From time to time, I’ll skim the links referenced in Real Clear Religion. This past Tuesday, I came across a link to a featured post at Ministry Matters from Shane Raynor entitled Mental Illness and Spiritual Evil.
In his article, Raynor references statistics describing the proliferation of mental health diagnoses in recent years and common explanations for the phenomena. He then suggests that spiritual causes for the increased prevalence of mental illness may be overlooked…
Let me be clear. I believe mental illness is real. But I also believe that demonic influence, oppression, and in severe cases, possession are real too. Although mental and spiritual issues are two different things, we’d be both naive and foolish not to consider the connection between the two. I’m convinced that, in more cases than we’d like to admit, they feed off each other.
So far, nothing has been said that I’d take significant issue with, although respected theologians debate whether demonic possession continues to this day. But Raynor continues…
The Roman Catholic Church is upping it’s game on this. Many dioceses are training more priests in exorcism and deliverance, and earlier this year, the Vatican legally recognized the International Association of Exorcists, an organization of Roman Catholic Priests who perform exorcisms. The rise of occultism is considered a contributing factor for the increased demand. World famous Vatican exorcist Father Gabriele Amore one of the founders of the IAOE claims to have been involved in treating more than 70,000 cases of demonic possession.
Whether or not you agree with the Roman Catholic theology or methodology, you have to admit that at least Catholics are doing something to deal with an urgent problem of the churchwide level.
What are the Protestant denominations, particularly the mainline churches, on this issue?
The links included in the story clearly undermine the argument Raynor puts forward. Quoting from an article in the Telegraph cited by Raynor…
The church insists that the majority of people who claim to be possessed by the Devil are suffering from a variety of mental health issues, from paranoia to depression. Priests generally advise them to seek medical help.
But in a few cases it is judged that the person really has been taken over by evil, and an exorcism is required.
The need for exorcisms is “rare, very rare” said Fr Vincenzio Taraburelli, a priest in a church that lies just a few hundred yards from the Vatican. “In the cases where a mental illness is apparent, we try to send them to a doctor.”
Another priest interviewed for the article described the requests he receives for exorcisms…
“People come to me thinking that with an exorcism they can resolve all the problems they have in their lives. A child is doing badly at school? With an exorcism, we can make him study. They see exorcists as a last resort. Out of 100 people I receive, there will be one who has need of me as an exorcist.”
Including the time I spent in my general psychiatry residency and child psychiatry fellowship, I’ve been treating kids and families for a little over 28 years. In those 28 years, there was one time that I entertained the possibility of demonic influence…this particular patient was probably the most severely traumatized kid I’d ever cared for, having been removed from parents who were heavily involved with occult practices. To suggest that demonic influence in any way may account for the increased prevalence of mental illness on a website that serves as a resource for thousands of pastors and church leaders has great potential for harm.
More people in the United States seek mental health care from pastors than psychiatrists or primary care physicians. Nearly a quarter of those who seek help from clergy in a given year are experiencing the most impairing mental disorders. Most of those are never seen by a physician or mental health professional.
The first time I encountered a pastor at a ministry conference who insisted that kids with autism are demon-possessed, I was so startled I had no idea what to say. But kids can…and do get hurt by this thinking. Check out this article from Indianapolis Monthly (starting at Page 94) about an young preacher in training who attempted an exorcism with a teen boy with autism. Or this story of an eight year-old boy with autism in Milwaukee who died during an attempted exorcism.
So…what do we make of the numerous references in Scripture to Jesus and the apostles exorcising demons? Was the phenomena more common during Jesus’ earthly ministry? Did demon possession cease at the end of the Apostolic age or does it still exist to this day? If so, how would we recognize someone who was possessed? Here’s what Scripture would suggest…
- They may exhibit extraordinary strength (Matt 8:28, Mark 5:3-4, Luke 8:29)
- They typically demonstrated knowledge of the presence of Jesus or apostles immediately (Matt 8:29, Mark 5:7, Luke 8:28, Acts 16:17)
- They might be mute (Matt. 9:32, Luke 11:14)
- They might experience seizures (Matt. 17:15-18)
- They may be involved with occult practices (Acts 16:16-18)
Demon possession is not the reason for the increase in the prevalence of mental illness in modern society.
A brief comment on Shane’s comments about the connection between mental and spiritual issues…Are there situations in which sin, or patterns of sinful behavior lead to symptoms of mental illness for the person involved in the pattern of sin? Absolutely. Are there situations in which mental illness negatively impacts the ability of a person to grow in faith? Absolutely. But we have to be EXTREMELY CAREFUL when telling people who approach the church for help that they have a sin problem (after all, we ALL have a sin problem!) when they truly have a mental health problem.
Our ministry seeks to help churches minister to/with families of kids with mental illness, trauma or developmental disabilities. While we provide lots of services to churches, our role is truly to support local congregations in evangelism and outreach to a population we believe is greatly underrepresented in the church. We know that far too many people have been wounded by the church from accusation during episodes of mental illness, and we have a difficult time encouraging those who have been wounded to give church another try. Do we run the risk of misrepresenting God (see Job 42:7) when we leap to the conclusion that sin is the cause of a specific episode of mental illness without a very thorough understanding of that person’s mental and spiritual condition?
Image: The Exorcism, from The Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, by the Limbourg Brothers.
Key Ministry has assembled resources to help churches more effectively minister to children and adults with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and trauma. Please share our resources with any pastors, church staff, volunteers or families looking to learn more about the influence these conditions can exert upon spiritual development in kids, and what churches can do to help!