Theological Disorders, a.k.a. ‘Lazy Makes Crazy’.

A few months ago I picked up the book Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People who Drain You Dry by Albert Bernstein as an introduction to learnin about personality disorders. The book is is well written and entertaining and I am now searching for some more scholarly sources on various types of personality disorders because I have this thought that people in our churches–especially “problem people”–are not only drawn to certain beliefs, but create certain beliefs based on personality.

For example, one of the “emotional vampires” discussed in the book is the Obsessive Compulsive Personality. The author suggests that these people have an acute sense of their tendency towards violence, sex, selfishness etc [feelings we all have] . They feel chaotic inside and so they compensate by having rigid rules to keep themselves in order. These people feel a constant frustration because almost nobody keeps the rules as well as they do. The author says these people “sigh and shake their head a lot”.  Bernstein also points out an interesting paradox that they “keep themselves from sin so they can cast the first stone” meaning they get to indulge that negative behavior they work so hard to repress guised under righteous indignation. They tend to overcorrect people and seem harsh as a result. There is much more but this was enough to send my mind whirling as well as conjuring up people I have met and know in church.

And I wonder if theologies that are very concerned with perfectionism draw these kinds of people? I also wonder if one of the reasons we see such extreme pendulum swings in conversion experiences of truly “worldly people” who then become the most conservative of Christians. They have experienced and know their temptations all too well and need those rigid structures to keep them from losing control. They don’t do well in setting where people have difefrent styles of worship, viewpoints, and don’t tolerate ambuguity very well. They are overwhelmed by details and so they tend to have a very “black and white” world view and detest gray areas.

Another kind of personality discussed was the paranoid vampire. If the OCD is overwhelmed by details, then the paranoid “organizes them into one big picture”. These “vampires” also do not tolerate ambiguity, and are very sensitive to small details and gestures.  They need answers where their are none, they constantly “conect the dots” and then take things personally or transform them into “conspiracy theories”. Conspiracies are a great past time for Adventists, particularly when they involve the Catholic Church, Jesuits, and Freemasonry. Adventists are distant cousins of Dan Brown…or not so distant. Whether its the conference out to get the small churches, new age worship styles constantly “creeping” [there are a lot of things that creep in the church–including these sneaky people who hand out “testimonies” in church lobbies] into the church. They are suspicious by nature.

There are a great deal more personality types, and countless illustrations I could provide for the above two types–but for now I want to know if there is any sort of connection between personality disorders and what I call “theological disorders” –namely theologies that are extensions of personality rather than study of scripture.

Then there is the flipside. I think under the right circumstances and the right topic any on of us can be paranoid, OCD, narcissisitc, etc. The letter called Hebrews in the Bible tells people not to “forsake the assembling together as some are in the habit of doing” and I have begun to wonder if one of the key reasons for this is to keep our personalities in check.  Proverbs says the interaction of people is like “iron sharpening iron” [27:17]. While people are certainly irritating at times, we all have the potential to be irritating as well if we are left in isolation for too long.

At Golden Hills a couple members came up with the phrase “lazy makes crazy”. This little proverb came out of a discussion of what happens to people when they are not gainfully employed or have meaningful relationships for an extended amount of time. There is no one to temper their thoughts or extremes and they begin to formulate strange ideas…Youtube is littered with them.

Anyways, these are ramblings, and Im curious to hear what you think….





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12 responses to “Theological Disorders, a.k.a. ‘Lazy Makes Crazy’.

  1. Callie

    This totally makes sense. I can see it in myself somewhat. I was totally caught up in the details and the black and white. The scary thing about that is that you actually have that measuring stick out all the time and you are the standard by which all others should be measured. I finally got the message that this is not the way God intended us to view each other when someone asked the question: Does God love those people who aren’t obeying your perceived laws less? So does that mean that God loves you more? Is that possible? Those three simple questions, asked directly, changed my whole perspective on life. I think rules, improperly explained by those who are in roles who enforce the rules, can create this in the very young and idealistic. Teenagers are black and white most of the time anyway and teaching them that God loves EVERYONE, ALL THE TIME, AND THE SAME AMOUNT can be a daunting but pleasant task. But if you are a product of a flawed system, and you never learned that yourself (if you are still telling people they can wade but not swim…) then how can you possibly teach this to the next generation? I was counseled because I felt that my spiritual life was stagnate and I knew that could not be right. Aren’t we all flawed and needing to be growing all the time? Are there people who say this but haven’t had a spiritual epiphany in years and years and refuse to believe they are stuck? Are these the people who have disorders and can’t get out? Is it possible to overcome your own spiritual OCD? I’d like to believe I was there and am working to overcome it every day as I ask myself the question: What makes me better than them? NOTHING!

  2. Three authors come to mind on this subject.

    Wayne Oates, Robert Bransom and Kenneth Haugk.

    Bransom wrote a classic book on coping with difficult people.

    Oates wrote about dealing with personality disorders in the church.

    And Haughk wrote about the difference between destructive conflict and more normal conflict and what to do about it.

    All three, especially the first two deal with personality disorders. The second one focuses in on disorders and how they present in the church environment.

  3. Karen

    I was wondering PSP, what kind of disorder am I?

  4. David Carlson

    It is a bit strange for me to consider people as emotional vampires, because of the very negative connotations that would be associated with that. From a mental health prospective labeling someone an emotional vampire, probably won’t do anything positive for the person. But as far as personal reference point it could be very helpful. I’ve had many a professor instruct to never schedule all your most difficult clients “aka those with personality disorders” on the same day, and especially not in a row because they will “suck you dry.” I find the connection to vampirism interesting because from the Jungian perspective which deals with a lot of metaphor, vampires and/or blood sucking creatures are present in the mythology and lore from almost every culture around the world. One Jungian perspective is that the archetype of Vampire is the metaphorical representation of those with personality disorders in ones culture.
    As far as the church is concerned, I believe the divorce between the mental health field and the church has done a disservice to both. The mental health field is just recently beginning to take a more balanced view of client spirituality. Clinicians are beginning to look at the ways a clients spirituality is positively informing their life instead of just looking at its more negative influence. I believe the church has remained in great ignorance about people with mental health issues and have done damage to their parishioners by stating or implying that their mental health issues would go away if they merely had more faith or were faithful in the spiritual disciplines.
    Individuals with Axis 2 disorders (personality disorders) are often very isolated because they are so taxing to be around. I think that these people are often drawn to places of formalized community because they see a place where they won’t be shut out so easily. And I think that the church is a place where everyone should be welcome to be a part of, the isolated and those with mental illness. What the church needs to realize is that they are not a doctor or a mental health service provider. They have something very important to offer, but it is not psychotherapy. The church offers community, a great meaning to life outside of themselves, opportunities to serve others, hope for a life beyond this one. Pastors, if the person cannot be helped by you within three sessions at the most, you need to be referring. You mostly likely don’t have the training, and certainly don’t have the time to be doing extensive therapy for your parishioners.
    Just a thought on people with a legalistic bent. From my experience, I am the least gracious to others when I am unable to offer myself much grace. I believe that as individuals are able to accept the grace of Christ to be exactly who they are, exactly where they are, they will be much more accepting and loving of those different from themselves. You can’t give what you don’t have.

    • Callie

      I completely agree with you about the pastors not being therapists. I wish we would have more of a Christian Counseling/Therapist type program in every church. It would be really nice to have Christian professionals on hand to take the load off the pastors who really shouldn’t be burdened with every case that comes through the door, especially when they are NOT qualified to deal with them.

  5. Amber

    Thank you Seth for starting this conversation. The last paragraph sounded exactly like a few of my relatives. I will have to remember that saying and that they have too much time on their hands….

    Thank you Marty. It just so happened that I’m having major problems at work because people with some major issues are making up stories about me and then taking them to my boss. I literally just went on to my Book site and order the first book you talk about before I started my comment.


  6. Belinda Alter-E


    This is an intriguing idea…and I believe you are right about church fellowship being a way to keep people more in balance…however what about taking that a step furthur and work at keeping Adventist Christians more balanced by having friends of other faiths and visiting their church social events. Many especially in Adventist Communities become totally socially inept at visiting or socializing or befriending anyone who is not an Adventist. We would perhaps be more balanced Christians, have more reasons to search the scriptures for ourselves, and have more people to witness to if we weren’t surrounded with our own pre-established answers in our own little group where we all say Amen in unison and pat each other on the back for being in the “right” denomination. Just a thought.

    • Steve

      This is so completely accurate. As a life-long Adventist, I’ve always felt that, to some degree, Adventists believe that Adventism is the one “right” denomination and all others are misguided, perverted forms of Christianity. Also agree that Adventists tend to surround themselves with the like-minded and forget how to relate to people who aren’t Adventist (or, gasp, not Christians!), and worse-yet, might not care to know those people.

  7. sethoutlook

    Hey guys,

    Thanks for all the great discussion and recommendations–it is very helpful. I agree David that labeling people “vampires” isn’t helpful–it was just the name of the book, and like you said, it is an interesting metaphor. It was almost frightening how accurate the metaphor played out. I appreciate the other books, and I may have to dip into some Jungian literature as well. This all just about discussion and using you all as sounding boards for my heresies 🙂

  8. Pastors are not therapists in the Clinical sense, that is true, so true. I’ve pastored for nearly 30 years now and have had about 10 or so mental health professionals in my congregations. They were very helpful in keeping me from trying to be something I wasn’t, a professional counselor. Sometimes they helped to keep me sane(just my opinion).

    It is a trap for a pastor to fall into if he has a knowledge of personality disorders and then uses that knowledge to treat certain members in a totally different way than the other members. Once labeled, we can justify certain actions that we would not normally act out.

    The flip side is that understanding why a person retreats from aggression or anger and yet acts out their anger in indirect ways can be very helpful to understand and relate to. Knowing how to talk with and relate to that person who shies away from direct confrontation is really very important.

    An awareness of personality disorders by a pastor is not a license to treat them clinically or relate to them poorly, it is a door to understanding how to open other doors that might remain closed in the relationship between pastor and member.

    I’ve never labeled anyone in public with a personality disorder. There’s no healthy reason too. But more and more, folks are fairly open about the disorders they have, especially the more common ones, like Manic-Depressive, or Schizophrenia which is probably more than a personality disorder. Awareness of their personality and how it might not be as consistent in nature is a door and key to working with them and caring for them.

    In one sense, pastors are therapists or healers. Salvation itself is closely associated with healing, the same word in fact in many cases. Unfortunately, we never seem to take classes on Pastors as Healers. We could use a lot of help there knowing how to be a part of the healing community, knowing how we fit in. Jesus did two things a lot, fed people and healed people. We can too.

  9. Alicia Johnston

    Thanks for the topic, Seth. As I counselor, I’ve worked with several (too many!) clients with personality disorders, though I am far from being an expert as it requires many years of practice to master these issues. I have some thoughts on the issue from my experience and education. First, I have to say, vampires is a fantastic metaphor! As a matter of fact, feeling that someone is sucking you dry is often used by counselors as a diagnostic indicator that you are working with someone who has a personality disorder. There is also the problem of counselors using this label for clients they don’t like and using this as a justification for not getting anywhere in therapy, but that’s because when you can’t get anywhere, you think personality disorder.

    The bottom line is that there is nothing more difficult to work with. And, with few exceptions, the mental health field is really struggling when it comes to treatment of these clients. One of the main reasons for this is that insight oriented therapy does not work with personality disordered people. You can’t bring them to an understanding of why what they are doing is maladaptive because it is more than what they are doing. For a truly, clinically personality-disordered person, their problem is how they are perceiving and understanding life. They have a different set of assumptions and these assumptions are the only thing that makes them comfortable and able to cope.

    If I have Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD), order, structure, and rules that would make others feel suffocated make me feel relaxed and happy. If others threaten that order in any way, I could lose it completely and become violent in severe cases. Of course, this causes a lot of problems. For one perfect order is not possible. For another, attempting it will really mess up your life. But to them, the problem is all the people interfering with their system and expectations. If people would just do what they are supposed to do (as OCPD people usually, not always, see themselves as doing), things would be fine. So to tell someone like this that they are saved by grace and they don’t have to be perfect is to say that God is a God of chaos, at least that’s what they hear. It undermines completely their strategy for being okay with life and themselves. Even though there strategy is very problematic, taking it away would still feel more like shooting their best friend than helping them out. They will reject what you say 100% of the time. So cognitive, intellectual, and theological interventions aren’t going to help in most cases, unless they don’t actually have a personality disorder. If what they really have is OCD or what is sometimes called personality traits/characteristics/features (as opposed to disorder), insight-oriented therapy/theology might help. I’ve found that often, especially in popular books, when they talk about personality disorders, they may be talking about less severe characteristics or traits so insight could work.

    I agree that the best thing for a pastor to do in a situation like this is to refer them to a counselor. Unfortunately, they often won’t go, and you still have to deal with them. Even if they do go, counseling rarely results in a significant decrease of symptoms for a person with a personality disorder, even after years of therapy. Many insurance companies won’t even pay to treat it for this very understandable reason. So whether or not they go to counseling, you still have to deal with them without causing harm to them or the church. That’s a tall order. If they do go to counseling, you should get a release-of-information for both verbal and written information and use the multidisciplinary approach (that’s the word that should get the counselor to work with you) to coordinate efforts with the counselor and get some guidance if possible.

    Since you can’t really explain to them what they don’t understand (which would be an inside-out strategy), you have to take an outside-in strategy. Here is how I have dealt with personality disordered people professionally and occasionally in my personal life, I treat them like everybody else. I don’t cater to their dysfunction, but I show compassion and engage them only when they are engaging appropriately. People with PDs try to get you to behave the way they want you to, to buy into their misperceptions of the world. Don’t do it! This manifests in so many different ways. That’s why understanding the disorder can be very important. This approach sounds simple, but it can be very hard. I’m not sure how I would deal with it in a church, especially if the person had a lot of influence. I know I sound pretty gloom and doom about this topic, but unfortunately in most cases all we can do in the end is managing the disorder. Personality disorders rarely change, but God can do anything. That is the great advantage we have over psychology!

    For further study, I would recommend the book with a cheesy title, Reinventing Your Life, by Jeffery Young & Janet Kosko. They are respected research-practitioners in the field and wrote the book for a general audience. I have some more scholarly references as well, but I’d have to dig them up. Let me know if you are interested. Or you might want to go to the “source” and check out the DSM-IV-TR, the most current understanding of personality disorders and their diagnostic criteria. Of course they are about to come out with a new DSM which will change things a bit.

    I hope some of this is helpful. Seth, if you want to talk about specifics, you would do me a favor talking to me about it. It makes me feel like my degree is useful 😉

  10. Maria Glass

    Very interesting stuff, Seth. I think it’s very possible that we are guided by our personalities more than our Christianity at times. I know that I struggled with perfectionism for a big chunk of my life. And though I was raised Adventist, I think I would’ve been drawn to it anyway. I actually starting heading towards some offshoot stuff while in college because I was so legalistic. But… when I went further down that road and saw the results of legalism, I finally woke up! Also… due to some traumatic life experiences, I finally realized I couldn’t save myself or anyone else, and just completely gave up. Instead of going into depression at that point – God came to me and carried me across the raging river and I’ve been in love with Him ever since!

    I think Ellen White says something very important to Young People that applies to all of us. She says – the most important work of a young person is to know him/herself. That’s the key. We need to know ourselves and understand our motives. When we see ourselves and our motives for what they really are, then we can realize our helplessness and ask God to change us completely. Unlike a lot of theology I read (even in our church publications) – God doesn’t “help” us… he does it for us. We can do nothing.

    Ok… I better stop now before I write a book. Thanks, Seth, for sharing!

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