I learned that the word “psychology” was a taboo word in Adventism when I submitted a book to one of the church’s publishers with the title "Jesus Psychology." The book was my effort to distill and explain the topic of biblical psychology—how the gospel brings about inner healing.
“We like the manuscript,” the editor said, “But we can’t use that title. The word ‘psychology’ will kill the sales of the book.”*
Shocked, I looked into the etymology of the word psychology, and found that it simply meant “the study of the soul.” I believed, and still believe, that the Bible is, among other things, a study of the human soul—how God designed us to function, how sin warped human nature, and how our souls can be transformed back into the image of God. I couldn’t see how the word “psychology,” or even the study of it, could be prohibited by the Word. I thought, and still think, it’s quite the opposite.
I understood that the connotation of “psychology” was the secular science developed by Freud, Rogers, Skinner and scores of other non-Christian theorists. And I understood that a strict adherence to these theories lead away from God. But it seemed that the field’s scientific research still echoed the truths of the Bible much of the time. I believed, and still believe, that the Word is the authority on the timeless principles of human psychology, but that scientific findings can validate and develop these principles, making science a useful tool. Good science sometimes supports veganism, creationism, morality, and a host of other biblical ideas. I believed, and still believe, that we shouldn’t be any more afraid of the sciences of psychology and sociology than we are of the physical sciences such as biology, neurology, endocrinology, urology and so on, as long as we screen all science through the great truths of the Bible.
I took note of the fact that Adventist medical professionals far outnumber Adventist mental health professionals, and likewise for health institutions, publications, and other ministries. Why was the psyche so underrepresented in Adventism?
I checked in with Ellen White on the issue, and found that she said things like, “The true principles of psychology are found in the Holy Scriptures,” (Mind, Character, and Personality Volume 1, 10). Even in the 1800s she didn’t feel “psychology” to be a taboo word or a taboo science. She said, “Sickness of the mind prevails everywhere. Nine tenths of the diseases from which men suffer have their foundation here” (Testimonies to the Church Volume 5, 444). I carefully studied what she termed a “medical missionary” and found it looked something more like a social worker than a doctor. Her priceless two-volume "Mind, Character and Personality" showcased astounding genius on mental health. She dug in and unpacked the great subject of the human psyche.
I noted that in spite of the “okay” from both the Bible and Ellen White, Adventists were still so afraid of it that I couldn’t use the word “psychology” in a book title. At this point I began to wonder, “From whence comes this irrational fear and aversion?” I offer three reasons:
REASON NUMBER ONE – PROTESTANT FUNDAMENTALISM
The anti-intellectualism that swept over fundamentalist Protestantism in the 1950s seeped into Adventism as well. Over the next several decades, books such as Psychoheresy tumbled out of the Christian presses, characterizing all psychology as anti-God and most counseling as dangerous to spiritual life. Some Adventists always anxious to avoid worldliness, smelled fear in the air and retreated into total avoidance. As we veered away from the study of psychology and the practical help that can come from it, we displaced it with religious clichés. Before the downcast, discouraged and fearful, we waved a banner loaded with religious platitudes like “Just pray about it.” We cast out the demon of unbiblical psychology perhaps, but because we didn’t fill our house with something better, seven more devils came to roost. Our collective emotional and social IQ took a withering hit. Maybe we lived six years longer, but some of us wished we could die. We could treat coronary heart disease, but not broken hearts. We had lifestyle down to a science, but other authors were writing all the books about love-style. Once again, we were the tail and not the head.
How does Ellen feel about psychology?
The true principles of psychology are found in the Holy Scriptures. Man knows not his own value. Those who pass through the experience of true conversion will realize, with keenness of perception, their responsibility to God to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, their responsibility to make complete recovery from the leprosy of sin. Such an experience will lead them humbly and trustfully to place their dependence upon God. Mind, Character and Personality, Volume 1, 10
REASON NUMBER TWO – GREEK PHILOSOPHY
Not only did we take mental health out of the health message, but institutionally we separated the body from the spirit. In his book d’Sousa, David Fielder traces the historic events that led to the fissure between Adventist health work and the ministry. In short, ministers’ apathy to the health message played off John Harvey Kellogg’s ungodly maverick streak until the two branches of God’s work parted ways, bringing forth the prophetic pronouncement that the “greatest evil” had taken place. Why did Ellen White react so markedly to this breach? Why not separate the physical from the spiritual in ministry? Because this separation tacitly preaches the separation of the physical from the spiritual in the person; in other words, it preaches Greek dualism, the bedrock of modern-day spiritualism. Inspiration teaches the wholistic nature of humanity—the body, mind and spirit in inextricable, irreversible interconnection. Fragment the health work from the ministry and you’ve given the impression that the body and spirit can be fragmented as well. More than this, the natural bridge between the body and the spirit is the soul. When we institutionally separated the body and the spirit, the soul fell between the cracks. We’ve been searching for it ever since.
The right arm and the worst evil
Again and again I have been instructed that the medical missionary work is to bear the same relation to the work of the third angel’s message that the arm and hand bear to the body. Under the direction of the divine Head they are to work unitedly in preparing the way for the coming of Christ. The right arm of the body of truth is to be constantly active, constantly at work, and God will strengthen it. Testimonies to the Church Volume 6, 288
We are to be one in the faith. I want to tell you that when the gospel ministers and the medical missionary workers are not united, there is placed on our churches the worst evil that can be placed there. Medical Ministry, 241
REASON NUMBER THREE – OLD COVENANT CHRISTIANITY
As a people, we have much maturing to do. Our high standards and clear doctrines give us a helpful religious framework for a richer understanding of the gospel, but in our spiritual childishness, we tend to make those standards and doctrines a means in and of themselves. The payoff is certain superiority we feel because we “have the truth.”
This religious arrogance has been written into our DNA. Back in 1888 God raised up AT Jones and EJ Waggoner to bring Adventism back to a Christ-centered faith. Although their message enjoyed some reception, the leadership of the church largely resisted the message. As a result the church remained mired in an immature form of Adventism that replaced a focus on Jesus’ righteousness with a focus on ours. Taking the step toward a gospel-centered Adventism would have matured our collective psyche out of concrete, cradle-roll religion obsessed with do’s and don’ts, or a polemicist’s religion of winning arguments, into a mature faith where truth and obedience found their anchor in Jesus. We would have obeyed, not out of a self-centered desire to be right and righteous, but out of a heart-melting appreciation of the cross. By embracing the message of Jones and Waggoner, we would have lost nothing and gained everything. Instead, the resistance of the message left a vacuum into which worldliness has rushed as if sucked in by an irresistible force. Reactive reform movements arise to chase the world out of the church, but their success tends to be short-lived, because reform only succeeds if Jesus’ love and righteousness form its motivational core. Worldliness can’t simply be chased; it must be displaced by something better.
As a practicing counselor, I can tell you that dealing in matters of the soul requires forebrain power to which I would be a stranger if I didn’t understand the gospel of justification by faith. It requires empathy I would not possess if I didn’t understand the unfailing love of Jesus found in that message. I credit the gospel with any wisdom and empathy I have. I believe we will grow collectively in these gifts when we fully embrace the truth as it is in Jesus, the message of righteousness by faith.
A revival of this message will result in a collective maturing that will, I believe, put mental health back into the health message. This will repair the breach between the medical work and the ministry. We’ll find our lost soul. More than this, we will become an evangelistic power machine. Telling people how to care for their bodies will lead to teaching them how to care for their minds, hearts, and relationships, which will naturally segue into how God has designed those minds, hearts, and relationships to live forever through the saving power of His Son Jesus.
We currently boast the following health ministries:
- Hospitals and sanitariums - 175
- Nursing Homes and retirement centers - 136
- Clinics and dispensaries - 269
- Orphanages and children’s homes - 34
- Airplanes and medical launches - 10
- Outpatient visits - 17, 251, 217
According to these statistics, Adventist health practitioners have ministered healing over 17 million times. But the vast majority of these ministries have been in the physical realm. Let’s praise God for each and every one of those 17 million-plus ministries, and then let’s duplicate them in the mental health realm. It should be noted that these statistics refer to conference ministries. Therefore, including lay ministries would swell those numbers considerably.
Mental health coming to an Adventism near you!
Fortunately the mental health aspect of the health message is enjoying a bit of a revival among us. Here are some highly recommended resources:
Adventist inpatient treatment:
- Nedley Depression Recovery Resources - Dr. Nedley is a medical doctor whose interest in depression struck such an answering chord that it went viral.
- Black Hills Health and Education - This lifestyle program features a counseling component, making it a good choice for people with depression.
Adventist counseling practices:
- ABIDE Counseling - Yours truly directs a counseling practice based out of Philadelphia that offers distance counseling, making biblical, Adventist-friendly counseling accessible to just about any Adventist worldwide. We also offer seminars and trainings. I have several books and other resources on mental health. www.abidecounseling.com
- Rekindling the Flame Ministries - Pastor David Guerroro has felt the call to move his ministry into the counseling realm, offering distance counseling, seminars and workshops on mental health and relationships. www.rekindletheflameministries.org
- North American Division Family Ministries counselor database - For a list of Adventist mental health professionals, go to: www.nadfamily.org/article/70/resources/directory-of-counselors.
- Dr. Nivischi Edwards teaches at Southern Adventist University and conducts a private practice. www.drnivischi.com
Adventist books on mental health:
- 13 Weeks to Peace, Jennifer J. Schwirzer, LPC
- 13 Weeks to Love, Jennifer J. Schwirzer, LPC
- Cleansing the Sanctuary of the Heart, David and Beverly Sedlacek
- Depression: The Way Out, Neil Nedley
- Healing the Broken Brain, Elden Chalmers
- Mind, Character and Personality Volumes One and Two, Ellen White
- Ministry of Healing, Ellen White
“In these days when skepticism and infidelity so often appear in a scientific garb, we need to be guarded on every hand. Through this means our great adversary is deceiving thousands and leading them captive according to his will. The advantage he takes of the sciences, sciences which pertain to the human mind, is tremendous. Here, serpent-like, he imperceptibly creeps in to corrupt the work of God” (Mind, Character and Personality, Volume 1, 19).
“Satan is the originator of disease, and the physician is warring against his work and power. Sickness of the mind prevails everywhere . . . Infidels have made the most of these unfortunate cases . . .attributing insanity to religion; but this is a gross libel . . . The religion of Christ, so far from being the cause of insanity, is one of its most effectual remedies; for it is a potent soother of the nerves” (12).
*The editors didn’t agree with the aversion to psychology, but they knew their market. Therefore, we came up with a safe title "13 Weeks to Peace" with the sequel "13 Weeks to Love."
Jennifer Jill Schwirzer enjoys the challenge of running a small non-profit organization called Michael Ministries through which she runs a private counseling practice, produces and performs Christian music, writes books and presents seminars.