Psychiatric Illness from the Religious Perspective

A mighty fortress is our God
A bulwark never failing
Our helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe
His craft and power are great
And armed with cruel hate
On earth is not his equal… (Martin Luther, 1529)

There is a great cosmic battle going on and a war being waged for the souls of men. The forces of darkness are pitted against the forces of light. I have encountered the darkness and did not come away unscathed. Wounded and broken, I crawled to the shelter of the church. There I found, in God’s fortress, protection from the destructive and demonic powers which aim to annihilate my soul. The power of God gave victory, through Jesus, His Son.

I did not always follow Christ. Even though as a child I attended church services with my family, my belief in God and Jesus was superficial. I did not take it to heart. My everyday thoughts and actions were not based on spiritual beliefs. I only thought about Jesus on Sunday mornings. As a teenager, I experimented with transcendental meditation because I was disillusioned with my family’s materialistic lifestyle. Eight months out of high school, I joined a cult. It was not overtly Satanic; it appeared Christian, fooling many. Its deceptive leaders brainwashed me into accepting beliefs masquerading as biblical, which instead involved a money-making scheme. Nevertheless, I was obsessed with God. And then I began to hear voices.

The scientific community calls my experience a mental illness; therefore, the science of medicine, through psychiatry, focuses on healing my sick brain. I find it encouraging that some medical schools are beginning to teach students about the power of faith in the healing process. This teaching presupposes that humans are spiritual beings and that a spiritual world exists. Future doctors are now being taught to consider the truth of the religious world view. This is particularly helpful when examining mental illnesses–their origin, their symptoms, and treatment. It is reductionistic to attribute all causes of mental illness to defective brain chemistry; for as recent scientific literature has shown in the study of schizophrenia, the many years of brain research have not determined the cause of schizophrenia. According to Buchanan and Carpenter (1997) “Schizophrenia is a brain disease whose pathophysiology has escaped detection despite intensive investigation… despite a century of study, what is wrong with the brain (and where) is not known with exactitude” (p. 367). And also: ‘The search for an anatomy of schizophrenia has engendered an enormous, almost indigestible mass of data. In no studies do all patients show the same deviations from control samples. No morphological or microscopic abnormality has been found that is either necessary or sufficient for the diagnosis” (Stevens, 1997, p. 373).

My experience of mental illness has consisted of a combination of biochemical imbalance in the brain in conjunction with psychological and spiritual factors. I believe brain chemistry is the physiological substrate for spiritual experiences; the two are connected. But, the field of psychiatry is dominated by secular humanist theory pertaining to the genesis of mental illness and this materialistic view permeates modern culture. Research is focused solely upon the physical brain. This omits two other components of the psyche. One is the unconscious, which has been the concern of psychologists. The second is the spirit, as described by theologians and religious teachers. The depth psychologist, Jung (1965) saw an intersection of the unconscious and spiritual realms. I believe that when I was in a psychotic state, I was actually in an altered state of consciousness that allowed me to experience a spiritual reality. Even though scientists believe chemicals cause hallucinations they do not know how chemicals in the brain are transformed into what is experienced as a hallucination. The process is unknown.

Western medicine is a mechanistic science to fix the physical body. This is applied to humans even though humans are more than physical beings. The brain is considered as only a physical entity: mind without spirit or soul. When biomedicine neglects the spiritual aspect of man, the resulting treatment options are one-dimensional. Drugs are the cure-all.

The Bible has many examples of people hearing voices from the spiritual realm. For example, in the Old Testament, Noah, Abraham, Moses and the prophets Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, Hosea, Daniel, and Jeremiah all heard the voice of God. In the New Testament, John the Baptist, Paul of Tarsus and Jesus received communication from the spirit world. Over the centuries, saints and mystics have heard voices and seen visions. But when ordinary people in the 20th century state they hear voices from a nonphysical reality, they are often labeled insane. They may not be hearing the voice of God and the content may not be religious, but who is to say it isn’t communication from the spiritual realm? Since psychiatric drugs often subdue the hallucinations in many psychotic patients, this is proof (researchers say) that the psychosis is simply biochemical.

But even if medications affect the brain chemistry in some, causing voices to decrease, this only shows that chemistry is involved in the spiritual experience: “How do I know that electrical impulses are not God’s chosen device for communicating to me a spiritual reality that could not otherwise be known?” (Brand, Yancey, 1980, p. 189)

Spiritual experiences have physical changes that accompany them, the two are interrelated. One realm does not exclude the other, but are different aspects of a single thing. The psychophysiology of the mind (and spirit) interacts with the body. My experience of psychosis involved an altered consciousness or mystical state. This included altered brain chemistry as well. I had been spending weeks alone in a room praying and reading religious literature. After this long period of prayer and contemplation, I thought I heard a spirit talking. At first I heard a whisper, then louder voices. For twenty-four hours a day, for several weeks, they spoke mostly nonsense, sometimes calling me insulting names or giving me orders. Sometimes the voices were frightening; at other times they were melodious and beautiful. What I now consider a voice from heaven came during a rainstorm. In a heavy downpour, the sound of the rain became a voice. It said, “Believe in Jesus Christ and you will be saved!”

These words were a transforming message that I believe came from God. I did not think this for the first 15 years of being treated for schizophrenia by the secular psychiatric community, for they persuaded me to believe that, first of all, there is no God. Second, they convinced me that humans are just physical beings and psychiatry is a physical science with doctors as mechanics. And third, that life is meaningless because determinism controls all outcomes (the philosophy of materialism in which there is no free will or spiritual freedom of choice). Fortunately, my intuition told me there was more to my experience than what secular psychiatry would allow me to believe. I began to consider what my life had become since my involvement in the cult and the psychotic episode. As I turned away from religion, my atheistic lifestyle took me down many self-destructive roads. Unbearable hardship resulted from countless wrong decisions. With the downward spiral of failure and the decay of living conditions, I began to sense that the voice of the rain called me to a better life.

“The patient may experience states of consciousness that have profound spiritual and transformative impact, including near-death experiences, mystical states, and delirious states associated with alterations of brain chemistry. These events may have a positive impact on the individual, or they may lead to distress. The latter occurrence is especially likely when spiritual encounters are rationalized away with modern scientific theories. Reassurance and legitimization of the experience by a health care provider can be very therapeutic.”
(Waldfoget, S., 1997, p. 966)

When my psychosis was rationalized away by modern scientific theories, this had a negative impact. But when it was interpreted as a spiritual encounter, this had a positive effect upon my life. This encouraged me to turn my mind, heart and life toward God–seeking God. Then my life took on new meaning. I began to view the world from a religious perspective rather than a materialistic one. From this perspective I saw that there are dark forces in the unseen world that try to destroy what is good. They aim to annihilate God’s people. This is clearly manifested in the physical world with wars, terrorism and violence of all kinds everywhere on earth. Emotional, sexual and verbal abuse permeate our society. Rampant greed and exploitation of the powerless dominates world economic systems. Within this “culture of death,” individuals self-destruct through the use of alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and other negative behaviors. These external behaviors are indicative of, and inspired by, philosophies which create destructive value systems. People with negative values exhibit negative behavior, because what one values determines behavior.

God is the source of all goodness and positive values. God is a spiritual being and He uses other spiritual beings to help promote His kingdom. However, there are dark spiritual forces at war with those of good. I encountered this darkness in my psychotic episode. The cult I joined had beliefs similar to Christianity, but different in fundamental ways. Because of this my prayers were not in the name of Jesus Christ, but of the cult’s founder and so diverted to dark spiritual powers. These forces responded by surrounding me with spirits aimed at destroying me. Demonic voices threatened me. I was terrorized, but the goodness and love of God broke through with His message of the rain. Years later, when I accepted it as truth, I began to turn from a self-destructive path to a Christian one. For example, I began to attend church services finding there a haven amidst an evil world. I found Christian people to be God’s people, standing up for what is positive and what promotes life.

The secular world still considers the voices I heard to be hallucinations. Call them what you will, but you will know them by their fruits! If I had followed the voices that told me to destroy myself, I would be dead. Instead, I follow the rain’s message to believe in Christ. The fruit of this message is that I am inspired to live a positive lifestyle, and with the support of the religious community, I am strengthened. Had I tried to win the battle on my own, I would have been defeated. But with God on my side all is won and I gain eternal life.

“…I have come to the conclusion that there is no good reason to assume that one is limited only to experiences of measurable, physical things. Nor is there any reason to doubt the validity of one’s religious experiences. These experiences deserve consideration, and there are grounds for believing that they point toward God himself.” (Kelsey, 1976, p. 7)


Brand, P., Yancey, P. (1980). Fearfully and Wonderfully Made. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. Reprinted with permission.

Buchanan, R.& Carpenter, Jr., W. (1997). The Neuroanatomies of Schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Bulletin 23(3), 367-372.

Jung, C.G. (1965). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Random House, Inc.

Kelsey, M. (1976). The Other Side of Silence: A Guide to Christian Meditation. New York: Paulist Press.

Luther, M. (1529). A Mighty Fortress is Our God

Stevens, J (1997). Anatomy of Schizophrenia Revisited. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 23(3), 373-383.

Waldfoget, S. (1997). Spirituality in Medicine. Primary Care, 24(4), 966.