Apple Beliefs Columns Culture Ethics Faith Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Desiring God, mental health, and the truth about ‘chronological snobbery’

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons - http://bit.ly/2srYyhk

The first time I had a panic attack, I was sitting at a traffic stop on a country road in North Carolina. A strange sensation that felt like an itch crawled along the underside of my skin until my whole body vibrated. My face flushed, my hands moistened, my chest tightened, my breathing quickened until I felt like I might suffocate. I debated jumping out of my car and running for help until, in a blink, the light turned green.

The moment passed as quickly as it had come, but that was not the last time I’d be visited by crippling anxiety. I soon dreaded grocery store checkout lines and crowded rooms and sleepless nights and doctors office waiting rooms. My grades in graduate school plummeted, I dreaded leaving my house, and I cried for hours without reason.

Before seeking professional help, various Christian friends explained that my issue was primarily spiritual, not physiological. One of my professors told me that he didn’t understand why I considered seeing a professional therapist because “you already have a wonderful counselor in Jesus.” A classmate told me I needed to stop focusing on my body and just fix my eyes on God. 

I tried my best to follow their advice, praying holes in my bedroom floor and reading my Bible for hours on end. But the anxiety attacks remained. Actually, they grew more intense and frequent. I soon accepted the Bible was not a modern medical handbook, God did not guarantee health to the spiritually stalwart, and prayer was never intended to be a cure-all prescription. 

Thank God for psychologists and Lexapro. Without them, I might be dead today.

Given my mental health history, you might understand why I had a visceral reaction to a tweet last week from Desiring God ministries: “We will find mental health when we stop staring in the mirror, and fix our eyes on the strength and beauty of God.”

To be fair, a nugget of truth sits buried beneath this tweet. Psychologists say self-absorption and self-obsession often exacerbates mental health issues. And greater reliance on God is something most Christians can get behind. At first glance, the tweet sounds innocuous.

Yet Desiring God’s advice is eerily similar to the kind that has harmed me and countless other Christians. It implies that people are to blame for their mental health struggles. If they only stopped focusing on themselves (“staring in the mirror”) and worked harder to fixate on God, the issues would resolve. In the words of Warren Throckmorton, professor of psychology at Grove City College, it is “name it [and] claim it for your brain.”

“I have seen the damaging effects of messages like this and know how Christians with mental health diagnoses hear this,” Throckmorton wrote. “Tweets like the one from Desiring God reinforce the misconception that mental health conditions can be overcome by willpower or positive thinking.”

Whether this was Desiring God’s intention or not, this kind of thinking increases guilt on those already struggling to live with mental health disorders. By increasing pressure without offering practical help beyond a spiritual platitude, it becomes cruel and reminiscent of Jesus’ description of the Pharisees: “They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.”

What is left unsaid is almost as problematic. Desiring God makes no mention of modern psychological therapy. They do not even mention seeking help outside of oneself. But that’s precisely what most people with mental health struggles need.

Numerous mental health advocates and those who suffer from disorders such as clinical depression point out the dangerous nature of Desiring God’s statement.

I, too, responded by saying I was not shocked by Desiring God’s terrible tweet. After all, “the entire ministry’s mission is regurgitation Reformation theology. Shouldn’t we expect opinions that sound like they came from the 16th Century?”

Some people were upset with my response, which they called “chronological snobbery.” If you’re unfamiliar, this term was coined by C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield and refers to “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

It’s a notion trotted out by conservatives whenever someone criticizes an outmoded idea. But it’s often misunderstood and misapplied.

Chronological snobbery doesn’t apply to any criticism or rejection of thinking from previous eras. If that’s the case, we’re all chronological snobs. If your doctor tried to treat your cancer with leeches, you wouldn’t be snobbish to object because we now know better. If your neighbor told you that the biblical story of Noah’s son Ham proves that some races are superior, you wouldn’t be snobbish to reject that theology because we now know better.

Chronological snobbery refers to the notion that all ideas from previous eras are inferior because they are old and that modern ideas are superior because they are new. And, frankly, I don’t know anyone who actually believes this. I certainly don’t.

After all, I’m a Christian, which means I have built my life around the ideas of a first century Rabbi. I’m a creedal Christian, which means I value historical expressions of the faith. And I’m a Protestant Christian, which means I value the critiques offered by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the rest of the Reformers.

But I’m also a thinking Christian, so I think any theology should be in conversation other kinds of theology. Any system of thought should take into account recent evidence and arguments as well as time-tested ones when formulating an opinion.

The operative phrase in my response is not “16th Century” or “Reformation” but rather “regurgitation.” New Calvinist groups like Desiring God often hold to a theology frozen in time. These systems of thought refuse to admit their own contextuality and do not converse with divergent theologies emerging from other races, genders, geographies, and chronologies. This kind of theology is a poorly developed theology.

The theology promoted by Desiring God–an isolated white Western patriarchal Protestant theology–is a poorly developed system of thought. It is exactly the kind of theology that can easily produce problematic ideas like the one represented in the tweet in question. And it’s also the kind of theology that produces the insufficient response that Desiring God eventually gave.

A staggering nearly nine hours after Desiring God was flooded with criticism, they responded with another tweet: “Thank you to those expressing kind concerns. We apologize for leaving off the link that gives the context quoting Clyde Kilby from more than 40 years ago when ‘mental health’ didn’t have the same technical connotations as today.”

A 21-year-old social media associate freelancing from his mother’s basement in Paducah, Kentucky, would know how to respond appropriately to such a snafu. You delete the original tweet, offer a sincere apology, and  repost it with appropriate context and citation. Desiring God took none of these actions, and the original tweet remains.

When it comes to mental health, Christian leaders and organizations must make a serious effort to speak in more compassionate, informed ways. And when we accidentally promote incomplete or harmful ideas about those who struggle, let’s offer an “I’m sorry” instead of an “oopsie.”

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

44 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • I can’t speak for DG, nor would I want to cheerlead for them. Clyde Kilby, however, made an important point (you can read what he himself said in the linked article in DG’s 2nd tweet). Kilby was talking about how modern people are prone to do violence to themselves by obsessive self-rumination and self-awareness (meaning: not being able to go 5 minutes without thinking of themselves & their feelings). And he’s right that it is helpful (therapeutic) to think about other people and to enjoy God’s creation, to cultivate appreciation for the goodness of what has been so beautifully made. For him, creation was a gigantic museum, and he was a passionate curator trying to help people appreciate the artwork. Is that the last word on mental health? No. I don’t think he’d have meant it like that (his reflections and his overall body of work don’t point that way). But the mental disciplines of practicing the presence of the living and ever-present God, and practicing the presence of other people, and practicing the presence of beauty, over against a narcissistic kind of practicing the presence of oneself—that’s a great exercise in cognitive behavioral therapy.

  • That’s one huge problem I have with many kinds of Christianity — the idea that we can pray or wish biological problems away. It’s funny how we have a double standard when it comes to sickness of the not-brain as opposed to sickness of the brain.

    Only the whackiest of the whacky would say: “Don;t take your epilepsy medicine…look in the mirror and trust god.” But they have no compunction about saying: “Don;t take your lexapro..just trust god.”

  • Since you have such a high opinion of these drugs, visit a site like askapatient where users of drugs report their experiences. The negative experiences generally outnumber the positives. When you start messing with your brain’s chemistry, horrible things can happen.

  • They don’t make a drug that will take people out of themselves and make the focus on others. Medical science hasn’t achieved that, and probably never will.

    Dependence on any kind of mind drug should be discouraged.

  • “where users of drugs report their experiences. ”

    Self-reporting tends to be bias in that people who may have problems will be motivated to seek out a forum. Confirmation bias

    Quote from a news source btw: “On Askapatient.com, a Web site where consumers can rate medicines, one person wrote in April that Xanax was the “best thing that ever happened to me.” Another wrote in March, “This drug saved my life.””

    As someone who has been successfully treated for bipolar conditions since 2010 from Lamictal..I have no reason to seek out a forum to report how well it works. So of course you are going to get mostly bad reviews.

    Overall, actual statistical evidence shows that mental illness meds work. Anecdotal evidence is practically worthless for reasons cited above.

    “When you start messing with your brain’s chemistry, horrible things can happen.”

    What you are failing to realize is that people take such meds BECAUSE their brain chemistry is already messed up and this can be demonstrated with actual data.

  • “Honor physicians for their services,
    for the Lord created them;
    for their gift of healing comes from the Most High…
    The Lord created medicines out of the earth,
    and the sensible will not despise them.
    And He gave skill to human beings
    that He might be glorified in His marvelous works.
    By them the physician heals and takes away pain;
    the pharmacist makes a mixture from them.”
    Sirach, Chapter 38

    Perhaps the author would have been better served if she had read a Bible from which Sirach had not been removed by the 16th Century “reformers”. (It’s still there in Orthodox and Catholic Bibles.)

  • “One of my professors told me that he didn’t understand why I considered seeing a professional therapist because “you already have a wonderful counselor in Jesus.” A classmate told me need to I needed to stop focusing on my body and just fix my eyes on God.”

    How awful and how potentially damaging.

    I have a suspicion that those who promote this sort of nonsense

    a) probably believe it to be true and
    b) were “God” not an available pseudo-solution would default to Marmite soldiers, ozone-enriched forest-gathered-at-dawn-in-virgin-paper-bags air or hydrated water.

    It might help if we taught critical thinking more thoroughly – but some religious leaders would oppose that wouldn’t they!

  • “Dependence on any kind of mind drug should be discouraged.”
    Blatantly ignorant, dangerous, non medical advice. I, and millions of others like me across the globe function with the assistance of “mind drugs”.

  • As a retired minister who has some of the same issues that Merrit talks about here, coupled with a few other “invisible disabilities”, I believe that if we truly address and embrace all of God’s children, that embrace can take the blinders from our eyes and see us as who we truly are: whole and holy in the eyes of our Creator.

    Was it hard for me to “retire” much too young as my physical and mental disabilities came to the forefront and forced the issue? Yes. Is it hard for me to not feel welcome in my local church as a congregant with “handicaps”? I haven’t been in my church building for two plus years because of it. Do I like taking medication to help me function when I was taught to “fully rely on God”. Yes, because with my medication, taken every day when I need to, I can more focus on my own way in this world.My answer to the Desiring God movement is without God I wouldn’t have gained the strength to deal with my invisibility. And my daily medication regime lets me be less dis baled in the world. I would never ever NOT take my meds. Without them, I cannot function “acceptably” in today’s society. God blessed scientific abilities as good too.

  • Thanks for the column, Jonathan. Spiritual issues and mental issues certainly overlap, but anyone who’s dealt with depression or anxiety knows they’re not the same thing. I struggled with anxiety for years before I even knew what to call it. I thought it was a part of my personality that I’d just have to live with. Thank God for prayer, counseling, nutritional strategies and Zoloft. Most people who criticize anxiety or depression medication (and I’ve been one of those people) wouldn’t think twice about taking blood pressure medicine or allergy medication if they needed it. Why is there such a stigma attached to taking medication that addresses serotonin deficiency?

  • “We will find mental health when we stop staring in the mirror, and fix our eyes on the strength and beauty of God.

    By itself that statement is a spiritual hallucination and the cause needs to be diagnosed.

  • I think part of the problem is the fundamentalist/Evangelical/Christian belief that “being born again”, “giving your life to Christ”, becoming a Christian fundamentally and forever changes the person and they can sin no more.

    Mental health problems are seen as sins by the ignorant.

    Combine the two positions and they need to believe that the problem stems from someone not being a “true” Christian, thus the calls to focus on God not on your self. Your mental health state shows a fundamental flaw in the theology, not all things can be changed by simply declaring your belief in God.

  • Yeah, I’m sure Merritt’s gonna find THAT kind of atheist advice to be appropriate for people in those situations.
    (/s)

  • On the other hand, evil is seen as mental illness by the skeptics.

    “Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
    We never had the love that every
    Child oughta get
    We ain’t no delinquents
    We’re misunderstood
    Deep down inside us there is good!”

  • Aka “mind candy”.

    The error goes both ways. Folks spend years in psychotherapy with little or no effect because they refuse to get their lives and thinking in good order, and psychotherapists like the money.

    “There thus appears to be an inverse correlation between recovery and psychotherapy; the more psychotherapy, the smaller the recovery rate.” – Hans Eysenck

  • “At least we’re not as bad as hitler and Stalin” is hardly a ringing endorsement.

    In any case, neither Hitler nor Stalin were killing people In the name of atheism, but in the name of destructive, fascist, authoritarian ideologies. And since it was good Good Christians pulling the triggers and firing the ovens, completely irrelevant…

    To any one but you.

  • An you know this how? Are you a professional in this field? Are you aware of the side affects of life saving medications include depression and suicidal ideation? From my direct experience with chronic and fatal illnesses of all sorts I can justifiably say you are dangerously misinformed.

  • Atheism does not stand in the way philosophically of destructive, fascist, authoritarian ideologies.

    In fact the argument could be made that if favors them.

    The bloodthirsty leaders of the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution were anything but Christians, good or not, and the same goes for the anti-clerical Mexican and Spanish partisans.

    It is no surprise in a largely Christian environment that the greatest portion of anything that happened involved nominal Christians, just as in the Middle East it involves Muslims or Jews.

    But neither Hitler nor Stalin were even nominal Christians – they were anti-theists.

  • Of course Atheism doesn’t stand in the way of fascism. It’s a lack of belief in god, not a philosophical system.

    Neither does religion, especially if it is about power.

    Hitler was indeed a nominal Christian, and Stalin went to seminary. And, as I said, neither of them were pulling the triggers themselves.

  • A lack of belief in a deity could as well or better describe an agnostic, and agnostics are not atheists.

    Neither Hitler nor Stalin were nominal – “in name or thought but not in fact“ – Christians.

    Both had rejected Christianity and belief in a deity altogether and quite decisively. Stalin’s war against religion was more vigorous, but Hitler was more than happy to dispose of religious leaders.

    The introduction of “neither of them were pulling the triggers themselves” changes the subject from “Maybe god is actually the problem” to …. “people are not very effective at opposing totalitarian leaders”.

    Religion, particularly when linked with natural law, provides at least some tools against legal positivism – which is what underpins fascism – which is why the American representatives at the Nuremberg trials wanted to use natural law as the criterion for trying the Nazis for war crimes and crimes against humanity. A Christian or Jew can cite the Decalogue, a Christian the Beatitudes as well, and both did and were slaughtered by both Hitler and Stalin.

    Atheists can only offer their personal opinions.

  • Mostly nonsense, bereft of morals and truth, and already answered.

    we have plenty of religious fascists in the world, Christian and otherwise.

  • “A lack of belief in a deity could as well or better describe an agnostic, and agnostics are not atheists.”
    No it couldn’t, and no they aren’t.

  • As I just told Ben, one of these mental giants just told me I would never be healed of my disabilities unless I believed in his version of Christianity.

  • Nope, no, and not.

    What we seem to have are people who disagree with you, and you backing into “religious fascist” plays into the script you like to read when they do disagree.

    Your script relies on equivocating “people are not very effective at opposing totalitarian leaders” with “maybe god is actually the problem”, when everyone who has considered the matter understands inherent human nature is the problem, which is why the same problems keep following the human race around, and some sort of moral code is the answer, which atheism lacks altogether.

    At the end of the day atheists can only offer their personal opinions, and as you are demonstrating that is not very convincing to anyone who has not partaken of the magic potion.

  • I followed that battle quite closely, and yes it could, no they are not using the standard definitions of both.

  • Fundies/evangelicals routinely reject psychology as Freud was 1) Jewish and 2) an atheist. Just another reason the F/E crowd know little to nothing about mental health.

  • Yes. Also if Jesus had intended for a relationship with him to be the complete cure, then why does he give gifts to members of the body for the benefit of the whole body, gifts that include “healings.” The Jesus my only doctor thing is not of God. It is a self-righteous hubris of self-agrandizement, i.e., “see how much faith I have!”

  • “Even 21-year-old social media associate freelancing from his mother’s basement in Paducah, Kentucky, would know how to respond appropriately to such a snafu:”

    Really, dude? This kinda shit ruins the point you are trying to make.

  • The guy who wrote this must be a racist-“The theology promoted by Desiring God–an isolated white Western patriarchal Protestant theology–is exactly the kind of theology that can lead to problematic ideas like the one represented in the tweet in question.”

  • The Citizens Commission on Human Rights (cchr.org) is an anti-psychiatry Scientology front organization.

  • “Informed” is not a lifestyle some american evangelicals choose to live… In fact, for some, in some quarters, it’s becoming a mark of greater spirituality to be as willfully uninformed as possible… Very sad to see.

ADVERTISEMENTs