Facing our Demons of Darkness, Depression, and Mental Illness – Part 2

In Part 1 we looked at the issue of mental illness through the lens of the story of Jesus healing a demon-possessed man in Mark 5:1–20. One of the points made in that article was that mental illness is not some separate category of human experience. Rather it is part of a continuum of inner struggles that all of us face against the darker and more difficult parts of our character and circumstances here on earth, whether or not a psychiatrist has diagnosed us as mentally ill.

The Bible, understood on a deeper level, tells the story of the spiritual life of each one of us (see “Can We Really Believe the Bible?”). The story of Jesus’ healing of that demon-possessed man applies spiritually to every one of us. We each face our own inner demons, and we each need God’s help in casting those demons out. At the end of Part 1, I left you with the thought that in the same way the demon-possessed man had to approach and kneel down in front of Jesus in order to be restored to health and sanity, our mental, emotional, and spiritual healing begins when we approach God and place our life in God’s care and keeping.

Shortly after the events of the Gospel story covered in Part 1, Jesus returned to his home town of Nazareth. There, unlike in the foreign territory across the Jordan River where he healed the demon-possessed man, the people did not accept him. In fact, they took offense at this local boy presuming to teach them in their synagogue. Because of their lack of faith, the Bible narrative tells us, “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them” (Mark 6:5).

Jesus then sent his twelve disciples out two-by-two. And:

They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. (Mark 6:12–13)

You can read the whole story in Mark 6:1–13.

Who are the people of Jesus’ home town today? They are the people who call themselves Christians.

A prophet without honor in his home town

Though it is set two thousand years ago, the story of Jesus being rejected in his home town applies today to those of us who consider ourselves Christians.

As the old saying goes, “familiarity breeds contempt.” In Part 1 I talked about how Jesus can come into our lives and heal us of all manner of mental, emotional, and spiritual sicknesses. But none of that will happen if we have grown so used to Jesus and Christianity that, like the people of Jesus’ home town, we don’t accept the power of our own God to heal us.

Do those of us who are Christian believe that Jesus has the greatest power and ability to heal our emotional struggles and our mental illnesses? Or do we believe that when push comes to shove, human counselors, therapists, and  psychiatrists hold the key to our mental and emotional wellbeing? Do we think that inviting God into our life may make us just a little better and a little nicer, but that when it comes to the really tough issues, it’s time to call in the human experts? Or do we accept the radical teaching of the Gospels that Jesus is our Physician and Healer?

I am not suggesting that anyone who wants or needs counseling and therapy should not take advantage of these tools for mental and emotional wellbeing. We are meant to help and rely upon one another as well.

But the greatest source of healing is within us all the time. We make the same mistake as the residents of Nazareth if we do not accept that divine source. The deepest and most complete healing from our inner demons and mental illnesses takes place only when we invite God into our lives.

What is our norm and our goal?

There are many reasons why this is so. For now, I will focus on just one of them.

One of the perennial problems of counseling and therapy is that there is often not a clearly defined and effective goal.

  • Is the goal to help clients fit in with the existing society? If so, what if the existing society is out of whack? And how do therapists decide which part of a widely varying culture to “normalize” clients to?
  • Is the goal to help clients to accept themselves as they are? If so, what if there are aspects of the clients’ personalities that need serious change?
  • Is there some objective moral or ethical standard that the therapist is attempting to bring clients’ lives into harmony with? If so, where do we get those moral and ethical standards, and who decides which standards are valid and worth following?
  • Is the goal to let clients define their own goals, and help them to achieve them? What if the client has no idea what he or she wants to accomplish or be, but just knows that the way things are right now is a dead-end street? What if the client does have a goal—and it is not a good one?

As long as we rely on humans and human society to provide us with our norms and our goals, we will be building on shifting sands. We humans are a changeable lot. We are a mixture of saint and sinner, both individually and collectively. And sometimes it is awfully hard to sort out which part is which.

God provides us with a way out of this confusion.

As we are told in the Bible, God is the rock upon which our lives must be built. Unlike shifting, changing human beings, God is eternal and unchanging. When we bring God into our lives, we have a higher standard that we can always move toward as our goal. God gives a direction and purpose to our healing process, and to our entire life, that we cannot get from any other source.

God provides the standard of perfection toward which we can aspire.

The divine standard

That standard of perfection has a specific personality that can serve as a reliable guide as we discern the specific direction in which we need to travel in order to move from mental illness to spiritual health. As we begin to sense and understand the nature of God, and to see where we are not in harmony with God’s nature and God’s ways, we can begin our healing journey.

Let’s look at the most important aspect of God’s personality, and see what it means for our healing process.

Mark 6:13 says that after Jesus had sent his twelve disciples out, they “anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” In those days, oil was what kept the lamps burning, both in the Temple and in people’s homes at night. The flame of the lamps gave both warmth and light.

The oil that fuels our hearts and minds, giving us us both warmth and light spiritually, is God’s love burning within us. When we are inwardly anointed with the oil of God’s love, that is when we begin to find healing from our inner demons.

What is love?

We humans talk about love all the time. But do we really know what love is? Love is not just a generalized feeling. It has a definite life and character.

Let’s get specific. Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) writes:

The essence of love is not loving ourselves, but loving others and being united with them through love. The essence of love is also being loved by others. This is how the union takes place. . . . Love consists of having what belongs to us belong to others. Feeling another person’s joy as joy in ourselves—that is what it means to love. (Divine Love and Wisdom #47)

In other words, real love—God’s love working in us—is getting outside of ourselves and making others happy. And real love is feeling joy when we know and feel that other people are feeling joy. Real love is not inward-looking, but outward looking. It is not ingrown, but outgoing.

Mental illness involves self-absorption

In most mental illness and personal angst there is an element of inward-looking self-absorption.

When we are caught in the throes of depression, or locked in some compulsive behavior, or spinning out of control mentally or emotionally, we tend to be very wrapped up in our own feelings, our own thoughts, our own behaviors. While other people may be included in the picture, the focal point of our picture tends to be ourselves and our own problems and pain.

I do not say this to pass judgment or to condemn. The reality is that we all start out in life wrapped up in ourselves. Little babies, as cute and innocent as they may be, are driven by their own feelings of comfort, of being loved, of being cared for. If they are comfortable and happy, they smile and make happy noises. If they feel hungry or wet or hurt, they fuss and cry. And in all of this, they really don’t think about anyone else’s comfort. They are absorbed in their own immediate experience.

That’s where we all start out: wrapped up in ourselves. Even when we head into adulthood our thoughts and feelings tend to revolve around ourselves.

  • We may be focused on how we can enjoy the good life with all its pleasures and perks.
  • Or we may spend our time focused on our own misery and on how much our life sucks.
  • Or we may spend all our time and energy worrying about what other people think of us, and trying to make them like us.
  • Or we may think that if only everyone were as smart, thoughtful, and capable as I am, the world would be way better than it is—with all those idiotic jerks out there! And that’s why it’s my job to fix the world, and everyone in it!

The common denominator is thinking that in one way or another, the whole world revolves around me, and I am the most important person in it! I am the focus of my own world.

Change is required

It’s not a matter of shame that we start out all wrapped up in ourselves. It is simply the way we are wired when we first come into this world.

If babies didn’t fuss and cry whenever they felt bad, many of us would not even survive infancy, because our basic needs would not be met. As babies, we must let our parents and caregivers know when we need something because we can’t do it for ourselves, and our life and health depends on it. For more on this, see: “How Can I Raise My Children from a Spiritual Perspective?” and: “Noah’s Ark: A Sea Change in the Human Mind.”

Our whole task during our lifetime here on earth is to allow God to come into our life and rewire us so that instead of thinking of ourselves first, we think of God and other people first. We have to be profoundly changed as a person in order to feel and express genuine love and concern for one another—the kind of love that God has for us.

The Bible calls this rewiring “repentance.” And the very first thing the twelve disciples did when they were sent out was to “preach that people should repent” (Mark 6:12).

Repentance is the process by which we stop wanting, thinking, and doing things that hurt ourselves and others. The Greek word for “repentance” means “changing our mind.” Repentance is a process of inner change by which we leave behind our old self-limiting and destructive attitudes and behaviors and begin to live in a new way. When we realize that we are mostly wrapped up in our own pleasure and pain, and that we are very far from having the positive, outgoing type of love that comes from God, we must also realize that we need the life-changing power of repentance.

In order to begin the process of repentance we first need to learn about God. That is what gives us the valid standard and goal spoken of earlier. What is God’s love like? What is God’s truth? How does it apply to me? What would I be like if I were living the life God created me to live? Who would I be if I were fully the person God created me to be?

The process of repentance then moves on to taking an honest look at ourselves to identify specific areas where we fall short. In twelve-step programs, this is the step of “making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

When we have identified one or two flaws in our life and character that we can work on, we must not only admit to them honestly, but take personal responsibility for them. And we must then commit ourselves to fixing those personal flaws, recognizing that we cannot do it on our own, but that with God’s help and the help of other people who are also on a spiritual path, we can do it.

And so, in prayer to God and in mutual support, we begin living in a different way. For more on this process of repentance and spiritual rebirth, see: “What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?

God can heal us only if we are willing to face our inner demons in this head-on, conscious, and committed way. Each one of us will have our own way of approaching the process. However, I will offer you one very practical way to face our demons and to cast them out and replace them with God’s love.

Loving and serving others is a key to healing

For all of us, but especially for those of us who struggle mental illness or with other types of inner demons, one of the most powerful tools for healing is to physically get out and do something for someone else.

Perhaps we will not be able to do very much at first. But think about it. The nature of love is to love others, to serve them, to give them happiness, and to feel their joy as joy in ourselves. And that is exactly what we are lacking when we’re all wrapped up in our own problems—whether those problems are severe and debilitating or merely annoying and obnoxious.

The greatest antidote to our natural self-absorption is to get out there and do something for someone else!

  • This may be through taking a new attitude toward our job: instead of just doing it to get a paycheck, we can do it cheerfully and with a commitment to serving others.
  • It may be through volunteering in some kind of community service.
  • It may be through thinking of ways to make our family members, friends, and neighbors happy by doing things for them and giving them help and support.
  • Even if we’re a patient in a hospital or mental health facility, we can work on making life easier for the doctors, the staff, and our fellow patients.

No matter where we are, and no matter what our situation is, there will always be opportunities to show thoughtfulness, love, and concern for others instead of always focusing on ourselves and our own problems.

Perhaps this seems too simple to make a difference.

Yet there are powerful healing benefits in simply getting out of our self-absorption and doing something for other people. As we focus our mind outside of ourselves—even if it is a struggle at first—we will soon start making healing connections with others. As we enter into their joys and struggles, it will make our own struggles seem less burdensome and more bearable. At the same time, we will increase our own joy and compassion because we will begin to feel within ourselves both the struggles and the joys of the people around us in a way that we never did before.

The arduous climb toward mental and spiritual health

I’m not saying it will be easy.

The more severe our inner demons or mental illness, the harder we will have to work, and the longer it will take to fight our way out of it—even with God’s presence and God’s love powering us from within.

And yes, even with God in our life we should still take advantage of all the professional and personal help we may need from other people. Part of learning to love and care for other people is also learning to let other people care for us, help us, and love us. In the very act of accepting help from others who are concerned about our wellbeing and have the ability to help us, we are giving them an opportunity to grow in spirit, too.

As we go through this long and arduous process of moving our focus away from ourselves and our own troubles, and toward loving and serving the people around us, the personal pains and struggles that had been the focal point of our lives will gradually move to the side. Though they may still be with us, they will no longer consume us. Yes, we may have to remain on guard to prevent them from roaring back in and taking over once again. But over time our life will be transformed almost without our realizing it.

Another way of saying this is that as we fight the good fight against those old demons, we will experience the healing power of God’s love in our heart and mind. We will gain the power and confidence of God within us as we travel a new path toward mental and spiritual health—and toward eternal life as angels in heaven.

(Note: This is a revised version of a talk originally delivered in April, 2001.)

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Pain and Suffering, Spiritual Growth, The Bible Re-Viewed
6 comments on “Facing our Demons of Darkness, Depression, and Mental Illness – Part 2
  1. Brian says:

    Hi Lee,

    Thank you so much for these! As with many of your posts, this one is very well timed with things in my personal life. The perspective of looking outward toward other people is so important; and admittedly way easier said than done. It really can make a huge difference in one’s state of mind when we invest in those around us. Even small gestures of friendliness can go a long way. Making such traits a habit really can change a person – and their outlook on life.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Brian,

      Good to hear from you again. Glad to hear this one was timed right to hit home for you.

      I have seen it happen that people diagnosed with mental illnesses began to live a new life with new meaning when they made God an integral part of their life, and began devoting themselves to loving and serving their neighbor in their own particular way. Not that it necessarily magically erased their mental illness. But their life was no longer determined by that, and the impact of their psychological imbalances began to fade.

      If you haven’t watched A Beautiful Mind, I highly recommend it. It is not a bio-pic, but rather in the nature of a novelization of John Nash’s life. But it does capture very well the essence of his struggle with schizophrenia, and his decision not to take the psychiatric drugs prescribed for him, but to tough it out in order to keep his mind sharp enough to do his work. Though Nash was an atheist, and therefore did not have the benefit of God working consciously in his life, it was his devotion to his work that enabled him to push his mental illness to the side over time so that he could continue that work, to which his life was devoted.

  2. Bronwyn Egan says:

    Thank you Lee! Yes, brilliant timing for me too, even though I only read this a week after you posted it. Your article meant that I didn’t have to struggle with an important decision…something I usually find very stressful. Much appreciated!

  3. SeunAlaba says:

    Even though I have gone through it before, I felt like going through it again. Hope you do not mind my sharing it on my Facebook wall sir. Thank you Sir

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