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.

cover

The positivity myth: a belated response to 60 minutes and the Curtis Landers story.

Curtis Landers

60 minutes report: http://video.au.msn.com/watch/video/curtis-landers/xwf16yz?from

I hate watching television reports on spinal cord injury, which normally to follow a predictable two-part pattern. Part one provides pictures of neck braces, helicopters, ventilation machines, and shocked families, all of which is a visceral reminder of the horror of my own injury, bringing back memories I’d rather forget. Part two describes a person’s inspirational recovery, in which she or he refuses to give in to disability, and so reaps the rewards of determination – eventually stepping out of his or her wheelchair.

Don’t misunderstand me. I love to see people who incur a spinal cord injury recover. I don’t feel bitter or jealous and I am genuinely happy for any and all recovery. My best friend in hospital, Sid, began as a quadriplegic and now walks. I recently had the joy of hearing him tell of his return to skiing on the snowfields where he had his accident. Recovery from SCI is something to be celebrated.

But – and this is my point – many people don’t recover. And they aren’t any less determined, any less (or more) inspirational, any less hard-working, any less newsworthy. Yet time and again media reporting celebrates those who recover and ignores those who don’t (or worse, implicitly demeans them), as though their permanent struggles (and achievements) with disability are too embarrassing to talk about.

So I came to the Peter Overton’s 60 minutes report on Curtis Landers with some reluctance [which is why this blog post is a week out of date]. I have to say that I was mostly pleasantly surprised. Curtis is a 15-year-old boy who injured his third and fourth cervical vertebrae while playing rugby league; an injury that would ordinarily render him a permanent quadriplegic. While at the time the story was aired it was still too early to know the full extent of his recovery, what the program was able to show was his remarkable improvement. Curtis has been able to regain function in his arms, fingers, and legs, and when discharged from the hospital, triumphantly left his wheelchair behind. The program rightly celebrated the rapidity and extent of Curtis’ recovery. It also applauded the achievements of his first aid worker, whose ministrations on the football field immediately following the injury minimised the damage to the spinal cord.

This good reporting notwithstanding, 60 minutes couldn’t help but perpetuate the positivity myth. Speaking about Curtis’ recovery, Overton noted that “in his mind, it was never a matter of if, but when,” and followed up with the standard question “was there ever a moment, in all honesty, when you thought ‘I will never walk again?’” Curtis gave the expected response, although with some reluctance “not really, I was planning to play [football] this season again, so walking wasn’t a worry.” This exchange was followed with video of Curtis at work in the gym, taking tentative steps, while John Newman & Alex Clare’s inspirational “Not Giving in” played in the background. And surprise surprise, the report ended with Curtis stepping out of his wheelchair as he left the hospital.

Let me be clear. I have no issue with Curtis; he answered the question honestly, and his positive attitude toward his circumstances is commendable. His recovery is wonderful news, and it should make headlines. What I take issue with is the question Overton asks, which is deliberately framed to imply that believing in something with sufficient faith, and never giving in, will bring it to pass. The reality, though, is that in the early stages of rehabilitation, many people with an SCI hold on to the belief that they will recover, but ultimately have to come to terms with permanent disability.

The fact is that belief has very little to do with recovery from an SCI. When a person incurs a spinal cord injury, the long-term damage to the neurological system is indeterminate, and it takes months and years to find out the extent of the damage caused by the initial trauma. In Curtis’ case, he regained movement in his arms and legs within a week of his accident, and was walking within months. This means that his spinal cord had incurred less damage than his doctor [Jonathan Ball**] initially thought when he apparently suggested to Curtis’ parents that their son would never walk again. To do Overton justice, his 60 minutes report made this clear, before undoing its good work by defaulting to the positive thinking myth. Curtis’ wonderful recovery had nothing to do with his expectation, faith, or positivity, and nor was it a product of his “defying his doctors.” These attitudes might well have helped him deal with the emotional trauma of the injury. But mostly, he was lucky (blessed, if you prefer). If the damage to his neurological system had been more severe, no amount of positive thinking would have kept him out of a wheelchair.

The positive thinking myth has obvious correlations with the naïveté of Christian prosperity/faith healing. Both place too much emphasis on individual faith. Both focus on those who experience healing, ignoring and implicitly denigrating those who don’t. And both fail to recognise that suffering and disability are an inevitable fact of human life, not something that can be believed away.

I hope that 60 minutes and Peter Overton continue to tell the stories of people with a spinal cord injury. There is too much horror in the media, and we do need the encouragement of stories such as that of Curtis Landers. But is it too much to ask that these good news stories be framed more carefully, perhaps by referencing accounts of those who don’t regain any neurological function, who never get out of their wheelchair and walk again, but who nevertheless manage to make a go of life with a disability?

 

** A comment on Dr Jonathan Ball. I was especially disappointed by Doctor Ball’s comments on the program. He observed of Curtis’ recovery that, “It is astonishing. It is inspirational. Across all neurological operations there are a handful of patients that you remember, who are the people who keep you doing what you do. And Curtis is in the handful of patients who are the inspiration to keep me doing what I do.” This may be true, and neurosurgery may well be a largely impersonal discipline – and no doubt Curtis is a memorable young man. But whether he intended it or not, what Dr Ball implied was that none of the other patients that have been in his care are worth remembering (or even worth operating on). I, for one, am glad I had more compassionate doctors supervising my recovery.