disease of “reasoning”. Please read the entirety of Daniel chapter 4 to affirm this view. Next, these struggles come in the form of experiencing depression, anxiety, ADHD, or emotional distress in general. From an African American church perspective, mental illness has been stigmatized to a place of being a “taboo” subject. Somehow, those with these issues “have less faith” it is believed.
Unfortunately, our churches cannot accept that someone can be both chosen and close to God and still suffer these struggles. A prominent example is the Prophet Elijah who asked God to “kill him” the pressure was so great. Yet, so special was he to the Lord, Elijah was one (1) of only two (2) people in the Bible to never see physical death.
Most who hold that Believers should never experience mental issues lean on the following texts:
1. John 14:27 - in this text, Jesus Christ promises His disciples peace of mind. He further indicates that the peace which He gives is not like that humans provide. Jesus, Himself, experienced “stress” in the Garden of Gethsemane. Further, He said “my soul is sorrowful even until death” (Matthew 26:36-46). I am not accusing Jesus of SIN – God forbid! Just stating that such deep sorrow, in our time, is considered “depression”. Yet, what is depression but a “struggle” to maintain one’s peace of mind?
2. Philippians 4:6-7 - this is one of the better-known texts about peace of mind. It tells us that we should not suffer anxiety about anything but pray about everything. To experience this peace, we must bring our worries to the Lord God in prayer.
3. Isaiah 26:3 - this is the scripture I most often quote on the subject! It promises God will “keep our mind in perfect peace if we focus on Him” and not our troubles.
In summary, Christians experience depression, anxiety, and other emotional issues. Walking with the Lord God does not mean we will not experience things others do. The Bible tells us: “it rains on both the just and the unjust”. The difference between Believers and others, however, is we have someone to take our concerns to for healing.
Is Mental Illness Discussed in Scripture
Yes, mental illness is discussed in Scripture, and I will give you two (2) quick examples. Although the terminology we use in a Greco Western context is different, mental struggles exist in the text.
Here are examples of people with mental health issues in the Bible:
1. King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4) - this King had his ability to "reason" removed because of pride. Although a one-time enemy of God, Nebuchadnezzar accepted His authority after the Hebrew boys were saved from the fiery furnace (Daniel 3). Nebuchadnezzar’s words in chapter 4 indicate that God removed his “reasoning”. This mental illness lasted seven (7) years after which it was healed.
2. King Saul (1st Samuel 18:8-9) - as the first king of Israel, Saul suffered extreme anxiety, fear, and paranoia after his rejection of God. Scripture also indicates soothing his mental illness was sometimes achieved through a young shepherd by named David (playing music). So debilitating was Saul’s condition, he even attempted to kill his own son-in-law (David).
3. Job (Book of Job) - although Job was a man of faith (Job 1), most of the book bearing his name indicates he was in a place of extreme depression. This resulted from "God sanctioned" attacks on Job's life by Ha Shatan (Satan). So bad was Job’s plight, he wished he was never born.
4. The Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20) – this young man was indwelled by a demon collective called Legions. Jesus cast out this collective, sent them into swine, and the man was restored to his right mind. Based on the description of his symptoms, today we would classify such an illness a “paranoid schizophrenia”. This is not to suggest all paranoid schizophrenics have demon level super-strength as did this man.
In summary, people who follow God have the same emotional and spiritual struggles as others. As you can see, even the mighty Job sunk down into a deep place of depression.
God’s View of Mental Illness
God’s view of mental illness is the same as any other sickness. The African-American church has so stigmatized mental illness, that sufferers have been discouraged from both coming and confessing for fear of rejection and ridicule. The reality is all sin results in sickness, both physical and mental, and all sickness comes from sin.
As followers of Jesus, we must dig into the biblical evidence with respect to how God views such things. I’m going to provide one (1) example proving that God views all sickness the same. I will more thoroughly cover this in the next article on mental illness and the church. However, Moses’s sister, the Prophetess Miriam, disobeyed God and was cursed with leprosy - a physical ailment.
As was mentioned prior, King Nebuchadnezzar disobeyed God and was cursed with “mental illness”. Apparently, God doesn’t view mental illness, as a curse on sin, any differently than physical disease curses. Both Miriam and the King were cursed and later healed by the same God.
How, again, is mental illness then so stigmatized why physical ailments are not? The answer lies in the African American church's views on mental illness as “earned” while physical illness is “inherited” and unavoidable. That is simply not true, and I will provide the data in the next several articles.
Does God Heal Mental Illness
Yes, God does heal mental illness but no, not always. The same is true of “non-reasoning” (mind) based diseases. Sometimes healing does not occur due to lack of faith as in Mark 6: 1-6. However, at other times, God’s Will requires suffering for His Holy Names sake (like Paul’s flesh thorn). While the biblical figures above were healed (save Saul), we must remember the seasonality of God.
Here are times when God did not heal sickness (physical or mental):
1. Timothy’s ailments (1st Timothy 5:23) - Paul advises the young Timothy to drink wine instead of so much water because of his frequent issues with stomach sickness.
2. Paul’s “thorn” (2nd Corinthians 12:7-10) - Paul pleaded with God three (3) times to remove this but God did not. God’s response to Paul’s request for relief was: “my grace is enough for you”. He learned to rely more on God’s strength than focusing on is sickness, as should we when the answer is “no”.
3. Prophet Jeremiah - if there was a more manic-depressive in Scripture, I am unable to locate him/her. Jeremiah wept, and even became so emotionally distraught, he accused God of lying to him (Jeremiah 20).
4. King Solomon (Book of Ecclesiastes) - if ever there was a book with a pessimistic view of the world, the book of Ecclesiastes is it. King Solomon was an old man by this time, and suffering from a form of “chronic pessimism”. Pessimism is a disease of “reasoning”. In the final analysis, and even in his extreme pessimism, the King had the clarity to sum up the entire Bible: “love God and obey his commandments for this is the whole duty of humankind”.
In summary, all mental illness is not healed by God. There were even great people in the Bible who lost hope. Most of all, if such a thing can work together for the good of them that love God, and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28), why would He heal it? Whether physical or mental issues, the more a real believer struggles, the more we pray. The more affluent we are and struggle free, the less.
Please continue with me through this series of articles on mental illness and the church.
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