Christians, Pastors, and Mental Health Treatment

Desiring God, the ministry of John Piper, continues to receive negative reaction to a Twitter message about mental health posted on Tuesday (2/6/18).


Many readers, including me, felt the tweet implied that the cause of mental illness is a lack of faith. However, many believers experience emotional distress and many non-believers don’t. The tweet and later effort to put it in the context of a 2007 article fell flat. Adding insult to injury, Desiring God had nothing else to say, leaving the tweet in place and offering no apology. As Phoenix Preacher Michael Newnham wrote, “Being a Christian Celebrity Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry…”

Being a Christian Celebrity Doesn’t Mean You Are an Expert at Everything

Some of them think they are. And their fans often put them in that role. I rather like what Newnham has to say about his approach as a pastor to mental health concerns.

As a pastor my “expertise” is limited and I’m as broken and fallible as you are.
In some ways, maybe more so.
I don’t know how to fix your sex life, raise your kids, manage your finances, or treat your ills.
I’m not even that good at what I’m trained to do.
My job is to help you grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, just as I am growing as well.
My job is to be present when you need me, to the best of my ability.
My job is to pray with and for you, that God will give you wisdom about the problems that are beyond my scope of expertise…which are most of them.
Sometimes, my job is to give you a referral to someone I trust can help you.

This is really good. Keep all of the Desiring God ministries and give me men and women like this in community churches everywhere.

Therapy Helps

The Desiring God tweeter should meet some Christians who found help from psychotherapy. I am the first to acknowledge (and call out) the shoddy and quack therapists, but I also know that therapy can be a lifeline to people when everything else (including the church) has failed them. Read the response of this Christian blogger with who responded to a challenge about therapy.

Last night I read a disturbing sentiment on someone’s blog. In effect, she said she doesn’t support therapy because there is nothing therapy can provide that can’t be provided through a relationship with God. This disturbs me because so many Christians feel this way or similar, and it is essentially a way of saying that all mental illness or emotional issues are a result of a broken relationship with God or a failure of faith. I can’t tell you how hard it is to hear this; I lost many friends who made this conclusion out of ignorance or arrogance.

In response, she wrote:

The first thing to be said here is that yes, God can and does have the ability to heal anything. Read this blog if you doubt that. Yes, my hard work and new variations of meds and finding the right (and strange) combination of meds matters, along with many other things like vitamins and diet and sunshine, but that I’m in remission (partial or otherwise) is nothing less than a miracle.
However, I firmly believe that God uses tools to heal. For those with mental illness, one of those tools can be therapy. I don’t know a single therapist (even the really bad ones I’ve had and there were several of those) who have claimed to be a cure for anything just by themselves. Instead, therapy provides support while you do what needs done, just like a cast supports a fractured arm.
Bipolar illness damages my relationship with God. I am not good at connecting with anyone and I need help to do so. That’s one place therapy comes into play. I also need help with things that should be basic. Reading the Bible and understanding it is one of them. I can’t follow a “real” Bible. I use a children’s version when I can, but truthfully that’s not a lot. I just have a lot of emotions surrounding the inability to handle the real Bible that make it hard to stomach my watered down one. Maybe a better person wouldn’t struggle with the anger that I can’t be an adult in all things, but I do. It’s a side effect of an illness that took away so much of what I wanted in life.

This person didn’t get sick by staring in a mirror, nor was the remission due to looking away from it. The Desiring God-style advice yielded frustration and as she said, condemnation from Christians. I urge pastors to put aside fear and reach out to local experts in mental health for referrals when someone in your congregation needs help. Not all encounters will go well but begin seeking referral sources now as you would sources for other medical and health specialties.
A Christian organization which may provide assistance is Christian Association for Psychological Studies.

Desiring God and Mental Health: Name It Claim It for Your Brain (UPDATED)

Update at the end of the post…
Last week, I wrote about Kenneth and Gloria Copeland who think you can speak cures for PTSD and the flu. Today, I present a different form of name it claim it – John Piper’s Desiring God and anti-mirror therapy for mental health. Earlier today, Desiring God tweeted:


Repeat after me: Mental health is health. Mental illness is illness. Brain is body.
I suspect John Piper would cringe to think he has something in common with the Copelands but turning mental health into a spiritual fruit is in that ballpark.
Copeland says soldiers can get rid of their PTSD with a dose of Scripture. Desiring God prescribes a spiritual refocus as if those who are mentally healthy are spiritually sound.
Perhaps I am sensitive to this message due to my clinical experience with Christians. I have seen the damaging effects of messages like this and know how Christians with mental health diagnoses hear this.
Tweets like the one from Desiring God reinforce the misconception that mental health conditions can be overcome by willpower or positive thinking. Those who struggle have to deal with their illness and the stigma from those in the church who spiritualize their illness. Although beyond the scope of this post, an important issue is that, generally speaking, evangelicals have not grappled with the reality of brain as body. Consciousness arises from brain and does not reside in a spiritual substance independent of body. Like it or not, if you don’t deal with this, I don’t think you understand who we are as human beings. Knock out certain parts of our brain and we become different people. I don’t think I have ever heard a sermon or Sunday school series on the religious significance of our brains.
Some people using the Tweet advice will find comfort because they have positive associations in their brains to images of God which might take their minds off a negative personal preoccupation. However, someone else with different brain chemistry and history may not make the same associations. They may try to work their brains in the same way, but due to something out of their conscious control, their feelings do not respond in the same way. They do not and cannot find mental health no matter how long they stop staring in the mirror.
When those who don’t succeed with anti-mirror therapy go to church, they feel even worse because their faith is questioned. They are told, even if subtly or indirectly, that they don’t have enough faith. If they just believed harder or put God first, or dealt with the sin in their lives, then the advice would work.
Last year, a friend of mine wrote about the frustration of depression:

Occasionally, bouts of depression are triggered by obvious catalysts, like losing a job or loved one or some kind of overt trauma. Often, though, nothing is “wrong”. We’re not upset or sad or angry or stressed about anything particular, but our body is deploying hormones as though we’re being attacked.
It is these episodes that are most frustrating to the friends and family of people who have depression; they don’t know what to do to help because there’s seemingly nothing wrong. The victims of those moments find it doubly frustrating, as a silent, crushing dread slowly bears down on our souls, challenging us to find a name for it.

This frustration is compounded by Christians conflating mental health with spiritual status. If the Desiring God tweet had said enlightenment or satisfaction or something other than mental health would come from staring at God’s beauty, that would be fine. I hope John Piper and his crew will pull that tweet and clarify that they are not the Copelands.
 
UPDATE (2/6/18): Not long after I published this article, Desiring God posted the following Tweet:


The link is to a 2007 tribute by John Piper to Clyde Kilby. This follow up tweet is confusing because the original tweet which aroused so much reaction isn’t found in the 2007 article. The closest statement to it is this statement attributed to Kilby by Piper:

Stop seeking mental health in the mirror of self-analysis, and start drinking in the remedies of God in nature.

This isn’t at all what Desiring God originally tweeted. The “remedies of God in nature” could easily refer to medication or therapy or an experience in nature. Since Piper quoted it approvingly I don’t really know what Kilby meant. In any case, I am less concerned with the Kilby article and more concerned with the spin engaged in by whoever is running the Twitter account at Desiring God.

Wishful Thinking, Forced Intimacy, and The Nashville Statement

photo-1474367658825-e5858839e99d_optI started counseling LGB people and mixed orientation couples about two decades ago. Initially, I had high hopes that counseling might regularly assist same-sex attracted people become straight or bisexual. In a story that has been told elsewhere, I have since changed my mind.
Part of what helped form my current views of sexual orientation was the experience of counseling and researching mixed orientation couples. I concluded: If heterosexual responding did not happen for same-sex attracted people in that context, it probably wasn’t going to happen at all. For couples already married, I decided to work with them to maintain their marriage if that is what they believed was right. However, I don’t make unrealistic promises. And if people decide to part, I certainly understand the pressures which lead to that decision.
Due to my work, I read a recent article at John Piper’s website by Nashville Statement signer Rosaria Butterfield. In it, she gives some of the worstNashville logo advice I have ever read to a woman in a mixed orientation marriage. Below I respond to it. My response to the article is not theological. Instead, I respond as a clinician and researcher.
In essence, Butterfield denies people are gay:

A mixed-orientation marriage combines one spouse who “is” gay and the other who “is” straight. This new language for sexuality and humanity has become our post-Christian world’s reigning (and godless) logic. Gay may be how someone feels, but it can never be who someone inherently is. Because all human beings are made in God’s image, we are called to reflect God’s image in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. We are a Genesis 1:27 people, born male or female with a soul that will last forever, and a body that will either be glorified in the New Jerusalem or suffer unspeakable anguish in hell.

After working with LGBT people for two decades, I believe some people are inherently gay. They have never been attracted to a member of the opposite sex, even while married to one. They have tried everything to change, but nothing changes.
Some people are bisexual and seem to fluctuate without warning or conscious choice. Others are basically gay, but fall in love with one member of the opposite sex. If that love is dashed or ceases for some reason, then there is nothing left of their straightness.
Butterfield says there is one size because of the Bible. Even though that’s not exactly what the Bible says, that’s how she and her Nashville Statement interpret it so that’s how anyone she talks to has to be. I used to look at people that way. I won’t do that anymore. There are many things in this world I wish were different but wishful thinking won’t change how things are.
She continues:

Being born male or female comes with ethical and moral responsibilities, blessings, and constraints — by God’s design and for the purpose of image-bearing. Because creation is an identity issue, my feelings — no matter how deep, abiding, or original to my conscience — are not my identity or descriptive of what kind of Christian I am.

In other words, no matter how real reality is, it isn’t really real unless it matches up with her understanding of the Bible. What Butterfield overlooks is that she is basing her argument on her feelings about the Bible. She is confident that her interpretation is the right one. She feels strongly about it. Her feelings are more right than the feelings of the woman she is talking to. She believes that God’s design for most people is normative for all people. No exceptions are allowed. The fact is that some people are naturally different than the norm. No matter how strongly she feels that such exceptions shouldn’t exist, they do.

No, friend. I am not in a mixed-orientation marriage and neither are you. This false category banks on modernism’s magnetism to personal pain as proof of purpose. Like Frankenstein’s creature, modernity’s identity is piecemealed from the unconverted woman that you once were. But gospel identity calls us to the future. Jesus always leads from the front of the line. If you are in Christ — and I believe that you are — then you are a new woman. You have a Galatians 2:20 identity. If you are in Christ, then you are in the process of being sanctified (Hebrews 10:14). You truly are who you will become when you are glorified one day.

The denial of sexual orientation leads to a denial of the present. The woman Butterfield is talking to is living in a body and brain right now, not “one day” by and by. She has a husband she can’t bear to be with and a conflict that is real in the present. She needs something more than it will be well someday.
I do agree with Butterfield’s caution about ending a marriage. What I advocate for in this post is honesty and reality not broken homes. Many couples I have worked with keep their marriage but with real and honest expectations. Furthermore, they do so after an extended period of examining their beliefs to determine that they want an intact marriage more than anything else. If they don’t have those beliefs, then they may peacefully and amicably part ways.

Worst Advice Ever

However, probably the worst advice I have ever read for same-sex attracted people is what comes next:

Your lot has fallen in pleasant places (Psalm 16:6). Pray for eyes to see this. Recommit yourself to one-flesh love with your husband. Pray together that your hearts would be knit together through Christ. Make time to talk honestly with your husband about how your body works. Show him. Make time to preserve your marriage bed as a place of joy and comfort and pleasure. Have sexual intercourse often. This is God’s medicine for a healthy marriage. One-fleshness is certainly more than sex, but it is not less than sex. Your husband is not your roommate. Treating him as such is sin.

Forced intimacy is not intimacy. I can only imagine the horror of a person hearing these words. I have counseled numerous survivors of this kind of advice. What this does is ruin a person for any kind of intimacy, same-sex or opposite-sex.  Maybe some people can hear this, but to me, this sounds cult-like. Channeling early Mark Driscoll, Butterfield instructs this woman to allow her integrity to be violated in the name of God.
The Nashville Statement is supposed to be all about rightly ordered sexuality. I can’t see how a person entering into coerced intimacy reflects this. Butterfield very clearly tells this woman she sins if she doesn’t have sex against her will. This advice doesn’t even pass the test of her fellow Nashville Statement signer and Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood president Denny Burk’s criteria for ethical sexuality. In his book What is the Meaning of SexBurk wrote:

We ought to evaluate the ethics of any sexual act on the basis of its ability to encompass the four purposes [of sex]: consummation, procreation, love, and pleasure.

Butterfield’s kitchen table friend said she didn’t love her husband and derived no pleasure from the experience. How then is sex against her will an ethical act?
I hope DesiringGod.com reconsiders this article and removes it before anyone takes it seriously.

John Piper on Mark Driscoll and Satan's Win in Seattle

Back in April, John Piper appeared on the podcast of Westside Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. His interviewer was Westside’s lead pastor Norm Funk. Yesterday, Piper’s Desiring God ministry posted the section of the podcast where Piper answered a question about Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. Watch:
[youtube]https://youtu.be/4Yhn_4mmowU[/youtube]
Piper says everybody makes mistakes, and admits Mars Hill’s demise was a defeat for the gospel, Driscoll, reformed theology, evangelicalism and complementarianism and a win for Satan.
Funk asks good questions about people who are demoralized and broken as the result of being — these are my words now — run over by the bus. Piper contends one can’t follow Jesus and walk away from the church. I do wonder here if Piper is mistaking the spiritual body with brick and mortar.
As Driscoll networks with word of faith and charismatic elements of Christianity, the loss experienced by Driscoll’s former ideological mates becomes clearer.

John Piper on Lessons Learned from the Mark Driscoll Controversy; ECFA, Are You Listening?

In an audio presentation out today, John Piper doesn’t regret partnering with Mark Driscoll but does see some of the problems identified by Mars Hill’s elders. In this audio, Piper briefly admits that he could have done more to help. He also says that perhaps pulling Driscoll’s book from sale, as Lifeway has done, is a defensible temporary response to the controversy. I can’t get the embed code to work so click the link for the audio)
Most of the audio is about lessons learned. Piper identifies eight lessons:
1. People are complex and we can’t always see our own flaws.
2. We need to take seriously what wise counselors tells us about ourselves. Listen.
3. Sometimes you can see what others are saying and sometimes you can’t. Driscoll might not have agreed with his elders just because he didn’t see it. To me, it seems obvious that Piper hasn’t talked to many, if any, former elders at Mars Hill.
4. Churches should be led by a team of elders with all having one vote. Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, are you listening? Paul Tripp called the structure you require for accredited churches unbiblical, and now John Piper does as well.
5. The salary of pastors should not be treated as one treats the CEO of a corporation. He opposes pastors having salaries “in the 2,3,4,5,6,7,8 hundred thousand dollar range.” Well, that is the range for all of the Mars Hill executive elders. Again, ECFA, are you listening? The ECFA requires church boards to use salary comparison studies to set executive salary. All this does is create salary inflation when the same small group of churches examine salary ranges. A range from $200k to $1.2 million became a reason to bump Driscoll’s salary to $650k, and the other executive elders to the high $200,000 range. No governance is perfect, but the Mars Hill meltdown has exposed fatal flaws in your guidance to churches. Churches are not non-profit corporations and the ECFA’s guidance in area is deeply flawed.
6. Right theology can’t keep a person from sin.
7. God’s purposes are not foiled by one man.
8. Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he falls.
 

John Piper Calls Out Famous Guys (Like Mark Driscoll) On Ghostwriting

It is getting serious up in here.
Last night on Twitter, John Piper posted a series of tweets apparently in response to an op-ed by Andy Crouch at Christianity Today on the Mark Driscoll plagiarism (now ghostwriting) controversy.  Crouch’s op-ed builds to this crescendo:

The real danger here is not plagiarism—it is idolatry.

I think both are a problem and as it turns out another related problem appears to be ghostwriting.
Piper doesn’t think highly of taking credit for the work of others. To wit:


As Crouch and Piper suggest, this controversy is turning toward ghostwriting and less than honest assignment of credit for scholarly work. In the last tweet posted above, Piper links to an audio where he addresses ghostwriting. In it he says, “I think to put your name on a book you didn’t write is a lie.” Piper leaves no doubt as to his dim view of misrepresenting one’s work to the public.