Conversation with a Messianic Israeli psychologist – breaking down stigmas in the Messianic community

Depression? Anxiety? Schizophrenia? Bipolar? Personality disorders? As the Body of the Messiah in Israel keeps growing, so do the needs, including psychological needs. Just last year we witnessed a tragic incident due to an undiagnosed mental health disorder. Even though secular or religious psychologists can help, I believe that issues pertaining to the soul are problematic to place in the hands of a person who doesn’t share your faith. After my interview with Dov Michael (not his real name), I became even more convinced of this.

Michael is one of the few Messianic licensed psychologists in Israel. I called him to ask about how he reconciles secular psychology with Biblical spirituality and how he replies to Messianic critics against his profession. I also asked him about some specific disorders.

During our conversation, my memories went back to my interview last year with Lena Levin who helps battered women, which unfortunately is a bigger problem than we want to acknowledge. Back then she said, “We want them to be the perfect happy family, and we ignore evidence to the contrary. We are afraid of anything that can hurt our image. This is why these subjects are so taboo.”

When I talk to Michael, I get a similar picture. For many, so it seems, mental health is a taboo subject and there is an approach of “scriptures, prayers and faith should be all we need.” However, just like Levin, Michael can see how this is changing and gives me several cases where he has helped not only members but also pastors.

“There is a stigma, where people see psychology as negative, and it’s simply not true,” he says. “I hope we can break this stigma in the coming three to four years. People who teach this do it from a human gut instinct, but it’s not based on the Scriptures.”

One of the problems Michael brings up is that many people only see a psychologist when it’s already far too late. “This is especially true among believers, because of shame and stigmas. Often these issues could have been stopped earlier. Whether PTSD, Bipolar, Borderline, or schizophrenia. If they had noticed the symptoms and come to me earlier, it would have been a lot easier to take care of. The problems could be diminished and even eradicated with just a few months of therapy. The ones who pay the price are the family and loved ones. Their children suffer, they get a problematic relationship with their spouse, all of that.”

He claims there are four main points in which there are differences between the way he works as opposed to a secular therapist:

“The first point is to put the Bible and the gospel first. With all theories by Freud, Jung, and all that – nothing tops the Bible. I think the usage of the gospel and the Bible is one of the most fundamental ways in which Christian Psychology differs from Secular Psychology. The worldview must be shaped by the Scriptures.”

Does it matter if your client is a believer or a non-believer?

“No. As a believing psychologist, I am first and foremost faithful to the Word of God. I am aware of all the secular approaches and theories and I might use them, but when the research contradicts Scriptures, I choose the Scriptures. I don’t tell my secular or religious clients that I’m Messianic, because of prejudices against us in society, but in certain situations I say that I believe what is written, so [with non-believing clients] I try to combine my faith with my practice without being overt.”

Michael states that as a believer he sees the human condition as fallen and needing a savior, but not just that. Understanding the soul, disorders and personality must be based on a worldview that points to the gospel. Everything points to the gospel at the end of the day.

“The second point is to walk the middle way. I really value what is known as the biopsychosocial approach. It’s an approach that researches human nature and takes all aspects into consideration. It’s not just a person with COVID or a person with anxiety. There are many aspects which make up the person. The complexity of the human brain, its influence on your personality, as well as society’s and our culture’s influence, all contribute, so we can’t reduce it to morals and sin only. Not everything is ‘because of demons.’ You can’t say that ‘because of sin, I experience anxiety, or because of sin, this and that happens to me.’ In a broad aspect it’s true, because all illnesses, including mental illnesses, are a result of the fall, but I can’t reduce all pathology to a question of morals and sin only. On the other hand, as a believer I know that we humans are fallen, and this causes disorders and sicknesses, and we serve a loving and forgiving God who gave us Yeshua to get out of that. He wants us to search for him. Therefore, I can’t reduce all pathology to a naturalistic approach either. This is why I suggest a middle way – not just biopsychosocial approach, but a biopsychosocial-spiritual approach, where the spiritual aspect is taken into account just as much as the social, psychological and the biological aspects.”

When Michael speaks of the biopsychosocial-spiritual approach, I can’t help but being reminded of 1 Thess. 5:23 where Paul says: “May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord.”

“The third point,” Michael continues, “is that secular techniques can be helpful. There are some techniques I would never use, like transcendental meditation, for example. But the secular approach to therapy is not bad in and of itself. There are techniques used to reduce symptoms of ADHD or of anxiety and so forth, that are good, and they are working. I would do my clients a disservice if I deprived them of good research-based therapy that reduces their symptoms. However, all these techniques do is to reduce the symptoms. A person with fewer symptoms is not necessarily healthy. The final product [of these techniques] don’t create a dependence on the Lord, and they are still enslaved to sin. The basic underlying reason of all problems – the fallen nature of man – has not been addressed. Therefore, I can’t disconnect the gospel from my therapy. But neither can I dismiss all secular research.”

One such technique Michael mentions is mindfulness. Not a mindfulness based on eastern meditation but based on Psalm 1:2: “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.” He sent information of the technique to a number of pastors in Israel with instructions and relevant Bible verses.

“One pastor later called me and said, ‘look, I’m usually against anything that starts with psycho-something, but since it’s you, I read it. I later had an anxiety attack and remembered what you sent. I did that mindfulness exercise, and it went away.’ So these techniques work. Now, if a technique goes against the Bible, I will not use it at all – I would never try to whitewash a technique and try to make it more acceptable to believers if it’s not following Biblical principles to begin with.”

“The fourth point is to examine secular research,” Michael continues. “It has a lot to offer, but believing psychologists must adopt that research with care. The research helps us understand the biological and psychological reasons for our clients’ struggles, and that can help us develop the empathy we need. The more knowledge we have, the more we can help people, but not all secular research is compatible with our faith. When the research collides with our faith, we must choose faith. For example, if there is research about the effectiveness of a medicine, you always ask who funded the study, right? If the answer is the company who made the medicine, then the results are not reliable. Same goes in psychology. Examine which biases do the researchers have, and whether it can skew the results of the research.”

When I ask Michael about specific diagnoses, and whether we can analyze characters in the Bible, it becomes interesting. King Saul, for example, is a case of possible bipolar disorder, he says. Saul’s mood went from one extreme to the other, from depressed to paranoid, from loving David to hating him, and at the end he committed suicide on Gilboa. All these signs are typical for people suffering from bipolar disorder. Scripture also says explicitly that Nebuchadnezzar was struck by God with a severe case of boanthropy, thinking he was an ox.

“It could be an interesting article in itself,” Michael says, “a psychological analysis of characters in the Bible.” There are people today suffering from boanthropy, but it’s rare and there are very few studies on that specific condition.

“It’s like they’re dreaming they are an ox, but they wake up, but don’t actually wake up from the dream,” Michael says. “It can go on for a few hours, or a few years.”

As my mind goes back to the horrific event last year where an undiagnosed case of paranoid schizophrenia played the central role, I ask Michael about that. He tells me that there are a number of cases within the Messianic body of people with schizophrenia who live with it and manage it, and he also knows people like that within the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health, including people in managerial positions.

“I can’t mention any names, but a person can function well in society with schizophrenia as long as the disorder is properly managed with the right medication and therapy,” he says. “We don’t know exactly what causes it, but it seems to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.”

Schizophrenia lowers the ability to interpret reality, and it affects your ability to withstand pressure, adapt to reality, to take initiative and to plan your life. The symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions, unorganized behavior, self-neglect, avoiding social contact, memory loss, and concentration problems.

“The earlier you get help, the better. This is true for all psychological conditions, but even more so with schizophrenia. Why? Because there is a sharp downturn every time they have a psychotic attack, and it can even be irreversible. Usually it is managed by a combination of medication, psychotherapy, and rehabilitation. It depends on the type and the severity of the condition. Specifically paranoid schizophrenia can be dangerous, and there is a process of rehabilitation involved.”

In secular literature I hear about severe cases like psychopaths, sociopaths and people with Narcissist Personality Syndrome. These are people who will never seek help, and the recommendation is to just avoid them once you recognize the symptoms. Does this mean that these people are beyond salvation? Is this biblical?

“The only one who can break down the spiritual and psychological barrier here is God. There is a limit to how much we can do. Yes, these people are very dangerous. Proverbs 26:12 says that there is more hope for a fool than for them, and verses 4-5 of the same chapter illustrate how futile it is to try to talk or reason with them.”

“Something we need to understand about Narcissist Personality Disorder, or NPD, is that it’s not really a sickness. It’s just a deeply unhealthy personality. We all have some degree of narcissism, which is good, because on the other side of the scale is depression. A healthy person stays somewhere along the middle of that scale. We all need to love ourselves at some level. But a person with NPD is too far on the narcissist side.”

As people with NPD will typically not seek help, it is important to recognize them. Michael gives me a few pointers. “They have a lot of self-confidence. They often give a great first impression. But they have a fragile ego and will do everything to protect it. They can never admit to being wrong and will never apologize for anything, which often puts them in conflict with people of opposing views. They might show empathy or understanding for opposing views initially, if they think they can get something out of it, but it disappears with time. Emotionally, they are like teenagers, thinking that everything revolves around them, and only their emotions and opinions matter. They never try to improve or change, and they don’t consider other people’s needs or feelings. They are also easily offended. They will ‘cancel’ anyone who criticizes them.”

And people like these exist within the Messianic body in Israel?

“Absolutely. And it’s critical to identify them within the congregations, because they cause havoc and destruction to believers and non-believers alike. ‘Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.’ 1 John 4:1.”

Can they even be truly saved? If they believe they are perfect, why do they need forgiveness of sins? If they can’t ever repent, are they even saved?

“Great question. A spiritual narcissist is a person who uses the gospel to build up himself while tearing others down, and he puts himself before God.”

And how would you recognize them?

“Specifically within the context of the congregation, besides the signs I’ve already said, you notice that they always speak of their own accomplishments, and how they are a much better believer than others. They often burst into other people’s conversations and sneak in their own agenda and opinions. They will also be the first to complain about issues, and cause divisions. The Bible warns against them in Romans 16:17-18 and Psalm 36:1-4. As for theology – they will seldom read their Bible. They will twist scripture for their own purposes, and they might learn a few verses by heart, which give them excuses to act as they do. The best way to counter such theology is to know the Bible and read it often. Jude 1:4 also warns against them.”

Michael continues, “Maybe the most obvious sign is that they don’t live as they preach. They will often say that they are filled with love and compassion, but their deeds prove otherwise. By the fruit you will know the tree. They will often act the exact opposite to James 1:19 – they are not quick to listen and slow to speak, nor are they slow to become angry. On the contrary, they never listen, they only talk – and they easily become offended and angry. A true believer can listen, even to opinions that go against his own, in a selfless way. A spiritual narcissist is not capable of that.”

To bring up Nebuchadnezzar again – God cured his NPD by humiliating him through boanthropy. “It really shows God’s sovereignty,” Michael says. Another biblical example Michael brings up is Ahab. “He lived in an echo-chamber of his own opinions, and so do all narcissists. In 1 Kings 22, Ahab only brings the prophets who tell him what he wants to hear, and is reluctant to bring the prophet that might say things he doesn’t like. The narcissist will surround himself with people whose opinions confirm his agenda.”

Other marks of people with NPD that Michael points out is that they refuse to admit fault, even when faced with obvious evidence, they tear others down rather than build up, and they lead by power and not by example. If they reach a position of leadership, they are the worst kind of leaders. They are petty, non-compromising, cruel and bullying. They don’t inspire and they can’t correct people without also humiliating them.

In secular psychology, there is no hope for these people, but if God can break down Nebuchadnezzar’s ego, one would think he can do that to other people with NPD as well. Even if they will rarely accept therapy, Michael has encountered them. “Often other people send them. They come to me and say ‘I’m here because my spouse/relative/pastor says I’m a narcissist,’ and that’s wonderful. Realizing there is a problem and coming to me asking for help is a great step on the way.”

So if I recognize that someone might have this, what should I do?

“It depends a lot on how close you are to them. You have seen this behavior over and over, and people are hurt again and again. Something is not right. You might talk to them, gently, asking that they see someone. But no one can force them to change. They have to want it. If they cooperate and they see a psychologist, that’s great, but often the ego will prevent them from doing so. People will rarely see a psychologist because of a problematic personality. They will often only go when it’s gone too far already, and then it’s often already irreversible.”

I finish the interview deeply impressed but also worried. I hope the local body of Messiah here in Israel will learn to remove stigmas and encourage people to get help early. The incident last year might be a wake-up call for us to take action when we recognize problems. As a person who has encountered NPD in people close to me, and knowing first-hand the havoc they can wreak, I really also hope we will learn to recognize them and insist on getting them help before they cause too much damage.