Wednesday, June 22, 2011

false prophets and mental illness

Many scholars and commentators over the last few centuries have proposed that King Saul was mentally ill. The parlance of biblical language would say he was not a believer and was also afflicted by a tormenting spirit from the Lord. That "could" be taken up to a certain point, either the part about mental illness or that the tormenting spirit from the Lord must be taken in a most literalistic way. But Paul referred to a messenger from Satan to buffet him and prevent him from being too proud of the revelations he witnessed, and many scholars (as I've noted elsewhere) seem to suggest this was a problem of the eyes. Then there is the book of Job, which reminds us that even Satan is a satan who is constrained by the power and will of God.
Take a stroll through the prophets and the Torah and you'll find a discussion of how false prophets prophecy of themselves or from malign spirits. There is relatively little discussion as to how one may discern this, that, or the other. The assumption on the part of many Christians who have no practical experience with these matters (and who, let's face it, frequently have theological prisms like cessationism that preclude even the possibility of practical experience) is that any false prophet must be an unbeliever or a heretic or speaking through demons.
But notice that the scriptures do not actually say that a false prophet would automatically be an unbeliever. As commonly as we would (and usually should) adduce this it is not a given. False prophecy is, where the name of the Lord is concerned, a sin that is only possible for those who identify themselves as the Lord's. A false prophet who accurately predicts something in the name of Ba'al or in the name of the Lord but suggests also worshipping Ba'al is still a false prphet. Now false prophets may really be idolatrous apostates, schismatics, and all that but let's note for sake of discussion that this propensity to encourage polytheistic worship is a second test. The first test is simply whether or not the predictions said in the name of the Lord come true.
And it is this first test which does not specifiy that the false prophet is an unbeliever or a believer. Having been to a few charismatic or Pentecostal churches over the years I have sometimes run into self-described prophets who have made predictions that have not come to pass. One predicted the demise of the state of California that would occur in 1997 due to its sin, which I have mentioned several times here in the past. Others predicted disaster because of some sin or another. Many of those identified Christians who have made predictions that have not come to pass are easily discussed and researched on the internet or in books. They frequently become the subject of mockery by those Christians or non-Christians who assume that the people are either not Christians at all or who are just promoting snake-oil ideas in the service of particular goals.
But not all people who claim to have spiritual insights are self-described prophets or seers who aspire to some massive national or regional spotlight. Some people who believe they have spiritual insights are simply insane to one degree or another. I have a friend who was once a charismatic Christian who is now an atheist. He told me once that he looks back on the spiritual experiences he had as a charismatic as symptoms of the manic stage of bipolar disorder. He thought he was having riveting spiritual experiences but now considers them to have been signs of an imbalance in his brain's chemistry. While I do not say that spiritual experiences either have no value or merely reflect activity in the brain with respect to what the scriptures say about the self-deluding nature of false prophecy and false prophets I think there is something to the observation that warrants discussion.
I am not interested in merely being abstract here. It is possible for a man or a woman to consider herself to have the gift of discernment of spirits. Such a person may perceive someone who has hurt them as being motivated by a demonic influence, however literally one may wish to define that demonic influence. A person who believes he or she is receiving messages from God may only be perceiving things created in his or her brain. It is possible that a person may be perceiving things due to some kind of demonic influence but at this point Christians must step back and consider a few things.
First and foremost is that if a person claims Jesus is both man and God the Son, sent by the Father, and that God is a Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit then this person making a false prophecy is less likely to be, strictly speaking, a heretic. If the person making a wrong prediction or statement believes Christ is bodily risen from death and reigns at the right hand of the Father we are not talking about someone who is, however delusional he or she may be, a total non-believer. The person may be suffering from a malady of some sort but has not professed views about Christ that put him or her outside the faith altogether.
But what if a person checks off all the doctrines that it is good, proper and necessary to affirm for a Christian faith and still declares that God is telling him that so and so has demons? Well, if the would-be prophet is not even observing in real time the person about whom he is speaking then there is no basis for taking the claims seriously unless there is a way to establish the veracity of the statements.
Now I'm going to get more particular. We live in the era of social media, which means that a Christian who is mentally ill can have a massive double-pronged failure of sanity by way of a confirmation bias and a backfire effect. He looks at the internet, finds whatever may confirm his own ideas about himself as a prophet, and considers any evidence contrary to this confirmation to be a satanic attack. Once a person suppose himself to be a prophet then all the evidence on earth will not dissuade him. Thanks to the internet a self-described prophet can imagine that he or she is able to go on MySpace or Facebook or set up their own website and speak what they believe God is telling them. Any contrary evidence is ignored or co-opted as evidence. What you or I may say is a sign of completely delusional thought and behavior is reflected back within the self of a self-appointed prophet as proof of a spiritual gift or superpower.
To the extent that I have sympathy for cessationists is it because they prefer to assume anyone today who speaks of a prophetic gifting or gift of discernment is probably self-deluded. The reality is that this functionally becomes a double standard in which one is a deist in practical living while claiming that God is there and speaks. The way a double standard can often manifest is to say that God speaks to me while you are making things up out of your own wish fulfillment. For instance, if some crazy person talks about spiritual discernment privately and imagines the ability to discern this or that how is this to be distinguished from some preacher getting up in front of thousands and blithely speaking about how God told him to be a pastor and marry so-and-so and plant a church? What is the litmus test by which that pastor can say he was totally hearing from God while the crazy lady is the crazy lady? You see by the measure of Romans 2 a preacher who claims "God told me to do exactly this" is not necessarily less guilty of using the name of the Lord to justify his activities than the crazy bag lady who imagines God has told her she alone has been appointed to stop nuclear war. As I shall get to after some length, delusions of grandeur and disaffection are sins that even true prophets of the Lord can be very guilty of.
There are those who decide that this question must be answered by saying that both people are self-obsessed lunatics. The trouble with this glib reply is that it is frequently made by the kind of man who is himself as narcissistic as those who would criticize and it becomes the pot calling the kettle black. There is no reason one conviction of personal greatness is more substantial than another. "Bad, bad" says the man in the market but afterward he boasts about his bargain. We consider something to be someone else's trash until we possess it and then we boast about it.
The crazy person is distinguished from a real prophet by ... what? Making accurate predictions? No, because all kinds of false prophets could do that? By having keen insight into things as they are that normal people could not perceive? No, because non-Christian prophets and false prophets could still have that. That a false prophet will somehow deny that Jesus is Lord? Well ... no because many cults that arose in the last two centuries did not necessarily take place in groups where trinitarianism was rejected. Millenialist views were, however, often a leading indicator of going off the rails in my survey of how different damaging predictions on behalf of the Lord have been made. A false prophet is more likely to be a premillenialist wrongly predicting the Second Coming of Christ or a postmillenialist imagining that a good Christian ought to side with the Confederacy or the Union as the way to promote a Christian society rather than some obviously "pagan" person who just says that in 1945 some evil man will be defeated.
Notice I'm not saying that premillenialist or postmillenialism automatically makes one a false prophet but that the conflation of nationalist or ethnic concerns, let alone individual concerns, with the fate of the whole of God's people is going to be a pretty strong leading indicator that a would-be prophetic statement has some problems in it. An individual who imagines that he or she has a special direct line to the Holy Spirit is in danger of a category mistake from jump. The mistake is that you or I matter so much that all the Christians in our orbit had better listen to us because of the keen spiritual observations and insights we have. That is not and never has been the goal of a real prophet. The prophet was not someone raised up to deliver "new" revelation so much as to call God's people back to the revelation established, to properly interpret it in a given time, and to reveal God's will for God's people as God's people.
The false prophet, whether through genuine spiritual malice or the delusions of mental disorder or some kind or another, will often mistakenly believe that his or her mission consists of having a weighty, glorious responsibility to challenge others with his or her capacity for spiritual insight and judgment. Even Elijah, arguably the greatest of all the prophets, had problems with things needing to be about him.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers."
When Elijah realized he had run in fear from Jezebel, the real power behind the throne, we see him say to the Lord that he wished he were dead. If even a man truly called by the Lord to be a prophet can see a sinful disposition in himself about his divine calling how much more will someone who is not so clearly called by the Lord to a prophetic gifting have a problem with delusions of grandeur? A person who believes he or she is called a prophet may have been told this by other Christians or convinced himself of it over time. To put it in sociologicals, to appoint one's self a prophet or be appointed a prophet is to have a social role within God's people. The false prophet was appointed to this in some way in a way that is not necessarily different from that of a true prophet of the Lord. That this was at least possible, not to say inevitable, can be inferred by the presence of true and false prophets within the circle of the royal court.
I have made no secret that I think many Christians take the Lord's name in ways that constitute a kind of communally sanctified blasphemy. The man who says "I've prayed about it and God told me to marry your daughter" is merely one example. "God is on our side in this conflict" can often be another. Jesus said that those who would kill the apostles would be certain they were doing God a favor. Jesus Himself was killed for not being the kind of messiah many of his followers wanted Him to be. Jesus was a prophet and more than a prophet and He was a prophet who challenged the agendas and convictions of His own people.
Yet another observation should be made with respect to would-be Christian prophets, Caiaphus was high priest and prophesied that it was better for one man to die than the whole nation. This does not mean the high priest was not speaking prophetically through the power of the Spirit working through him. But King Saul, too, prophesied and was ultimately stricken by the Lord. This is something that those who would claim to be the Lord's prophets must remember with a great deal of holy fear.
Even if your spiritual insights are right and you are convinced of your own rightness this does not mean that the Lord may not ultimately lead you into judgment and find you guilty of prophesying rightly without truly knowing the heart of Christ. Christ shall say at the end of days to those who reply, "Lord, did we not cast out demons and heal the sick in your name?", "Depart from me you evil-doers. I never knew you." If it is better to not to aspire to be a teacher because those of us who teach will be judged more strictly how much more is it wise to not aspire or presume to be prophets and so invite judgment from the Lord as men and women who take the Lord's name in vain and make Him out to be a liar through our false prophetic observations?
And yet we must also consider, since mental illness does happen, that not all those who have spiritual delusions are necessarily possessed by a devil. There are points where we should consider compassion and prayer for those who are delusional if they will accept the stern kindness of helping them through their delusions. There are probably few things so humbling as admitting to yourself and others that you are not of sound mind and body; that you are emotionally and mentally unstable.
I have lived long enough that I have seen people I have known spiral down into complete madness and this madness is all the sadder seeing that in their own minds they are keenly insightful Christians who have pierced through the veil of the devil's reality to see things as they are. Nothing of the sort has been true. These Christians believe they are persecuted by false Christians while themselves refusing to confess sin or to concede that perhaps their divine appointment as seer is not as genuine as they want it to be. There are times when there is a temptation to assume other people are crazy rather than to admit to yourself you might be crazy. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
I do not hesitate that there are some Christians for whom the most pernicious temptation may not be sex or drugs or rock and roll but the temptation to say in your heart "God has appointed me to be a prophet!" or even "God has appointed me to be a pastor." Why? Matt Chandler's warning to seminarians applies here, if you aspire to be a next Billy Graham because some old lady told you that you can go there get out of the work now. If you want to be the next Mark Driscoll then for the love of God quit while you're behind.
One of the most important decisions I made was to not waste time or money on seminary once I realized that the Lord had raised up perfectly good men, better men than I, to do the things I had ambitions to do. I grew up in a church setting (Pentecostal) where it was not unheard of to be told you had a spiritual gift like prophecy or spiritual discernment. I am not comfortable saying I have these kinds of gifts now. It is not for me to simply conclude this or that or to wait on nebulous feelings from the Lord about what is or isn't my role within Christ's Church. In fact the further away from myself I can point the better I shall feel I am doing as a disciple of Christ. He, after all, must become greater and greater and I must become less and less.
It is better to be a nobody following Christ than to be a great spiritual prophet in your own mind and to be self-deceived. There was a prophet who struck another prophet and said "When did the Spirit of God pass from me to you that you're saying these things?" The terrible reality about false prophets is that in their own self-deluded minds they speak truly. They can even be, by ever normal metric of Christian doctrines, practicing Christians who are on the same team. The reason we must be fearful about false prophecy and false prophets is that any of us could be one of them, you, me, anyone.
I have tentatively observed that those most susceptible to the delusion of grandeur that one is a prophet is often a person who feels marginalized in some way. I don't say this to say that all prophets automatically are this way and that it's a problem. It is true that prophets were often outside the beltway but many of the prophets went from being nomads to royal advisers (Gad, for instance, with David). It is also true that some prophets had substantially important roles in society, like Isaiah. Others, like Amos, were not even identified as prophets by profession. But self-appointed and self-described prophets are often those who, say, have trouble keeping down a job. They can often be people who have had huge ambitions that have gone unrealized in worldly terms. They have wanted things they have not obtained and in some sense their discontent can be transsubstantiated from a desire for worldly things to playing a prophetic role of some kind.
The person who imagines he or she is a prophet needs the gentle correction of a man or woman who is bitter about being unmarried or being in a miserable marriage or waiting for the Lord's return. Godliness with contentment is great gain. Many a false prophet embraces the delusional calling out of dissatisfaction, it seems, with the actual bride of Christ. We embrace a delusion of grandeur out of discontent with the course of our own life. We do not wish to believe, as the scriptures tell us, that it is truly better to be a living dog than a dead lion.
This is why I consider many stories like Mel Gibson's Braveheart to be stories that promote what is ultimately an un-Christian conceit. Now freedom is a great thing to be enjoyed and the scriptures teach us that in Christ we are given freedom but it is not a freedom to be used merely to build ourselves up. It is the failure to perceive this freedom in service to others and not just ourselves that false prophets often forget. A prophet may get caught up in identification of one's own benefit and one's group benefit at the expense of those to whom the Lord has called him. This was, of course, Jonah's mistake. Even a true prophet of the Lord can be mistaken in both his motives and methods in being obedient to the will of God. Jonah obeyed and was angry with God but it was better for Jonah to be angry with God and yet be obedient, eventually, than to be content in what he considered his calling and treasuing his keen spiritual insight and trusting God had truly appointed him to tell Israel everything was going to be fine and no exile would happen.
This is a rambling and unfocused document for a reason. I have seen too much, almost firsthand, of people who could be described as Christians descending into madness while firmly in the belief that they are people with the gift of prophecy. They are convinced of the rightness of their insights no matter how wildly inaccurate their statements are. They hold firm to the rightness of their judgments even when they are revealed time and again to be inaccurate. Even when presented with the reality that they actually have some substantial character issues to work out they consider this not to be warnings from fellow believers about weaknesses to be taken to the Lord and fellow Christians; they instead consider these the persecutions and judgments of those who are not truly in touch with the Spirit.
I trust this far into the series you shall appreciate why I referred to the backfire effect, why I have spoken at such length about the general meaninglessness of dreams and the consistently dismissive tone scriptures take toward dreams as a normally legitimate means of prophetic communicati0n. It is legitimate at some times but in many cases it could merely be a sign of an undiagnosed sleeping disorder that sometimes has spiritual content. I am, of course, not dismissing that God may speak through dreams but certainly after thirty years of untreated sleeping disorders I would now say many dreams I was certain had deep spiritual significance were not as spiritually significance as I imagined.
The word of the Lord, however, remains and this, far from being a humiliating or disastrous discovery for me, is an absolute relief and a source of hope. I am grateful that I do not have to rely on dreams or spiritual insights gleaned by reading between the lines of headlines or articles or random conversations to know that Christ is disposed toward me. I also have no need to consider myself the one silver thread connecting God to His otherwise disobedient people.
When Elijah declared that he alone was serving the Lord what did the Lord say? The Lord revealed that He would leave 7,000 in Israel alive who had not bowed to Ba'al or kissed him. Were these men utterly blameless? No, but neither was Elijah, who had earlier recognized that he was not better than his ancestors. God corrects Elijah's conviction that only he of all Israel had any regard for the Lord. If even Elijah had to be corrected on this point how much more do we who share in the Spirit of Christ now need this correction, to be reminded when we would imagine ourselves to be lonely prophets speaking against all the apostates that there are, in fact, plenty of those who love Christ around us? If I were to describe the temptation of the false prophet, whether by mental illness or by divination or any kind within Christian ranks, the temptation is one of discontent and a desire to be "needed".
When Elijah said he alone regarded the Lord was he not saying that without him the Lord would have no one in all Israel who regarded Him? What is true for a real prophet will not be less true for a false one. We who have ever been tempted to imagine we are prophets or have prophetic gifts of any kind have all been tempted to imagine we are necessary. I am not unaware of the deep need to be needed and have plenty of things to say about that.
Yet what we as Christians need more than being "needed" by God is to recognize that we are loved by God and that this does not necessarily show itself forth in the spiritual super powers we think we have or want to have; it is not necessarily shown forth in the things we yearn for that God has not given us. After all, the Lord is my shepherd and I shall lack no good thing. Christ Himself said the Father knows what we need. We do not need to be prophets, we need the love of God and neighbor. Not an ideologically or theologicall manufactured construct of "community" that is so popular in so many branches of Christianity in America today, the flesh and blood love of flesh and blood brothers and sisters in Christ.
The love of God is frequently shown to us in ways we may well consider too humiliating and it is in so many ways a truly humble life that a person who conceives of himself or herself as a prophet will bristle at. If possible trust in the Lord at all times and do not lean on your own understanding. The heart is deceitful above all things and who can understand it? Paul wrote that the foolishness of God is better than the wisdom of men and for those of us who in our wisdom think we should be able to speak for God we may find the Lord disciplines us in this hour by letting us descend into madness. Jesus is the true prophet so that you do not need to be. and if you consider the greatness of what Christ in His love accomplished for us you will see that, truly, you do not need to be a prophet. You need only point to Father, Son and Spirit and this any Christian can do.

1 comment:

chris e said...

I'd tend to agree with much of this. There is a problem with using these kinds of judgements, in that you are seen to question an integrity that people in charismatic circles assume are part and parcel of being a Christian.

I also suspect that as in most things psychological there is a sliding scale from normal to pathological, with no clear means of working out where 'abnormality' actually starts - and it might be context driven in any case (see cases of people with Jerusalem syndrome).

Plus, I think that some of these groups have dynamics that make them prone to capture by people with somewhat sociopathic tendancies.