Can Christians Have Them?

Phobias and Christians to some may be an oxymoron. A questioner recently asked,“Please share your thoughts about the control of phobias in the believer’s life. Are phobias a sign of sin, spiritual immaturity or a state of unregeneration?” He was suggesting three possible roots for phobias: sin, spiritual immaturity, or unregeneration (meaning, if I understand him correctly, that the person is unsaved, not a Christian). My answer to him was: None of the above.

There may be times when the person is in one of these three conditions, and that can become a complicating factor. But none of them is usually the cause. A phobia is an emotional problem, not a spiritual one. (Having said that, I recognize there is a spiritual component to both emotional and physical conditions, but we are talking about root causes here.) By definition, a phobia is a persistent and irrational fear. Being irrational means it is not the result of a conscious choice, which sin is.

An example. An individual may have been attacked by a vicious dog, as a very young child. Later, in adulthood, he has a strong aversion to dogs of any kind. That is not a choice he has made. And he may not even recall the original incident. The fear is not reasoned out, nor is it the result of some moral decision to hate dogs. That is why I say such things are not basically a spiritual problem. Saved people can have phobias too. And they may even be mature believers who are walking with the Lord.

Let's compare a physical example. Suppose a fellow goes to the doctor with a backache. And after examination, the doctor concludes his main problem is his posture. So he is given some physical therapy to help strengthen the appropriate muscles. And he learns, through instruction and practice, to sit, stand and walk in a more healthy way. A similar process takes place when dealing with an unhealthy emotional condition. Phobias--fear of heights, fear of open spaces, and so on--can be relieved by counseling and behaviour modification, if the person feels the phobia is a significant handicap.

Certainly, through prayer, God can give wisdom and support in dealing with a phobia. But normally there is what we might call an "emotional habit" that has to be unlearned. That may call for the assistance of a counselor or psychologist who has training in this area. To use the dog illustration again, perhaps, the counselor will begin by showing him pictures of dogs, and helping him to get comfortable talking about them. Then, he will have opportunities to observe dogs from a distance, gradually decreasing the distance as he feels more comfortable, and so on. Fear of airplane flights, and fear of using elevators, are handled in a similar way.

We are tripartite creatures, spirit, soul, and body (I Thess. 5:23). The Bible's word for "soul" in that text is the Greek word psuche [SOO-kee], from which we get our English word psychology. A phobia is usually (though I will not say absolutely always) due to a psychological condition, not a spiritual problem. We need to be careful not to condemn those who are struggling with emotional difficulties. Sometimes, in leaping to the conclusion that the problem is spiritual, we only make matters worse. There can be spiritual issues to deal with. But not always.

Suppose you visit a fellow in the hospital who has a broken leg. Would you raise the same question? ("Are broken legs a sign of sin, spiritual immaturity, or a state of unregeneration?") And would you determine to treat his broken leg by reading him Bible verses and calling upon him to repent? He may have broken his leg running from a bank hold-up. In that case, there would be a spiritual need, but you still have to set the leg and deal with that separately. Or he may be a godly man who broke his leg climbing into a burning building to rescue a child. But he still has to have the leg set and cared for.

Some quote Second Timothy 1:7 as proof that Christians should never have mental or emotional disorders. The verse says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear [timidity, cowardice], but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” The conclusion reached is that any fear must therefore be a spiritual problem. But notice what the verse does not say. It does not say Christians never have mental or emotional problems, but only that spiritual boldness comes from God.

Paul is writing to a young pastor named Timothy, exhorting him to stand firm in the faith, in the face of opposition (vs. 8; cf. 2:10; 3:12; 4:5). The subject, then, is boldness in ministry, not the treatment of phobias. The text does not rule out the possibility that an emotional disorder can be caused by a physical condition or by prior experiences. For instance, child abuse leaves emotional scars that are not the outcome of personal choice. They are the result of wicked cruelty on the part of parents or others. Committed Christians can have that kind of history too. And they may need professional help dealing with it.