Fred Osbourn, Ph.D., was professor of marriage and family counseling, at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, when he wrote this article.

Seventh-day Adventists teach that good mental health principles and sound religious principles go hand in hand. In Titus 1:9 the man of God appeals for a ministry that will teach "sound doctrine." The original text is correctly translated "wholesome" or "health-giving" doctrine; that is, teaching that is whole-making and health-producing. Consequently, it seems both reasonable and profitable to explore an assessment of doctrine from the viewpoint of mental health. It is the purpose of this article to encourage the reader to attempt an evaluation of his personal beliefs, his private interpretation of doctrine from the pragmatic perspective of personal experience, and to ask the question "Does my personal faith, when put into practice, produce a life that is characterized as 'healthy' and 'whole-making?' "

William Glasser has emphasized man's two basic personality needs to be self-worth and love.1 Every person, he insists, must possess a strong sense of self-worth, and experience an adequate amount of love to be a healthy person. Howard Clinebell reduces these two basic human needs to one when he suggests the primary factor to be responsible love in at least one dependable relationship.2 All other personal needs, he claims, are derivative of this one basic need for responsible, loving interaction.

The psychology of Jesus stands in bold summation when He gathers the whole of God's law into this one word "love". When responding to the query concerning the "greatest commandment," He sums up the dimensions of mental health by pointing out the need for love directed toward God supremely and toward the world of people in which one lives (Matt. 22:35-40). Man, by nature, needs to love and to be loved in order to experience health and wholeness. Ellen G. White endorses this when she appeals for "mutual love" and "mutual forbearance"3 and notes that God "would have man obey the commandments... because it is for the health and life of all human beings."4 Isaiah emphasizes this relationship between doing good and obtaining health, or wholeness (chap. 58:6-8). And Christ continually emphasizes the inseparable relationship between commandment keeping and love (John 14:15; 15:10,17).

The term mental health has two dimensions, both of which in the Christian sense are encapsulated in the concept of a right relationship with God, or righteousness by faith. Mental health indicates a person's ability to relate realistically and responsibly to oneself and to one's world. The "responsible" person is responsible; he is able to respond to life's demands in ways that tend toward wholeness, toward integration; he tends to be a person of integrity and to have the characteristic of self-acceptance. When Glasser indicates self-esteem to be a basic personality need, he is emphasizing the need for a healthy self-acceptance as prerequisite for dropping one's defenses and giving oneself in love.

The antithesis of mental health is often characterized by a reality-denying and destructive reaction to one's world, tending toward fragmentation and irresponsibility. The alienation is experienced in every dimension of experience. Because the irresponsible person has behaved contrary to his God-given nature by responding without love, he experiences an inner contradiction and is at war with himself; he feels threatened, anxious, against himself; he suffers loss of self-esteem. Attempting to compensate for the deficit in his self-image, he is inclined toward increased selfishness, using persons as things and manipulating his world in order to gain the advantage he demands regardless of cost or consequence. So the vicious spiral of alienation continues. The alienation is both within himself and between himself and his world.

Someone has quipped, "We are all a little neurotic." We are all a mixture of the creative and the destructive elements; the reconciling and the alienating; and the degree in which one is inclined toward the latter is the degree to which he is neurotic. Said the apostle Paul, "We are sinners!" There is the war within.

Erich Fromm, in his discussion of psychoanalysis and religion, poses as the goal for psychotherapy that of enabling the person to "live, love and think truth."5 Living love and thinking truth go hand in hand, for the former depends upon the latter inasmuch as love that is not mere sentimentality involves a realistic appreciation of life 6 This suggests, then, that the primary mission of the church is to provide the model, the climate, the matrix, for expressing responsible love and pursuing truth.

Is it inevitable that the teachings of the church, as experienced in the "nitty-gritty" of daily living, result in a life that may be characterized as creative, whole making, reconciling "the abundant life" of Jesus? In searching for an answer to this question, I would like to suggest that you ask yourself four interdependent questions that have been found useful in separating healthy from unhealthy religion.7

Personal faith, when put into practice, should produce a life that is characterized in psychological terms as "healthy" and "whole-making." Religious principles and sound mental health go hand in hand.

Question one

Does my understanding and practice of religious doctrine tend to build bridges or barriers between myself and others? Wayne Gates writes: "in essence... healthy religion binds people together." He goes on to emphasize, however, that it accomplishes this "in such a way that their individuality is enabled both to be realized and to be consecrated to the total community... to which they belong. This is a religion of mature and responsible relatedness."8

If one's sense of religious identity, when lived out in the community, tends to express an exclusivism that denies the universality of God's concern, then the very spirit of Christian love described in 1 Corinthians 13 is denied.

Question two

Does my understanding and practice of religious doctrine tend to stimulate or hamper the growth of inner  freedom and personal responsibility?

Closely related questions are these: Does it encourage unhealthy or healthy dependency relationships? Mature or immature relationships with authority? The growth of mature or immature consciences?

Clinebell notes that "one of the most common errors found in the churches is an unhealthy authoritarianism."9 This kind of dependence is a block to growth and can be seen at times in virtually every religious organization. Unhealthy dependence patterns emerge when clergymen, by virtue of their own insecurities and compensating drive for power, gain neurotic satisfaction by keeping their congregations dependent. In both extremes, persons "escape from freedom" to use Erich Fromm's apt term, into the security of an authority-centered religious group.

All of us are dependent to some degree. A key difference between healthy and unhealthy dependence is that the former is best described as interdependence and the latter as a symbiotic relationship in which the believer gains a neurotic sense of power by identifying with the leader. The leader, on the other hand, finds his sense of power in the fact that others are dependent upon him.

In regard to this abuse of power, Seventh-day Adventists have been counseled that "there is an individuality in Christian experience that must be preserved in every human agent." 10 The man who is "responsible" will be that man who recognizes the "right to himself, to the control of his own mind to the stewardship of his talents." 11

Question three

Does my understanding and practice of religious doctrine provide effective or faulty means of helping persons to move from a sense of guilt to forgiveness? In other words, does it provide well-defined, significant, ethical guidelines, or does it emphasize ethical trivia? Is its primary concern for surface behavior or for the underlying health of the personality?

Erik H. Erikson has shown that ethical guidelines and ideals are vital elements in ego strength. 12 It is crucial, according to this famous psychoanalyst, that people feel and respond to guilt about significant things, that is, those misuses of freedom that hurt others. The capacity to experience appropriate guilt is one of the signs of mental health.

How guilt is handled depends upon whether it is normal or neurotic. Actually most of us probably experience a mixture of both. The neurotic elements can be recognized by the following elements: a failure to respond to forgiveness, a failure to motivate to make amends (restoration), a tendency to focus on surface behavior (ethical trivia), and a tendency to be linked with perfectionism. 13

On the other hand, normal or healthy guilt is reduced by following the biblical prescription outlined by Jesus when confronted by the superficial moralists. He once stated, in essence, why are you so concerned with only surface behavior while ignoring the underlying causes in this man's inner life? (See Matt. 12:34 ff.) Moralism's attempt to control surface behavior is comparable to changing each distorted copy rather than correcting the stencil. Morality, on the other hand, is concerned with the stencil, the inner life in which the person is alienated from himself and others.

Healthy religion involves the whole person in the religious quest.

Question four

Does my understanding and practice of religious doctrine tend to increase or lessen the enjoyment of life?

Let it suffice to say that the various forms of the word joy are used 192 times in the Bible. And Jesus seems to be pro-life, deeply appreciating and enjoying fellowship and communion with others and with God. In fact He points to "joy" as one of the primary reasons for the gospel: "These things have I spoken unto you, that your joy might be full" (John 15:11). Unhealthy religion contradicts the spirit of Jesus' life by fleeing from real religious enjoyment into exclusivism or asceticism.

Healthy religion involves the whole person in the religious quest. It not only brings the intellect fully into play in the quest for truth but also recognizes the importance of feelings and emotions in a healthy personality, consequently avoiding both intellectualism on the one hand, and emotionalism on the other. Positive Biblical faith respects man's deepest freedom the freedom to think, imagine, fantasize, feel, and choose on the basis of the weight of evidence provided through these God-given means for arriving at truth.

This approach of asking positive health questions in evaluation of personal understanding and practice of faith tends to encourage a continual refining of one's theology. Doing so has helped me personally in guarding against moralism, legalism, pharisaical judgment, and the authoritarianism of both perfectionism and liberalism, those corruptions of loving behavior that tend to dog my steps. Further, this approach has helped me transform doctrine from mere legal demands to an experience that brings wholeness. Finally, this experiential approach to truth has strengthened my faith in both the Bible and Ellen G. White, as I have discovered that principles suggested in these inspired sources, when correctly understood and applied, produce creative, health-building results. To sum it up, a healthy, positive faith in God provides the milieu for a healthy, positive life,


1William Glasser, Reality Therapy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965).

2Howard I. Clinebell, Jr., Basic Types of Pastoral Counseling (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966). By "responsible" love Clinebell means agape love: unconditioned acceptance, respect, and appreciation for the personhood of the other.

3The Ministry of Healing, p 360.

4Ellen G. White manuscript 63, 1900.

5Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), p.

6Ellen G White, Testimonies to the Church, vol. 5, pp. 123ff

7The source for these questions is Howard ]. Clinebell, Jr., Mental Health Through Christian Community (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), pp. 31 ff

8Wayne E. Dates, Religious Factors in Mental Illness (New York: Association Press, 1955), p. 113.

9Clinebell, Mental Health Through Christian Community, p. 32.

10Ellen G. White manuscript 6, 1889,

11Testimonies to the Church, vol. 7, p. 180.

12Erik H. Erikson, Insight and Responsibility (New York: W. W. Norton, 1964).

13Perfectionism can be defined as setting up an impossibly high and unrealistic standard that makes continual failure inevitable and tends to involve the individual in continual self-punishment, or atonement.

FredOsbourn, Ph.D., was professor of marriage and family counseling, at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, when he wrote this article.

Fred Osbourn, Ph.D., was professor of marriage and family counseling, at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, when he wrote this article.