The following is an excerpt from my memoir Seeking Happiness: A Bipolar Story:
During this period that Hannah and I were talking again, the Fearsome Four went again to church. Back during freshman year, Hannah invited me to go with her and Elizabeth and eventually Deborah as well to a Southern Baptist church near campus. I said yes, and we went every Sunday until my mixed episode junior year separated us. During that time, Pastor Simon was giving us brilliant exegesis of the Bible as he worked through it book-by-book, verse-by-verse. When I joined them again at a service for the first time in a long time, it turned out it would also be my last time.
Pastor Simon was preaching on the Ten Commandments when he reached Exodus 20:5, “I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me.”In a room full of a hundred people, he cited this as evidence that mental illnesses were a curse from God. It was the transgenerational curse again, and of all people, Pastor Simon was the last person I expected to endorse it.
Pastor Simon had graduated from a prestigious university and was absolutely brilliant. He was studying for his doctorate in theology. I had wrongfully assumed the transgenerational curse was the position of the ignorant, yet here this genius was championing it without shame. I was truly repulsed by his words, and I was terrified since he was going to be a future Doctor of Theology, influencing the next generation of preachers and congregants.
But there was a problem with Simon’s exegesis. The transgenerational curse targets hereditary conditions and other such things that people believe stays trapped in families like alcoholism or even poverty. In today’s modern world, where the biological mechanisms of diabetes are well understood and the influence of a person’s actions to mitigate or increase the likelihood of developing the disorder are known, Simon would sound like a fool calling it a curse from God. Huntington disease is inherited and lethal, so saying it is a curse from God means God sentenced this person to death. Simon wouldn’t say that (would he?). But mental illnesses? Those people are already stigmatized and misunderstood. They are an easy target! And Simon put them down, just like the rest of society does already. To no one’s surprise, “God” conveniently told Simon to start a church in one of the wealthiest parts of Nashville, and apparently to denigrate the mentally ill as well.
There is a problem when preachers say that God punishes the descendants of sinners with mental illnesses. Between 90 and 95 percent of suicides are committed by mentally ill persons.[i] If God makes people mentally ill, and almost all suicides are committed by the mentally ill, is he culpable for their deaths? If so, is he breaking his word because they died—not for their sins—but for the sins of their ancestors (cf. Jer. 31:29-30; Ezek. 18:2-4)? Or does God get a free pass because suicide is consensually committed?
As someone with bipolar disorder who trusts science, I know that there is an approximately 10 percent chance that I will pass on bipolar disorder to my children.[ii] It’s part genetic; it’s part environmental; it’s part chance. My morality and my desire to follow the teachings of the Bible has no effect. That’s science.
I hope one day the transgenerational curse won’t be used as a tool to ostracize and stigmatize the mentally ill. Mental illness is a serious medical condition that you can’t make go away by praying more, repenting more, or even giving more. It’s not a curse to be broken but a disorder to be treated.
The Church can be a tremendous resource in a person’s struggle with mental illness, as some people are more comfortable turning to their church than to a doctor for help. Their pastor can help them deal with their problems and can help discern when a medical professional is needed. Many mentally ill people need their mental illness reconciled with their religion as well. Why am I suffering? I pray to God for deliverance, so why do I still struggle? What’s God’s plan for me since he gave me this disorder?
[i]. Jamison, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 100.
[ii]. Miklowitz, Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide, 3rd ed. (New York: The Guildford Press, 2019), 97.