Hypnosis, Hypnotherapy and the Christian Faith

In our society which grows more secular every day, a culture that theologians now describe as post-Christian, you may wonder at the inclusion of such a distinctively focused section on a particular religious faith.  The fact that I live and practice in one of the most multi-cultural communities in the United States may cause you further confusion at my taking time to pen this section.  My marketing friends may be mumbling that I am breaking that old adage about avoiding the subjects of religion and politics in conversation.

Let me ask you to indulge me on this topic, though, and I certainly understand if you skip ahead to other topics – this section is not a building block to other sections.  There are, however, several reasons for its inclusion.

First, when I initially considered hypnotherapy for my behavioral changes, I wanted assurance that I was not compromising my faith.  I do not think that I had ever read an article or heard a sermon that specifically condemned hypnosis.  Nor does Scripture speak to hypnosis as we know it today, as it does against seers, soothsayers, and astrologers.  It may be that I, with my lack of knowledge and understanding of hypnotherapy simply lumped the practice in with these biblically-condemned practices.

Legalism in Christianity is defined as making something a sin that the Bible does not declare as sinful.  In retrospect, I believe that is what I had done, even though I had never taken the time to logically consider my thought processes concerning hypnosis and its usefulness.  Before submitting to the hypnosis, I needed to assure myself that I would not be dancing with the Devil nor dabbling in the occult.

Second, if you too are a follower of Christ or of some other faith, you may have the same questions that I had.  Does the practice of hypnotherapy in any way counter the teaching of your religion?  If so, maybe my journey will be of value to you.

Third, we often condemn those things that we do not understand.  As I put hypnotherapy into context, I may be able to help you check your initial gut reactions against hypnotherapy and make a more reasoned consideration of the practice.  For the most part, I will be “preaching to the choir” here.  While this section will be of value to all readers, I write with my Christian brothers and sisters in mind, particularly.  

If I were a Christian coming to this section, my first question would be “What qualifies this author to even address this issue?”  The second question would be, “Doesn’t he bring a bias to the discussion born of his profession and his need to make a living?”  Both questions are fair and reasonable.

Please notice that my name is not followed by a Th.D, a D.Min, a D.Div. or anything else that indicates an educated, professional prowess.  I am not a seminarian, nor an ordained minister.  I hold no formal degrees in Bible or in ministry; however, I am not devoid of any authority to address these issues.  As the apostle Paul found it necessary to set out his credentials to the Philippians and to the Jews (Phil 3:4-6), I too will share with you my faith credentials, but not because I find it necessary.  I realize that my works are but “filthy rags,” and that my righteousness is found only in the gracious act of Jesus Christ.

As the old gospel song states, “I am just a sinner saved by grace.”  Raised by a devout mother, I professed my faith as a young fellow, and I have never looked back.  In college, I began the discipline of daily Bible reading which I continue today.  I have read the Bible cover to cover innumerable times (well in excess of fifty times, I would estimate).  Today, my practice is to read five chapters each day, three from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament.  For those keeping score, that gets me through the Bible about one- and one-half times each year.

I have supplemented my Bible reading with many of the great works of the Christian faith, including Augustine’s Confessions, Luther’s Bondage of the Will, and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (yes, all four volumes).  Other favorites include works by or about Charles Spurgeon, William Carey, Jonathan Edwards, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, John MacArthur, J.C. Packer, John Wesley, George Whitfield, John Bunyan, John Newton, William Wilberforce, Billy Graham, and so many more. 

It has been my pleasure to serve in many different positions in many churches.  I have taught Sunday School, served on local committees, and participated on the national board of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.  I have served as the chairman of a private Christian school, on the board of a women’s resource center, and in the local huddle of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  Years ago, I was ordained as a deacon.

As part of my service, I made sure I was saturated with sermons, both written and oral, lectures, articles, books, podcasts, and videos on the Christian faith.  I wanted to serve God knowledgably, intelligently and in accordance with His word.  In Christian lingo, I am an inerrantist.

With such a background as mine, many would understand why I default to skepticism when I am presented with foreign ideas.  Maybe it is simply a good built-in defense mechanism that makes me move cautiously when confronted with new ideas.  When that cautiousness was coupled with loads of misconceptions produced by the entertainment industry and by media misinformation, I defaulted to skepticism about hypnosis and hypnotherapy, mixed with a healthy dose of mistrust, reactions particularly strong in the Christian community today.  So, what are the roots of such a distrust of the practice of hypnosis?

What follows is a quick sketch of the diverse historical roots of hypnosis and hypnotherapy that have confused Christian believers and non-believers alike. Most major scientific ideas, like gravity or astronomy, developed around one person, such as Galileo, Newton, or Einstein.  We can pinpoint a distinct starting point that leads to a paradigm shift for the scientific community.  Hypnosis, as we discussed early, has multicultural roots.  First, observations of the effects of hypnosis that have been happening for ages are now more readily understood.  Second, what we now know as internal subconscious changes had been noted, but the causations of these changes have been debated over centuries.  Cracking the code on the particular power of each person’s mind, therefore, became not only a serious debate for the wise, knowledgeable, and scientific, but also a party for fools, charlatans, egotists, and religious devotees of various stripes.  The mixing of science, opinion, and profiteering has been a recipe for a confused public.  Such convolutions exist with the developments of many advances in science, but it is most pronounced in hypnosis.

While not an exhaustive explanation, we can see three major channels of development in hypnosis that have made hypnosis ripe for misunderstanding.  In hypnosis, the results were predominate, rather than the cause.  Therefore, people saw a wide range of behavioral changes, ranging from healed ailments to attitude changes, to blocked or eliminated pain (as in hypnotic anesthesia).  These changes were mystifying, and the debates centered on developing and controlling the skills to manipulate the changes.

One channel of thought theorized that physical forces outside the body could be manipulated to change what was interpreted as a mechanical device inside the body.  At various times, people hailed magnetism as the key outside power.  They argued that a body had two poles, and that a person with problems had his magnetism out of alignment.  Passing a magnetic rod or other object over a person’s body would help align a person’s magnetism and help to bring about a cure.  Fluidists made similar claims about body fluids being out of sorts.  Developments in the understanding of electricity were naturally incorporated into treatments, as well.  Some used physical touch to manipulate the physical nature of the inward problem.  Various combinations of the applications of all of these outside manipulations added to the confusion of hypnosis.

A second channel of development focused on the operator (scientist, doctor, priest, or therapist) as the source of the subject’s behavioral changes.  When studies determined that such physical outside tools, such as magnetism or electricity, were not essential to the changes, people determined that the changes must be tied to the hypnotic operator.  Again, such an explanation still leaves the impetus for the change outside of the subject.  These operators varied in their interpretation of what would actually work to change behavior.  Some claimed for themselves extraordinary and unusual skills or gifts, an especially good talent to have if you are trying to make a living.  Another school of thought advocated strong demonstrative and authoritative control of the operator over the subject as the key.  These people would demand or order the changes or cures to occur in the subject.  Of course, these gifts and acts of dominance could easily blend together.

The third channel seems most related to our discussion of faith.  In this group, people believed in neither external mechanisms such as magnetism, nor believed in the operators’ gifts or authorities as key to change.  This particular theory seems to originate with religious practitioners who attributed a person’s healings or transformations to their deities or their rituals.  So, practitioners of witchcraft claimed their bewitching ways were at work, as did the occultists.  Within Christendom, priests, monks, and early faith healers attributed the blessings to the Holy Ghost.  Whatever the religious affiliation, early hypnosis-like activity could be attributed to the spiritual realm.

As expected, all three channels of development could easily become entwined over time.  Therefore, we could end up with a monk using magnetism, authoritatively, and giving God all the glory for any success (and possibly blaming the sinner for any failures!).  Such a range of claims could only lead to a wide range of scandals, reports of amazing failures and abuses, and scientific analyses that damned the science and stunted the hypnosis advancement.  What kept the progress going throughout the challenges and catastrophes was that real, remarkable, and verifiable results of otherwise unexplainable healings and changes were occurring.

Slowly, from all of these divergent paths, the essence of the real transformations began to dovetail.  Almost grudgingly, the focus turned from magnets, operators, and spirits toward the subjects themselves.  What did the successful subjects have in common?  In time, observers identified the trust and confidence of the subject both in the process and in the therapist as the first critical step.  While some might attribute this trust to a belief or faith element, studies showed that successful hypnosis needs only enough confidence to create true cooperation between hypnotist and subject.

That understanding of the critical aspect of trust led to the realization that the mechanism for true change actually occurs within the subject.  The individual’s mind could do the heavy lifting in altering behavior.  How that exactly works might still generate debate today, but the process is much like a complex computer.  We have learned how to structure and input the data with hypnosis, but it is the Middle Mind that configures the data for change.

In time, researchers realized the importance of relaxation in enabling subjects to enter into productive hypnotic trances.  Contrary to early practitioners who tried to drive subjects to a high level of excitement manifested by convulsions or seizure-like states, therapists in time learned that quiet calmness is essential for effective hypnosis.

In addition to the ideas of internality and relaxation, researchers also fine-tuned their assumptions concerning suggestibility.  Suggestions are the form of data that the Middle Mind uses for processing.  Trust plus relaxation and trance plus suggestion became the key formula to what would eventually become the successful science of hypnotherapy.  Therapists also discovered an additional element, at least where permanent change is concerned:  repetition.  Once change enters the Middle Mind, that change needs to be solidified through repetition.

This winding road toward a successful formula for hypnotherapy, however, has left the public somewhat confused.  Just as the new science of psychology found resistance among the public in general and the religious leadership in particular, the resistance to hypnosis stonewalled major progress.  With the confusion and the fear of the unknown combined with the strange notion of “getting into someone’s head,” reluctance to embrace the practice is somewhat understandable.

The objection from Christians to the use of hypnosis, particularly as a therapeutic tool for good, are unfounded. There is a general belief among certain sectors of the church as a whole that a stance against hypnosis is official, which is not the case at all.  The objections raised against hypnosis are not well-defined, but most seem to be centered on the prohibitions of submitting to forces other than God.

There is a sense in the Christian faith that we are to live righteously, relying on our own good sense as endowed by the Creator, and when faced with issues beyond our control, to prayerfully submit those burdens to God.  Such a practice is actually a good one!  The question arises, though, that if we are faced with a challenge and help is readily available, say an aspirin for a headache, a dentist for a toothache, or a heart surgeon for a blocked artery, can a Christian use these man-made resources?  For nearly all, except perhaps the Christian Scientists, the answer is yes.  So why is hypnotherapy not granted the same leeway?  It must be the mixed message regarding the practice historically.  Yet, hypnosis, despite its history, is moving into the mainstream, and as we embrace advances in medical treatments, it follows that we will embrace advances in psychology, as well.

Because hypnotherapy has proven to be so effective, we should embrace it as we have other medical advances.  If we can alleviate the struggle of one child who suffers from a debilitating phobia, why should we not do so?  Understanding what we do now about the therapeutic advantages of hypnosis, would we not be remiss in offering help to a fellow believer whose health is threatened by a life of obesity or smoking or drinking?  

For centuries, Christian scholars have embraced treatments that help to heal people’s suffering.  No less than Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) in addressing hypnosis stated that “the loss of reason is not a sin in itself, but only by reason of the act by which one is deprived of reason.  If the act which deprives one of his use of reason is licit in itself and is done for a just cause, there is no sin; if no just cause is present, it must be a venial sin.”  The Roman Catholic Church in 1847 decreed that “having removed all misconception, foretelling of the future, explicit or implicit in vocation of the devil, the use of [hypnosis] is indeed merely an act of making use of [means] that are otherwise licit and hence it is not formally forbidden . . .”  In short, the use of hypnosis as a tool for a just cause is not forbidden nor sinful.  Reasonable protestant scholars clearly agree.

Such a defense, however, does not suggest a Christian is to push the sovereign Lord to the side.  As with all daily activities, the Christian must find his or her way to God, seeking guidance, wisdom, and protection.  I certainly did while entertaining the idea of hypnotherapy for myself.  It is the same as if I were facing medical or dental treatment or if I had a business or personal decision to make.  Of course, every time I see a picture of myself now and see how much weight I lost or experience how healthy I feel these days, I cannot help but offer a prayer of thanksgiving for hypnotherapy, knowing what it has meant to me.  My prayer now is that God will use me as I provide hypnotherapy assistance to others.

Even through the teetering years of hypnotherapy’s development, some Christian leaders recognized the validity of the practice.  In America, some of the most famous and earliest practitioners were ministers.  In Great Britain, no less than Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, examined the practice closely and encouraged believers to learn and practice hypnosis therapy in order to balance a field being dominated (and abused) by nonbelievers.

Most faith-based objections appear to be tied to misconceptions about hypnosis and the modern practice of hypnotherapy.  Since those have been addressed in detail in prior chapters, they will not be rehashed here again.  But let us remember Robin Waterfield’s words when addressing the misconceptions that a subject is surrendering the will to another during hypnosis:  “Modern hypnotherapy is consensual, not authoritarian, and it is not the hypnotists’ purpose to rob a patient of his will, but to channel his will power towards the therapy.”

Where in the overall design of creation and in the history of man does the role of hypnotherapy actually fit?  For the Christian, the overarching message we have is one of redemption through Christ for our sin that originated at the “Fall.”  Besides the sin and separation that accompanied the fall, we also bear the curse of living in a world that is sinful, broken, and under judgment.  This state is manifested in many ways:  man’s cruelty to man, work that burdens and disappoints, disease that pains us physically, and ultimately death.  While alive on this earth, we cope.  When we are sick, we seek medicine or medical treatment.  For other issues that come with life on this earth, we manage, employing help from others as necessary.  Hypnotherapy deals with behaviors, and our behaviors are developed and programmed beginning with our first breath of life.  Just as so much of this life is corrupted, so are our behaviors.  For some, coping with stress becomes an issue.  Others experience psychosomatic illnesses – real physical manifestations without an identifiable cause.  Still others may have developed a trained response that limits skills or performances.  The behavior that made me seek hypnotherapy was poor decision-making in response to food, eating both the wrong food and too much of it.  In the perfect, natural state as God created, I would not have had these issues.  However, as a fallen man, my Middle Mind is corrupted, and I am susceptible to self-destructive behavior.  Hypnotherapy is a tool, simply one tool, that allows us to change some of these corrupted behaviors, or at least try to change them, in order to cope with the challenges brought on in the world.  To deny this tool that has repeatedly been shown to be valuable in helping people is to deny a thirsty man a cup of water.  The actual sin would be to deny fellow men the help that hypnotherapy provides.  Those that deem it unchristian either misunderstand what hypnotherapy is or misunderstand what Scripture tells us.