In recent weeks, two articles appearing on the Internet have caused great stir in the biblical counseling community, and in the Body of Christ at large. There has been much debate through the years regarding psychology, psychiatry, and medication, as they relate to and interface with biblical truth. These latest additions are no different except they advance opinion and position without biblical consideration.
For decades, modern culture has struggled to define and categorize psychological and/or psychiatric conditions. Experts have created hundreds of diagnostic categories that attempt to isolate and classify specific conditions or illnesses so that they can be effectively treated. This has given rise to the term psychopathology, which refers to an illness or dysfunction in the psyche or mind of an individual.
Medical doctors tend to see the disturbance as organic; Behaviorists often describe the issue as a learned or conditioned dysfunction; Psychoanalysts believe psychological problems are due to parental failures, disappointments, and frustrated psychosexual development; Family Therapists view emotional disturbance as a consequence of unhealthy family structure.
Practically everyone in the Christian community has been affected by the suicide of Rick Warren’s son Matthew. The Body grieves with this influential pastor and his family as they face the unfathomable process of coping with this unimaginable loss.
Matthew’s death has also prompted the Church to examine our views on mental illness, psychiatric/psychological treatment, and medication. Many prominent Christian leaders have not only offered public statements of support for the Warrens, but are taking this opportunity to express opinions about an extremely sensitive subject that impacts a growing number of believers.
Most leaders are encouraging the Church to acknowledge that matters of depression and suicide are medical in nature and should be addressed no differently than other physical illnesses. They imply that to do otherwise promotes stigma and shame and restricts the believer’s access to appropriate care.
Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research, is stressing the need for the Church to address “mental illness.” In an article entitled “Christians Should Not Be Afraid of Medicine,” Stetzer acknowledges that the topic is a source of debate and that medication should be used with caution, but states that “…many mental health issues are physiological.”
Another article on the Internet, “Death of Rick Warren’s Son a Call to Address Mental Illness,” offers a similar view. According to Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, “Christians struggle with depression and even suicidal thoughts. It does not make you less of a Christian.” He further states: “Suffering from mental illness is not a sin. Yet, not addressing it, may very well be.”
The statements made by Stetzer and Rodriquez seem impulsive at best, and potentially dangerous. Both esteemed leaders make very definitive statements that many in the Christian community will embrace as factual, when in fact they are not. In reality these matters are questions requiring study and biblical discourse. To suggest that these matters have been settled in Scripture, or even in science, is absolutely untrue.
My first article on suicide in the Church entitled, “A Biblical Response To Mental Illness and Suicide In The Church: What Should We Conclude…” garnered a lot of attention and I am grateful for your response and comments. To say that this is a controversial issue is a great understatement, as readers have expressed very strong opinions on the matter.
I agree that lots of mental illness is the result of guilt, unconfessed sin, rebellion, bitterness, anger, etc. However, that doesn’t mean that there are not true physiological reasons behind mental illness. We must be careful not to blanket all mental illness in either one camp or the other. The very reason some Christians have not sought medical help is because of the belief that if they were ‘Christian’ enough, they shouldn’t really have these problems. That is just not true. As I said, there are many factors contributing to mental illness and unless you have personally suffered with it, you cannot understand.
We must FIRST seek our help in the Lord! The danger is “explaining away” sin. Again, not all depression is rooted in sin, but often times it is simply falling into discouragement – a heart and mind that has dropped its guard, fallen away from fixing on Truth.” That is a danger.
I believe that some mental problems can and are Biblical. BUT there IS messed up Chemicals in the brain. I am a strong Christian who knows the Word. I KNOW sometimes I am depressed cause I have disobeyed, but then I repent and am better. BUT there are times when I am so depressed for NO GOOD REASON. AND I get suicidal at times. My medicines have helped me tremendously.
And finally, Brian had this to say:
Thank you for writing so clearly and concisely. I was deeply perturbed when I read the articles you are responding to. I am deeply grieved by the Warren’s devastating loss and then was angry over the ill informed articles I also read and to which you refer to. Men of such influence need to think more biblically before they put pen to paper and not be swayed by pop culture.
Many others answered the article with resounding support and others with harsh criticism. After reviewing the responses I was left with one burning question: Why do we (Christians) believe what we believe?
Dependency and Addiction
According to experts, alcohol and drug addiction are diseases; obesity and overeating are due to genetic predisposition; obsessive relationship attachments are labeled “codependent;” and excessive spending may be a symptom of bi-polar disorder. To refer to these matters as sin is considered taboo. After all, it isn’t our fault if we have a physical malady, genetic flaw, poor childhood, or biochemical imbalance.
Focusing on sin, some argue, is harsh and promotes guilty, shameful emotions. I argue that telling someone there is no remedy or cure for their behavioral prison is harsh. Without transformation, we can only teach someone to manage their illness rather than resolve their sin.
Addiction is indulgence of the flesh and the temporal pleasures that come with the element of attraction. For some substances, medical addiction can, and does, become a complicating factor making deception and entrapment still greater. Yet in its origin, it is the placement of something or someone above God.
Edward Welch (2001) calls addiction a worship disorder, pointing to idolatry as a central theme in our excessive consumptions. He writes:
Furthermore, the problem is not outside of us located in a liquor store or on the Internet; the problem is within us. Alcohol and drugs are essentially satisfiers of deeper idols. The problem is not the idolatrous substance; it is the false worship of the heart (p. 49).
Scripture states: “Now the works of the flesh are evident…” (Gal. 5:19). If the cravings and actions of our flesh are evident (obvious), then through them our heart is revealed. The heart conveys our affection; our devotion of time and energy; our longing; and our commitment.The heart invested fully in a person or substance will have little evidence of godly worship, service, or holy conduct, as these assets cannot be attained apart from godly adoration.
Many suggest that the Bible has little to say about addiction in general. For example, the Bible does not speak of pornography, drug addiction, or relationship dependence at all. The Bible also does not mention automobiles and rocket ships because they did not exist at the time God gave His revelation. But theologically and structurally, Scripture has volumes to say about idolatry (1 Cor. 10:14), worship (John 4:23), respect and maintenance of the body (1 Cor. 3:16-17), lust (1 John 2:16, sexual immorality (1 Thess. 4:3, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23), a sound mind (2 Tim. 1:7), temperance (1 Cor. 6:12), and pure meditations (Ps. 19:14). Perhaps Paul summed it up best:
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any (1 Cor. 6:12).
Dr. Ab Abercrombie
Thanks to the proliferation of television, self-help books, and the Internet, many counselees have researched their individual conditions and concerns before making an appointment for biblical counseling. As a result, many will enter counseling using secular, psychological, and even medical terms to describe their complaints. Often this terminology is applied to others instead of self, as the individual counselee seeks to describe his/her circumstance.
Some examples I have heard within my counseling room include:
- “I have been reading on the Internet about adult ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and I think it describes me perfectly.”
- “I saw a TV special on depression and now I understand that I have a chemical imbalance that causes me to be depressed. Do you think I should start medication?”
- “My wife has a borderline personality disorder…”
- “My husband has a narcissistic personality disorder…”
- “My son has an oppositional defiant disorder…”
In each situation, the counselee had spiritual, behavioral, and emotional issues that were indeed painful and chronic. Each were seeking an explanation for their struggle. However, their use of secular language and humanistic diagnostic terms led them to pursue secular and humanistic relief. Each one had discovered a term or condition they believed absolved them of responsibility; both for the problem and the solution.
Scripture relates the following truth: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is…” (Prov 23:7a). Our meditations matter greatly and so do our sources of study and research. Whenever a believer consults and relies upon worldly versions of “truth,” he/she becomes vulnerable to the intoxicating influence of humanism.
As a Biblicist, I view the Bible as fully sufficient for the counseling task and superior to any explanations offered by the world. Most Christians however value and respect the Bible and might even see it as inerrant; but few have studied Scripture from the perspective of sufficiency. As a result, most of our counselees offer distorted renditions of life that strangely employ biblical language mixed with secular opinions and terminology. But when the counselee settles upon, and believes the secular explanation (as in the examples above), we know they are seeking the world’s remedy that may, or may not, find agreement with God’s Word.
This merger of Christian thought with secular reasoning, in time, defiles the purity of one’s relationship with Scripture. Humanism is diametrically opposed to biblical truth in most, if not all, circumstances. When attempting to find agreement between God and the world, one has already conceded that the Bible is insufficient for the problem at hand. In using secular and psychological terminology, the counselee demonstrates his/her urgency for relief, without regard to God’s intent and purpose. Paul wrote concerning the overtaking of the mind and conscience:
To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled (Titus 1:15).