Jay Adams and Colitis

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I really do appreciate a lot of what Jay Adams has done for Christian counselling.  In fact, in 2010, I featured him in my series “Friends You Should Meet.”  I’ve read quite a number of his books and have gained something from almost all of them.  I especially appreciate his eagerness to have the Word of God as the foundation and guide for Christian counselling.

Over the last while, I was reading his 1972 collection of essays and addresses, The Big Umbrella.  This was published two years after his landmark volume, Competent to Counsel.  In these essays, one finds the same principled approach to the discipline:  “The Scriptures must be the basis for all that is said and done in counselling” (26).  Moreover, as elsewhere, he affirms that there is really such a thing as mental illness.  It can be due to “organic problems, brain damage, chemical damage or malfunction, toxic damage, or other organic causes” (47).  In a footnote later in the book, Adams adds that some mental health issues can be caused by glandular imbalances.  Then he also says this:  “There is also a gray area of problems that are of uncertain etiology” (161).  Etiology refers to the causes of diseases.  Uncertain etiology means that we don’t know what causes it.  Adams usually deals in black and white, but in this footnote he admitted a gray area.

The chapter “Is Society Sick?” includes a note about “Sickness in the Scriptures.”  This note mentions Adams’ idea of hamartiagenic illnesses.  Hamartiagenic illnesses are those that are brought on by sin.  A classic example would be how sexual promiscuity results in sexually transmitted diseases.  You would not have caught that disease if you had not been sexually immoral.  As a category per se, I don’t think there is any reason to object to this notion.

However, later in that note, Adams mentions colitis as a hamartiagenic illness.  (What is colitis?  Click here.) The underlying cause of colitis, says Adams, is resentment.  I looked to see if Adams discusses this anywhere else.  I found mention of it in The Christian Counselor’s Manual (1973).  There Adams is discussing a hypothetical marriage breakdown involving Bill and Jane.  Adams says to Jane, “Your colitis is not the result of Bill’s wrongs toward you, but evidently has been occasioned by the sinful way in which you have handled these wrongs.  After all, Jesus did not have a colitis attack on the cross” (268).  Adams bases this view on a 1963 book by Dr. S. I. McMillan, None of These Diseases (since republished many times, also in a revised edition).  McMillan cited research supposedly showing that “96 per cent of colitis patients admitted to one hospital were dominantly resentful persons” (Adams, The Big Umbrella, 61).  Bitterness and resentment cause colitis, and colitis is therefore a hamartiagenic illness — according to Adams in 1972/73.

I read this and went a little squinty-eyed.  I’ve been a pastor for a few years now and I’ve known several parishioners who suffer with colitis and its cousin, Crohn’s disease.  I don’t recall these parishioners being particularly resentful or bitter people.  Maybe they were and just hid it well — that can happen.  But what Adams was saying just does not seem to fit with what I have observed.  Could Adams have been wrong on this?  Notice that his case was not made on the basis of what Scripture says, but on the basis of a medical study done some years earlier.

I did some further research.  I asked friends on Facebook — a very scientific way to start, I know.  Of those who responded, some were colitis sufferers and said that emotional stress can definitely make the symptoms of their colitis worse.  However, can emotional stress (including intense bitterness, anger, resentment) cause colitis? According to Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, the cause of colitis is still unknown.  However, as also mentioned anecdotally by my Facebook friends, stress of all kinds can aggravate symptoms.  Interestingly, the Crohn’s and Colitis Canada website adds that the reverse is also true:  colitis can cause stress and emotional upset.  People might get angry, bitter, resentful because of their colitis.  Research done at the University of Calgary also suggests other possibilities.   But to categorically claim that colitis is a sin-engendered illness — that really seems to be a stretch in 2016.

Perhaps it was credible in the nouthetic counselling world in 1972, but today Adams’ claim is not only rather questionable, but also potentially dangerous.  I could imagine someone reading The Big Umbrella, not doing their own research into the state of the question today, encountering someone with colitis, and concluding that they must be bitter and resentful.   Addressing them on that basis could do a lot of harm, not only to the individual being suspected of sin, but especially to the relationship between the pastor/counsellor and the colitis sufferer.  At best, when it comes to the cause of colitis, one should fall back to “uncertain etiology.”  We don’t know what causes it.  That being true, pastors and other counsellors should focus their attention on helping people cope with their colitis in a biblical, God-honouring fashion.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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