Sin and Mental Illness

Simonetta Carr
Wednesday, January 1st 2020
Jan/Feb 2020

Life is complex. In our fast-moving world, we gravitate toward simple answers, clear definitions, and well-defined categories. At first glance, sin seems to fall into this classification. It’s an offense against God, and through Christ it is confessed and forgiven. But when it comes to mental illness, we lose many of our bearings, whether we live with it or around it. It’s especially so when we try to apply to it our simple definitions of sin. While mental illness has certainly no power to change the basic truths about sin and redemption, it can bring unexpected questions to their practical applications.

Blaming Sin

The Bible teaches that evil, death, and the corruption of God’s perfect creation entered the world through the sin of Adam, the original representative of the human race. This corruption includes illness in all its forms. The problem arises when we move from a generic to a specific causation, trying to pinpoint a particular sin of an individual to his or her affliction. Since the Bible teaches that sin has consequences, we then tend to perceive negative situations as direct effects of distinctive sins.

This is an attractive response, because it’s simple and goes along with our natural instinct toward justice and retribution. Lex talionis—“an eye for an eye”—and karma make sense. It also seems like a logical response, but it’s not. Just because a particular sin can result in physical or emotional affliction, that doesn’t mean each affliction is caused by a particular sin.

The classic examples of this attitude in the Bible are Job’s friends who were convinced that his afflictions were the result of some personal sin (Job 4–23), and Jesus’ disciples who asked who had sinned in the case of a man who was blind from birth (John 9:2). This was also a pagan way of thinking, as evidenced by the sailors who took Jonah on board their ship (Jon. 1:7).

As attractive and logical as this response might sound, it’s usually hard to establish a clear correlation—let alone causation—between an affliction and a particular sin. One problem with an automatic correlation is that it can be applied only one way. While we can assume that sin brings on an illness, experience teaches that repentance doesn’t always bring healing.

In some cases, of course, the consequences of some particular sin do accelerate or aggravate a lurking condition. For example, alcohol or drug abuse is certainly detrimental to both physical and mental health, and unconfessed sins can trouble the mind in ways that may lead to obsession. But we can’t make of these specific cases a general rule, although the history of the church is filled with sad casualties of the tendency to do so.

The Appeal and Danger of Generalizations

Could it ever be the other way around? Could it be that, in some cases, our bodily afflictions that include disorders of the brain, affect our faith and obedience to God’s word?

I read an article that suggested that Vincent van Gogh’s confused mental state was due to his rejection of God. While that’s a possibility, could it be just the opposite? Could he have been suffering from a mental illness that clouded his reasoning? It’s always dangerous to speculate on the mental state of people of the past, especially when there are few documents available. But it can be equally dangerous to speculate on the mental state of those around us, if we base our judgment on preconceived ideas.

The possibility that mental illness can create situations where sin can’t be confronted in a presumed and prescriptive manner can be difficult to accept. And yet, there are cases of involuntary actions that require understanding and compassion (people with Alzheimer’s who deny their faith, people with Tourette’s who swear involuntarily, and so on). As a friend recently told me from personal experience, “Mental illness can manifest in ways that are almost instinctive to the afflicted, whereas spiritual care is more about approaching intentional acts. Often the sins of the mentally ill transact in a murky place somewhere before cognitive recognition and intentionality.”

In my book Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them, I mention the story of a young man who killed a close relative (the person he loved most) during a psychotic episode. His action of course was sinful, but his mental and spiritual recovery was greatly enhanced by the fact that those around him (even those who were hurt the most) put his health and well-being above punishment. He eventually recovered through a combination of medications and pastoral care.1 These might be extreme cases, but it’s important to be willing to sacrifice the convenience of set rules in order to judge each case on its own merit.

John Newton—who had personal experiences with mental illness in his adopted daughter Betsy and his close friend William Cowper—wrote a lengthy letter on this subject, wishing that Christians could learn to be patient with fellow believers in whatever stage of life they might be. After all, he said, we call a building a house even while it’s still under construction and call an area “a field of wheat” when the plants are only budding. Newton wrote:

It would be well if both preachers and people would keep more closely to what the Scripture teaches of the nature, marks, and growth of a work of grace instead of following each other in a track (like sheep) confining the Holy Spirit to a system, imposing at first the experience and sentiments of others as a rule to themselves, and afterward dogmatically laying down the path in which they themselves have been led, as absolutely necessary to be trodden by others.2

A person with mental illness may not look like the majority of people who are sitting in our pews. She might look confused, disturbed, anxious, suspicious of others, and unable to let go of negative feelings. She might have nervous habits, such as twirling hair or rocking back and forth. There are times when these signs might be predicting a crisis, and our knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of this person will help us to determine whether this is the case. These signs, however, can also be simple expressions of a persistent mental distress in a Christian who is struggling too hard to keep up a facade.

Wisdom and Humility

There are times when sin has to be confronted. When my son was alive, I had to talk to him frequently about church attendance and marijuana addiction. When and how to do this was a matter of wisdom and required much love and humility. Indeed, wisdom and humility go hand in hand, because we can’t even start to cultivate wisdom if we think we have all the answers. The Bible tells us that “with the humble is wisdom” (Prov. 11:2), and it contrasts a poor and wise young person with “an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice” (Eccles. 4:13). Humility is admitting we don’t know everything. It’s admitting that something like mental illness might just exceed our preset, comfortable assessments. It’s admitting that we might need help from others who have more experience in these matters—including secular professionals.

Sometimes, medications are necessary before a person can think coherently about his or her spiritual life. Conversely, it’s also possible for a person to become overmedicated and act irrationally as a result. Ideally, a pastor should try to work together with medical professionals for the well-being of the person involved.

Overall, humility puts us in the correct frame of mind for a patient cultivation of biblical wisdom through fear of the Lord, prayer, study of Scripture, knowledge of facts and situations, advice, and experience. It also reminds us that we are all sinners and that our supposed mental stability might just enable us to hide our sins more efficiently than others.

Love and Faith

In Galatians 6:1–2, Paul gives us general guidelines for helping a brother or sister who is struggling with sin. We must do so, he says, “in a spirit of gentleness,” remembering our own sinfulness and bearing one another’s burdens. In the context of mental illness, these burdens might include feelings of depression or paranoia that lead a person to misinterpret well-meaning words and exasperate feelings of guilt. In these cases, persistent introspection is never a good idea.

As a friend recently reminded me, “The entire issue is a call to love, not necessarily to understand.” We might not understand how a specific mind is working, especially when it seems to work quite differently from ours; but we can still love the person as an individual made in God’s image and someone for whom Christ has died, counting him or her as more significant than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). In fact, we might end up being greatly enriched by those we set out to encourage.

In my experience, many Christians who live with mental illness are aware of their sins and weighed down by guilt, so a proclamation of the gospel works better than reminders of the law. There are times when they are both necessary, but an emphasis on the gospel seems to bear greater and more lasting fruit—largely because thankfulness for what Christ has done is a greater motivator than guilt and fear.

Besides, the gospel proclaims not only what Christ has done for us, but also what he continues to do in us through his spirit. Reminding others of this relentless, inner working can bring much comfort. The same realization can bring us peace and confidence, alleviating our frustrations and offsetting our natural desire to fix things quickly. The Lord has placed in my life wonderful examples of pastors who could show love and understanding in difficult circumstances without compromising the unmovable scriptural realities that provide an anchor in the storm.

This is not an easy balance to maintain. It’s easier to go one way or another—either stand on the shore and tell a drowning person what to do, or get so caught up with his or her pain that we let go of the anchor. In fact, bearing one another’s burdens in a biblical way may sound just too difficult—especially when mental illness is involved. But God knew what he was doing when he called us to this task, and when he gathered his church as a community of weak and stumbling sinners, all with varying degrees of mental instability, all in need of each other, and all desperately dependent on his grace.

Simonetta Carr was born in Reggio Emilia, Italy. She has written for various newspapers and magazines and has translated the works of several Christian authors into Italian. She is author of the series Christian Biographies for Young Readers (Reformation Heritage Books). She lives in Santee, California, with her family and is a member and Sunday school teacher at Christ United Reformed Church.

  1. Simonetta Carr, Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them: Schizophrenia through a Mother’s Eyes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2019).
  2. In Grant Gordon, ed., Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), 120–21.
Photo of Simonetta Carr
Simonetta Carr
Simonetta Carr is the author of numerous books, including Broken Pieces and the God Who Mends Them: Schizophrenia through a Mother’s Eyes, and the series Christian Biographies for Young Readers (Reformation Heritage Books).
Wednesday, January 1st 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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