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:
We will find mental health when we stop staring in the mirror, and fix our eyes on the strength and beauty of God.
— Desiring God (@desiringGod) February 6, 2018
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:
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. https://t.co/7gmltiese1
— Desiring God (@desiringGod) February 7, 2018
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.