Who Is Saying Medicine Is Unimportant? Part 2

September 17, 2014

Who Is Saying Medicine Is Unimportant Part 2
Heath Lambert

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Heath Lambert

Who Is Saying Medicine Is Unimportant Part 2

BCC Staff Note: The following blog was first posted by the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). We re-post it today with permission of the ACBC and the author, Heath Lambert. You can read the original post at the ACBC here. It is the second of a two-part post; you can read Part 1 here at the ACBC, or here at the BCC’s Grace & Truth blog site.

In Part 1 of this post, I observed that many believe the biblical counseling movement is against medicine. I tried to demonstrate that there is no evidence that this reputation comes from the leadership of the biblical counseling movement. Every leader in biblical counseling that I know about enthusiastically supports medical care for medical problems. Even more than that, the people I know repeatedly discuss the importance of leaving medical decisions to medical practitioners.

If that is true, then where does the reputation of being anti-drug come from? I have four responses.

1. I’m told that some counselors really do tell their counselees to stop taking medication.

I say, “I’m told” because I don’t actually know anyone who has told a counselee to stop taking their prescribed medication. I believe the reports that some have given me, but I am not able to verify this from a first-hand perspective.

Counselors who engage in such behavior should not do it. In fact, counselors certified with ACBC are not allowed to do it. It is simply not the role of a counselor to function as a physician.

If you have been told by a counselor that you should quit taking your medications, or if you know someone who has been told this, I have a message for you. Such counsel is wrong, and stands outside of the biblical counseling movement that ACBC has participated in for decades.

2. Many counselees do not like taking psychiatric medication.

In my counseling ministry I have never suggested that a counselee should quit taking their medication. I have brought up the topic of medications with counselees only rarely. My counselees, however, bring up the issue a lot. In fact, I have had very few counselees on psychiatric medication who have not brought up this issue. Many of my counselees express a strong dislike for such medication.

Sometimes counselees have very good reasons for disliking their medication. They may experience no improvement in their condition after taking the drugs for some time, or they may endure terrible side effects like nausea, sleep loss, lethargy, impotence, and on, and on. If I were experiencing such realities I would be concerned about my medications as well.

Sometimes counselees have reasons for disliking medication that are not good. For example, some people feel that if they were holy enough they wouldn’t need medicine. With such counselees we need to help them understand that a biblical commitment to the goodness of the body endorses medical treatment. When people go to their physician who prescribes medication they are honoring their body, and the God who made it when they take what is prescribed.

My point here is that I have had many counselees come off of their medications on their own regardless of whether their reasoning is good or bad. I really have no idea how many people have done this in my ministry, but I regularly have people come into my office and tell me that they quit taking their medication on their own.

I do not want them to do this. I tell them not to do it. When they tell me they’ve done it, I encourage them to see their doctor. I cannot, however, force them to stay on their medication. I know other counselors who have been in similar situations.

“Medication guilt” is a reality in counseling, but in my counseling and the counseling of those I know it is not induced by the counselor.

3. Biblical counselors practice counseling, not medicine.

I was teaching one afternoon on helping people with complex counseling problems. I was going over a general approach to help when a hand went up. The question came from a frustrated student. She asked me why I spent so little time talking about medicinal interventions. She said, “The very first thing you said is, ‘We need to send counselees with such problems to a physician for a full medical evaluation so they can be treated for any organic problems they have.’ Since then you have not mentioned it again. Why don’t you spend more time talking about medical treatment?”

That’s a good question. I think many wonder about this same reality. Biblical counselors spend energy telling people their body is important, and that they should take their medications, but usually don’t spend more time on physical issues. Why is that?

My answer to that student was simple.

I don’t spend more time talking about medical realities because I am not a physician. I think I best honor our body’s need for physical care by leaving such matters to those with expertise in addressing them. If I were a pre-med student at Yale and my anatomy and physiology professor kept talking about counseling, I would feel that he was speaking outside of his area. I would want him to cover the subject matter of the class, not something else.

When biblical counselors avoid covering detailed medical issues, we are not ignoring the importance of the body. We are fulfilling our calling. If God had wanted me to be a physician I would be doing very different work than I am right now. I discharge God’s calling for my life when I speak about counseling. I leave those with medical expertise to discuss organic matters.

4. We live in a culture that medicalizes every problem.

We live in a remarkable day that experiences tremendous advances in medical technology. There is no way that I would want to have lived in the United States 125 years ago. I also would never want to have surgery in most parts of the world today. It is a blessing to be at such a wonderfully advanced period in history and place on the planet.

One of the drawbacks of such blessings is that many in our culture assume that every extreme problem is a medical problem. Worry and anger aren’t sins, they’re illnesses that require medical treatment. Sorrow never has any spiritual correlate at all—it is always “clinical” requiring drugs.

As Christians we must reject such argumentation. The reason we must reject it is because we believe in a Bible that tells us that human beings have both a body and a soul. That means we experience problems that are physical, requiring medical solutions, and problems that are spiritual, requiring faith-based solutions. We also experience many complexities, which are combinations of the two.

As long as Christians continue to embrace this reality, known as dichotomy, we will sound like odd-balls. People will think we devalue the body simply because we believe that people can have other—and bigger!—problems than those, which are merely physical.

Here is what David Powlison said about this,

When we [say], “But we can counsel angry and anxious people to repent and to learn faith and love,” we will sound like we are asserting something along the lines of “Cast out that demon of cancer” or “Just believe in Jesus, and throw your eyeglasses away.” When anger and anxiety are seen as treatable bodily ailments, we will sound like bizarre spiritualizers—even to people in the pews and in other pulpits. We have work to do to protect and build up the body of Christ.

Powlison is correct on two counts. He is right that the Christian message sounds strange in our day and age. He is also right that we have work to do to protect and build up the body of Christ.

Comprehensive Care

If the biblical counseling movement is accused of being anti-medicine simply because we do not believe every problem is medical then this justifies our need to keep writing, teaching, preaching, and counseling. Our persistence should not stem from a desire merely to be right. Our persistence should grow from a desire to help. People who have spiritual problems will not change as long as they keep taking drugs as a cure. They will only change as they draw near to Jesus in repentant faith.

When you consider that reality it is easy to see that it is not biblical counselors who are trying to keep people from getting all the help they need—medical or otherwise. On the contrary, we want to be sure that people get the kind of comprehensive care that addresses both their physical and spiritual needs.

At our ACBC Pre-Conference in October, a panel of ACBC certified medical doctors will address what a biblical counselor should say when a counselee asks about medication during a counseling session.

3 thoughts on “Who Is Saying Medicine Is Unimportant? Part 2

  1. I appreciate the many good points you make in this article. However, I have a very large problem with deferring to doctors, in general, with regard to mental illness and medications. While I would agree that a counselor should not take on the role of doctor, I believe we have an obligation to point out falsehoods that can and do prove very injurious to people that come to us for help. My “up close and personal” experiences with family members and friends has not encouraged me to “trust the doctors”, as one well-meaning Christian doctor friend encouraged me to do when my daughter was going from bad to worse in a very traumatic, injurious psychiatric hospitalization. I have come to see that the field of psychiatry abounds with half-truths, misinformation, overly inflated claims and sometimes very shoddy hit-or-miss practices. If we could travel in time and go back to the time when blood-letting was a common practice, probably by well-meaning doctors, would we not warn people and try to dissuade them from submitting to such “treatment”?

  2. Despite your many good points, I see the need for a somewhat different approach as i believe psychiatry’s “knowledge” base is hugely flawed. For an extensive, well-written and well-documented expose, I strongly encourage reading of Robert Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic”. No, Robert is not a doctor. Keep in mind that it wasn’t the Guild of Taylors but a little boy who pointed out that the Emperor was naked. Also, I point out that “Anatomy of an Epidemic” received a hearty endorsement by former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, Marcia Angell. I believe it should be required reading for anyone going into any profession related to mental health.

    I respectfully submit this point/counterpoint to explain my difference in orientation on this issue:

    Point: “When people go to their physician who prescribes medication they are honoring their body, and the God who made it when they take what is

    Counterpoint: This presumes that their physician is prescribing medication based on scientifically valid information and on a personalized basis, and is honest and open about benefits and possible adverse effects. My experience does not allow me to be comfortable with any of these presumptions. Therefore, I believe it is appropriate to encourage counselees to ask a lot of questions, do their own research, work with doctors who will (a) conduct a thorough and careful diagnosis before prescribing medications (b) acknowledge that medications may have been wrongly prescribed and (b) help them attempt to carefully taper medications that may be inappropriate or over-dosed.

    Point: “My point here is that I have had many counselees come off of their
    medications on their own regardless of whether their reasoning is good
    or bad…I do not want them to do this. I tell them not to do it. When they tell
    me they’ve done it, I encourage them to see their doctor.”

    Counterpoint: I have seen and heard of many cases of psychiatrists and family doctors prescribing medications in what seems to be a cavalier manner, with woefully inadequate information about the individual. Then, when things go from bad to worse (either short-term or long-term), the adverse effects of medication are blamed on the “illness” and no help is given to attempt a careful taper.

    Point: “I don’t spend more time talking about medical realities because I am not a physician. I think I best honor our body’s need for physical care by
    leaving such matters to those with expertise in addressing them.”

    Counterpoint: I know this may sound arrogant of me, but as i look into what is really known with regard to mental illness and the narrative that has been promoted by conventional psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry, I do not share your faith on this point. I think we do counselees a disservice if we aid and abet the false narrative that has been created and flourishes despite the lack of supportive research.

    Point: “I leave those with medical expertise to discuss organic matters.”

    Conterpoint: I sure wish they would do that honestly! I continue to witness intellectual obfuscation and dishonesty from a variety of supposed “mental health experts”.

    I’ll stop with that comment (out of time!)…In the spirit of my criticism, I’m VERY interested in ongoing dialogue on this topic!

  3. Here’s just another tidbit; some food for thought in this discussion:

    “The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they
    qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security
    Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times
    between 1987 and 2007—from one in 184 Americans to one in seventy-six.
    For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold
    increase in the same two decades. Mental illness is now the leading
    cause of disability in children, well ahead of physical disabilities
    like cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, for which the federal programs
    were created.”

    From Dr. Marcia Angell’s review of “Anatomy of an Epidemic”

    And yet, the story we’re told and expected to believe is that medicine has enabled more and more people to overcome mental illness and live healthy and happy lives.

    Brothers and sisters, be careful what authorities you trust unquestioningly!

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