Theology

the dangers of biblical counseling, part two

falling

[This is part two in a series. You can read part one here.]

Like most teenage girls, I did a smattering of baby sitting. There were only a few families in our fundamentalist church-cult who had young children, and most of the babysitting opportunities went to the pastor’s daughters, but I did, occasionally get my chance. One of the ladies that I baby sat for with any frequency was Laura*. Most of the time, with other families, I baby sat for “date night,” but when I baby sat for Laura it was often in the middle of the day. She would call and ask if I could come over, and then she would go out. Sometimes, she would work on getting house work done while I watched the kids. Other times, she would go into her bedroom and shut the door for a few hours.

She never asked the pastor’s daughters to baby sit. I didn’t really understand why, but I loved her kids so I never asked.

One afternoon she was visiting with my mom while I entertained the kids in the living room, and I overheard snatches of their conversation. It was the first time I’d ever heard the term bi-polar, and I had no idea what it meant. From context, I understood it to be some sort of mental . . . thing. I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about things like disability or illness. She had gone to the leader of our cult about her struggles, and he had told her to go off her medication. I remember that she started to cry at this point, telling my mom that she had gone off her medication, but it had made everything so much harder. She didn’t know how to cope, and she wanted to go back on her meds– she asked my mom what she should do. She was confused, distraught– she wanted to do the “right thing,” but she didn’t really think that her bi-polar disorder was sin in her life she hadn’t dealt with. She’d been divorced and re-married– was God punishing her for that?

My mom has never been one for giving advice– she listens, and tries to empower people to make their own decisions. It’s one of the most beautiful things about my mother, that she never gave in to the culture of elder women “teaching” the younger– in reality, giving younger women a legalistic, formulaic list. She listened to Laura, and eventually Laura decided to go back on her meds– for her own sanity.

Laura did go back on her meds. Somehow, the leader of our cult found out about it, and within a matter of weeks Laura and her family were gone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My junior year in college I took a class called Educational Psychology– which, I found out later, was only called that so that students who graduated with an education degree could try to get a teaching license. In reality, the focus of the class was only on summarizing the history of educational psychology and giving hundreds of reasons why all the teaching methods based on psychology were hideously, perniciously wrong. Their answer to “psychology in the classroom” was just to mete out more punishments. The only project I had to do for the class was write a paper explaining my “philosophy of classroom discipline.”

The main textbook for the class was, unsurprisingly, Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology. I read it, and to my shame swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. At this point in my life, my mother had decided to seek counseling for depression. They had just moved across the country, and she was still deeply struggling with the ramifications of being viciously attacked in our church-cult for years. She told me this right after I’d finished reading this book, and in a fit of anxiety I told her to make sure she found a biblical counselor, and not to go to someone with a secular degree. They couldn’t help you– they’ll only make the problem worse.

The book’s jacket description is fairly vague, offering a bunch of different questions that are representative of various viewpoints. But, here’s some of the positive reviews from goodreads:

A must read for ANY Christian. It truly explains how psychology has NO business in the church or the lives of Christians and confirms completely that God’s Word alone is sufficient to help us with all of our supposed “mental health” issues. Sin needs to be called sins, not diseases.

I just love that mental health is in quotation marks.

I had to read this book for the first Biblical Counseling class I took, and it really influenced the way I looked at psychology. I had always sort of distrusted much of psychology, but this book opened my eyes to specific ways in which it is unbiblical. It also pointed out areas where it has crept into the church, to our great detriment.

From anecdotal experience and what I’ve been told, this book shows up in a lot of counseling/psychology classes at evangelical colleges, even ones that are more “liberal” than the fundamentalist college I attended. Here’s another review from amazon:

This is an eye-opener. Dr. Ed Bulkley has written a book that should be read and taught in every ministry training school, or church. As a devoted student of God’s word, I have always approached secular psychology with an air caution. Now, I have greater reason and sound documentation to remain cautious.

The overarching theme of the book that is painstakingly clear is that “psychology is unbiblical and dangerous,” and from the fact that most of the reviews were positive, most readers seem to think that this opinion is just fine and dandy. Most of the reviews reflect one simple principle:

The Bible is all we need for life.

This perspective actually has a name: solo scripturaThis theological position is different from the typical Protestant orthodox view of sola scriptura. Solo scriptura is very, very common among fundamentalists. They reject the regula fidei, they reject any notion of the creeds. They have no need to pay attention to the church fathers, or even modern, respected theologians and apologeticists. If they even acknowledge the existence of men like Clement, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Lewis, or Schaeffer, they are as passing references and treated with an extreme amount of suspicion– especially the early church fathers, who are perceived as being “Catholic.” Reason and emotion are swept aside– the only thing the matters is the Bible.

This results in a complete dismissal of the validity of things like mental illness, mental disorders, and depression. These things become nothing more than “sin problems.” Much like Job’s friends, fundamentalists view any sort of mental problem as being strictly a matter of the person not being “right with God.” You’re not really struggling with depression– you’re just bitter. You aren’t ADD– you just weren’t spanked enough as a child. You’re not bi-polar, you lack temperance and are prideful. You just need to get over yourself and learn some self-control. Or, among hardcore fundamentalists, sometimes mental illness (especially schizophrenia) isn’t a matter of sin– you’re demon possessed. Most commonly, you’ve let Satan build a “stronghold” in your life.

I believed all of these things. I pontificated about how ADD and ADHD are over-diagnosed and these kids are just a bunch of stubborn, willful, spoiled rotten brats. I believed that depression was simply a lack of self-control, and if those pansies just sucked it up and dealt with their bad feelings like a grown-up, no one would have a problem. I dismissed things like “chemical imbalances” wholesale. Rolled my eyes at PTSD. Scorned medication as merely a patch on a deeper soul problem.

While I was in the grip of these beliefs, I could not see anything in my life clearly. I struggled with mild panic attacks and depression– but they only confused me. I had no idea what was happening– nausea could stay on me for days, and I lost 30 pounds over the course of a few months. My heart would start to feel like it was about to explode, and even though it frightened me, I had no resources to understand it. All I ever wanted to do was sleep, and it took mountains of effort to even communicate with someone. Just a few words could be exhausting, at times. I felt sick, tired, and achy every single day. I was only suicidal once, but I very dangerously dismissed those thoughts as insignificant. A friend who knew better than me asked me to give her all of my prescription pain relievers– and I did, but I felt silly and idiotic for doing it.

But, I had no idea that these are textbook symptoms of depression. And because I had been robbed of the ability to identify these things, I couldn’t even see that I had a problem. This was just life now.

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  • Amy

    Hi,
    I became aware of your blog a couple weeks ago, and just want to say THANK YOU for writing about your experiences. I also have [nearly] escaped from a similar past, and your blog and a couple others are really opening my heart to the people (particularly young women) who are still stuck there.
    I’m not quite there yet, but it’s growing my confidence to tell my story too.
    You’re making a difference. It sounds dorky, but- I salute you.
    🙂
    Amy

    • I’m just happy that anything I can say or write can help someone. That’s all I want to do, really.

      And hats off to you for escaping– and for realizing that it’s an ongoing process. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing to deal with; just getting out of an environment doesn’t mean the environment isn’t still inside your head.

      Just so you know– wineandmarble.com is hosting a Spiritual Abuse awareness week, starting Monday. If you would like, you can send an anonymous story to eloranicole.com by Saturday (Mar. 16). The more stories we can get out there, hopefully the more people will understand that spiritual abuse is systemic in many branches of Christianity, and is present in far more churches than people realize.

  • Such a good post. So much here 1) Yup, heard that about medications so much. So lame. So one of the kids I work with overseas pulled off her meds for missionary-peer-pressure. Makes me mad. 2) Also heard that so much about solo scriptura and the church father although I never heard that about Schaeffer. My church split…..over this issue. (No kidding!)

    • I started trying to explain this mentality to my husband last night– for him, it’s really difficult to understand how people can be so *willingly* ignorant of facts and science. My college referred to psychology exclusively as a “pseudo-science.”

      And it’s not surprising that there have been church splits over things like this. Solo scriptura proponents are . . . well, not to put too fine a point on it, but they’re nuts.

  • So many good things in this post. I’ll just comment on a few:

    1. I am so glad to see the distinction made between Sola Scriptura – which many of us hold to – that we should not add to what scripture has given us to establish a relationship with God, and Solo Scriptura – the believe that we need learn nothing beyond scripture for every aspect of life, personal, social, scientific, etc.

    2. The dismissal of depression and other mental illnesses is one of the cruelest things that modern fundamentalism has inflicted on suffering people. If you want to get my blood up, this is where you might do it. I have numerous friends, family, and clients in my law practice, which need more than moralizing to function well. For shame!

    3. Nothing like just dismissing hurting people as “ungodly” or “demon possessed.” That way lies the burning of witches…

    • Thank you. This is an area that is very close to my heart, as many of my friends and family have been wounded by this “teaching.”

      I’m actually taking a 2-year theology course at the moment through my church, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the consequences and ramifications of various viewpoints– having a name for a lot of what I grew up believing has been so helpful. It’s surprising to me how many heresies (gnosticism, dualism, docetism, solo scriptura–combined with a weird sort of sola ecclesia view of authority) have worked their way into fundamentalism as core beliefs.

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  • Great blog! I was actually a Fundamentalist Dad… Ugh! I hate to think of the way Mike Pearl was always breathing down my back. I am so thankful that my wife and I escaped after only 2 years in it and I threw aside all of Pearl’s stuff. It’s funny, but I realized I like beer and I can enjoy it, and I am not a Drunkard! Hahaha! I am totally free in Jesus… My wife and I even go out and dance. My son, who I thought was REALLY bad, has ADD and needs medication, but he also needs the structure that a school provides, so he is not homeschooled.

    My mother used to tell me that I was mean when i disciplined my kids, which meant that I basically swatted them for breathing wrong, coughing while sick, crying when I swatted them, and opening their eyes when I told them to lay down for a nap! I apologize to my kids all the time, because it was a horrible place to be as a parent. My wife and I used to beat ourselves up because my kids wanted to draw or color during church. It was crazy, but I am so happy to be free from those shackles! I have friends from all denominations, even the Roman Catholic Church. It’s been really fun learning to walk free in Christ and be caught up in his grace and love.

    I am praying for your recovery!

    Thanks for sharing,

    Mike

    • It’s good to hear from the perspective of a parent– as a kid growing up IFB, I have a very different perspective than my parents.

  • Anonymous

    I was taught all that too. Which meant that I didn’t recognize or have words for the depression I had all through my teens. And I had no way to understand what was happening when I finally had an anxiety attack one day. Thankfully, my employer DID know and sent me home. It was two months before I could work again, during the first, I slept at least 13 hours a day and panicked at any thought of commitment (even saying I would do something fun later that afternoon was impossible). The second month, I busied myself with random projects that made me feel like I was accomplishing something. Then I gradually eased back into working.

    I now know I should have been under a doctor’s care during that time. I’ve learned the value of treating the problems, which for me, turned out to be some major deficiencies in vitamins and nutrients. And I have also learned the value of paying attention to my gut – something else that we were taught was evil. If I need rest, I need to listen to my body and get rest.

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  • JR

    Keep in mind that “Biblical counseling” covers a wide range. For some “Biblical counseling” doesn’t imply a rejection of psychology or psychiatry, but a recognition that problems may have a spiritual side too. I took a “Pastoral counselling” course in college that taught us to refer people to medical/psychiatric professionals when certain symptoms were identified. At the same time, sometimes non-Christian counsellors do suggest that people engage in sinful/stupid behaviour to solve their problems. [As just one example, suggesting a couple engage in pornography together to spice up their sex lives displays deep ignorance in my opinion.] I prefer to refer people to trained Christian psychiatrists/counsellors when possible, because I can feel a bit safer that they would not suggest such remedies. (But, if someone needs medication for an imbalance, for sure any psychiatrist is better than none.)

  • Fitn25

    I sent you an email outlining I was an outcast in the teen group because my dad had three mental illnesses….I’ve heard of all of these being directed at my parents over the years, but to the churches’ credit they did try to understand it is a reality, but there definitely isn’t much support.