Most of us trust our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. If we hear something, we assume it to be real. Imagine someone telling you that what you feel or heard wasn’t real. Would you be inclined to believe them? Probably not. And the more they tried to convince you that you were crazy, the more you might see them as trying to deceive you.
That is a little piece of the world of those who experience psychotic symptoms–where they believe, feel, hear, experience things that others deny are real.
So, what is happening when someone comes to believe they are Jesus Christ in the flesh? What is happening when someone hears a voice telling them that they should die?
1. Misinterpretation of feelings and perceptions. I walk into a room and the hair of my neck rises. Does it mean that there is a lot of static electricity in the room? That I’m nervous in crowds? Or that someone is beaming thoughts at me? One explanation is that I’m mis-reading the data.
2. Mis-firing of neurons in the perception areas of the brain. I know that isn’t exactly the scientific language we ought to use but it is true that certain electrical stimulation of the brain leads to perceiving smells and sights that are not real. Elevations of dopamine and other neurotransmitters are possible causes of psychosis.
3. Real supernatural experiences. It is possible that spiritual forces are at play and the person is hearing what is being sent to them. Now, whether those forces are telling the truth or not may be the question the person ought to entertain. Further, labeling these symptoms as supernatural does not necessitate a supernatural response (e.g., casting out demons). Deception may be broken by basic Christian responses (e.g., prayer, submission to the Word) and by medications.
As a Christian psychologist I believe all three are at play in any disease. We are individuals with broken bodies that do not work right. We are mis-perceiving and vulnerable to deception. I cannot say for sure that someone who believes themselves to be a prophet is lying. However, if they are not evidencing the fruit of the Spirit in their lives then I do question the validity of their identity.
Counselees experiencing intruding sensations and perceptions can break their influence when they are able to attend to other “data”. For example, “I feel others are out to get me but I will live as one who trusts in the Lord rather than in my ability to prove to others that I am in danger.” “I will not use violence or rage to be heard.” “I will not isolate in order to be safe.” “I feel like God has me here for a special reason but I will not neglect caring for my children nor abuse those who do not think I have a special calling.”
Counselors will find more success joining counselees, accepting their reality, rather than merely attacking their beliefs. It is possible that my counselee is a prophet but I can still encourage them to faithful work, love, and honor of those around them.
[Note: I’m not covering the issues of medications, hospitalization, and other psychiatric treatments in this post. These are important and not merely ancillary to the care of those struggling against psychotic symptoms. I am only musing on the possible causes of delusions and hallucinations.]