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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