What I Wish Christians Knew About Prayer and Mental Health

demon possession and mental health

Are Mental Health Issues Demon Possession or Something Else?

Today’s guest post comes from Jim Miles.

My sister spent her twenties declaring that she would never, ever have children. By the time she reached thirty-three, however, things had drastically changed. Her insecurities over her ability to be a good parent gave way to the maternal instinct to nurture and love a baby. It was a joyous day when she sat on my living room couch and broke the news to our family that she was pregnant. The whole family rallied around her in excitement, but no one was more excited than my sister.

On January 1, 2006, my sister delivered the most beautiful baby in the world, a sweet little girl weighing 11 pounds, 6 ounces and sporting a natural fauxhawk. My little niece was the greatest gift to us all.

My sister loved her baby so much, but as she sat home with her precious newborn girl, she couldn’t stop imagining horrific accidents befalling her. It was an irrational fear that she simply couldn’t stop from replaying in her mind. Unable to shut it off, she became overwhelmed with anxiety and fear. The most joyous event of all of our lives was becoming, for her, a crippling fear born out of love.

My mother, unfortunately, didn’t understand mental health. She grew up in the era when depression was a taboo subject, something to be ashamed of. To her, someone with schizophrenia, for example, was hearing demons. Her lack of education on the subject blended with her strong faith for a perfect storm of ignorance. Although my sister knew my mother’s perspective on mental health, she was at a point of desperation when she confided in her about the darkness of her fears and anxiety. “It’s demons speaking to you,” insisted my mom with her characteristic certainty. “Pray them away. Just pray them away,” she told her. My mom was sure my sister just didn’t have enough to occupy herself, so she needed to pray away the demons who were stealing her joy.

My mom’s response to my sister’s postpartum depression and her ongoing anxiety and depression is, unfortunately, not uncommon in some Christian circles. Just last year, a wise Christian friend posted a meme on Facebook about prayer as the only means needed to treat depression. For those who live with chronic depression and anxiety, well-meaning spiritual advice can not only be damaging, it can rob them of the life God wants them to live—a life full of joy.

This declaration of mental illness as demons or other supernatural influences is rooted in a misunderstanding of the Bible. In his time here on earth, Jesus healed many lepers and cast out many demons. In the Zondervan NIV Study Bible, any time Jesus heals lepers, the footnote directs us to Leviticus 13 and 14 and the related footnotes, where we learn that leprosy was the traditional Hebrew word for “various diseases affecting the skin,” not the disease we know today. The Bible is a history, spiritual history, and life guidebook from God; it is not, however, a medical textbook for modern Christians. In other words, all the times Jesus healed leprosy, he may have been healing psoriasis, rosacea, eczema, or any number of other skin diseases.

Similarly, it’s important to understand the concept of demon-possession in the Gospels. Just as people of the day didn’t know of the different skin diseases, they didn’t know of the invisible health ailments that affect the body. It seems likely that when Jesus cast out demons, he was frequently casting out figurative demons. Just as having faith to move a Mathew 17:20 mountain doesn’t actually alter the location of Kilimanjaro but offers us faith to battle mountainous problems in our lives, demon possession was likely the ancient world’s understanding of medical ailments. For example, in Luke 11:14, Jesus casts a demon out of a mute man. Unlike in other instances, such as Matthew 8:28, there is no conversation with demons to report. Perhaps this man in Luke 11:14 had a figurative demon, plagued by selective mutism, severe anxiety, aphasia, or another health-related issue that affected his ability to speak.

Similarly, the demon-possessed girl in Mark 7:29 might have been healed from a neuromuscular disease, bipolar disorder, meningitis, or diphtheria. Jesus didn’t come to enlighten the world on medical problems; He would not have set the record straight on people he healed with schizophrenia, polio, or diabetes. Hence, both the people who were healed and the writers of the Gospels would have naturally thought these people were plagued with demons.

Today, we know the difference between aphasia and demon-possession. We know that diabetes can make children lethargic and emotional. Similarly, we know about glutamate and gamma-amino butyric acid deficiencies leading to major depression. We know that prescription drugs can be used to strengthen nerve-cell connections or to restore a balance of neurotransmitters in a person’s brain. There are very effective medications and therapies that change the lives of people who live with mental illness.

Knowing this, telling someone that all they should do is pray away mental illness is to lay on them a burden no one can bear. It implies that their faith or their love for Christ is not strong enough, as if there is something defective about whom they are and about their faith, a defect that gives them mental illness. As one friend with major depression was known to say about people who told her to pray away her condition, “If it was that easy, don’t you think I’d be better already?”

We would never tell ourselves or others to just pray away hypothyroidism, diabetes, atrial fibrillation, kidney disease, blood clots, or other invisible health issues; we would encourage them to seek medical treatment. Why then do we burden people (and ourselves) with the expectation that they should pray away medical issues affecting mental health?

This is not to say that prayer shouldn’t be part of the treatment equation. Whether you are fighting cancer, heart disease, or depression, you should be seeking God’s touch on your body and guidance for the doctors treating you.

Prayer should be part of the treatment equation--whether you have cancer or a #mentalillness. Click To Tweet

In John 15, Jesus instructs us to be a branch connected to Him as the vine and calls us into obedience, saying in verse 11, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” People living with anxiety, depression, and postpartum depression should not use the Bible as a crutch to prevent them from treating an illness that robs them of their joy (in Christ or otherwise). Christ came to set us from free the bondage of sin and the need to earn his love through burdensome laws and rituals. Jesus came to set the captives free, not to shackle people with the sadness and fear that comes from untreated mental illness.

Thank God my sister didn’t settle for my mother’s advice. When prayer didn’t prove to be enough, she talked to her doctor, who helped create a treatment plan for managing her postpartum depression and anxiety. My sister tells me, “If I didn’t have medications, I guarantee you I would not be here today.” And, six years after having her first child, she gave birth to another beautiful girl, and there was no recurrence of postpartum depression.

Untreated depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues rob people of a joy-filled life, and too many well-meaning Christians offer advice on praying away mental health issues instead of directing others (and themselves) to seek effective medical care. We know medication and therapy help people with mental illness, so mental illness can’t be of a supernatural origin, from a lack of faith, or the result of demonic influence. After all, real demons don’t respond to pills like mental illness does.

We know medication and therapy help people with #mentalillness; therefore, it can't be of a… Click To Tweet

prayer and mental healthJim Miles has a B.S. in English Education and Bible from the University of Northwestern-St. Paul and an M.B.A. frColton Silver Hero (NB)om Augsburg College. He is the author of Hero, a Christian superhero novel for readers aged 10-14. For more information, visit www.coltonsilver.com.

Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a ‘recovering cancer caregiver’ who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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  • I really enjoyed reading this! As someone who has battled both anxiety and depression, the post is very close to my heart.
    As much as I disliked experiencing both, I can now encourage others that are there. I don’t think I would have found such an intimate relationship with my Savior had I not been in a pit.
    Keep writing!

    Julie

    • Jim

      Julie, thank you so much for your encouragement. I have had a few other people reach out to me as well, and it’s a joy to write something that connects with people.

  • Tara

    Jim, thank you for sharing your story. It makes me so upset when people think you can pray it away. My moms nervous breakdown occurred right after my sister was born. I was only three years old.

    • Jim

      Tara, I’m glad it resonates with your experience. The more people understand mental health, the less stigma people will attach to it. No one asks for postpartum depression, and it’s no one’s fault that it arrives with a baby.

  • Thank you for this important post, Jim. I’m so glad your sister sought the help she needed. I often reflect on how God brought me community through PTSD. There were those who told me I needed to hold onto Biblical truths, so I didn’t feel so sad and depressed and tried to pray away the PTSD from me…but there were also those who walked beside me, encouraging me to seek professional help, sitting with me, crying with me and letting me unburden my heart before them.

    I now look back and see how God used the PTSD to draw me closer to Him…if He’d responded to those prayers and healed me then and there (which He was perfectly capable of), then I would never have learnt so much or come to know God’s deep abiding Presence. My faith was strengthened by PTSD AND by those who chose to be like Jesus, pursuing me in gentle, loving kindness, not placing shame and embarrassment upon me for the very real hurts and trauma I had experienced, but encouraging me to bring them to Jesus by crying real tears and holding me through it all.

    Going through EMDR therapy brought God into my most traumatic memories, as I saw, heard and felt Him right there with me, taking away my fear and reassuring me with His Truth. And it enabled me to be a witness to His loving embrace in front of an unbelieving therapist. God works in His Timing, in His way…which is much more often not a quick fix, but a beautiful transformative process.
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    • Jim

      I’m so glad you found the article helpful! Although I have not struggled with ongoing mental health, I have had experiences where I have been made to feel insufficient because God has not touched something in my life. The “it’s your lack of ______” (insert: faith, prayer, righteousness, whatever into that blank) is an effective method of pushing people away from Biblical teachings and into a works-based/earned-salvation theology. Ultimately, that pushes us away from God because He works in his own ways and we can’t know why he does or does not allow things to happen. I am so glad you found the help you needed and have maintained your relationship with Jesus.