Through the years we have seen the rise and fall of various psychological counseling systems. We wrote about some that strongly influenced those Christians who have sought to incorporate secular psychological counseling systems into what they have termed “Christian psychology” or “Christian counseling.” Our book The End of “Christian Psychology” includes descriptions and analyses of some of the major theorists and their models. 1
One psychological system that we did not include at the time is Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which is a combination of methods of communication, counseling, group dynamics, manipulation, and hypnosis. Now, however, we believe it is necessary to inform and warn believers about NLP.
In spite of the poor results of research regarding NLP, it is still being used today by numerous counselors, including professing Christian counselors. In fact, there are some who are packaging NLP especially for Christians. For example, the “Christian NLP 2008” web site states that its mission is:
To be one of the leading Christ-Centered organizations in the world whose focus is teaching and training Christian pastors, counselors, and everyday believers in the tools, patterns, and processes that facilitate the fulfillment of the call and command of Romans 12:2 to “be transformed by the renewing of the mind.”2
This web site is connected with another NLP web site titled “Patterns for Renewing Your Mind International,” designed especially for Christians.
The web site includes articles, techniques, testimonials, training program information, and even sermons for pastors that utilize NLP tools. The section titled “About Us” features a man by the name of Bobby G. Bodenhamer (D.Min.), who, together with L. Michael Hall (Ph.D.), wrote a book titled Patterns for Renewing the Mind: Christian Communicating & Counseling to encourage Christians to use NLP
The Foreword to the book, written by Rev. Carl Lloyd, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology/Social Work at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, says:
I would be remiss if I did not express my deep and profound appreciation to both Michael [Hall] and Bob [Bodenhamer] for so diligently committing their minds and gifts to the task of integrating NLP within a solid Judeo-Christian perspective.3
Lloyd gives his own qualifications, including “four graduate degrees,” “six mental health licenses,” clinical experience, “more than two decades” of pastoring, and his present position where he teaches therapy “at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.” He further says:
I know a lot about learning, people, therapy, and the integration of faith and learning. Yet, this volume has blessed me with new knowledge, new techniques, and a renewed passion for bringing the living Christ into both the counseling and educational processes.4
In their book Bodenhamer and Hall urge Christians to use Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) to communicate, counsel, preach, and transform the self. They confidently set forth NLP as the means by which Christians can accomplish spiritual transformation, even though NLP itself is a secular methodology devised and used by unbelievers. While Bodenhamer and Hall use Scripture verses along with NLP, their fleshly model cannot touch the new life in Christ. Instead, it appeals to the flesh, which can be manipulated by it. In fact, the authors admit that NLP can be used for evil. In their Preface they say that “some have discovered the tremendous power in the Neuro-Linguistic Programming model and have used it to manipulate people.”5
Nevertheless, they use, promote, and teach NLP because they believe it contains what they call “state-of-the-art communication models and healing tools” and that it can be used by Christians for good. (Italics theirs.) The book is filled with such promises as: “In NLP, we both discovered incredibly powerful patterns for quickly, effectively, and permanently renewing the mind in NLP.”6 Nevertheless, there is no research evidence that substantiates the claims of NLP, other than personal testimonials. Using personal testimonies absent scientific support is one of the first characteristics of a quack. Yet, the promises and expectations continue to draw people into this web of deception.
An Ungodly Mixture
Throughout the book the authors take a biblical passage or phrase and turn it into an NLP method. For example, they connect the NLP “Running Your Own Brain” techniques with a biblical admonition in their section titled “Running Your Own Brain or ‘Guarding Your Heart with All Diligence.’” They say:
Who runs your brain? If you don’t, someone else will quickly volunteer to do it for you! Now, “running your own brain” means thinking your own thoughts and taking responsibility for your own responses. This corresponds with the Christian view of human responsibility (Joshua 24:15, Acts 11:24, Col. 3:1).
To “run our own brain” we first need to know that brains run on images, sounds, words, sensations, smells and tastes. Control this input and we drive our own bus. Biblically, this enables us to “renew our mind” and experience transformation (Rom. 12:2).7 (Italics theirs.)
The book gives the distinct impression that one must know NLP in order to progress effectively and efficiently in the Christian life. The book thereby reduces sanctification to the same methodology used by unbelievers for self-improvement. In contrast, the Bible is clear about the source of the new life in Christ and how a believer is to walk according to the Spirit rather than according to the flesh. It always amazes us when we come across methods and techniques of the flesh that people use in their futile attempts to grow spiritually. This is one of our great concerns about the intrusion of psychotherapeutic theories and methods into Christianity.
Origins of NLP
While many Christians may not have heard about Neuro-Linguistic Programming, it‘s been around since the 1970s and has been used by therapists, counselors, motivational speakers, salesmen, and many others throughout the years. NLP is a system of both individual psychological counseling and group awareness programs initially created by two nonChristians, Richard Bandler and John Grinder. These men attempted to build a system of communication techniques modeled on three influential and seemingly effective psychotherapists: Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson.
Satir was known for her natural manner with people, so Bandler and Grinder attempted to model and code her mannerisms, the ways she picked up on and even reflected the mannerisms and speech patterns of those she was counseling. Fritz Perls seemed to be successful with people, so Bandler, who first began to mimic Perls’ voice and use of language, attempted to copy and code what Perls did and said in therapy. Erickson, a clinical hypnotherapist, was able to put his clients into a trance through conversation. Therefore, NLP was first formed by modeling and coding the way these three therapists communicated. Grinder was the linguist, so he was interested in their use of words and expressions. Bandler was interested in computers and figured that people could be programmed in the same way through the various techniques gleaned from observing these three therapists. Just as Franz Anton Mesmer used techniques to gain rapport with his patients, Bandler and Grinder coded specific psychological techniques for gaining rapport and making a counselee feel connected with the therapist. Other NLP techniques include guided imagery, visualization, hypnosis, and emotional manipulation.
Some of the early NLP theories had to do with the idea that one can influence another person by using whatever “representational system” is being used by the other person. For instance, if a person uses visual terms, such as in “I see what you mean,” the therapist would also seek to speak in visual terms. Or, if the counselee uses feeling words, such as “I really felt disappointed,” the therapist would use words related to both emotional and kinesthetic feelings.
At one point, NLP boasted of six representational systems:
…constructing of visual images, remembering of visual images, constructing of auditory images, remembering of auditory images, attending to kinesthetic sensations, and holding internal dialogues.8
The theory was that a person could be more easily influenced by someone with whom he could identify, in this case someone using his so-called representational language.
Another technique of NLP is that of observing and noting the eye movement of the client while he is speaking. If, for instance, as he is speaking of a past incident, the counselor will supposedly gain clues regarding whether the person is remembering or creating something new and whether the person is in the visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or thinking mode simply by watching the person’s eyes. Nevertheless, a book published by the Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Research Council revealed: “There is no direct support cited for the NLP-postulated relation between eye gaze direction and representational system.”9 The book also said:
In brief, the NLP system of eye, posture, tone, and language patterns as indexing representational patterns is not derived or derivable from known scientific work. Furthermore, there is no internal evidence or documentation to support the system.10
They conclude: “Overall, there is little or no empirical evidence to date to support either NLP assumptions or NLP effectiveness.”11 NLP is not a scientifically supported endeavor. It is based on say-so, suggestion, and salesmanship.
In answer to the question, “What is NLP?” The Skeptic’s Dictionary says, “It is difficult to define NLP because those who started it and those involved in it use such vague and ambiguous language that NLP means different things to different people.”12 Numerous people became trained in NLP and then continued to develop their own forms of it. Eventually with people claiming rights to their own versions of NLP, Bandler took action through intellectual property lawsuits, as he claimed sole ownership of NLP. He also attempted to trademark aspects of NLP and to control the various training and certification programs.
Bandler’s NLP Life
Indeed, Bandler developed much of this system of so-called transformation, which Christians now use in their attempt to become more Christlike. However, a look at Bandler’s personal use of his own techniques tells a story of a man who was lost in his own pretense as he dazzled his audiences at the numerous training sessions. He and Grinder taught people to re-image their past: “If you got a bad [personal history] the first time around, go back and make yourself a better one. Everybody really ought to have several histories.”13 Bandler followed his own technique so well that Frank Clancy and Heidi Yorkshire report:
Bandler told a vast array of tales about his personal and professional life…. He told people that he was once a professional rock musician, that he owned a topless bar at 16 and was a millionaire at 18, that he had a black belt in karate.14
The above is just a small sample of his lies. Clancy and Yorkshire say:
Bandler’s deceptions ran deep. Through NLP he had learned to establish rapport by mirroring posture and imitating language; he took this idea further, matching history and identity to his companion’s…. He was lost in a swirling vortex of imitation, deception, and manipulation.15
Clancy and Yorkshire also report that Bandler “used large amounts of cocaine and alcohol” and that he was “obsessed with violence.” They say:
Bandler’s story is, in a sense, a parable of the New Age. Having rejected many of the boundaries that govern relations among people, he was like a sailor without anchor or sails, adrift in a peculiarly New Age sea. Here the individual was sovereign … and morality was relative.16
Regarding personal responsibility for what they were teaching, Bandler and Grinder “typically dismissed ethical questions with a disturbing sameness: a person can’t avoid manipulating others, they insisted; with NLP training, at least he or she will be aware of—and control—the manipulation.”17
If Bandler had invented a better can-opener, his own personal life of deception would not affect his product, but when his product is a set of methods to help people live better lives, one has to question it. Or, if he had made a scientific discovery that could be proved scientifically, then one might say that he has something to give the natural man. However, he has not scientifically discovered anything about the physical world. In contrast, he has developed a set of techniques designed to manipulate the nonphysical realm of the soul.
While the name “neuro-linguistic” sounds very scientific, as if it has to do with neurobiology and linguistics, and while a theoretical system was developed, NLP is not a scientific endeavor. In fact, when asked for scientific proof, Bandler and Grinder declared that they were not scientists doing science, so they did not have to offer proof for what they were doing.18 NLP is not based on scientific discovery, but on subjective observation. Its methods elude scientific investigation and therefore its purported success relies on individual, subjective testimonies, and what the Bible would call “fables” and “old wives tales.”
Nevertheless, NLP continues to surface in various environments, including a recent brochure for a conference titled “Neuroscience Meets Recovery,” September 2008. The subtitle of the conference is quite telling: “Integrating Neurobiology with Pharmacotherapy, Psychotherapy and Spiritual Practices.” Those Christians who may think that the Spiritual Practices being included here might be a good thing need to take a second look, because the spiritual practices offered include 12-step spirituality and Buddhism. Dr. Richard Bandler is a featured speaker with his talk titled “NLP: A Tool for Better Living.”
A Powerful Unconscious Mind
Basically NLP is a collection of ideas and techniques, many of which are based on the Freudian beliefs that the unconscious mind heavily influences conscious thought and behavior, that psychologists can help a client to gain insight into its content, and that we reveal things in our unconscious through metaphorical words and actions. However, all this is a myth! In his book Therapy’s Delusions: The Myth of the Unconscious and the Exploitation of Today’s Walking Worried, University of California professor Richard Ofshe says:
While it is clear that we all engage in out-of-awareness mental processes, the idea of the dynamic unconscious proposes a powerful shadow mind that, unknown to its host, willfully influences the most minor thought and behavior. There is no scientific evidence of this sort of purposeful unconscious, nor is there evidence that psychotherapists have special methods for laying bare our out-of-awareness mental processes. Nevertheless, the therapist’s claim to be able to expose and reshape the unconscious mind continues to be the seductive promise of many talk therapies.19
In addition The Skeptic’s Dictionary reveals:
The benefits about the unconscious mind, hypnosis and the ability to influence people by appealing directly to the subconscious mind are unsubstantiated. All the scientific evidence which exists on such things indicates that what NLP claims is not true. You cannot learn “to speak directly to the unconscious mind” as Erickson and NLP claim, except in the most obvious way of using the power of suggestion.20
Evidently disregarding the research, Bodenhamer and Hall believe and teach the notion of a powerful unconscious controlling people outside their awareness. They say:
To the extent that these processes and mechanisms [of the mind] lie outside our awareness, to that extent they control us. As you develop familiarity with these unconscious processes, you will learn to manage them.21
In fact, they promise that as a person learns to control these so-called unconscious processes, “It will fulfill Paul’s challenge to bring ‘… into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ’ (II Corinthians 10:5bKJV).” 22 In addition to revealing their belief in a powerful Freudian-like unconscious controlling people, this quote is an example of how they misuse Scripture. Paul is not talking about unconscious thoughts being brought to awareness so that they can be controlled.
Since NLP users and promoters believe that people are controlled by unconscious processes, NLP techniques attempt to get past conscious thinking to influence the person at the sensory awareness, deep feeling level. Various NLP techniques for gaining rapport and trust and even control put the client into a receptive mental state (with purposeful, evaluative thinking set aside), ready to be manipulated through the language of the senses, through imagery and visualization, and by emotional stimulation.
The idea of programming the brain like a computer is used fairly consistently. In fact, NLP claims to be the program manual for the brain. NLP claims to help people program their own brains through sensory awareness, visualization, re-imaging the past, meditation, autosuggestion, and other techniques used in self-hypnosis. These mental manipulations are the very ones that occultists use to put themselves and others into a trance state. The therapist using NLP with a client will use the NLP tools to gain rapport similar to that gained by a hypnotist. The therapist may work towards teaching people NLP techniques to reprogram their own brains, but the way it generally works is that the therapist is the one who is doing the reprogramming (i.e., manipulating) through the power of suggestion and guided imagery.
Christians who use and promote NLP attempt to show that the tools are just ways to get things done. While some techniques of NLP are trademarked, most of them have been around a long time, prior to NLP. Many of them came from observing how people relate to one another and how they can influence one another. Other tools incorporate occult techniques. Here we describe only a few of the NLP tools: Rapport, Pacing, Sensory Manipulation, Modeling, Outcome Thinking, and Hypnosis.
Rapport and Pacing
In NLP rapport is a strategy to connect with another person by matching or mirroring that person. Many people establish rapport naturally as they relate with others. They identify with them and even reflect their vocabulary and mannerisms. NLP has systematically coded these things so that people can gain this rapport, not through natural compassion and caring or through truly identifying with them, but rather through learned techniques. The rapport is reduced to a set of skills so that whether or not there is true empathy, empathy is communicated. This is done through carefully observing the other person and then pacing, that is, doing the same thing or something similar, such as matching the rhythm of the person’s breathing and/or using the same kinds of words, expressions, looks, posture, and actions.
There is an NLP story told about a woman who had been pacing another person so intently that she entered into a type of mystical trance, so that when the other person leaned forward and fell off her chair, so did the one who was doing the pacing. Bodenhamer and Hall say, “We experience rapport as that mystical state wherein we listen so exclusively to the other—that we lose awareness of ourselves.” (Bold added.) Then they say that “Jesus listened in that way.”23 But, Jesus never lost himself in a “mystical state”!
Sensory Awareness and Manipulation
At first glance the idea of sensory awareness sounds okay, but an example from Bodenhamer and Hall reveal what it really is. They ask the reader to enter into an experiment. They instruct, “Recall a pleasant experience from your past.” Then they proceed to have the person visualize it, remember the sounds, the feelings, etc. Then they instruct the person to make the image larger and larger and say, “When you made the picture bigger, what happens to your feelings of that experience? Do they intensify?” Then they have the person make the image smaller, then to a comfortable size, then closer, then farther away to show how we can “distance ourselves from experiences.”24 They also have the person change the colors and visual clarity, etc. While these activities may be harmless exercises for some, they can put others into an altered state of consciousness. Such visualization activities may appear safe, but they can open the mind to demonic intrusion.
The tool called modeling is used to emulate aspects of other people that we admire. Thus, those who want to make NLP palatable for Christians say it is a way to become like Jesus by “breaking down Jesus’ character into little steps that we can emulate in our own lives.”25 Aside from the fact that we do not become like Christ by “breaking down Jesus” to emulate Him, this technique is an activity of the flesh, which may make the flesh appear Christ-like and thereby prevent true spiritual growth. By following NLP modeling, a person could indeed develop “a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5).
In NLP, outcome thinking is not just thinking about the future. It is making sensory images to create the future. Therefore it uses visualization. Bodenhamer reports:
I (BB) heard Rev. Charles Stanley utilize the NLP model as he instructed his congregation to take on the mind of Christ. He used the above model in teaching how to create an image of where God wants them to go with their life. Dr. Stanley then mentioned that “it is not wrong to visualize.” How about that?26 (Italics his.)
Indeed, not all visualizing is sin, but this kind of visualizing can lead to occult visualization. Trying to make something happen in the future through visualization is an occult practice promoted in the popular occult book The Secret.
Hypnosis has been a large part of NLP from its inception. Bodenhamer and Hall attempt to make hypnosis sound like a natural response to certain forms of conversation that make a person feel relaxed, comfortable, accepted, and trusting. They believe that hypnosis helps reach into the unconscious mind. They say:
Given that our unconscious mind contains vast reservoirs of knowledge and experiences, we need to learn how to tap this reservoir. Regrettably, many people let this reservoir go largely untapped. Though most of our behavior functions unconsciously, we just let it run—thinking (erroneously) we can’t effect it.27
They contend that a “facet of ‘trance’ and ‘hypnosis’ … wonderfully correlates to ‘the gospel of the grace of God.’”28 They say:
So in order to deal with our deep, unconscious programs the good-news of Jesus begins by sending us, not orders and commands, but assurances so that we can relax, feel safe, rest assured in the redemptive work of one who did for us what we could not do for ourselves, and who promises us inner strength, the witness of the spirit in our depths, etc. What a tremendously positive and resourceful inner state to access!29 (Italics theirs.)
But then, how does one access this “positive and resourceful inner state“? Through entering into a trance state. They say:
How specifically does NLP time-line processes provide tools for uncovering these unconscious parts? By utilizing trance as an altered state as a state of mind-and-emotions (relaxed, safe, open, comfortable, receptive, expectant, etc.) that enables us to function effectively and directly at the unconscious level. It gives us access to that part of our mind that the Lord made for storing and coding our habitual patterns—it refers to nothing more than that, nothing mysterious, occult, demonic. This describes God’s gift within us.30 (Italics theirs.)
Of course we disagree strongly with their assurance that there is “nothing mysterious, occult, demonic” about entering an altered state of consciousness through hypnosis, and we have written a book addressing this dangerous activity.31
Beware of NLP in Other Places
The various NLP teachings, techniques, and tools are used by countless psychotherapists, other psychologically-trained mental health workers, life coaches, group leaders, pastors, and church leaders. These things are taught in counseling classes at both secular and Christian colleges and universities. NLP teachings, techniques, and tools are also used in various forms of inner healing and regressive therapy. And, they contribute to the manipulative tactics of group dynamics.32
The Implicit Dangers of NLP
One can see, from the NLP practices described above, that there are serious dangers in the use of NLP. Christians need to beware of what is lurking behind the promises of NLP: another gospel—a gospel of works, self-effort, manipulation, hypnosis, and other occult practices. Through the enticement of NLP purveyors, Christians are drawn away from dependence on the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit and deceived into using a fleshly shortcut to spiritual transformation. NLP ends up being one of Satan’s counterfeits for spiritual growth, which nourishes the flesh and starves the spirit. Indeed it is a deception of the enemy which will lead people away from God even as they think they are growing spiritually.
Finally, people put themselves in a spiritually vulnerable position to the occult forces of evil. Rather than using the spiritual armor God has given, they are letting down their guard and not using the Word of God to resist what is being said, and they are failing to bring every thought captive to Christ. That takes conscious thought, not the passivity of a trance. Beware of those who mix the wisdom of men, about which God has warned His people, with Scripture and entice Christians with promises of spiritual transformation through techniques, methodologies, and formulas
1 Martin and Deidre Bobgan. The End of “Christian Psychology.” Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 1997, also available as a free ebook at <www.psychoheresy-aware.org>.
2 “Christian NLP 2008,” <http://christiannlp2008.com/index.php>.
3 Bobby G. Bodenhamer and L. Michael Hall. Patterns for Renewing the Mind: Christian Communicating & Counseling Using NLP. Clifton, CO: NSP: Neuro-Semantic Publications, 1996, p. 5.
5 Ibid., pp. 7-8.
6 Ibid., p. 6.
7 Ibid., p. 65.
8 Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council. Enhancing Human Performance: Issues, Theories, and Techniques, Daniel Druckman and John A. Swets, eds. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1988, p. 139.
9 Ibid., p. 141.
10 Ibid., p. 142.
11 Ibid., p. 143.
12 Robert Todd Carroll, “neuro-linguistic programming (NLP),” The Skeptic’s Dictionary, <http://skepdic.com/neurolin.html>, p. 1.
13 Ibid., p. 27.
16 Ibid., p. 24.
17 Frank Clancy and Heidi Yorkshire, “The Bandler Method,” Mother Jones, February-March, 1989, p. 26.
18 Ibid., p. 26.
19 Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters. Therapy’s Delusions. New York: Scribner, 1999, pp. 38-39.
20 Carroll, op. cit., p. 6.
21 Bodenhamer and Hall, op. cit., p. 12.
23 Ibid., p. 32.
24 Ibid., pp. 12-13.
25 “Christian NLP 2008,” op. cit., p.3.
26 Bodenhamer and Hall, op. cit., p. 16.
27 Ibid., p. 137.
28 Ibid., p. 138.
30 Ibid., p. 139.
31 Martin and Deidre Bobgan. Hypnosis: Medical, Scientific, or Occultic? Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 2001, also available as a free ebook at <www.psychoheresy-aware.org>.
32 See Martin and Deidre Bobgan, “Manipulating Christians through Group Dynamics,” Parts 1 and 2, PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, Vol. 15, Nos. 5 & 6, posted on <www.psychoheresy-aware.org>.
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, September-October 2008, Vol. 16, No. 5)