Questions of mental health arise whenever another mass shooting occurs in the United States. Anger erupts into violence and a community like Parkland, Florida, descends into grief. Counselors are needed to process the pain and horror as well as legislators who respond with concrete, sensible gun reform. Yet, sadly, some high-profile pastors and ministries seem to dismiss psychologists and mental health professionals under the guise of advocating for more devotion to God.
Tweets are often aphoristic. Nietzsche was a genius at disruptive aphorisms that turned the world upside down with his trenchant undermining of a lumbering status quo. Most aphorisms, however, are plodding platitudes that bear enough truth not to be absurd, but absurd enough not to be true. “Turn lemons into lemonade.” Yes, that is true enough, but don’t ask me to drink such a milquetoast brew.
On February 13th, Pastor John Hagee tweeted: “Depression is a result of spiritual starvation. Overcome depression and emotional hardships by immersing yourself in God’s Word.” Another well-worn saw was recently offered to us in the form of a Clyde Kilby quote on Desiring God’s Twitter:
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
(Editor’s Note: They later tweeted a sort of apology, saying, “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” with a link to this story.)
Few would argue with the fact that self-absorption didn’t work well for Narcissus. Stop navel gazing. Quit traveling in the dust of your inscrutable heart. Cease your self-serving self-reflection and focus on the satisfaction of God.
Calvin called the psalms a mirror that helps us reveal our deepest desires and expose our deepest deceit. I would add to this that: “The more you are captured by the strength and beauty of God, the more disrupted you will be as you come face to face with your brokenness and beauty.”
Calvin argues there are two primary foci worthy of intrigue and reflection: God and humankind. It is inarguable Calvin spends the bulk of his Institutes on God and the primary conclusion about man is depravity. The problem with the “focus on God alone” trope is that it is not the primary message of Scripture. To focus on God is to engage the story lived in the bloody, daily undulations of fallen, striving creatures. It is not that we are to focus on God and thus achieve mental health, it is far more than God enters the fray of mental complexity and makes His home not only among us but in us.
One example of someone focusing on God is Jeremiah. He receives God’s calling as a boy to preach judgment to the nation. He is promised protection and then is scourged, mocked and hanged in a pit of dung. Apparently, God doesn’t construe the verb “to protect” in the same fashion most of us would presume. He comes to a showdown and says:
You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. – Jeremiah 20:7-9
Jeremiah comes to a most salutary finish. Then he writes: “Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!” (Jeremiah 20:14)
This is not a valorization of being bipolar. It is an honest portrayal of the mental oscillations that come with trauma. Fight. Flight. Freeze. Amped up and driven down. Unable to turn to the left or right, but in blinding clarity he acknowledges the core of what he can’t escape and whom he desires. Is that mental health? Is that the presumed freedom from self that comes when one centers on God and God alone?
The tweet offers shalom through the focus on God. As a psychologist, I know many who will read the tweet to say: “It is foolish to explore your life in therapy because it is at best selfish and at worst ruinous.” I agree that not all therapy opens the heart to the heartache, terror and complexity of life, let alone God. But the presumption of singular focus as the ground for mental health is belittling. It is a dog whistle to warn against therapy. But far more egregious, it is a hermeneutic that wants to take God out of our story and our trauma erased from our story, if we simply gaze into the glory of God.
Gazing into beauty disrupts the heart, exposes our lust and anger, opens our heart to see our idolatry and the wonder of His expansive delight for us in spite of our sin. Gaze on God and be prepared for a drink much stronger than lemonade or any aphorism that promises tidy resolve to our mental health.
Dan B. Allender, PhD is professor of counseling psychology and former president of The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, home to The Allender Center. He travels and speaks extensively on sexual-abuse recovery, love and forgiveness, worship, and other related topics. Allender is the author of fifteen books, including Healing the Wounded Heart.