Bipolar Disorder, Biblical Counseling, and Sin

LithiumThis post (or one like it) has been lurking in the back of my mind, and as an incomplete draft, for well over a year. It’s only recently, as I’ve been reading some of David Murray’s posts on this subject (here, here, and here) that I have determined to write out some of my own thoughts on this subject. I should also point out that I do so with great trepidation, for fear that some of those on the biblical counseling/nouthetic counseling “team” will read this and immediately go on the attack, rather than patiently considering what I have to say.

Way back in 1998, when I first joined the United States Army, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type I. I can still remember sitting in the psychiatrist’s office at the Community Mental Health Center, and listening as he laid out my treatment options. One of the first things he mentioned was Lithium, along with a few other medications like Tegretol. I was scared witless. I also remember him asking me if I liked being in the Army; of course I answered in the positive! I loved the Army like a husband loves his bride. At that point in my life I thought that I would be a soldier forever. “My” psychiatrist then proceeded to inform me that if I started taking Lithium I would be discharged from the Army, since it would make me undeployable; it would also make me appear to be a sissy boy to my commanding officer, and they would never trust me again, and everyone would hate me.

No, I’m not kidding. That’s what he told me.

So I tried to bootstrap the problem for 5 years. When I got out of the Army, I eventually got medical help, but only after a psychotic break and getting to spend a month institutionalized. It was a horrible experience.

Since 2004, after trying various other medications that worked with varying degrees of inefficiency, I finally bit the bullet and started taking Lithium. And I must say, that I am a textbook choice for Lithium and I respond extremely well to it.

Then in 2009 I met my wonderful wife, whose sister also has bipolar, and we fell madly in love. It was important to me that we both attend the same church, so I started going to the same Presbyterian church she did, where I met a pastor that I can only describe as misguided where mental illness is concerned. My bride wanted to hear the Sunday School class he was teaching on biblical counseling, so we tracked down the room where he was teaching.

Just a few minutes into his lecture, I knew he and I weren’t ever going to be pals when he said this:

All mental illness is a sin issue. From top to bottom, sin causes all so-called mental illness. When someone you love is diagnosed with bipolar or schizophrenia, you’ll find out whether or not you really believe this.

In at least one sense, he was right. But in another, he couldn’t have been more wrong. If he had meant by his statement that we could trace all mental illness to the Fall, I would have had less of a problem with his statement. But that wasn’t what he meant at all. What he meant was that bipolar or schizophrenia was caused by specific sin committed by the individual, not by the sinful nature we inherited from Adam.

To say that I was livid would be an understatement of massive proportions.

Since Jay Adams published Competent to Counsel in 1970, it has been very popular to slam psychology and psychiatry in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. To be completely forthright, I have my own questions about some aspects of both disciplines.

But I have even bigger questions about nouthetic counseling and biblical counseling. For instance there is this quote form Ed Welch:

Whatever mania does, it can only act like a temptation, not the power that coerces you into foolishness.

From the perspective of one that has been manic far more than once, I question whether or not Welch knows what he’s talking about.

I have a lot more to say on this subject, but I’m out of time. Perhaps there will be more posts on this subject in the near future.

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14 thoughts on “Bipolar Disorder, Biblical Counseling, and Sin

  1. There is a lot of misunderstanding about mental disorders both in and outside the church. The worst is coming from someone who proclaims to speak for God. I think it’s mostly out of ignorance. Someone with a family member or good friend with bipolar disorder would not likely speak the way your pastor did. It’s hard enough admitting to yourself you need help, much less having the community condemn it as “sin.” I’ve been through some of that myself. It’s rough. It takes strength to move through it and find a church that has more knowledge of mental illnesses and their causes.

    • For what it’s worth, I think Dr David Murray over at HeadHeartHand probably has a better grasp of depression and the biblical issues that need to be addressed than anybody I’ve come across. He appears to have a lot of the same issues that I do with the biblical counseling movement, as well as with psychiatry and psychology.

      I don’t think we can or should negate the fact that a lot of the behavioral fallout from bipolar is sinful. However, I think the bigger question of culpability isn’t getting asked, and that’s where my concerns lie.

      Thanks so much for commenting!

      BMPalmer.

  2. The blog administrator at Southern Reformation has removed the author’s email address from public view. I think she’s caught enough crap without having someone use that email address to harass her.

    What a heart-wrenching story. My heart goes out to you. Thanks for being transparent before the world about your story. Would you be willing to let me share your story on my blog? You represent countless others who have felt marginalized and beaten down by church leaders who dismiss the possibility that mental health issues are more than issues of personal sin. Please let me know.

    Thanks! Julie Anne

    • Wow! I can’t believe that I just got a comment from the Julie Anne of BGBC fame! Miss Julie Anne, I think that I should say for the sake of transparency that I’m a regular reader of Spiritual Sounding Board and The Wartburg Watch, and I was thrilled to see that you won your lawsuit!

      As far as including my story on your blog…well, that’s something I’d have to think about. A lot.

      I’ll get back to you and let you know what I decide.

      BMPalmer

      • Aww, thank you for your kind words, but please drop me a few notches. The only reason for the “fame” is because people were shocked that a pastor would sue a mom. People have remained because they connect with my story about bully pastors. We have common ground, don’t we? I would be honored to share your story if you decide to (with or without a name attached).

        I followed your pings and I’m glad I did and to be able to connect with a reader I didn’t “know.” :)

  3. Thanks, Ben, for sharing this. I’ve struggled with one form of mental illness or another for most of my life — at one time diagnosed (or misdiagnosed?) with bipolar, and spending several years on lithium. I definitely have had both manic and depressive tendencies; but it wasn’t and hasn’t been a textbook bipolar case for many years. I am glad you’ve found some peace.

    The attitude of that pastor strikes me so much as that of the disciples, toward the man born blind, in John 9:1–7: “Did he sin, or his parents, to make him that way? Neither, Jesus said; he suffers so that the works of God might be manifest in him”. I pray that His works continue to be manifest in you.

  4. Well, I am a Biblical Counselor, but no worries about condescending or judgmental remarks from this member of the “team.” I appreciate you being able to share and hope to read more in the future. I have a family member who is bi-polar, so I understand (though I do not know by experience) the struggles with handling the intensity of such emotions (biological) and the impact that that has on one’s faith.(spiritual). Blessings to you and thank you for serving!

  5. I appreciate the courage you have in sharing your experience and know it is not easy to do so. Around 8-9 years ago I started having rapid heartbeats and thought I was having a heart attack or stroke. I went into the emergency room at least 7 different times and nothing was ever found. I also could not eat. At all. I lost 33 lbs in a month, having as little as 200-300 calories most days. Uhhhh to have that problem again hehe. But it was no fun, not at all. Test after test was conducted, and I wondered if I had cancer or some other malady but nothing turned up.

    My primary physician, a committed Christian woman, finally believed I had what is termed “generalized anxiety disorder.” To this day I am not sure if that was the root problem or not, but I have been on Wellbutrin and a very small dose of clonazepam since then. I have never had the rapid or racing heart beats again, and can eat very well now, a symptom which disappeared almost instantly when I became medicated. I have never had “panic attacks,” either before or after that time, never even gotten or felt the need for counseling, other than the general spiritual direction kind which we all can use at times. The only “panic” I had then or now was that I work in the medical field and I know a heart rate of 140 is not considered “normal” by anyone’s standards. And each time I went into the emergency room it was because they told me to after I called them for medical advice. The worst thing is that, after the 20 minute drive to the hospital, the symptoms almost always had subsided, so I am sure I looked like a ‘crazy” person in some of their eyes. And I use that word only because unfortunately so many still view people such as myself, or others with similar symptoms, as exactly that. Even in the health field.

    All to say–something was clearly wrong, and it was not at all “behavioral” in my case. It just was there. Nor was it, at least on a conscious level, any particular set of irrational fears or undealt-with sin either. It was, in my case, purely physical and not mental. But if I tell people of this condition, they often automatically assume I must be secretly “mentally ill.” The stigmas about such still exist as you are painfully aware.

    So again thank you for speaking up. Anti-anxiety meds can be overused to be sure. But for some of us they are lifesavers. And that includes doctors, lawyers, and ministers. And it does not make us somehow more unstable than the rest of society.

  6. Thank you for your courage to share your story. I am currently finishing my graduate studies in Counseling at Liberty University. One of the courses I completed was called Integration of Psychology and Theology. Two of the textbooks in this course that I would recommend you read is Psychology, Theology and Spirituality in Christian Counseling by Mark McMinn, PhD and Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity by David Entwistle. Even if you are not interested in counseling, it provides a logical approach to integrating spirituality into a clinical practice. It is a grave error for people like John MacArthur and others who support solely a nouthetic approach to practice. Treating legitimate mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia require both therapeutic and pharmaceutical intervention. Frankly, nouthetic counselors who state otherwise to their clients should be held legally accountable for any actions that result because of a client’s adherence to their counsel. Telling someone suffering from a mental illness that it is merely a result of their sin is not only unethical and irresponsible, but lacks any type of Scriptural support. This applies to other issues, as well. For example, if an alcoholic comes seeking help with their substance abuse, merely quoting them Ephesians 5:18 or 1 Corinthians 6:10 and sending them on their way hardly constitutes what I would call Christian counseling. Just my thoughts. Blessings!

    • Thank you for sharing those resources, Lance. I’ll be sure to add them to my reading list!

      Thank you as well for taking the time to share some of your expertise with us!

      BMPalmer

  7. As a Christian (former pastor) with a mental illness (Bipolar), I agree the root issue of mental (as well as physical) dis-ease is our condition of sin. This can (and often is) aggravated when we commit sin in our lives, failing to follow God’s Word that helps us maintain spiritual balance. If the question, however, is whether to seek medical treatment (such as psychotropic drugs), telling some psychiatric patients to just pray about it is like denying a person with diabetes prescribed insulin.

    Thanks for your openness.

"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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