Is Mental Illness an Excuse for Sin?
We must be very careful to give a blanket, over-generalizing, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. All mental illnesses are not the same, so we cannot give a simple “yes” or “no” answer to this question.
There are genuine mental problems which exist. Some of them are genetic or hormonal. Some of them are biological or environmental.
There are some genuine mental problems which come about due to debilitating conditions which are self-inflicted.
Some people spend much of their lives indulging in certain sins and as a result become genuinely unbalanced mentally. Wickedness does exact a huge toll, and in some cases mental illness is a consequence of sin.
Some mental problems keep one from being able to make rational choices, while others do not.
And in some cases, many people have cited mental illness because they want to defend their sinful conduct.
What we need to remember is this. We are commanded in John 7:24 to not judge according to appearance. That means we never assume anything about anyone. We do not assume that all mental illness is sin, we do not assume all mental illness is not sin. We do not assume that someone’s mental illness is real or faked, we do not assume that their mental illness holds them accountable or fails to hold them accountable before God.
Instead, John 7:24 tells us to make righteous judgments. That is possible at times, but at times it is not possible. Mark 7:20-22 tells us that one’s actions shows the condition of their heart, but in the case of mental illness are they genuinely in control of their actions? Sometimes it is possible to successfully determine that; sometimes it’s not. God knows all, and he will make the final judgment.
In the meantime, and this is the most important part to the answer to this question, we must always make the conscious choice to always be like Christ wants us to be with everyone, including those with mental illnesses (Col. 3:12-14): kind, compassionate, patient, encouraging. Basically, love them as Christ loves us.
Before moving on, here are some biblical points we need to remember when thinking about mental illness and sin:
Genesis 1:26 tells us that we are made in the image of God. That means, among other things, that we have the ability to choose between right and wrong. If man is incapable of making choices, the whole system of civil law is futile and we ought to abandon our justice system, which would of course result in utter chaos. So generally speaking mankind has the ability to choose between right and wrong. Now, some people are incapable of choosing between right and wrong due to genuine mental illness. However, if one truly does have the mental ability to choose between right and wrong, that person is accountable.
Every command given to man in the bible implies that man has the ability to respond to that command. That’s why Joshua said in Josh. 24:15, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” That’s why Isaiah talked about the time in our lives when we come to know how to refuse the evil and choose the good (Is. 7:15-16). That’s why Jesus told us in Matt. 22:37 to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, but then also acknowledged in John 5:40 that some in fact refuse to come to him. Rev. 22:17 says, “Let the one who desires take the water of life”…why? Because we have the ability to choose. What good is a command from God if we do not have the ability to either accept it or reject it?
With this in mind, if one genuinely is mentally unable to make choices and therefore is not capable of obeying or disobeying God, then the scriptural doctrine of them being eternally punished in hell makes no sense whatsoever.
Therefore, biblically speaking, if a person’s mental problem truly keeps them from being able to make the choice to obey or disobey God, then they would not be sinning. Those of us who are professionally trained in dealing with mental problems might or might not be able to tell if such is the case in a certain situation, but we can be confident that the God who is the final judge is capable of making that judgment, and he will do so.
(My thanks to Wayne Jackson and his excellent book, The Bible and Mental Health, which helped me greatly in part of the answer to this question.)