Joseph Prince, distorted grace, and mental illness

It’s World Mental Health Day on Saturday, a day intended to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness by providing mental health education, awareness, and advocacy. I thought I might contribute to those goals by highlighting the destructive attitudes to mental illness that are far too common in contemporary charismatic Christianity; the view that mental illness is a result of lack of faith and can be completely healed by right believing and thinking (an idea mirrored by positive thinking proponents in secular society).

PrinceTo that end I will focus on the message of Joseph Prince, particularly as set out in his New York Times bestselling book The Power of Right Believing: 7 Keys to Freedom from Fear, Guilt, and Addiction.

The book is directed at people suffering mental illness; those “bound by severe insecurities, trapped by eating disorders, or gripped by constant fears and recurring panic attacks…, held captive by years of chronic depression, fighting suicidal thoughts that stripped them from their ability to function in their everyday lives…, caught in in the destructive cycle of addiction” and so on. Prince is certainly to be applauded for addressing mental illness, a topic that often goes unacknowledged in society in general and the church in particular. Unfortunately, the approach that he takes – to set faith over and against psychological treatment – is flagged on the first page:

They all long for freedom and have tried everything, including psychological and psychiatric treatment.… Many of become financially drained from seeing psychiatrist after psychiatrist, doctor after doctor, counsellor after counsellor, spending thousands of dollars every month on consultation fees. They’ve taken all types of antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs, in addition to trying quick fixes of every imaginable kind. And they are no better.

Thereafter, in a book almost 400 pages long, Prince makes no reference to the insight of experts in the field of mental health, and instead relies on simplistic and slogan-esque strategies that he insists will enable us to walk in divine health, both physical and psychological. The logic that frames the entire book is the insistence that the answer to mental illness is belief:

Right believing always produces right living. If you believe right, you will live right.

In referencing right belief Prince is not referring to theological categories, but to beliefs about God’s grace and favour toward us. Prince is well known for his emphasis on grace, which he defines as “unearned, undeserved, and unmerited favour.” And many people have felt liberated by his insistence that divine grace frees us from condemnation and religious obligation.

The problem is not his assertion that grace is unmerited, but that he misrepresents grace by connecting it to prosperity and complete health.

His principal metaphor for understanding grace draws on the idea of God as father – as “Daddy God.” For Prince, God is like a sugar daddy, who gives his children everything they want, ask for, and believe in. If you can “play the right mental movie” and learn to see as God sees, then breakthrough is certain. As he repeats, again and again, “The key is to receive his grace as unmerited favour and believe that same unmerited favour is what transforms you.” Or looked at the other way round, “the hindrance then between you and your victory is your wrong beliefs. The battle has to do with your beliefs. This is why when you start believing right, you will step into your breakthrough.”

Prince may well emphasise grace, but it’s a distorted grace. Grace is not the promise of perfect mental health, but the radical idea that God is present in the good times and the bad, in and through our suffering, even at those times when he seems most absent.

What is readily apparent throughout The Power of Right Believing is that Prince has no understanding of mental illness and addiction, no awareness of its myriad causes, and no knowledge of the complex medicinal and psychological strategies that will help a person (and their family) to manage (not cure) the lifelong challenge of living with the illness.

The book recounts story after story of people that have experienced total freedom, almost always after they have listened to Prince’s sermons or read his books. Some of these stories are plainly absurd – such as one businesswoman who prayed for a rise in the Dow Jones sharemarket index, and a few hours later the index had risen by 18%. But almost all of them are reductionist. There are no stories telling of the complex and recurring hardships of people with severe depression, bipolar disorder, debilitating anxiety and so on, except where right belief has facilitated complete freedom. But anyone who’s been involved with the real-life of people with a mental illness will recognise how unrealistic these stories are.

Prince’s promises are explicit:

I promise you that sin, addictions, bad habits, fear, guilt, anxiety, depression, and any condemnation will drop off from your life when you’re absorbed and occupied with the person of Jesus. They simply cannot coexist in your life when you’re occupied with Christ and not yourself.”

What he believes he is doing in promoting this message of grace is freeing people from condemnation, but his insistence that a life of faith entails perfect mental (and physical) health ads failed faith to the suffering of people with mental illness. This is because the very nature of that illness is that sufferers are unable to control their thought processes; so Prince’s remedy is inevitably unworkable. In his boringly repetitious advocacy of right believing – of taking control of our mental images – Prince reveals his complete failure to understand the illness for which he is recommending a simplistic cure.

You might wonder whether I’m being too harsh? Perhaps I am. After all, isn’t Prince’s message of grace liberating even if overstated? Maybe it is. Isn’t there obvious truth to the general principle that thinking rightly about God’s grace will improve our thought processes and have a positive impact on our life? Well, Yes. But even so, the hardship of mental illness is too substantive, and the number of people affected too many, to allow a message of distorted grace to go unchallenged. Rather than slogans, the church needs to be a place where people suffering with mental illness are accepted, understood, valued, encouraged to seek professional help, and supported through the crises that are likely to recur over the long run. Insisting on a person’s healing and providing unrealistic promises isn’t grace.The church mediates grace only when it become a community that embraces people that suffer.

 

Shane Clifton is Dean of Theology at Alphacrucis College in Sydney. his memoir, Husbands Should Not Break, reflects upon On the challenges of adjusting to an accident that left him a quadriplegic. It is a reflection on loss, disability, faith, and the possibility of happiness in the midst of the hardship and fragility of life.

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19 thoughts on “Joseph Prince, distorted grace, and mental illness

  1. Thanks for this article Shane. I have worked in mental health for many years and have seen the devastating effects of serious mental illness. There is no quick fix. I love the central theme of grace in the Bible but am saddened when people like Prince water it down and turn it into a “cure”.

  2. I like the genuine and critically thought through approach of your post Shane, thank you. Mental distress has been a significant part of my family of origin and its destruction has been terrible. I am saddened and angered by Prince’s stance – mirrored in your words “This is because the very nature of that illness is that sufferers are unable to control their thought processes; so Prince’s remedy is inevitably unworkable.” – Mental illness is a condition that most people would flee from if there was a realistic alternative, and their families and friends if they still have any, would too. The popularity of this book may be a reflection of the strength of desire to live more freely. The illusion freedom offered though would be tantamount to goading because mental distress in the most part cannot be walked away from in the way that a person cannot lift themselves up by their shoe laces. Yes there are usually actions that can be taken to achieve increments of betterment but the tantalising carrot of complete healing through self effort and belief distorts the true meaning of grace filled living that I believe Jesus has for us. Well said Shane!

  3. You are right that message needed to be challenged. Most of the time we prefer simplistic over realistic so we don’t bother to think and act further, avoiding to put true compassion for others into practice. Thanks for that.

  4. Thank you and thank you. This needs to be shouted from the rooftops. I especially liked the way you linked the “right belief ” movement with the secular idea of “positivity”: proponents of both have no idea how they stigmatize and place unbearable burdens on those of us with a mental illness. You are dead on when you say we cannot control our thought processes, and this is what so many healthy people fail to understand.
    I will say I have found some manageability through the discipline of contemplative prayer. Meditating on the image of the Divine Face of Christ and repeating his name *without trying to still the mind-chatter* has helped to quiet my mind and has brought me closer to him.
    I would also like to say that people suffering from mental illnesses have much insight that could be of benefit to believers if only we were listened to.

    1. I should have added that no one should stop talking psychotropic meds simply because they have been accused of “using a crutch”. Much as I dislike the pharmaceutical industry I must say that every time I have gone off my meds I’ve had cause to regret it.

    1. last time I looked, the gospel was concerned with the good news of the kingdom of God – not false promises of financial prosperity and divine health. The person watering down the gospel is the one who is giving trite and false responses to deep challenges like those of mental illness. The gospel is precisely relevant for people with mental illnesses because God meets them in the ups and downs of their life. yes, God can heal, but healing by definition is rare. Faith and deep relationship with God is experienced in the ups and downs of life, in times of sickness and suffering, and for all of us ultimately in death. Slogan-esque statements such as “either Jesus can heal or he is a liar” are the shallowest conception of the gospel possible.

      1. Forget not ALL His benefits.

        Stripe by stripe our Lord Jesus bore them… for the mentally ill to suffer them still? Perfect health is possible. Failed faith is when you make faith a barrier. I must have enough faith for Jesus to heal me. Instead, see Jesus in His grace, all-loving and merciful, and receive His fullness.

        But sometimes healing is immediate, sometimes it is gradual. First the thirty fold, then the sixty fold, then the hundredfold. Anyway, I write in the hopes that all who would read would believe that you don’t need to cope with, you can overcome.

  5. Just one thought…..many who suffer mental illness have been fed a gospel of religion and good work theology and the grace message of Joseph Prince (although to some may seem overbalanced) it is is actually a message that brings great relief and balance to a message of ‘Jesus is not enough’ theology you are pushing. JOspeh Prince speaks a message that challenges our obsession with perfectionism and striving and faith is not enough mentality. He believes that the work of cross is enough and it was Jesus himself who said often … ‘Only believe’ . I wish theologians would stop talking those struggling with mental illness OUT of faith instead of into faith. There are many Christians who struggle with mental illness who have found great reprieve in much of Joseph Prince’s overemphasis is on grace because it brings balance to the overemphasis on religious bigotry. When someone with mental illness finds peace and rest in the soul because Joseph Prince has helped them see that Jesus is enough…maybe his message has a little merit. The gospel is simple and mental health is not but Joseph Prince has one thing going for him..he actually wants people to experience freedom …hopefully your comments here have the same purpose.

    1. He might want them to experience freedom, but the consequence of his words is to add failed faith to mental illness. He has the same problem with healing. He might want people like myself to experience freedom, but the consequence of his insistence that God heals everyone – that perfect health is possible – is that people in my situation who aren’t healed have the additional burden of failed faith. I don’t find his words liberating – precisely the opposite. So, yes, my words had the same intention. Ask people with long-term mental health problems what it is like to hear from preachers everywhere that If only they would trust God then their mental illness would leave – they wouldn’t need antidepressants and psychiatry. When I first posted this blog on my wall, it was people with serious mental illness who most appreciated what I had to say.

      I should add, that the gospel is simple, but it’s not simplistic. The gospel doesn’t offer simplistic answers to a complex world. It offers grace – the presence of God in our ups and downs. It offers peace – the love of God in our ups and downs. It offers hope – the promise of God in our ups and downs. But it doesn’t offer financial prosperity or perfect health – these things are a false gospel. Whatever their good intention, their distortion has negative consequences.

      1. So when the words of scripture don’t leave you liberated they must be wrong? Even though others find them liberating. When someone does find his words liberating they must be wrong because you find them the opposite? When the words of scripture bring healing to someone else they are wrong because someone else doesn’t get healed. I thank God there are other writers willing to talk me into faith and hope and trust instead of talking me out of it. There is comfort in know God is there in my ups and down. There is also comfort in words the encourage me to keep believing for the impossible. It doesn’t hBe to be either/ or because our experiences don’t define truth. I feel strongly enough about this not because I am clueless and have never met someone with mental illness.

  6. Faith is not the insistence that we should live in divine health. Faith is not belief in the certainty of our healing. That misplaces the object of faith. Faith is trust in the goodness, faithfulness, grace, and power of God whatever the circumstances.
    You accuse me of talking people out of faith – of being driven by my own experience – and so implying that I have lacked faith (more than implying – actually making a pretty explicit). Perhaps that’s so; I will leave it for others to judge.
    But let me say that the people who I have seen exercise the greatest faith – the greatest trust in God – are those who have persevered with God while living with severe and permanent disabilities, cancers that resulted in death, bipolar disease that has mucked around with the brain.
    In all of my writing on this topic (in my academic scholarship, in my memoir and other places) I have never once denied that God can heal. God is God and miracles are possible. I have said numerous times that I have valued the many many prayers for my own healing and well-being – and I pray the same way for others. But what I have consistently rejected is the assumption that faith leads to divine health – that every physically ill, disabled, or mentally ill person should continue to believe for their healing. the fact is, that people die, suffer, and experience permanent disability. Christianity doesn’t promise freedom from the ups and downs of life, at least until the resurrection. We can and we should pray. But we shouldn’t make the disabled or the sick feel like they lack faith because they’re not healed. In fact, there comes a time when a person with a disability needs to accept that disability, to live with it and flourish with it, and this is only possible when you let go of the demand of God that you must be healed. Likewise, a person with bipolar can pray and trust for healing. But there may come a time when they need to learn to trust God with the illness, and appreciate that antidepressant medication is a blessing – and not something that has to be escaped for real faith to be exercised.
    if I am considered faithless because I encourage people who have suffered over the long run with mental illnesses or permanent disability that they don’t lack faith by learning to accept their limitations, then that is a criticism I’m prepared to live with.

  7. I know this post is a few months old, so I don’t know if you’ll see this. As someone with a severe mental illness, I find that Christians have a horrible tendency to make people with mental illness feel awful because they supposedly should be “healed”, and if they aren’t, there must be ‘something wrong’ in the way they believe or practise their faith. I am from Singapore, where Joseph Prince is based… so unfortunately, I personally know a lot of well-meaning but clueless (when it comes to mental illness anyway) Christians of that ilk. I know people from that church who have dumped their psychiatric medications against their doctors’ orders, and implied that I should do the same.

    That said, if I didn’t have the hope that I would be able to recover to some extent- or regain some functionality so that I can live a life of meaning- with limitations- I don’t think I would be able to go on living.
    Mental illness robs everything from you, and without the hope of help from the right medications, the right therapy… it’s just impossible to live at all.
    So I think we need a third way.
    As you said, ‘healing’ (in its strictest definition) is rare. But people can go into remission, or restore functionality with the right meds. As Christians, we weep with those who weep- we should support these people in their journeys- be the support that helps them heal in a restorative environment that gives them structure and encouragement. While we don’t hold people up to impossible standards by saying that they should be ‘healed’, we should never give up the hope that their quality of life can improve.

  8. I have Spinal Muscle Atrophy Type 3. There is no cure for it nor the other 40 Muscular Dystrophies. Some of the medications are showing promise now. I do take several medications to manage the symptoms. I have been to many of the self proclaimed healers in the Christian world and I still have it. Condemnation comes from believers and from within myself. God is not wrong nor are the Leaders of the church so it must be me and the sin of unbelief. The leaders who get on the defensive say that I have not said yes to Jesus yet. How could I argue with someone who has a track record of healings when they laid hands on someone and has several houses around the country and who is rich. So now I am all wrong with these people and I can only take so much contempt and when I don’t go back to whatever church group it is I don’t get beat up with their words and that in and of itself relieves the pain in my mind and keeps me from wanting to fight back and slap them with my words as well. It just turns into a fight and that is no way to live. OK mister/miss where is your faith to heal me. The second difficulty is not giving money to them. Ooops I should mean not giving money to God. So I am supposed to believe that giving them money is giving it to God. Not giving 10% of my disability money and cash offerings besides – no wonder I don’t get healed – now I am supposed to believe I am some sort of thief because they have the prophet Malachi teaching wrong. Can I argue that with them? NO!! They are the preacher and teacher and I am the little nobody who the workers support with tax dollars. That is not even correct. So the arguments and slapping each other with words continues. Then my focus goes into fighting and argueing and is not on Jesus – that is strike three!! I stand up to people that speak to me with contempt. I need to forgive them and turn the other cheek. Sooo condemned by ministers and congregations. Goodness I have all the reasons in the world as to why I am not getting healed. Then I get the rationale of why God does not heal and why God does not answer prayer. The things that stop God, why he cannot and why he does not. John 3:16 says something different. Philippians 4:13 Paul finds contentment and peace no matter the situation or circumstances he is living through. Divine health and financial prosperity are not in the atonement of the cross. This is the error of the health and wealth false gospel. The Jesus they present is one that is of health and wealth. If I do not agree then I am in some way calling good evil. Condemned again!! They try and convince me that I am calling God evil now. I am not going to do that nor believe them. I know I am born again. No one can talk me out of that. I am in Christ Jesus. There is no condemnation for me. Now the last condemnation I get from faith healing preachers and believers: I get Social Security Disability and VA compensation. Social Security is for the Spinal Muscle Atrophy Type 3 (1 of the 40 Muscular Dystrophies) and the VA compensation is for my left leg in service to the nation in the Army. My leg just wore out faster than the rest of me and Colonel Eagleton fixed it – no war heroics nor injured in the line of duty heroics. It just wore out faster than the rest of me. I get 20% disability pay for that. So, now I put my trust in getting money from the Government and not God. The government supplies all my need and not Jesus. That is sooo it.They want me to believe that. I get Born again and learn from health and wealth faith healing preachers and teachers that I am still condemned and the United States Government is my source and not God. All this brings me to the following scripture passage:
    “The Signs of the Times and the End of the Age”
    3 Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”
    4 And Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.
    Take heed that no one deceives you.

  9. Thank you so much for your article Shane..
    There aren’t many online discussions I post a reply to but this topic of mental illness, Jesus, the church and Pastor Joseph Prince has met me smack dab in the face.
    I was diagnosed with Bipolar close to 10 years ago. I accepted Christ 24 years ago, on disability and struggled on and of with meds..
    I came across pastor Prince about 2 years ago and was blessed by the message of grace but for some reason I kept hitting a wall because some of his teaching on healing made feel like I came up short, since I was taking meds. I felt so blessed and changed the first time I actually listened to one of his sermons, I could relate with the people who wrote letters in his books. The freedom was amazing but I found myself going off the meds trying to achieve more of what Pastor Prince taught and not wanting to disappoint God my Father..
    You shed some light on what I believe the reason is for my uncertainty.
    Since listening to pastor Prince sermons I was never able to get a clear stance from Mr. Prince in depth, about people struggling and being challenged with mental illness nor parishioners taking medication for the symptoms of the disorder. This in the past has caused me guilt (on top of the guilt from the illness) and has made it hard to move forward in his sermons…
    I believe in the grace from our Lord Jesus Christ and us being complete in Jesus but I am lost in trying to understand and reconcile his comments about antidepressants and mental health. Mainly the comment from Pastor Prince referring to people who take them as “addicted”..
    His message of grace and complete forgiveness is BEAUTIFUL, true and much needed..and I believe the sermons are God given..
    I just want to be certain of where my Father and the Lord Jesus begins and where pastor Princes words are added.
    I agree with you whole heartedly, let’s pray for the Truth to be revealed. Jesus Christ’s truth from the Holy Spirit..and for the Comforter to meet us wherever we are in our lives…Thank you again..I also appreciate the other responses….

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