Spiritual Attack or Mental Illness?

Spiritual Attack or Mental Illness?

Since I’m a priest, people will tell me of a loved one, friend, or acquaintance that is behaving dangerously, strangely, or self-destructively. They wonder if this is a spiritual problem or a mental health problem.

They want me to help them decide which one it is. Is my loved one facing a spiritual attack? Or is this a mental illness or behavior issue? Which one?

Usually people seem to be asking out of compassion, rather than just curiosity. They want to determine the cause, so they can propose a plan to help or cure the person.

They reason: If this is a spiritual issue, then prayer, deliverance ministry, and a community of loving support will help the person. Unfortunately, we sometimes add a dose of guilt and blame into the mix as well, assuming that if this is a spiritual problem, then the person simply needs to be praying or believing harder.

But, if this is a mental illness, then therapy, treatment, and perhaps medication will help them. Sometimes we add shame or guilt here too. 

Which one is it? Mental or spiritual? Physical – brain or Spiritual – spirit? 

Some Christians have an extremely negative view of therapy. They think all mental health therapy is harmful, or that all medications are unneeded. If only we have enough faith, straining our souls, we can win that battle. God wouldn’t want us to compromise and go to a therapist or doctor “instead of”going to him.

Others have an extremely negative view of spiritual healing. They believe that only mental health therapy and medication alone can treat someone. Yes, they believe in praying for the person, but they think its weird to see any spiritual issues in these things. They are afraid the person won’t seek treatment if we emphasize the spiritual side of things. Besides, I wouldn’t want to be caught up in anything that seems weird, would I? We often do this because we can then pass the person on to a professional, and feel like we’ve done our part. Its cleaner that way.

Binary or Whole?

Why do we so quickly think in such binary ways? After all, we believe that Jesus was God and Man. We believe that he had two natures in one person. We don’t have to choose whether he was Man or God, he was fully both.

We believe that the created world is spiritual too. Matter and spirit are all one in God’s created order. Yet we know that they are different at the same time.

We tend to think in binary ways until we face our own issues. We see people with problems as “others” until we find that we are one of them too.  Then suddenly we want all the help we can get!

Our spiritual existence and our physical existence happen together. We are human. To be human is to be both spiritual and physical at the same time. Our brains malfunction. Our spirits are influenced. Both happen. When we encounter a disorder in ourselves or others, both matter.

And this doesn’t just apply to “other people.” This is you, and this is me. We are human: complex, amazing beings created in God’s image. We also live in broken world, and all of us is affected by that. But nevertheless we are spiritual and physical beings in one whole self.

What to do

So when you, or a friend or loved one, experience depression, or panic attacks, or delusional thinking, or any other experience of mental disorder do not try to choose between a spiritual attack or a mental one. You don’t need to!

Be a healing presence to the whole person. Recommend therapy. Support medical decisions. Listen. Love. Serve. And pray, fight a spiritual battle, offer to connect him or her with spiritual counsel and a church community, if he or she doesn’t have one. Seek to be a healing presence for all of the person, rather than limiting people to a binary existence.

For yourself, when you experience these things, reach out. Reach out to a hospital or counselor for safety and stabilization. Reach out for a medical diagnosis. Reach out for therapy. Take those steps, with a friend supporting you. But also reach out for healing prayer. Reach out for a loving community. Reach out for help in the spiritual warfare that surrounds you.

For the local church, support both of these ways God heals us. Don’t pit them against each other. Instead, love the Lord your God with all of your heart, your mind, and your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. All of you, all of us, all of him.

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