Once again the Times has included something to press my buttons! As I settled down to my mid morning coffee I was drawn to Times 2. Dr Tanya Byron was responding to a sad letter from an 18 year old student who said that she has ‘developed this strong belief that I’m not good enough and I’m going to Hell. I think that if I don’t dedicate my life to selfless acts then God will send me to Hell’. ‘It’ll be interesting to see how a GP responds to that’ I thought. Badly, I concluded. Read it for yourself.
It would be impossible for me to comment on the mental state of this student. I don’t know the student. And more importantly I don’t know the first thing about medicine. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t comment on the symptoms that this girl is manifesting. There may well be a medical explanation for her behaviour but it’s not necessairly the only explanation for her situation. There could well be a complementary explanation. And I would argue that there is.
Obviously this is a letter and it’s dangerous to make strong assertions from so little evidence. But what’s interesting is that those are just the sorts of thoughts we’re encouraged to expect from a work of God’s Spirit. In John 16 Jesus explained that the Holy Spirit would come to convict people of sin, righteousness and judgement. But in response Byron describes these thoughts as ‘persecutory delusions of a religious nature’. I’ll let Jesus know, I’m sure he’ll be chuffed to be corrected.
But Byron still had column inches to fill and so she continued, ‘We all need support and understanding at times and I urge you to look for some now’. I couldn’t agree with her more, so why not send her to a decent student church where she can find out more about sin and hell, God and forgiveness. I mean if she wanted to know something about medicine you’d send her to the Medical School wouldn’t you? But Byron isn’t being even handed. She pressed on to assert her own beliefs, ‘The difficulty for you is that the strong persecutory feelings that you are experiencing – which are, to date, unchallenged – will soon become laid down as beliefs. These beliefs cloud and distort reality. You are not a sinner. God will not judge nor send you to Hell – these feelings, completely real to you, are ways in which you are showing the very acute vulnerability that you feel when leaving home and living alone’.
I have no doubt that being away from home for the first time and encountering a bewildering array of experiences is confusing and challenging. I have lots of sympathy for the student. I hope she finds help. At a church. But what she got was Byron’s faith based quasi-spiritual/medical opinions. Her assertion that this girl is neither a sinner, nor that God will send her to hell are faith based convictions. She provides no evidence for saying what she does. As far as she’s concerned it’s self evident. But it’s not even her field of expertise. She’s a psychologist not a theologian. What does she think she’s doing? People get very agitated when Christians do that. They threaten disciplinary and legal action. I’m not aware that anyone’s threatened Dr Byron with that yet…