Review One by Carol K. Tharp, M.D.

Will Medicine Stop the Pain? Finding God’s healing for depression, anxiety, & other troubling emotions is written by much-published biblical counselor Elyse Fitzpatrick and Laura Hendrickson, M.D., a biblical counselor “who formerly practiced psychiatry.”* It is directed toward “hurting” women “who struggle with depression, fear, anxiety and other difficult emotions” and who, via medications or other secular approaches, “are being offered, at best, temporary relief from their pain, but are not finding lasting release from the problems underlying that pain” (9). The foreword states that “the perspective and principles set forth in this book will provide hope” and “get to the heart issues that may have produced that pain” (10).

The book offers helpful information on the materialist versus the biblical view of man, the implications of the disease model, the so-called chemical imbalance hypothesis, cognitive and perceptual problems like dementia, psychotropic medications and how a Christian should “talk with a doctor” about treatment of mental and emotional problems. However, in the midst of this information, significant inconsistencies are revealed. While the authors acknowledge the “huge gap … between what is scientifically demonstrable and what people believe” (54), they advocate popular but unproved connections between: depression and immune status (42), “long-term effects of worry” and “frequent illnesses” (42), tiredness/ exercise and mood (44), nutrition and anxiety-depression (44). Without scientific evidence, they suggest that counseling (applying biblical principles) works by causing measurable changes in brain structure and function (56).

The Role of Suffering

While the biblical perspective on the meaning and purpose of suffering is accurately described, the authors’ actual approach to “emotional pain” is unbiblical (self-effort). The goal is to “feel better” (32), overcome the pain (39), and realize “true endless happiness” (64, 72).

The authors advocate several of the unbiblical positions common among today’s biblical counselors. The focus of counseling attention is decidedly upon the “problem,” the “pain,” and the presenting complaint of the client. “Millions of people” are supposedly struggling with such pain “but are not finding lasting release” (9). In spite of their comment on the role of suffering and trials in the spiritual growth of a believer, their approach to suffering is therapeutic. According to the authors, suffering is a condition to be eliminated via counseling and to be replaced by true, lasting happiness. “To feel better, we need to fix the problem” (32).

Issues of the Heart

Getting at the “heart issues” (10) and the “root causes” (32, etc.) are of primary importance to these authors. Supposedly we “experience emotional pain so that we can understand our heart” (50). We can expect to “find a core” (150) and “to ferret out whatever idols may be lurking” in the heart (151). The fact that “diagnosing the heart” continues as a core doctrine and practice for biblical counselors verily boggles the mind in the face of clear biblical teaching that God alone can know the heart (1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Kings 8:39; 1 Chronicles 28:9; Jeremiah 17:9,10; Psalms 26:2; 44:21; 51:6; 139:23,24). Such defiant dethroning of God surely is a sin of Edenic significance.

The solution they offer to women in pain is the pursuit and application of “God’s pattern for emotional peace” (15) and “practical principles from God’s Word …for the problem of emotional pain” (37). Women in pain are to “learn self-control and thought habits” (55) making sure they do not ignore “the pragmatic nature of Christ’s words” (137). The authors see this book as building a “foundational way for you to think about the troubling emotions that plague you” (185). They see the book as “our methods for achieving true heart change” (185). It is, therefore, not at all surprising that this works theology is expressed in the words often used to describe the process of (self) improvement: “journey of self-discovery” (18), “achieve a transformation” (57), making “the best choice for your long-term welfare” (56), and “give this our best effort” (159). While Christ is mentioned frequently in the book, many of the methods and techniques recommended by the authors are as wearying and as self-centered as the Christless self-improvement offered by the secular psychotherapy industry.

Personal Narrative

Along with a determined focus on the client-presented “problem” comes an interest in the “story” behind that problem. This easily becomes a gossipy fascination with the client’s “personal narrative.” As such, two common human weaknesses appear. First is the human proclivity toward self-serving falsehood (lying). Without corroboration, how can a counselor believe anyone’s “personal narrative”? The second human weakness is the tendency to blame someone or something else for the problem (victim). These weaknesses are obvious in the stories included in the book. Laura “rebelled, abused drugs, and even dropped out of school” because of “rejection” (12). Kelly’s depression was caused by “the lies of the Enemy [who] had structured my life and had caused my depression” (78). Kathy “not only grieved the loss of the friendship, but anguished over other pains from the past” (118). Focusing on the complaints and the “story” behind them directs the attention toward self rather than to Christ, toward victim-status rather than this sinful, mortal flesh, and toward a questionable tale of woe rather than to the certain truth of God’s Word. A goal of pain-resolution calls for reliance upon self-mastery, however cloaked it may be in Bible terminology. In taking this position, the authors (and Christian and Biblical counselors at large) reflect the secular psychotherapy industry, feed the flesh, and quench the Spirit.

Influence of Psychotherapy

Certain aspects of this book go beyond the usual fare of biblical counseling literature. There is a pronounced reliance upon secular psychotherapeutic terms and concepts. They advise: “begin to own feelings” and think “honestly about your emotions … and journal the changes you decide to make” (39), “medicine has masked the negative feelings” (46), decrease the dose as “emotional health improves” (46), “almost every person who struggles with painful emotions feels isolated and alone” (88), “your melancholy might be the result of a perceived failure to live up to what you believe others expect of you” (99). They say, “Just thinking that their depression might be, in any way, a reflection of their own heart … is a very strong dynamic in the life of a woman who already feels like a failure” (104). They contend that sometimes “women feel depressed because they can’t forgive themselves” (106). Their advice to women is to “build defenses … because you’re afraid they might reject you” (127). They urge you to “break free” of responding “to your failures with self condemnation” as this “destructive pattern” can “suck you back into the mood-swing cycle” (158). These reflect not only a wholesale incorporation of secular psychological concepts but an incorporation of concepts that are interdicted in Scripture.

The concepts, practices, and code words of cognitive behavior therapy, so in vogue at this time, are prominent in this book. As such, the authors advocate “thinking honestly” (39), “choos[ing] to think thoughts leading to peace and happiness” (55), and recognizing how “the lies of the Enemy had structured my life” (78). These are supposedly lies from which we can and must “escape” (192). This book teaches that “to improve [emotions and behavior], a person needs to change the way she thinks” (176). “We’ll have to work hard to control our anxious thoughts” (141). Self-improvement by self-effort (so fundamental to cognitive behavior therapy) is so blatantly obvious that the attempt to justify it with “think upon these things…” (Philippians 4:8) appears naïve at best and deceptive at worst.

According to these authors, God “will never withhold from you something that you need, nor will He take from you something you can’t serve Him without” (69). They say that “God’s goal is that we experience true, endless happiness” (72) and that He is “committed to you and to binding up your broken heart” (115). They later say, “He wants to share his character and nature with us” (190). “He’s relentlessly pursuing you as a loving husband would” and longing “for your completeness and joy” (195). This loving, longing-husband concept of God supposedly fits the felt-needs of “women who have difficulty believing that they still have value in the eyes of God” (168), who want to believe that “God’s Word says you are of great value to the Lord” (180) and who long for the time when they will “understand the true meaning and value of [their] lives” (181). These authors apparently believe that God needs us, longs for us, and gives us His attention due to our inherent value.

Will Medicine Stop The Pain? is written for the “millions” of women who struggle daily with “troubling emotions.” The authors offer a confusing mixture of truth and error. The readers will surely focus more on self (a “friend can help you by … listening to your perspectives and thoughts”) (112) than on the Cross, more on “biblical principles” than on obedience, and more on my “endless happiness” (72) than on living the Christian life as the apostle Paul described it: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Finally, and from a broader historical perspective, this book is an example of the relentless closing of the gap between secular and biblical counseling. This goes beyond the mere incorporation of psychological concepts and terminology. Features characteristic of the secular psychotherapy industry are evident in this book: slavish attention to the customer-identified problem and its story, the search for root causes in the out-of-awareness mind, reliance upon methods and techniques of self-mastery, felt pleasure as the goal and measure of therapeutic success, the use of questionable claims of “science” to affirm the validity of the therapeutic modality (“secular results affirm the value of a biblically based approach” [56]), use of anecdotes as if they constitute objective data, and a style of writing that amounts to little more than marketing to susceptible niche groups (“millions … struggling”). Sadly, these now characterize the biblical counseling industry. As the industry ineluctably loses the last vestiges of its distinction from secular counseling, believers must increasingly seek God’s help “through the knowledge of Him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3), remaining firmly grounded in His unchanging truth. God commands us to “give diligence to make [our] calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). Only then will we see this book as a part of the problem rather than as the solution.

*Endnote: Laura Hendrickson and Elyse Fitzpatrick. Will Medicine Stop the Pain? Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2006, back cover. Hereafter, page references are given in parentheses within the text.

(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, September-October 2009, Vol. 17, No. 5)