Essential oils: Use spiritual discernment

By Mike Miller

Aug 01

Part 3 of a series. The first two part  are here and here.

By Michael Miller

eosMahlon Zehr likes essential oils. Really.

His family uses peppermint oil for colds, for instance. He regards the use of that and other essential oils as “perfectly legitimate.”

But when Zehr, a pastor in Oregon, recently encountered an email making the rounds in his denomination that promoted a certain “vitalist” use of essential oils, he felt he needed to respond. He was concerned because the original email appears to try to dismiss concerns that certain approaches to using the oils might be “New Age” or pagan in nature.

It’s not an isolated concern.

Zehr and other essential oils users urge Christians to use spiritual discernment when encountering certain applications or explanations of the oils.

“The thing that is dangerous is where we get into the idea of trying to manipulate some kind of ‘vital energy’ or ‘universal energy,’” Zehr says. “The easiest or quickest way to pick out those questionable practices is to be on the lookout for certain buzzwords.”

Common ones, he says, are:

  • “Chi” or “qi,” a Buddhist term for energy.
  • “Life force.”
  • “Energies” or “life energies.”
  • “Universal force” or “universal energy.”
  • “Spirit energy.”
  • “Innate intelligence” or “vital force.”
  • “Prana,” a term from Hindu mysticism.
  • “Clearing” or “aligning” chakras, frequently through acupuncture.
  • “Magnetism” or “electromagnetism” used in the sense of a theoretical force that “flows” through the universe.
  • “Meridians,” analogous to your blood vessels or brain pathways through which energy supposedly flows.

Even mainstream companies selling essential oils use new-age sounding terminology in their descriptions, such as “visualizing,” “centering,” “spiritual connection,” “deeper spiritual awareness,” “energy alignment,” “mystical self,” and “sacred sex.”

Donal O’Mathuna, co-author with Dr. Walt Larimore of Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, says that while use of essential oils in itself has no spiritual connections, “volatile oils have often been used in spiritual practices.”

“The problem is not with the volatile oils, but with the way these can be used to subtly or deceptively involve people in other spiritual practices,” he says. “They can be used to create a comfortable atmosphere in which people are introduced to meditation, visualization, and other spiritual practices.”

O’Mathuna urges Christians to “remain alert to all that is happening when engaging with aromatherapy.”

“Questions should be asked of any practitioners involved regarding everything that will happen during aromatherapy,” he says. “When massage is involved, ask whether this is purely a physical massage or whether the practitioner is interacting with ‘life energies’ or any other form of spiritual power.”

There are also problems with claims that the oils will have an emotional impact.

“Claims that aromatherapy is effective in the treatment of sicknesses that have spiritual overtones (such as anxiety, depression, fear, and guilt) raise serious questions for Christians,” says a 2004 article in Triple Helix, a magazine of the Christian Medical Fellowship in England. “Spiritual sickness may indeed require treatment with a spiritual dimension; yet, for Christians, this should be based on Biblical guidelines and led by God’s Holy Spirit. Examination from both medical and Christian perspectives indicates that aromatherapy is not to be recommended.”

Christians who sell or promote the use of essential oils try to work through all of the counterfeit spirituality. Stacy McDonald, a Samaritan Ministries member who distributes Young Living products, says she’s frustrated by New Age marketing terminology.

“In a lot of ways, the whole integrative health industry has been hijacked by New Age and Eastern mystics, so it’s hard to sort through a lot of information without running into (New Age applications),” she says. “Right now, New Age practitioners are the ones who mostly use them. Until that changes, you’re going to see that language in the literature.”

She and her husband, Pastor James McDonald, believe, however, that as more Christians get into the essential oils market, that situation will change. More scientific involvement will help Christians sort through the “New Age garbage,” too, Stacy says. She suggested using books by Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt such as Medical Aromatherapy to get a more scientific view of the subject.

One way to get Christians more involved in the use of essential oils, she thinks, is to focus on them as part of God’s creation.

“Herbs and oils are gifts from God,” she says. “He gave those to us at creation, like it says in Genesis 1:29, ‘I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth.’ The New Agers and eastern mystics embrace the gifts but reject the Gift Giver. We Christians rightly embrace the Gift Giver, but we devalue the gifts by placing them below man’s wisdom.”

She also points out that Ezekiel 47:12 and Revelation 22:2 describe leaves of trees as useful for healing, pretty apt since the main source for most essential oils is leaves.

In the end, the use of essential oils comes with the same caution that everything else in the world comes with for Christians: Use discernment.

“Ask those questions,” Mahlon Zehr says. “‘How does this product work?’ or ‘How does this process work?’ If a person selling a product or giving the treatment appeals to universal energy, then I would feel that’s a place where Christians shouldn’t be involved. We’d be opening ourselves up to spiritual attack.”

Next: How the medical community views essential oils.