When Pathology Is Clothed In Piety

“The heart is more deceitful than all else
And is desperately sick;
Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 NASB

This verse describes the incredible complexity of the human spirit. Deceit is a telling descriptor of the way in which we hide and distort awareness of ourselwaves. Only this, I believe, can help us to understand how people are capable of living a dichotomy of profession and practice. Anyone who has been immersed in the world of Christianity, and has comprehended its’ core message, knows that the clear values and essential characteristics of a truly committed disciple of Jesus revolve around the concept of humility and servant like love of others.

Anyone who deems to lead others into a life of discipleship and full transformation into the image of Christ, we would assume, must live this kind of life, in order to dare teach about its’ truths. On the surface, it would seem that those of us who understand the hard call of Jesus to die to our selfishness, would clearly expect those who teach and lead to live a life of significant adherence to a life modeled by Jesus.

So, the question that is powerful, is why do we tolerate leaders whose lives clearly and significantly veer from that which they teach and call us to follow? Why do we tolerate leaders who write books like “Who Am I When No One Is Looking” and then lead a life of deceptive violation of the core principles of integrity? What delusion allows us to accept a leader who preaches the value of women and then sexually abuses them? How do we tolerate a leader who teaches about the life of Jesus and our need to be a humble servant, and then has a clear pattern of rage and a haughty attitude towards anyone that opposes them? Why do we somehow excuse a leader who, when we talk to him or her, seems to look beyond us as if they do not have the time for those of little influence? Why do we passively allow leaders, who talk constantly about ministering to the poor, to live lavish lives in palaces that only the rich can afford? Why do we countenance leaders who stay away from the common members of the church, and hang out only with the wealthy and powerful? Why do we not call out those characteristics that so blatantly contradict the essential message of humility and brokenness, which is clearly what we are called to as disciples of Jesus, in our leaders? Why do we tolerate any sense that leaders are part of an elite class of believers, allowed all the trappings of material success, when Jesus has called us to a life of humility and equality?

As believers, we appear to not really vett the lives of our leaders through the character of Christ. Instead we seem to allow them to almost cast a spell on us so that we do not critically look at their lives and hold them accountable for a life that follows hard after Jesus. Whether it is because leaders often do not participate in the life of shared accountability in the body of Christ, or our passivity undermines our motivation to call them out, this dangerous reality exists frequently in the body of Christ. We often place leaders on a pedestal that does not allow us or them to live a life of brokenness and redemption, resulting in isolation and falsehood. Is this because we buy the lie that they are more important than we are and so we have little to offer in the way of holding them accountable? To the extent that we are complicit in not holding our leaders accountable, we share in allowing this travesty to occur. And truthfully, we let our leaders down, because it is in their best interests to get challenged to live like Jesus did.

The recent spate of events surrounding mega churches has clearly focused us on the duplicity that often exists in celebrity leaders. Maybe it is because mega churches have so many people who may not have advanced far enough in understanding the deep truths of a life of full surrender to Jesus that they have no evaluative metric to hold up to the life of their leaders. Mega churches, by their numbers, provide a convenient excuse for leaders to hold themselves apart from the common believer. They may couch their reasoning in the form of security or a lack of time, but all of this allows and supports the notion of elitism in the leadership position and may feed the essential narcissism that these leaders possess.

Piety Scaffolded Around Pathology

Piety, understood as the outward appearance of spiritual behavior, is often built upon a foundation of pathology. It is interesting to me, as a Christian Psychologist, that a great number of pastors and Christian leaders are vehemently in opposition to the field of psychology, branding it as based in secular humanism, and therefore a threat to a Christian.

What is clearly interesting to me is the fact that many of these leaders will rail against psychology as an evil attempt to subvert Christianity. Most of these somewhat knee-jerk critics do not really understand what psychology is and confuse it with philosophy. As such they believe that it espouses a set of presuppositions about the nature of man that are oppositional to Christianity. While a number of psychologists do in fact espouse a set of beliefs about the nature of man, they are only the subjective conclusions of these individuals.

The true description of psychology is that it is the science, much like physics or chemistry, that studies the behavior, thinking, and motivations of human beings. As such it observes, tests, and then generates theories about how people customarily seem to behave, think, and are motivated. The conclusions are based on observable patterns, but then theories and assumptions are posited. Humanism is a world view that informs most of present day psychology. But a Christian world view looks at the conclusions of the science of psychology and postulates a different view of human beings, and then explains these patterns from those presuppositions.

It is the confused understanding of psychology by many pastors and leaders that causes them to charge psychology with the motivation of a humanistic undermining of faith. What is true is that the conclusions of some in psychology that promote an ungodly view of man are in error from a Biblical Christian view. The truth is that psychology has uncovered an enormous amount of information and understanding about human behavior, thinking, and motivation. It, like other forms of science, has in fact contributed to a natural theology fund of knowledge of who God has uniquely created us to be. A truly Christian psychology explains all that is observed from the underpinning of a view of man that is based in sin and self centeredness and a need for forgiveness and redemption.

Many of the pastors and leaders who rail against psychology often attack it because they may be threatened by what they think it may uncover. I know many pastors who have underlying character disorders, a pathology, who attack psychology or counseling, because in their unrecognized awareness, they fear that it may reveal their inner brokenness.

There is a particular prominent Christian leader, charismatic, and a wonderful expositor of the Word, who rails against psychology as evil and promotes only Biblical Counseling. This person shows evidence of clear pathology, in that he narcissistically rages against those who oppose him, belittles people who he sees as beneath him, powers up in caustic and destructive ways with those he comes in conflict with, believes he is entitled to an extraordinary amount of material benefits of ministry, and generally is unruly.

From the perspective of any competent behavioral scientist, he has a narcissistic character disorder. There is no way in any reasonable Christian’s understanding of Jesus, that behavior like that is consistent with a conscientious believer. Although a growing number of people can see this behavior (think the Emperor Who Wore No Clothes) he cannot. Instead, he rails against the psychology that might identify this destructive pattern. In the field of psychology, this is called a Reaction Formation. What this means is that people react intensely against (though possibly unconsciously) something that is a threat to them. Think someone who hates homosexuals but has a deep fear of his or her own potential sexual urges. In the case of this leader, the science of psychology, which has clearly delineated patterns that reflect narcissism, would threaten this man’s need to believe that he is motivated by pure intentions. Piety scaffolded around pathology.

Denial As Deception

What psychology has identified as denial is the human tendency to use an elaborate system of deceptive tactics to avoid acknowledging something that we do not want to see in ourselves. The Bible would call this deceit, as the Jeremiah 17:9 verse so clearly points out. A Christian psychologist understands pathology as part of the ways that sinful individuals learn to cope in the context of their early environments to protect themselves against their fears of rejection and abandonment. As a believer, this makes absolute sense when we understand the concept of sin as a pattern of self motivated behaviors which are an attempt to get our needs met at the expense of others. It also makes sense in understanding that with the coming of the rupture in relationships that sin introduced into the human condition, hiding and deception became a way to protect ourselves from the possibility of rejection and abandonment. A Christian and humanistic psychologist could agree with the essential patterns of behavior and thinking, but disagree about the root causes of this behavior.

Character disorders, which are what we refer to often when we look at pathological patterns, are simply the characteristic or consistent ways that people learn to cope to protect themselves from emotional harm. They become so entrenched over time, that their protective patterns fade from conscious awareness and become simply the fabric of the person’s sense of self.

A person immersed in a character disorder cannot differentiate and recognize it as an unhealthy pattern of coping. It is like asking a fish to become aware that it is living in water. It is too immersed to separate and recognize the element of its own existence.

Looked at this way, denial is not really a conscious decision to avoid looking at something that is true that we do not want to see, but is the way that the character disorder maintains itself. The way that a person with a character disorder looks at the world is normal to them, therefore they believe that the way they act and think is reality. Denial of reality, as others may see it, is simply sustained and maintained by a complex set of beliefs that keep the person from seeing how their behaviors may be inconsistent with healthy ways of acting.

Scripture explains it this way: Proverbs 14:12 “There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.” (NASB)

The emperor who wore no clothes, due to denial, did not see that he had no clothes. He really did not. Only those from the outside could see it, because they did not see him through the lens of this character disorder. Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

Christians Leaders With Unrecognized Pathology

What happens when a person with a deeply entrenched personality disorder becomes a believer? We often think that this will create a transformational alteration of the core personality of the individual. The problem, sadly, is that often their core pathology, rather than being radically transformed, instead becomes the foundation upon which they clothe themselves with piety. They can take on all the verbal characteristics of what a deeply transformed believer would express, while never allowing it to penetrate and alter their core coping in the world. They can start to clothe themselves externally with all the trappings of a Christian view of the world, while never fundamentally altering their deeper ways of coping. They can appear as if they are growing, but often it is only an intellectual knowing, and not the knowing that deeply transforms.

II Timothy 3:7 “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth”

Their words and seeming knowledge can often create an illusion that they have learned it in a transformational way. But sadly, there is a learning that feeds the mind and sounds good, and then there is a learning that penetrates and challenges the deeper brokenness of the soul that leads to transformational growth. We can not become like Jesus without bringing our pain to the exposure, death, and resurrection patterns modeled by Jesus.

Narcissism and sociopathy are frequently seen character disorders with a number of Christian leaders. Leadership desire is often a self selected consequence of a deeper character disorder. Often the person who believes they have something special to offer will push to engage in leadership positions. This is really evident often with mega-church pastors, because paradoxically, their character disorder is an asset in the formation and growth of their church. They appear self-assured, charismatic, and believe in themselves so much that they can persuade those around them to support the building of their kingdoms.

It is only over time that the narcissistic sense of entitlement, along with its’ control of others, reveals the pathological components of this leader’s actions. Narcissists love being worshiped, which, clue-phone Christians, is inconsistent with Jesus. Narcissist’s tend to attract worshipers, and not in the sense of singing songs of praise. Worshipers of charismatic leaders tend to participate in what psychologist call a folie a deux or shared delusion. The worshiper of the narcissist feels good in the presence of the elevated leader and so suspend their capacity for critical analysis of where the leader is acting inconsistent with the behavior of a Christ follower. This shared and complimentary systemic disorder sustains narcissists for long periods of time.

Narcissists particularly harbor within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. Almost invariably they become so imbued with their sense of personal greatness and special accomplishments, that they make a mistake. They miscalculate a situation. Those that act out with women will fail to assess a women who has strength and will expose their inappropriate behavior. The narcissist will continue to protest and deny the intent of their behavior, but with enough errors in judgement, they may finally be exposed and brought down. They do not own their behavior, because they are deeply shamed based individuals who are desperate to maintain the public illusion of their own goodness.

The Fierce Fire of Accountability

It is absolutely true that everyone has developed some element of pathology, because we all grow up in the context of some level of unhealthiness (due to the consequences of sin) that generates dysfunctional ways of coping. The truth is that we all have things about ourselves that we cannot see. This is why Christianity is a relational faith. We have tools, such as the Word and the Holy Spirit’s discernment, that help in the deep digging into the parts of us that are hidden. But the most beneficial resource that the Christian has is the insight and feedback of fellow believers. Watch out for people who say their faith is just about Jesus and me. They are focusing only on the vertical dimension of faith.

Close, transparent, gritty, exposed connections is where the real uncovering takes place. This is the horizontal element of maturity, and where some of the most important self discoveries take place. People see things in us that we cannot see in ourselves alone. A believer who really wants to uncover the deep pathological areas that bind our lives will subject themselves to the search inquiry of trusted fellow believers. The isolated believer will not grow very much. It is the insight and feedback that those who witness our lives can bring to the light that really accelerates our growth.

It is true that people do not always have an accurate view of us, but when a fellowship of believers deepens their attachment to one another and fully embraces the idea that we are members one of the other, deep healing can occur. If I want to grow, I must subject myself to the scrutiny of others. Not critics who are motivated by a need to see my failure as a platform to escape their brokenness, but loving, caring believers who follow the Galatians 6 pattern of gently and humbly giving feedback that may result in helping us to heal.

These are people who would rather be good than look good. Who have the courage to bring their lives under the microscope of loving critics, to plumb the dark places that we cannot go to on our own. If our desire is to look good, we will flee the presence, like cockroaches run from light, of anyone who may have the maturity to identify something in us that needs refining. If our desire is to be good, we must face the fierce fire of others who can bring into focus what we are blind to in ourselves.

I had to leave a small group because when a conflict came up, the group wanted to avoid it and just go back to looking good as a group. I find this in men’s groups. Sometimes they just want to be a part of a group that goes through the motions of checking in and then staying in their heads by reading scripture. But to be a group means to address the hard things, to allow conflict to be processed in a way that uncovers the deep things in each member’s life. Members of the group I was in simply wanted to avoid conflict, instead of looking at what existed in each member that was broken and in need of healing. In my group there were members who had a deep seated pattern of protecting themselves from the honest self acknowledgement that they had a critical spirit.

As I pushed for resolution and mutual accountability, I became the target of their misplaced fear of owning the broken parts of their lives. This is how relational systems operate. If someone wants to push for change, they will use the full resources of their brokenness to resist. I tried to push for healthy resolution, but the fear of self discovery was too great. I had to shake the dust off my feet and move on, to the detriment of the group members.

Other believers in our lives have the greatest ability to help us see ourselves. Those who run from issues run into the dark places of hiding. The real pathology goes unrecognized while we continue God-talk and comfort ourselves that we are ok.

A useful tool in the field of psychology that is, I believe, for Christians who want to deepen their understanding of themselves, is something called Johari’s Window. This tool helps people to identify four main quadrants of personal awareness. It is structured like a window pane, with each quadrant a separate panel in the window pane. Quadrant One is called the open space and is the area of awareness where things about you are known to others and known to you. For example, if I am a person who laughs a lot, I am aware of this characteristic of myself, and others can publically experience that about me. Quadrant Two is called my blind spot, where things are known to others but are not known to me. For example, if I am a chronically critical person, I may be in denial about this and not see it in myself, even though people around me would say I am very critical. Quadrant Three, called the hidden area, are things known to me but not known to others. For example, I may know that I feel like a failure but have not shared this belief with others. Quadrant Four, called the unknown area or shadow, is something not known to me and not known to others. For example, I may have experienced a trauma, such as a parent’s abandonment when I was very young, and I am not aware of it nor is anyone else. However, behavior may be expressed that is formed as a way of coping with this unaware area of my life. The shadow element is a critical factor in many Christian leaders being unconsciously motivated by a shadow mission.

Johari’s Window allows one to intentionally seek accountability. If one wants to grow as a believer, they will willingly submit to the observation of others and seek feedback. They will generate a sense of safety where they can share the hidden things in their lives and will ask for feedback about ways that they come across that they are unaware of expressing and may reflect the shadow motivations that are inconsistent with their Christian beliefs. They will seek to do some deep work of exploring how their behavior may be reflecting something in the unknown area, and may strive to bring this to full awareness so it can be dealt with and healed.

I believe that every Christian leader should be engaged in bringing their lives into the scrutiny that the Johari Window focuses on. This should not be just with “yes people” who are too weak to bring fierce reality to the broken parts of the leader. A leader who wants to grow will subject themselves to this crucible of growth. A leader that is hiding, either intentionally or due to a character disorder, will avoid it like the plague. They may be in a small group, but they will simply focus on the heady elements of scripture, and not the painful process of emotional surgery.

Psalm 139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts;

The church is a system that is either healthy or sick. Everyone must search themselves, and ask for the assistance of brothers and sisters in the search process. Leaders must submit to the search light of God’s truth. We must create a culture that, rather than coming together to look good, desires to be good. And we all are broken. A church that starts with that awareness, and then commits to the process of collaboratively helping each other to heal, will see God’s hand of spiritual growth. Churches who simply participate in a choreographed image that protects each person from their pain, will be diseased at the core and will be the spawning ground that allows for the dramatic problems seen with pastors acting out their brokenness and wounding many people in the process.

Believers must bring their brokenness to the refining fire. It starts with honesty and a willingness to acknowledge what is undeniably true- that we are all pathological in many ways and must deconstruct the inner sickness if true piety is going to shine through authentically. Run from a church that does not embrace this truth, because you can be sure that the fruit of a rotten tree will never produce the fruit of the spirit.