Exploring Personality Disorders from a Christian Perspective
Personality disorders are some of the most misunderstood mental health problems that a person can face. Not only is there a stigma to be faced from the general public, but from the psychiatric community as well.
Although attitudes are slowly changing, it has not been that long since newly qualified counselors and psychiatrists were being advised to stay away from people with personality disorders, especially borderline personality disorder (BPD).
An Overview of Personality Disorders
The most recent edition of the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) considers personality disorders to be:
“enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself that are exhibited in a wide range of social and personal contexts,” and “are inflexible and maladaptive, and cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress.”
Personality disorders cause a range of symptoms that affect a person’s ability to function in their daily life and, contrary to popular opinion, people with personality disorders aren’t being difficult on purpose. A personality disorder isn’t something that a person chooses or decides to have.
There are ten different personality disorders and while their symptoms differ in many ways, there are some symptoms that seem to affect most people with personality disorders to some extent. These include:
- Mood swings
- Angry outbursts
- Poor impulse control
- Difficulty forming and maintaining friendships
Up to ten percent of Americans have a personality disorder so these disorders aren’t rare. In fact, if you have 100 people in your church, statistically, ten of those people will have a personality disorder.
Types of Personality Disorders
There are generally three clusters of personality disorders (as described by DSM-5). These are:
Cluster A (odd or eccentric disorders)
- Paranoid (irrational suspicions and mistrust)
- Schizoid (lack of interest in social relationships)
- Schizotypal (odd behavior or thinking)
Cluster B (dramatic, emotional or erratic disorders)
- Antisocial (lack of empathy and a pattern of criminal activity)
- Borderline (impulsivity, black and white thinking, self-harm, manipulation)
- Histrionic (exaggerated emotions, inappropriate behavior)
- Narcissistic (high levels of jealousy and arrogance, grandiose behavior)
Cluster C (anxious or fearful disorders)
- Avoidant (social avoidance, social inadequacy)
- Dependent (psychologically dependent on others)
- Obsessive-compulsive (rigid conformity to rules, obsessing over details)
Personality disorders are clustered in these ways because there are common traits that people with personality disorders in the same cluster experience. For example:
- people with personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder (cluster B) may seem to be highly-emotional and attention-seeking,
- people with paranoid personality disorder or schizotypal personality disorder (cluster A) can bedescribed as suspicious, withdrawn and irrational.
Causes of Personality Disorders
Research has demonstrated that although there may be some genetic predisposition towards developing a personality disorder, in most cases the biggest cause of personality disorders is severe suffering. This may include traumatic experiences, abuse or neglect and in most cases, this is experienced during childhood, when the personality is still developing.
Does the Bible Talk About Personality Disorders?
Since personality disorders weren’t properly recognized until the twentieth century, it may seem impossible for the Bible to contain references to, or mention characters with them. However, Renewal Christian Treatment & Recovery has actually identified a couple of biblical characters who exhibit symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).
Specifically, the “stubborn and rebellious son” in Deuteronomy 21:18 shows signs of having ASPD, and Gomer in the book of Hosea exhibits symptoms of BPD.
However, the Association of Biblical Counselors describes personality disorders from a biblical perspective:
The so-called “Personality Disorders” (i.e. paranoid, narcissistic, etc.) are simply descriptions of long-term behavioral, emotional, interpersonal, and thought patterns developed by an individual over a period of time. The Bible clearly articulates the influence of depravity and sin on a person’s behavior, thinking, and feeling. Therefore the influence of the “law of sin” must be a focal point for individuals citing these labels (Eph. 2:3). Following the flesh always leads to further corruption, death, and darkness (Eph. 4:22-24, Rom. 8:5).
Hope for Healing
Dr. David Powlison, of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF), points out that while psychiatry often considers severe personality disorders like borderline personality disorder (BPD) to be virtually untreatable, Christian counselors have a different perspective. Secular therapists may give up on clients with BPD, but Christian counselors can lead people with personality disorders to a deeper relationship with Jesus.
The solution for so-called untreatable personality disorders is to bring Christ to the center, as Powlison explains:
“The people who get this label [Borderline Personality Disorder] are really stuck. These are deep, deep weeds to live your life in. You can also see that the solution, in Christ, (can and does, when genuine) cuts as deep as the problem. Because in BPD you are the center of a world that is wholly misshapen. When Christ becomes the center, the world starts to take on a completely different shape.”
Christian counseling offers a kind of hope for people with personality disorders that secular counseling fails to provide. Where secular counseling regards personality disorders as a fixed problem that can’t be changed, in Christian counseling there’s recognition of the inexplicable power of Christ to completely transform lives.
A Biblical Counseling Approach
Let’s look at a personality disorder from each of the three clusters but from a biblical counseling perspective.
Schizoid Personality Disorder
In psychiatric terms (DSM-5), those suffering from Schizoid Personality Disorder are reclusive, unsociable, loners who find relationships with other people almost impossible. From a biblical perspective, however, at the heart of schizoid personality disorder is self-absorption.
In other words, a person with schizoid personality disorder has made an idol out of themselves and everything in their world centers on themselves. They are cold and unsociable because other people do not matter to them.
This kind of personality disorder can be a challenge even for experienced Christian counselors because there needs to be a radical change in the way that the person thinks and behaves. For a long-lasting change, the sufferer needs to choose to love God more than himself and serve others as Jesus did.
Borderline Personality Disorder
Perhaps one of the most commonly-known personality disorders, Borderline Personality Disorder causes people to feel empty, experience rapid mood swings, and exhibit extremely disordered patterns of attachment. Suicidal threats are frequent, although only 10% of people with BPD will complete suicide.
In biblical terms, a person with BPD has a self-seeking way of life, is prideful, depends on other people instead of on God, and has a sinful view that other people should rearrange their lives to meet the BPD-sufferer’s needs.
In this case, the root issue is that the person with BPD’s identity revolves around their disorder. Therefore, the goal must be to put off this identity and put on their identity in Christ:
Throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. – Ephesians 4:22-24
Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder
It’s important to recognize that Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder is NOT the same as obsessive-compulsive disorder. People with an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder tend to focus so much on details that they achieve very little, don’t have time for friends, and are very self-critical.
In biblical terms, an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder is a manifestation of ungodly fear. In Christian counseling, the goal is to change the focus from fear to God, as well as identifying sinful behavior that has resulted from ungodly fear.
Christian Counseling for Personality Disorders
While secular counseling is rarely successful in achieving lasting change, a biblical focus on changing patterns of thinking and behavior so that God is placed at the center of the person’s life is much more effective.
If someone that you care about is struggling with the symptoms of a personality disorder, Christian counseling can be the solution you’ve been searching for. Healing is possible when Jesus truly becomes the center of the world for people with personality disorders. Only He can break the patterns of destructive thoughts and behaviors at the heart of personality disorders.
David Powlison, “What Hope of Healing Is There for Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder” ccef.org/resources/video/what-hope-healing-there-someone-borderline-personality-disorder renewalchristiancare.com/2013/04/02/does-the-Bible-offer-a-treatment-for-personality-disorders/
Association of Biblical Counselors, “General Personality Disorder Criteria” christiancounseling.com/resources/general-personality-disorder-criteria/
“Moods”, Courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Angry Woman”, Courtesy of Liza Summer, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Devotions”, Courtesy of Tima Miroshnichenko, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Prayer”, Courtesy of RODNAE Productions, Pexels.com, CC0 License