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Spiritual Abuse and Mental Illness

Sunday’s lectionary gospel passage was from Mark 1:21-28.

1:21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 1:22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 1:23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 1:24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 1:25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 1:26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 1:27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 1:28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

It’s important for us to spend some time discussing and reflecting on this passage because we are not comfortable with the idea that there are unclean spirits or evil spirits that not only could change our lives emotionally and mentally but could cause us to physically convulse, are we? This is not a term or situation we are familiar with, but it is something that we confront and encounter as we read the gospel accounts of Jesus and his ministry. Modern interpretations lean towards the understanding that someone with unclean spirits would be the equivalent today to someone who struggles with mental illness or perhaps some sort of physical disability that cannot be overcome with mere focus and attention but needs a miraculous healer like Jesus.

In too many cases, this interpretation has become dangerous because pastors and teachers will tell people who struggle with mental or physical illness that they just need to pray and ask God for healing and not pursue any kind of medication or therapy offered by science. The Healer can heal everything and no matter what kind of mental illness or mental health issues you struggle with, you just have to pray more and believe more and you will be healed 

This is spiritual abuse.

For 15 months I led a weekly chapel service at Transitions Homeless Shelter. The number of people who I encountered who were struggling with mental illness was astounding. I have to admit that my encounters to people with mental illness up to this point have mostly been with people who have done the good and important work of recognizing the struggle they have, naming that and seeking good and whole care from experts. This was not the case at Transitions. I encountered people who were struggling desperately for their lives and their souls. I encountered people who didn’t have the money to fill their prescriptions, didn’t have the healthcare options to seek help, and people who had completely given up. I encountered these people at Transitions because that’s exactly what happens to people who have struggles we don’t understand. They end up on the outskirts of society, away from the public eye, and apart from our awareness. This was true in Jesus’ day and time as well.

And in limiting our understanding of those who are in need of Jesus’ healing and hope, we are not creating sanctuary in our communities of faith. Instead we are creating a place where we our assumptions are reinforced and where people have to come put together rather than their real and broken selves.

This is spiritual abuse.

Jesus welcomed all. Jesus did not shy away from the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus spoke to the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus healed the man with the unclean spirit.

What are we going to do as we have come into contact with the gospel truth that Jesus Christ has the power to call our unclean spirits? What are we going to do with this account of someone who is so vulnerable and in need? Are we going to keep studying and learning more about the power of Creator God in the form of a human or are we going to continue to engage in spiritual abuse that shames and blames people who are struggling with mental illness. People struggling for survival. Children of God who are desperately searching for hope and healing. 

The choice is up to you.