I saw Sarah on an emergency basis because her regular therapist was out of town. Fifty-five years old but prematurely aged, Sarah plopped her average-height frame down on the couch as if filled with lead. Gray, anarchic hair fanned out from her deeply creased face, which held two of the most troubled eyes I’ve ever searched. They were steel-blue, windowing a hopeless soul, a sunless, frigid slate-blue heart without the slightest tinge of cheering yellow. Hopeless people always seem to feel a certain inner chaos, so Sarah’s eyes boiled even though cold. It was as if her dark lashes and bushy gray brows restrained something violent.
“I’m alone in the world! My son, in whom I’ve invested my whole life, just moved out. He was 33. My husband left me years ago, and my son was all I had. Just yesterday we argued—we do that a lot—and he got angry and packed his things. He said he felt . . . trapped.” She spit that word out like a rusty nail. Its truth probably accounted for the bitter taste.
I felt the impulse to explain how much Jesus loved her, but her secular Judaism and my profession’s prohibitions kept me from direct proselytizing. Besides, a sermon would have been seen as an invitation to argue religion. No, it was my privilege to gently, gingerly coax this woman’s thinking toward hope, which lies in the same direction as God anyway.
I began by saying, “It sounds like you’re really lonely now that your son is gone.”
“I’m so lonely I want to die!” she said, tears beginning to flow. Appropriately I checked for suicidality: Did she have a history of suicide? an intention to kill herself? a plan to do so? means? No, no, no, no came the answers, to my relief.
Then I asked, “Where do you think your loneliness comes from?”
A little confused, she guessed, “From my need for people in my life. I have no one.”
“All people feel that need,” I said.
“But they have friends, loved ones, family!”
“Not all of them do. Some are as lonely as you. Actually, I’ve been there. I’ve been lonely,” I confessed.
Sarah’s face brightened. “Really?” she asked.
“Yes, at times,” I said. “But I started thinking about that loneliness and realized that whoever created me put within me that need for love. And whoever created me must have a way of filling the need, too,” I continued.
“But people aren’t very loving.”
“Exactly. Doesn’t the Creator know that? So there must be a contingency plan when human relationships fail us, don’t you think?”
“I see what you mean. People may fail us, but that doesn’t mean we’re unloved. The need for love is evidence that it must exist, somewhere . . .”
Before my eyes Sarah’s brow relaxed. She inhaled fully for the first time and leaned back in her chair. My message wasn’t a Pauline exposition on the saving blood of Jesus, but it was a first nod toward the existence of a loving Creator, and it was healing in its effect. Far from being a professional liability, my spirituality was a powerful and effective tool.
Jesus called Himself “the Truth.” Carrying Him into sessions, enshrined in my heart, I hold more than a set of beliefs called “my religion.” I hold the Truth in my heart. I hold Reality there. Truth, reality, is for everyone. Truth transcends and surpasses religion—which is why Jesus didn’t enter into religious banter with such people as the woman at the well. He told her the truth about herself and about Himself, and she proceeded to have a religious experience (see John 4).
Psyche, Psuche, and Soul
People who love the gospel, the Bible, and Jesus should never criticize “psychology.” They might criticize secular psychology, or humanistic psychology, but psychology itself originated with God. He beat all the secularists to the punch by producing, through His apostles, prophets, and poets, a volume that speaks more pointedly and powerfully to matters of the soul than any has since. And that’s just it. “Psychology” simply means the study of the soul, from the Greek psuche, “the immaterial part of man.” Likewise, “psychotherapy” is the healing of the soul. The great theorists of secular psychology at their best only palely reflect the depth, breadth, and precision of the Bible on these subjects. It brims with teaching on the nature of, and solution to, our mental, emotional, and spiritual diseases. It is the Book of psychology books.
Believers submit all secular ideas to the Word of God for final approval. While the Bible is by no means an exhaustive manual on the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, its light illuminates our minds and guides our journey through all the sciences. It serves as our God-given sieve, used to strain out the impurities of the world from our spiritual drinking water. Believers can confidently engage in the study of social sciences because they possess this screening tool.
A wonderful female mentor taught me to respect the Bible by never placing anything on top of it. Her counsel so impressed me that I have followed it carefully for many years. Only recently did I see the symbolism in the act: that the Bible is above all else in authority and excellence.
This is what I call “biblical psychology,” or more warmly, “Jesus psychology.” I entered academia with the premise that the Bible contained a more accurate, beneficial, comprehensive, and effective system of psychology than could be found anywhere under the sun. Several years of studying Freud, Jung, Adler, Skinner, and Ellis found me unshaken in this belief. In fact, the insights of the great minds of psychology only reinforced my faith; I could see how heavily these men borrowed, and that “man’s words, if of any value, echo the words of God.”1
There was a time I thought secular psychologists spouted nothing but meaningless gibberish and vapid ideology. As I bored into the five-foot-high stack of textbooks I was obliged to read during my studies, I realized how hard these people had to think to develop their meticulous—and at times elegant—theories. Plenty of times the depth and cogency of secular theories impressed me. It still amazes me how much effort we humans put forth in fixing ourselves without God.
Or is it without Him?
Another reality struck me—that nothing these great minds churned out was truly original. Job wondered: “Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts? or who hath given understanding to the heart?” (Job 38:36, KJV). Like plagiarists altering the original work enough to market it under their name, the theorists worked off the biblical framework; I could see its shadow behind the veil of human reasoning. Fortunately for them, God didn’t copyright, and they won’t be sued. At least this side of eternity they won’t.
The ideas of secular psychology possess more power because of the presence of truth within them. Pure error wouldn’t entice anyone. Error is made palatable with truth in the mix. Because of this, some gobble up secular psychology to the detriment of their faith. One danger awaiting us is this indiscriminate use of information.
An equal danger is throwing out the Bible with the babble. There is biblical truth woven throughout the teachings of psychology, and the enemy leads some people to reject that truth because of its context. But hasn’t sacred history proved that God followers have blind spots, that important truths are often neglected or even buried? The Jews missed such truths—the part about the Messiah, for one—and God determined to “provoke them to jealousy” by giving the gospel to the Gentiles.2 God has often used secular movements to stir Christians to embrace what they had in their possession all along.
Some so-called discernment ministries, obsessed with the thrill of cursing the darkness, ever uncovering some shocking heresy, would better spend their energies telling us what helps, what heals, what works. While they publish bad tidings of evil things, the multitudes languish for God’s saving message of inner healing.
The Faith-Psychology Spectrum
So how does secular psychology relate to the Bible? Here are several schools of thought and my position on each:
Secularism regards the sciences as provable, substantive truth, and the Bible as a myth. Secular psychology rests on a humanistic, atheistic foundation. Freud rejected basic Judeo-Christian concepts such as sin and grace, developing a new vocabulary purged of these ideas. Many secular theorists pathologized religion, regarding it as an expression of neurosis rather than a cure for it. For instance, Freud suggested that religion was a way of controlling the Oedipus complex—the irrational jealousy of boys for their mothers’ affections, leading them to fantasize about dismembering their fathers!
A deeply spiritual friend of mine once developed severe anorexia, which landed her in an inpatient facility. Her doctor, working from a Freudian perspective, assumed that repressed sexuality lay behind the eating disorder. When he attempted to get my very-religious friend to talk about sex, she felt uneasy. “Where’s Jesus in all this?” she’d ask.
“I don’t care about Jesus!” he’d cry.
Another friend attended a three-week inpatient program in order to process childhood abuse. At one point in group “therapy,” the clinician got down on eye level with him and shouted, “You’re a religious fanatic!” And throughout the program expletives were freely used in reference to religion. One group exercise involved beating a large pillow with a stick after first naming it whatever the individual happened to resent. One participant named the pillow “Jesus” and proceeded to attack it. My friend was more traumatized by this “treatment” than the original abuse!
Secular psychology is, at its heart and by its origin, humanity’s attempt to fix itself. It would naturally harbor a certain resentment of God as an invader, and religion as a competitor. It’s no surprise that at times this spills out in irreligion, sacreligion, and even blasphemy.
The field of psychology has begun to exhibit a newfound respect for religion. For one thing, “political correctness” insists on respect for individual faith (theoretically at least). For another, reams of social research prove the benefits of faith and church membership and activity. Karl Menninger said: “Religion has been the world’s psychiatrist throughout the centuries.”3 Thankfully, mental health providers more and more embrace the possibilities that faith has to offer the healing process. The ethics codes mandate that psychotherapists accommodate the religion of their clients—to the point of networking with witch doctors if the clients happen to be animist, or psychics if they are spiritualists. Thus, one would assume that the field would have room for the Christian faith as well.
But often the tolerance doctrine as promoted by secular humanists pans out to be a thinly veiled antipathy toward, and irrational bias against, biblical Christianity.
I saw this lack of objectivity during my master’s studies when a professor spoke of a married couple she counseled. The man pushed the wife into multiple affairs, getting some perverted thrill from his wife’s sex with other men. Ultimately he became insanely jealous, however, and the marriage unraveled. After a detailed explanation of this unraveling, the professor said reverently, “I couldn’t say anything about the couple’s open marriage, because it was working for them.” What? Working? In what way was it working? It blew up in their faces. Yet muzzled by “tolerance,” the professor failed to warn them of a very real danger. This is what I mean by irrational bias against biblical Christianity. Advocates of tolerance will sometimes blind their eyes to scientific proof and even common sense rather than admit a truth that happens to be found in the Bible. This is where “tolerance” is really selective tolerance, which is no tolerance at all.
This approach professes Christian belief but completely detaches the social sciences from the Bible. It is thought that the Bible holds authority on matters of salvation but becomes useless in dealing with mental illness, and has little or nothing to say about mental health in general. In this thinking, God gives us our ticket to heaven, but matters of psychology are better left for experts, meaning mental health professionals. This creates an unnecessary—and impossible—division between the spiritual and the psychological.
A bulimic client came to me after seeing a Christian counselor who failed to address faith. The client responded quickly to a few Bible studies on the love and goodness of God. The grip of the eating disorder began to weaken as the client became more intimately acquainted with the gospel. The counselor had missed a vital “therapeutic option” by failing to tap into the client’s faith.
Sometimes counselors avoid religion because of the client’s unhealthy relationship to it. I see why. One person I tried to help had been sexually abused as a child by a very religious father who used God-talk to force her into submission. One can only imagine the negative associations developed between the idea of God and severe trauma in such a situation. For a time I avoided religious terminology, but my ultimate goal was to help her correct her concept of God, rather than reject God entirely. It’s true that dysfunction spawns from religion—false religion. A spiritually attuned therapist helps a client correct toxic core beliefs, including core beliefs about God.
I’ve worked for social services agencies doing wraparound care, in which I was confined to using behavioral interventions and prevented from “preaching religion.” Although I admit religion flowed out of me occasionally, for the most part I prescribed self-help techniques devoid of faith. I found it heart-wrenching at times, not to mention less effective than it could have been. Change requires power, and that power comes from heaven. To shut spiritual power out of one’s life is to starve the psyche.
I can hold the Bible as the supreme authority without discarding everything secular science has to teach me. A biblical view of psychology submits everything to the test of Scripture, sorting the good from the bad like an apple picker. Inspired principles guide the culling process, cutting a path of light through the wilderness of human ideas. Professionals in this camp sometimes call themselves “cautious integrationists.”
You may have guessed this is where I plot on the faith-psychology spectrum. From the Bible I get principles that guide my study of science. And God has given human beings some valuable, helpful things—medications, modalities, methods, and the research behind it all. In my practice I use such things as cognitive-behavioral techniques, emotional intelligence exercises, the Johari window, and various group and marriage therapy techniques. I have nothing against techniques and methods as long as they aren’t used to discount God and His grace.
Our knowledge of Scripture gives us a distinct advantage. Given enough years and research dollars, science done right will eventually prove what’s right with psychology and disprove what’s wrong with it. But there’s no need to wait: God has given us, in His Word, a sneak preview.
Jesus “knew all people” (John 2:24) and knows today what makes you tick. More than this, He wants “above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth” (3 John 2, KJV) as He “heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:3).
1 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1913), p. 423.
2 Romans 11:11.
3 Karl Menninger, Man Against Himself (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1938), p. 393.
Originally published in the Adventist Review, used with permission.