Desiring God, mental health, and the truth about ‘chronological snobbery’

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The first time I had a panic attack, I was sitting at a traffic stop on a country road in North Carolina. A strange sensation that felt like an itch crawled along the underside of my skin until my whole body vibrated. My face flushed, my hands moistened, my chest tightened, my breathing quickened until I felt like I might suffocate. I debated jumping out of my car and running for help until, in a blink, the light turned green.

The moment passed as quickly as it had come, but that was not the last time I’d be visited by crippling anxiety. I soon dreaded grocery store checkout lines and crowded rooms and sleepless nights and doctors office waiting rooms. My grades in graduate school plummeted, I dreaded leaving my house, and I cried for hours without reason.

Before seeking professional help, various Christian friends explained that my issue was primarily spiritual, not physiological. One of my professors told me that he didn’t understand why I considered seeing a professional therapist because “you already have a wonderful counselor in Jesus.” A classmate told me I needed to stop focusing on my body and just fix my eyes on God. 

I tried my best to follow their advice, praying holes in my bedroom floor and reading my Bible for hours on end. But the anxiety attacks remained. Actually, they grew more intense and frequent. I soon accepted the Bible was not a modern medical handbook, God did not guarantee health to the spiritually stalwart, and prayer was never intended to be a cure-all prescription. 

Thank God for psychologists and Lexapro. Without them, I might be dead today.

Given my mental health history, you might understand why I had a visceral reaction to a tweet last week from Desiring God ministries: “We will find mental health when we stop staring in the mirror, and fix our eyes on the strength and beauty of God.”

To be fair, a nugget of truth sits buried beneath this tweet. Psychologists say self-absorption and self-obsession often exacerbates mental health issues. And greater reliance on God is something most Christians can get behind. At first glance, the tweet sounds innocuous.

Yet Desiring God’s advice is eerily similar to the kind that has harmed me and countless other Christians. It implies that people are to blame for their mental health struggles. If they only stopped focusing on themselves (“staring in the mirror”) and worked harder to fixate on God, the issues would resolve. In the words of Warren Throckmorton, professor of psychology at Grove City College, it is “name it [and] claim it for your brain.”

“I have seen the damaging effects of messages like this and know how Christians with mental health diagnoses hear this,” Throckmorton wrote. “Tweets like the one from Desiring God reinforce the misconception that mental health conditions can be overcome by willpower or positive thinking.”

Whether this was Desiring God’s intention or not, this kind of thinking increases guilt on those already struggling to live with mental health disorders. By increasing pressure without offering practical help beyond a spiritual platitude, it becomes cruel and reminiscent of Jesus’ description of the Pharisees: “They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.”

What is left unsaid is almost as problematic. Desiring God makes no mention of modern psychological therapy. They do not even mention seeking help outside of oneself. But that’s precisely what most people with mental health struggles need.

Numerous mental health advocates and those who suffer from disorders such as clinical depression point out the dangerous nature of Desiring God’s statement.

I, too, responded by saying I was not shocked by Desiring God’s terrible tweet. After all, “the entire ministry’s mission is regurgitation Reformation theology. Shouldn’t we expect opinions that sound like they came from the 16th Century?”

Some people were upset with my response, which they called “chronological snobbery.” If you’re unfamiliar, this term was coined by C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield and refers to “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

It’s a notion trotted out by conservatives whenever someone criticizes an outmoded idea. But it’s often misunderstood and misapplied.

Chronological snobbery doesn’t apply to any criticism or rejection of thinking from previous eras. If that’s the case, we’re all chronological snobs. If your doctor tried to treat your cancer with leeches, you wouldn’t be snobbish to object because we now know better. If your neighbor told you that the biblical story of Noah’s son Ham proves that some races are superior, you wouldn’t be snobbish to reject that theology because we now know better.

Chronological snobbery refers to the notion that all ideas from previous eras are inferior because they are old and that modern ideas are superior because they are new. And, frankly, I don’t know anyone who actually believes this. I certainly don’t.

After all, I’m a Christian, which means I have built my life around the ideas of a first century Rabbi. I’m a creedal Christian, which means I value historical expressions of the faith. And I’m a Protestant Christian, which means I value the critiques offered by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the rest of the Reformers.

But I’m also a thinking Christian, so I think any theology should be in conversation other kinds of theology. Any system of thought should take into account recent evidence and arguments as well as time-tested ones when formulating an opinion.

The operative phrase in my response is not “16th Century” or “Reformation” but rather “regurgitation.” New Calvinist groups like Desiring God often hold to a theology frozen in time. These systems of thought refuse to admit their own contextuality and do not converse with divergent theologies emerging from other races, genders, geographies, and chronologies. This kind of theology is a poorly developed theology.

The theology promoted by Desiring God–an isolated white Western patriarchal Protestant theology–is a poorly developed system of thought. It is exactly the kind of theology that can easily produce problematic ideas like the one represented in the tweet in question. And it’s also the kind of theology that produces the insufficient response that Desiring God eventually gave.

A staggering nearly nine hours after Desiring God was flooded with criticism, they responded with another tweet: “Thank you to those expressing kind concerns. We apologize for leaving off the link that gives the context quoting Clyde Kilby from more than 40 years ago when ‘mental health’ didn’t have the same technical connotations as today.”

A 21-year-old social media associate freelancing from his mother’s basement in Paducah, Kentucky, would know how to respond appropriately to such a snafu. You delete the original tweet, offer a sincere apology, and  repost it with appropriate context and citation. Desiring God took none of these actions, and the original tweet remains.

When it comes to mental health, Christian leaders and organizations must make a serious effort to speak in more compassionate, informed ways. And when we accidentally promote incomplete or harmful ideas about those who struggle, let’s offer an “I’m sorry” instead of an “oopsie.”