Biblical Mental Health, Part I
A Reconciliation: The Bible and Holistic Psychotherapy
The Source of All Good Healing
Psychology and fundamentalism at best have been polite opponents. In recent history, say the last 50 years, this opposition has become vigorous and often less than polite. Many churches, such as Calvary, completely eschew all mental health practitioners (whether social workers, psychiatrists or counselors) and staunchly maintain that all healing comes directly from God or prayer and that all you need in order to develop and maintain a robust mental health may be found in Scripture or a prayer session.
This rejection of psychotherapy may have been a reaction to the “I’m okay, you’re okay” generation of therapists who did very little for most people except to allay the anxieties of narcissists and sociopaths by telling them “if it feels good, it is good.” In the eyes of both Orthodox Jews and Christians, the field of humanistic psychology took the whole program of self-improvement one giant step too far, putting man in the center of the universe, particularly his own.
Their objections were not wrong. And I attest to this as a psychotherapist.
I have seen far too many well-meaning therapists do little more for their patients than make them feel better about being sick. They are loath to challenge or confront negative behavior or unhealthy thinking because they fear being seen as judgmental. As a result of their tentative relationships with the truth, they fail in their relationships with their patients. They do not see what needs to be healed so the patient is left unhealed. This is truly a disservice to the patient because what it ultimately does is feed the pathology and starve the essence of the person.
I think all goodness, truth, and healing flows from only one Source which means that there can be an alliance—and an important one—between the Biblical and Mental Health communities.
But only if we have an understanding of our terms (e.g., Who is the Source) and are actually seeking the same results.
What is Healthy? What is Unhealthy?
Health, from a holistic perspective, is not dependent on one facet of the person alone. We may be wholly without physical symptoms but be deeply unhealthy (emotionally broken or spiritually bankrupt). The things that determine a person’s true health are their adaptability, creativity, and vitality in combination with an integrated sense of who he is and a strong moral sensibility. You cannot be a con artist and be healthy even if you can run a marathon. I believe Biblical principles operate from the same premise.
Unfortunately, this culture does not. In contemporary cultural media, there is an overarching value placed on “niceness” and looking “hot” and, because of the inflated esteem they are given, they are often confused with true goodness and well-being. People are so surprised by the evil deeds some people commit and the words out of their mouths are always the same: “But they were so nice.” “He was such a nice guy…we never imagined!” We want to know: How could they be so bad and look so good? The answer is an interpersonal variation of the old proverb, “All that glitters is not gold.”
Its importance cannot be over-estimated, particularly in the field of psychotherapy where we (the practitioners) are supposed to know the difference: “Nice” does not equal “Good.” Presentation is less than everything. It can be downright deceptive.
In fact, niceness is often a darker variant of charm and seduction and serves as a very good cover for evil. Because it confounds the moderns so easily, evil uses it often and well to its advantage. I know of one person who has carefully cultivated a persona that is as “spiritual” as it is “nice” and most of those who first meet her believe the presentation without feeling the need to look any further. Their mistake. The truth is that she consistently damages those around her because of her narcissism. Her own daughter has not spoken to her in years. She presents as if she were pure kindness but she takes what is not hers with deliberate stealth and lies without compunction.
On the other hand, I know one man who, for almost all his adult life, has presented to the world as a curmudgeon. He is surly, grumpy, judgmental, and often unpleasant because he sees no reason not to let everyone know exactly how he feels about whatever is going on at the moment (and it is usually negative) just as he sees no reason to spare anyone’s feelings on the matter. There is no doubt that he is not “nice.” Yet, he can be quite good. When it comes to giving to those who need, he gives. When it comes to showing up for the most difficult moments of a person’s life, he shows up. When it comes to being responsible, he responds. He stands for what he believes when most others are too “nice” or busy to do so and as a result he has given hundreds of youngsters a traditional Orthodox education. Did he grumble and complain about it? Yes. Did he do it? Yes.
Good is not necessarily nice and nice is not necessarily good just as healthy is not solely the absence of physical symptoms or the presence of a tight backside. The pictures of health that are presented to us on a daily basis via the media are always superficial and misleading: firm thighs, perfect teeth, big homes, perky breasts, 6-pack abs, and money to spare on vacations, jewelry, and clothes we don’t need.
We get confused and conned because we do not see (and sometimes we don’t want to see) the whole picture.
According to Samuel Hahnemann, M.D., after whom dozens of medical colleges around the world have been named, physical health presents with a very clear picture which is eternally derived from a healthy spiritual state.
“In the healthy human state, the spirit-like life force (autocracy) that enlivens the material organism as dynamis, governs without restriction and keeps all parts of the organism in admirable, harmonious, vital operation, as regards both feelings and functions, so that our indwelling, rational spirit can freely avail itself of this living, healthy instrument for the higher purposes of our existence.”
He goes on:
“The material organism, thought of without life force, is capable of no sensibility, no activity, no self-preservation. It derives all sensibility and produces its life functions solely by means of the immaterial wesen (the life principle, the life force) that enlivens the material organism in health and in disease.”
Therefore…health depends on a healthy wesen or life force or spirit. It is a process that proceeds from above down, from the inside out. This is also the philosophical underpinning of a proper holistic psychotherapy. And, as luck and Providence would have it, it is the pivot point of all Scripture on the subject of good health.
Let us start with basics. What has the Bible been saying about health (whether mental, emotional or physical) for the past several thousand years? The following is a small sample of references:
"In His hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” Job, 12:10
"Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear and respect the Lord and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones." Proverbs, 3:7-8
"Hope deferred makes the heart sick; but when hopes are realized at last, there is life and joy." Proverbs, 13:12
“Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. And are you not worth much more than they?” Matthew, 6:26
"A cheerful heart is good medicine." Proverbs, 17:22
"This is what the Lord says: 'Your wound is incurable, your injury is beyond healing. There is no one to plead your cause, no remedy for your sore, no healing for you. All your allies have forgotten you; they care nothing for you. ... But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds...'" Jeremiah, 30:12-14, 17
"You cannot add any time to your life by worrying about it." Matthew, 6:27
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." John, 14:27
Even in this cursory perusal, it’s easy to see that the biblical concepts of health include, hope, faith and an acceptance of reality, an understanding that we are not the center of the universe, peace of heart (a release of worry), generosity, service, humility, joy, and love of the Lord. I am sure there is more, but I believe this is a good core to start with.
I have worked with individuals, families, couples and adolescents for almost 30 years. They have been both mandated to see me under duress and crawled in desperate for help. They have complained of everything from fleeting thoughts of adultery to the hearing of voices. They have been over-indulged and neglected, entitled and abused, imprisoned and ignored.
I have seen a wide enough range of people to ask a few pointed questions and hopefully seen enough recovery and healing to offer a couple of observations.
The first question: What are the things that lead to poor health, whether physical or mental/emotional?
In my experience, they are the same things the Bible warns us about over and over and over: Pride, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, Envy, Lust and Wrath.
Almost every single patient I have ever had was doing battle with pride in some way. Some were engaged in battle with nearly all of them at once. And I admit openly that almost every pain I have ever suffered myself had something to do with at least one of those sins or as some people call them, “character defects.”
One woman whom we shall call Sonia came to my office about 15 years ago. She was addicted to pain killers. She had some physical symptoms, but they were not the reason for the prescription or the solution for the pain she needed to heal. She complained about her mother, even though she had not spoken to her in many years and was enormously indignant (a combination of pride and wrath) about how she had been wronged. As she spoke of all the things her mother had done to her, she clenched her jaw and her hands.
When later in treatment I offered up the possibility that her continued rage (wrath) at what had been done to her those many years ago was actually only hurting her and that perhaps it was time for her to accept the fact that her mother had failed her and begin to consider forgiveness, she became outraged (pride). In her mind, accepting the reality of her mother’s inadequacies (without making them her own) was unthinkable. Her mother had to be shown who was right and who was wrong. Sonia equated acceptance with excuse and could not, would not see it any other way. The end result? She stayed in pain and addicted to pain killers. Her pride would have it no other way. When the choice between being “right” or happy was presented to her, she chose to be right.
All of us know people whose sloth and greed have eroded their home lives. They don’t want to work very hard, but they do want that new HDTV or that new Ford 150. So, believing that the objects of their desire will somehow quiet their need, make them happy, more appealing and so on, they put it all on their credit cards. We have seen it too many times and know the end result—creditors, foreclosures, and emotional ruptures.
Some years ago, one young man was mandated to me by his EAP. He was very full of himself, so much so that he could not understand why he was being sent to see me even though he had threatened someone at work and was caught with his hand in the cookie jar. His pride and entitlement, his greed and his unrestrained wrath when thwarted in any way kept him from receiving any help and he eventually went to jail. From what I heard, that experience was not at all enlightening to him, either. Pride can be the source of the most monumental denial and stupidity. Pride would have us say “no” to the face of the Creator Himself. I have seen too many lives destroyed by it to see it as a benign hubris. Unrestrained pride is dangerous.
The second and perhaps more pertinent question: How do we treat these problems in the modern world? What is a psychotherapist to do if the purpose is to facilitate true healing and he or she is not a priest, pastor, or rabbi? We are not preachers. Our job is slightly different and the people who come to us are not always ready for (or necessarily interested in) an extreme spiritual make-over. People who may not be ready to go to a church or synagogue may need to someone objective who will just listen to them and hear their suffering. Many people need to talk before they can learn to pray. And the therapeutic relationship—if it is handled properly—can be the training ground for having other relationships, including one with God.
There is a difference between preaching and manifesting. It is good to inspire others with great thoughts about God. It is also good to manifest God’s love through presence and compassion. There are times that a patient may be too angry at God to hear someone say, “God loves you,” but not too angry to have God’s love quietly demonstrated through patience, understanding, and honest integrity. And this may be the first time he or she has ever experienced it.
I remember my first experience of it in the person of one woman who put my life on a different course. She was my sponsor at Al-Anon and was the epitome of grace and the gentlest kindness. Every gesture she made with her hands, every offer of help, every story she told bore a trace of God’s own unconditional love. She never judged or told me what to do. But she herself was a person of such beauty and regal benevolence that I became willing to do whatever was suggested to be more like her. I still think of her when I think of who I want to be when I grow up.
In my experience, what we do have to do if we are going to be healing in psychotherapy is not all that different than scripture prescribes even if it is presented and packaged a little differently.
Please continue in Part II, The Stages of Biblical Healing.