Following on from the last 2 posts discussing the various teaching points of Dr Caroline Leaf at Kings Christian Church, here is my final post on the points that she raised. Tonight, I conclude by proposing that in equating ‘toxic’ thoughts with sin, she seriously weakens her own argument, or she flirts with heresy.
TOXIC THOUGHTS ARE SIN
Probably the most disturbing of all she discussed was her point blank statement that, “Toxic thoughts are sin.”
This is an astounding claim, and it was said in such an off-handed manner. It was like she threw a grenade and calmly moved on. Her claim not only has psychological ramifications, but deep theological connotations.
Her statement has the effect of ADDING to the stress response of her audience. Indeed, it sets up a feedback loop of self-perpetualising existential distress – the spiritual struggle switch. Crum et al (2013) showed that negatively framing the concept of stress leads to an increase in the subjects stress response. What could be more stressing that telling a christian that they have sinned every time that have had a persistent stress? More stress is then equated with more ‘sin’ which then gives rise to even more stress. And so the cycle continues.
She then attempted to redeem her statement by declaring that we can transcend the guilt from the sin of stress, because her 21-day brain detox program would fix it. But on the surface, it seems an arbitrary premise. Inducing guilt to then offer to fix it is like a supermarket marking up a price so they can claim to offer a discount when they reduce it again.
More importantly though, in making the link between stress and sin, she brings herself undone. She either unravels her entire argument, or she flirts with heresy. Because if a thought process which results in prolonged or severe fear/stress is a sin, then Jesus himself sinned.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, the gospels record that Jesus, the spotless lamb of God, about to be crucified for the sins of all mankind, was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34, Matthew 26:38), and became so distressed by the ordeal he was about to endure that he literally sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:44).
Where do you think Jesus was on the stress spectrum according to those accounts? I’d wager that it wasn’t “healthy stress”.Rev Bob Deffinbaugh wrote that,
“Jesus spent what appears to be at least three agonizing hours in prayer.” He also noted that, “Never before have we seen Jesus so emotionally distraught. He has faced a raging storm on the Sea of Galilee, totally composed and unruffled. He has faced demonic opposition, satanic temptation, and the grilling of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, with total composure. But here in the Garden, the disciples must have been greatly distressed by what (little) they saw. Here, Jesus cast Himself to the ground, agonizing in prayer.” (https://bible.org/seriespage/garden-gethsemane-luke-2239-46)
There is no other way to explain it – Jesus suffered severe and prolonged mental anguish to the point that it had physical effects. By Dr Leaf’s definition (Leaf 2009, p19), Jesus had “toxic” thoughts. So the crux is: either toxic thoughts and emotions are sinful, in which case Jesus was a sinner and our salvation is invalid, or toxic thoughts and emotions are not sinful, which directly contradicts her teaching.
There is at least one further example from the life of Jesus that significantly weakens Dr Leafs definition of ‘toxic’ thoughts. In her book, Dr Leaf states, “hostility and rage are at the top of the list of toxic emotions”, and that “Stress is the direct result of toxic thinking.” (Leaf 2009, p29-30)
In John 2:13-17, it says, “When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
So Jesus saw the sellers and the money exchangers, then in a pre-meditated way, took small cords and fashioned a whip out of them, then proceeded to use that whip to violently and aggressively overturn the tables of the merchants and spill the money of the money changers. John adds a post-script – “Zeal for your house will consume me.” So Jesus wasn’t mincing words. He drove them out of the temple in a rage.
Again, was Jesus acting in sin? Of course not. Instead, perhaps God has designed normal human beings to experience rage, anger and stress – emotions that are not curses passed down in genetic material and are not learned behaviours as a result of our sin nature.
Further, God himself displayed anger. God also made us in his image, and in his likeness. Dr Leaf stated that we were designed to function in optimism and love, and again, negative emotions like anger and fear are learnt from living in sin. Yet it is interesting that God the Father regularly kindled his wrath, and smote Israelites or their enemies (Numbers 11:33, Deuteronomy 11:16-17, and in 2 Kings 23:25-27, “Notwithstanding the Lord turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked him withal.”)
If God regularly displayed anger throughout the Old Testament, and Jesus displayed it in the New Testament, then anger and rage can not be the perversion of God’s ultimate design as Dr Leaf proposes.
Therefore, ‘toxic’ thought is NOT sin, because Jesus suffered prolonged mental stress and anguish and he did not sin. Emotions that are deemed to be toxic by Dr Leaf and her definition are not toxic, since both God and Jesus displayed them and they did not and do not sin. Such a suggestion is incongruent with the Christian faith.
We were made in the image of God, so therefore we mirror all the emotions of God, which includes anger. This shows that Dr Leaf’s proposals and the assumptions on which they are based, are incongruent with a logical interpretation of scripture.
In conclusion, Dr Leaf has been gathering quite a following. From the pulpit at least, her claims of evidence of studies from peer-reviewed sources have been lacking. From what I saw on Sunday last, her reputation is excessive, her arguments unsupported and her theology is questionable at best, dangerous at worst.
Personally, I would welcome Dr Leaf’s response to these posts. I have written these posts over a few days from her teaching at one church, so perhaps I have misunderstood her. I have not been able to go through all of her books in such a short time, so she may have references to her teaching. But she needs to clarify each question that I’ve raised and respond with current peer-reviewed science and sound theological resources.
Crum, A. J., P. Salovey and S. Achor (2013). “Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response.” J Pers Soc Psychol 104(4): 716-733.
Karatsoreos, I. N. and B. S. McEwen (2011). “Psychobiological allostasis: resistance, resilience and vulnerability.” Trends Cogn Sci 15(12): 576-584.
Leaf, C. (2009). Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. Southlake, TX, USA, Inprov, Ltd.