These days we don’t talk much about demon possession.
Yes, popular horror films such as The Exorcist, with their graphic portrayals of demonic possession, do make the rounds in our culture. But most respected health professionals think that a belief in possession by demons is an irrational throwback to earlier, more superstitious times. Today we have a much more scientific view of life than they did in Biblical times. What they called demon possession, we call mental illness.
This is based on a secular worldview that does not accept the reality of the spiritual world—or at least holds that if there is a spiritual realm, it has no noticeable effect on the material world in which we live. Today, the educated leaders of Western society think more in terms of science than in terms of spirit. Even most Christians in the West consider an insane person to be “mentally ill” rather than “demon-possessed.”
And that’s not all bad. There certainly is less social stigma attached to being mentally ill than to being demon-possessed.
But it is also a symptom of the reluctance of educated people today to accept the idea that there are spiritual forces—let alone spiritual personalities—influencing us all the time. Science aims to explain everything through purely physical and biological processes, without resorting to unseen entities from another realm. And just as most people today no longer believe that evil spirits cause physical illness, we are also trained to think of mental illness as the result of malfunctions of the brain rather than of evil influences from spiritual realms.
This certainly does take away much of the fear and social stigma associated with the idea of demon possession. But from a spiritual perspective, it also takes away some of the most powerful ways to approach what we now call mental illness.
Yes, the medical and psychiatric world has some impressive tools at its command for controlling mental illness. But their methods commonly come at the expense of not dealing with the deeper causes. They tend to control, but not cure, the mental and emotional instability that plagues those who struggle and suffer with conditions that could aptly be called a personal hell.
And the drugs prescribed by psychiatrists commonly have their own side-effects, which can include a numbing of the thoughts and emotions of the people who use them. That’s one of the reasons mathematician John Nash (1928–2015) ultimately chose not to take the psychiatric drugs prescribed by his doctors, as dramatized in the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind.
What can we say about mental illness from a spiritual perspective?
Medical treatment vs. spiritual treatment
Medical treatments do have their place. The forces tearing us down mentally and emotionally can be powerful. Even people who are spiritually aware may need the assistance of standard medical and psychological treatment to help them keep their lives on track.
Still, I have come to believe that the only true and lasting cure of many mental illnesses comes from a living relationship with God—preferably within the fellowship of some kind of church, spiritual growth group, or support group.
Of course, there are some mental illnesses that are entirely physical in origin—such as inherited diseases and congenital handicaps that prevent people from fully maturing mentally. But for most adults with normal brain capacity, I believe that the causes of mental illness are primarily spiritual.
Let’s be clear: this does not mean that people who struggle with mental or emotional instability are particularly evil or sinful people. We all have our struggles. Some of those struggles are more mental and emotional in character, while others are more physical and social.
Yes, it’s true that if we keep on making bad life choices, it can eventually send us off the deep end mentally and emotionally. But we may also be struggling against influences beyond our control that have gradually torn down the structures of stability in our mind and spirit. Just as we can be physically sick either because we have lived in an unhealthful way or because we are stuck in an unhealthful environment (see “What is the Source of Human Fragility, Sickness, and Disease?”) we can be spiritually sick both through our own choices and through physical, emotional, and spiritual injuries that have been dealt to us by the people and the environment around us.
In other words, the point of saying that mental and emotional instability has spiritual causes is not to point fingers of blame and shame, but to provide a more powerful way to deal with that instability—no matter whether its cause is inside of us or outside of us, or a combination of both.
Jesus heals a demon-possessed man
The story told in Mark 5:1-20 of Jesus healing a demon-possessed man illustrates many of the issues we grapple with in approaching mental illness. (I recommend that you click the link and read the whole story before continuing on. It’s not long.)
From the Bible’s perspective, here was a man who was possessed not by one, but by many devils—so many they called themselves “Legion.” This man was not in control of himself, and no one else could control him either:
This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones. (Mark 5:3–5)
If we look at the spiritual symbolism in this description, we can gain a deeper understanding of the psychological reality that is expressed overtly in mental illness, and more subtly even in people who think of themselves as being mentally stable. Because what we call “mental illness” is really just an acting out of forces that are at work in all of us—but that are better controlled and concealed in some people than in others.
Living in the tombs
First, this man lived in the tombs. The tombs referred to in the story were caves in the cliffs along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which were used as tombs for dead bodies, and were therefore considered ritually unclean by the ancient Jews. Spiritually, these tombs represent the mental and emotional death we experience when the life and love in us is destroyed by crippling encounters with the darker side of ourselves and of the people and forces around us. We live in the tombs spiritually when we cannot have a full, happy, and outgoing life because of the inner demons that continually tear at our thoughts and feelings.
No one could bind him anymore
We may try to control these dark, destructive thoughts and feelings in various ways, just as the people of that region tried to control the demon-possessed man by binding him with chains. To use a common example that falls well short of mental illness: if we have a compulsion to overeat, we may try to bind ourselves with strict diets. But they usually don’t work. After forcing the diet on ourselves for a while, we tend to tear off the chains and go back to the way we were living and eating before. Yes, some people manage to make it work. But for many people, external strictures can’t control their inner impulses any more than the chains that bound that demon-possessed man could control him.
Night and day
Night and day he was among the tombs and in the hills. This is a metaphorical description of the manic-depressive condition before it was ever labeled that.
Night and day: sometimes things are dark as night, other times they are as bright as day. Sometimes we struggle with dark thoughts and feelings, other times we have joy and happiness. And so we are among the tombs and in the hills. In our spiritual nighttime, we feel close to death inside of ourselves—and may even become suicidal. That’s when we are in the tombs. But then we may have times of great spiritual insight, when we metaphorically climb the hills to gain a higher view of life, and of our own predicament. These times of insight and inspiration give us a sense of hope that helps keep us going through our darker times.
And yet, just as the times of darkness and spiritual death give way to the spiritual mountains and hills of spiritual insight and inspiration, so our spiritual heights give way once again to the depths of struggle, depression, and despair. Or if the desires and compulsions we are struggling with are less dramatic, our high resolves to give up the destructive habit that has us in its grip gives way to falling right back into the same old habits.
Cutting ourselves with stones
When this happens, we cut ourselves with stones. We know that the way we are living is wrong. We know we should do the right thing, and we know what the right thing is. That is the stone of truth: the knowledge of what is right and wrong, and that we seem to be on the wrong side more often than the right. We cannot be blissfully ignorant. When we fall once again, we chastise ourselves, call ourselves nasty names, and consider ourselves weak and stupid because we are not living up to our own ideals. We cut ourselves with stones, punishing and hurting ourselves on top of the harm already being done by our bad habits, wrong behavior, or mental illness.
Mental illness and healing of the spirit
It’s a sorry state of affairs that is described metaphorically by this demon-possessed man. And I’m afraid it is one that many of us are all too familiar with. We don’t have to be medically classified as mentally ill to suffer from the emotional and spiritual effects pictured by the demon-possessed man in the story.
And yet, whether or not a psychiatrist would diagnose us mentally ill, the way to lasting inner healing is the same. Perhaps we will need to use medical means to stabilize our mental and emotional situation for a longer or shorter time. Some people whose cases are very severe may have to remain on psychiatric drugs for the rest of their lives as part of their regimen of facing and dealing with their inner demons.
But it is only when we do what the demon-possessed man did that we begin the process of deep spiritual healing that is necessary for us to be made spiritually whole and in our right minds.
Going to God
What did the demon-possessed man do?
When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. (Mark 5:2)
The verse goes by so quickly that we could easily miss its significance. So let’s read it again: “When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him.”
Did you notice it?
This man didn’t just stay in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he came out to meet him. When he became aware of the power of God approaching, he took the initiative and approached that power. And he didn’t do it half-heartedly. A few verses later (in verse 6), it says that he ran and fell on his knees in front of Jesus.
This is the element missing from all purely medical and psychiatric approaches to mental illness. The practitioners of these methods may be skillful in dealing with physical and chemical malfunctions in the body and brain, and even with some of our psychological and emotional imbalances. But because they deny the reality of spiritual forces acting upon us, and avoid any reference to God—let alone calling on divine power for help and healing—they can never deal with the spiritual roots of what our society calls mental illness. They can never deal with the presence of inner evil, of our natural tendency toward self-absorption and toward focusing on material-world possessions and desires.
Science, as powerful a tool as it can be for understanding and harnessing the materials and forces of this earth, has no power whatsoever to approach and deal with the spiritual levels of a human being. Only God, and a religious or spiritual perspective that recognizes the reality of God and spirit, can face and deal with the inner demons that possess our spirit.
Facing our demons
Scientist, philosopher, and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) had no trouble bringing spiritual realities to bear on physical and mental illnesses. In Apocalypse Revealed #458, where he interprets the words “they did not stop worshiping demons” in Revelation 9:20, he says that “demons mean evil cravings that come from materialistic loves,” and that “worshiping demons means indulging in these cravings because we love them.”
Here is the crux of the matter.
Whether we have knowingly made choices that led to our present state of mind or whether we were thrust into it by overwhelming forces and events in our lives, we come into a state in which we get used to our particular destructive patterns, and may even gain a perverse pleasure from them. This is certainly true of various addictions. And it is true of other self-limiting and self-destructive behaviors as well. We eventually attach ourselves to them. We think, “This is the way I really am.” And that self-image, together with our continual cravings, leads us to keep right on engaging in the destructive physical, mental, and emotional habits, afflictions, and addictions that are steadily killing us.
Only a power greater than our own love, emotion, and craving can break through that evil spiritual legion of inner demons and restore us to sanity and wholeness. Only the greater power of God working in our lives can accomplish it—because God’s love is the only spiritual force in the universe more powerful than the spiritual force of our human loves and desires.
Jesus’ boat is landing on our own mental and emotional shores now.
The divine power of God is present to heal us now.
And if, like the demon-possessed man in the story, we approach Jesus, not walking, but running to bow down in the presence of that divine power, we will begin to feel God’s healing power in our lives. If we open up our hearts and minds to the powerful presence of God’s love and wisdom, we can find healing from the inner demons that possess us. Perhaps it will not happen all at once as it did in the story of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man. We each go at our own pace. For some of us, the healing may take years, or even decades. But healing will come, step by step.
In Part 2 we will explore further just how that healing happens.
Meanwhile I leave you with this thought: our mental, emotional, and spiritual healing begins when we approach God, and place our life in God’s care and keeping.
(Note: This is a revised version of a talk originally delivered in March, 2001.)
For further reading: