My grace is sufficient: Mental Illness and the Bible
Mental illness and the Bible. Hmm. Mental illness is a modern concept, but the despair that it names is as ancient as people. So it should not surprise us to find that it is all over the place in the Bible. Today I want to suspend my usual language of medical diagnosis and look at what the Bible offers us in response to the deep pain of living in human, fragile nervous systems.
But first, as time travellers, we must forget 2 things.
First, forget the concept of illness. In the bible, great distressing emotions, voices, visions, and compulsive behaviours and siezures are signs of spiritual, not medical distress. They signal something out of order between the person, the community, and God.
Second, forget about individual failure or weakness. The ancients did not locate the source of the problem within the individual person. They did not, for instance, think about depression as being caused by a faulty brain, or by faulty thoughts, or by bad habits. Mental illness was NOT a personality characteristic. .
Instead, distress was something that afflicteda person. Afflictions unwelcome guests, like spirits, or fleas. One could be afflicted by great sorrow, or anxiety, or boils. A community could be afflicted with grasshoppers, or war, or mass panic.
What do you do if you have an affliction that is more than you can handle? You cry out for help. Our scriptures today give us three affliction stories:
· The psalmist, possibly David, is afflicted by strong emotions—fear, sadness, loneliness, despair, loss. In other psalms we also find anger and the longing to see one’s enemies suffer. But when the psalmist is happy, Oh, my goodness, the Heavens themselves celebrate! As time travellers we might think to diagnose at different times severe depression, or mania, or bipolar disorder. But we won’t! Because, this is DAVID we are talking about—bigger than life, with bigger than life story and bigger than life emotions.
· In the Gospel reading we are told of a man who is afflicted by demons that throw his body around and take over his voice. A person afflicted by demons might hear or see things that others do not, do very odd things that seem senseless, speak strange things in strange words, make odd sounds, or have epileptic attacks. Again, if we were to time travel and give a modern we might say that he suffered from schizophrenia, or severe Tourette’s Disorder, or epilepsy.
But our diagnoses wouldn’t mean anything. Possession by spirits made sense, gave meaning to frightening experiences, and protected the dignity of the afflicted person. These were were not diseased people, they were possessed people, sharing their bodies, unhappily, with alien spirits.
And have any of us ever felt possessed by something that we felt was alien to us? Did you ever find yourself in the possession of a temper tantrum? I have. Or of unwanted jealousy? Resentment? I have. And don’t we say, intuitively, that we want to be rid of these things? To have them removed? This is the way that it made sense then, and we still use this framework to hold on to our better selves when we are fighting with feelings that we know could lead us down dangerous pathways.
This man’s life is so unpredictable and disturbed that he lives among the tombs, where he can be alone and yet receive enough care from the community to stay alive. It’s an awful half-existance, metaphorically stranded between the worlds of the living and the worlds of the spirits.
· In the letter of Paul we are told of a third kind of affliction—chronic, disabling pain. Readers have argued for centuries about what the thorn in Paul’s side referred to. Was it an old injury? A metaphor for a character flaw? A recurring temptation of the flesh? Or was it just a thorn? We don’t know. But Paul refers to it as something that God let him stay afflicted by. God does not remove the thorn..
So, what do you do when you are afflicted? You do what babies do when they have troubles bigger than themselves to deal with—you cry out for help! You pray!
And how does God respond?
Let’s look back at these three stories
The Psalmist,asks God for help in the form of deliverance—from despair, and from human enemies. The psalmist wants victory!
Does the psalmist get victory? That isn’t clear. If we look at the life of David, we see that often he did get victory in battle, just as he requested. But he also got comfort other forms.
The natural beauty of the world gave David great inspiration and assurance. The faith that the God who was responsible for the stars in the night sky and the wonders of creation MUST be a powerful ally, and that this God loved him, David! personally! is obviously a great comfort to the psalmist. It still comforts and inspires us today.
So help does not always come in simple wish fulfilment. But we are given transcendent beauty, memories of better times, and hopes of better times to come. And we are given the knowledge that the same God who is responsible for all of this wonder around us, knows and loves us each, personally.
The Possessed Man. The man with the demons dares not even ask for help—he considers the situation hopeless. But help does come. Jesus simply orders those demons to vacate, and they do. Deliverance!
But wait, what was the point about the pigs? Why send the pigs over the cliff?
Here is an interesting detail about these demons—they are called Legion. Legion means many, and it also it refers to a Roman military unit. And at the time of this story, Judea and Israel were occupied, unhappily, by such Legions. When Jesus casts the Legions out of this man, what would those who heard the story think? That Jesus might have the answer to bigger problems—to nation-sized difficulties, such as occupation by alien forces?
It’s hard to say exactly what this story meant to the people of that time. As a healing story, it shows that Jesus had compassion for this unhappy man, and freed him from demonic possession. That’s the easy part. But when the man went to tell others of the miracle, they came after Jesus not to follow him but to kill him! Jesus had to flee! Jesus showed great compassion and courage, and a willingness to risk death to free somebody from hostile occupation. One who showed the power to decolonize a person might decolonize a nation. That threatened the powers that be.
We are still trying to understand all that Jesus means in terms of freeing people from that enslaves them—from within and from without.
And maybe I’m getting over my head for today.
It is enough to say that when one is delivered from bad spirits, there are ripples in the community, too. All kinds of relationships may be upended. People may get disturbed. Spirits may leave one and enter another. Healing of this magnitude is not a finished business—the story, like this story in the Gospel of Luke, may have many endings, and many more beginnings to come. Like life.
Finally, there is Paul and his thorn. Paul is not delivered from his pain. He is not lifted up above it, and it is not taken away from him.
Paul’s side is like the discomfort of the baby in the theme conversation—it causes him to cry out to a God that cares deeply for him. In this interaction, the circle of love between the child of God, who suffers a very human kind of pain, and God, who responds as a loving parent, is completed. Each time the circle goes around, love grows.
Paul learns to welcome this pain, chronic as it is, because it is the kind of vulnerability that reminds him of his constant need for God. In Paul’s pain, the Grace of God’s love finds a place to work. So, God’s grace, we are told, is sufficient to our pain. It is as strong as we need it to be. And Paul uses this experience to spread that grace around, ministering to his brothers and sisters in Christ. _____________________
Life is a beautiful business, but it is also a painful one. The psalmist might be a bit on the bipolar side in terms of depth and intensity of emotion, but I have to agree that life is very strong stuff.
The ancients got broken on the hard edges of life, and they cried out to God. They questioned and sometimes cursed God. They wondered why bad things happened to good people. Then they asked for help even if they didn’t have an answer to that question. Like us.
I can’t tell you why mental illness happens, any more than I can tell you why tragedies befall us.
But when in pain we care less about “why” and more about “how”---How will I get through this? How will I make it to feeling better? How will I go on?
I can tell you this. When we are in great pain we can cry out, praying for help. We can ask for deliverance, or strength to carry on, or comfort, or peace of mind.
And in reply, we may get deliverance, or strength, or comfort, or peace of mind. But we always get love. Great love that surrounds and fill us. It’s got our back, it lights our steps forward, It’s under our feet and above our heads. It’s by our side like a brother or sister. It hurts with us, laughs with us, and goes “wow” with us when life bowls us over.
My grace, says God, is sufficient for your pain. Spread that grace, also, to one another—be there for each other as I am with you. In this way, love grows—between us and God, and among the children of God.
I will close with that great modern day prophet, Leonard Cohen. This is from his song titled simply “Anthem”
So ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.