In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” Sometimes religious people can fall into the latter category, seeing demons behind every coffee cup–especially when it comes to mental illness in general and borderline personality disorder (BPD) in particular.
Lessons from a “possessed” house
My pastor, Ryan Ahlgrim, was one asked to perform an exorcism. The woman making the request had a daughter who had just moved. The daughter reported feeling an evil presence at times, and a range of bizarre experiences. My pastor spoke to the daughter, and asked several questions. He learned that she would also feel the evil presence in her car. He asked if she had any particular thoughts before feeling the evil presence, and she replied that she had memories of child abuse shortly before the presence would come. He asked if she saw a connection, and the light came on.
After realizing the connection, the evil presence never bothered her again.
We can learn a lot from this. When we sense evil, what is going on inside ourselves? What are we thinking or feeling? The evil we sense may not be an external demon, but an internal emotion. There just might be a logical explanation for our spiritual experiences.
My failed exorcisms
I attended an abusive church for about two years when I was in college. One traumatic incident marked my severance with that church and almost with Christianity–three people, who saw my illness as “Satanic oppression”, pinned me to the floor of my apartment while yelling “Satan, stop!” in an attempt to rid me of the demons.
It didn’t work.
On another occasion, I was told “I think you need to go off your meds and trust God for your healing.” Thankfully, I knew that was a bad idea and stayed on them–for me, the meds were God’s healing.
I was also told “If you just had enough faith and truly wanted to be healed, you would be.” I countered that God does not always heal–Exhibit A being the fact that every person dies, regardless of the amount of faith he/she has.
My fellow churchgoers even showed me a book which identified “eating disorders or cutting on yourself” as so evil that they gave Satan a legal claim to torment you, which could only be defeated by renouncing it in Jesus’ name. While the book acknowledged that some people have a chemical imbalance causing their mental illness, that part was conveniently forgotten by both the author and his devotees.
To this day, I get nauseated when I hear talk about demons causing mental illness. In a metaphorical sense that may be true, and symptoms like self-injurious behavior (SIB) and substance abuse may be considered sin in some religious circles, but rarely if ever is it true in a literal sense.
The other side of the coin
Contrast my experience with this quote from Pastor Ryan:
“It is my understanding that mental illness and spirituality are two different things, just as a broken leg and spirituality are two different things. One can have a deep and enriching relationship with God and still be mentally ill, just as one can have a deep and enriching relationship with God and still have a broken leg. Our faith in God and relationship to Jesus Christ puts all of life into a different perspective—including our mental illnesses, but it does not change the fact of mental illness any more than it changes the fact of one’s eye color. Does faith bring healing to our bodies and minds? Yes, but ‘healing’ needs to be defined. Healing, in its most crucial sense, means experiencing grace, knowing that one is loved by God and reconciled to God even as one journeys through the darkest shadows of depression or confusion.”
As Psalm 23 observes, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”