As I have thought about mental illness and the stigma that is so often attached to it my thoughts have so often drifted to the disease of Leprosy. I also am reminded of a story in Scripture that convicts me of how I respond as God works in my life. I am also reminded of the role pain can play in our lives. Hopefully I can put this down and have it make sense!
Through the years pretty much all I knew about Leprosy is it was a picture of sin and it terribly disfigured people. I thought of the movie Ben Hur where the mother and sister of Ben Hur were afflicted with Leporsy and forced to live in caves. Below is a brief overview of Leporsy taken from Easton’s Bible Dictionary.
“This disease “begins with specks on the eyelids and on the palms, gradually spreading over the body, bleaching the hair white wherever they appear, crusting the affected parts with white scales, and causing terrible sores and swellings. From the skin the disease eats inward to the bones, rotting the whole body piecemeal.” “In Christ’s day no leper could live in a walled town, though he might in an open village. But wherever he was he was required to have his outer garment rent as a sign of deep grief, to go bareheaded, and to cover his beard with his mantle, as if in lamentation at his own virtual death. He had further to warn passers-by to keep away from him, by calling out, ‘Unclean! unclean!’ nor could he speak to any one, or receive or return a salutation, since in the East this involves an embrace.”
That the disease was not contagious is evident from the regulations regarding it (Lev_13:12, Lev_13:13, Lev_13:36; 2Ki_5:1). Leprosy was “the outward and visible sign of the innermost spiritual corruption; a meet emblem in its small beginnings, its gradual spread, its internal disfigurement, its dissolution little by little of the whole body, of that which corrupts, degrades, and defiles man’s inner nature, and renders him unmeet to enter the presence of a pure and holy God” (Maclear’s Handbook O.T). Our Lord cured lepers (Mat_8:2, Mat_8:3; Mar_1:40-42). This divine power so manifested illustrates his gracious dealings with men in curing the leprosy of the soul the fatal taint of sin.”
As with Leprosy, Mental Illness has a stigma that goes along with it. Sadly, much of this stigma is found in the Body of Christ, the very place where love and compassion should be found. Instead, the sufferer is in a sense, treated like the Lepers of old. To our shame, some in the church view Mental Illness as “the outward and inward sign of the innermost spiritual corruption” as described above. As a result, many afflicted believers become separated from the church as they live a life of shame and isolation, mourning their wretched condition.
With both Leprosy and Mental Illness, “pain” is a big component. In a book titled “Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants” the author, Philip Yancey talks about his work with lepers and the unique role that pain plays with this disease.
With Leprosy, the victims lose the ability to feel pain and as a result, this leads to serious consequences which can include the loss of limbs. When somebody is sick, quite often pain is the alarm that tells us something is wrong. As a result we go for treatment or take medication and quite often the illness is done away with. If we weren’t able to feel the pain we would not know to go to a doctor and the illness could in many cases lead to serious consequences up to and including death. In this sense, pain can be seen as a gift. As the leper can’t feel pain they unknowingly aggravate an area of the body that is “infected” and create additional damage. As a result they unwittingly make their condition even worse. If they felt the pain, this could be avoided.
The pain of Mental Illness is different than the pain of the flu or other diseases but it is pain none-the-less. The pain we experience lets us know something is wrong and we have the opportunity to address it. Many times the sufferer will find relief while at other times, relief is a long time in coming for reasons we don’t know. But what I do know is that God is aware of our pain and in His perfect will, He has His reason(s) for allowing it.
So how does one respond to Mental Illness when they are the victim? That’s a pretty easy question to answer if you’ve never known the depths of emotional despair one can experience while suffering with a Mental Illness. In my life, I respond much better to physical pain. At times that was not a good thing and one time in particular it almost cost me my life.
What if God reached down and instantly removed your Panic Disorder, PTSD, OCD, Bi-Polar Disorder, or depression? What what you do? There’s a portion of Scripture I would like to close with that tells a story of when Jesus healed ten lepers. It has much to say to us today.
Luke 17:11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.
Luke 17:12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance
Luke 17:13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
Luke 17:14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed.
Luke 17:15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice;
Luke 17:16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan.
Luke 17:17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?
Luke 17:18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Luke 17:19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
Here we see ten lepers crying in one accord to Jesus. These ten were outcasts and they kept their distance from Jesus per the law.
Numbers 5:2 “Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead.
Numbers 5:3 You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.”
Numbers 5:4 And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the LORD said to Moses, so the people of Israel did.
As they cried out they said “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” and Jesus responded by saying “Go and show yourselves to the Priests.” He hadn’t healed them but they realized that the reason they would be going to the Priests was based on the law. They knew they would be healed and so it was, as they were on their way, they were healed. Notice how they obeyed before the promise was realized.
Leviticus 14:2 This shall be the law of the leprous person for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest,
As we read on we see that only one came back to say thank you. The others continued on their way. The one who came back and fell at the feet of Jesus was a Samaritan, one who was despised by the Jews. Along with the story of The Good Samaritan, this story was an example of how the Jews were wrong in their harsh judgment of the Samaritans. The one who would least be expected to do the “spiritual” thing in response to his healing was the only one who did.
Jesus didn’t command the lepers to come back and thank Him. Neither are we commanded to thank Him when each of us receive our ultimate healing, the forgiveness of our sin. How could we not thank Him for saving us? Not just at the time of being saved, but throughout our lives. That’s a mark of spirituality that the Jews missed.
Philippians 4:6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication WITH THANKSGIVING let your requests be made known to God.
Philippians 4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
As those with Mental Illness are often perceived as less than they are (Samaritans) we can realize that our pain serves a purpose and in the midst of that pain God would have us remain thankful. If we aren’t thankful during the dark times how awkward would it be for us to be thankful when God chooses to do a mighty thing in our life?