Christians and the Application of Psychology by Dr. Barbara Sharp

Mar 28, 2023 | Biblical Principles

As a Christian, while earning my doctorate in psychology, I was apprehensive about accepting all of the psychological theories presented to me during my studies. Everything presented to me was weighed against Scripture, my only infallible guide for faith and practice. Many Christians are perplexed about “Christian” psychology: should it be accepted wholeheartedly, used with caution, or rejected entirely? Truthfully, I think some of the theories put forth in psychology were inspired by the Bible, but the glory was not given to God, but to secular humanism. Secular humanism places an extreme emphasis on human potential and self-actualization, eliminating all needs for God. According to the American Psychological Association, psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. Human development, sports, health, clinical, social behavior, and cognitive processes are a few of psychology’s many sub-fields of study. Biblical principles, on the other hand, place a strong emphasis on the human heart because it is from this place that issues in life arise.

The Bible is full of descriptions, explanations, and prescriptions. Psychology, as an academic discipline, produces valuable data and explanations for human behavior. Secular psychologists and those who follow the teachings of the Holy Scriptures found in the Bible have similar interests, emphasizing aspects such as the human spirit, emotions, perceptions, human behavior, perspective on suffering, and human potential. The result is healing and wholeness but by which methodology? Where Christians and secular scholars differ in their research and theories is whether Jesus Christ can be the solution we so desperately seek.

Psychology 101 introduced me to the core principles of the psychodynamic approach, Freud’s method for treating mental illness and explaining human behavior. Freud believed that events in our childhood have a great influence on our adult lives, shaping our personality. He emphasized the importance of the unconscious mind, believing, herein lie the processes that are the real causes of most behavior.

Freud believed individuals are often negatively influenced by their unconscious content without realizing it. He perceived that psychiatric disorders were the result of this effect. We frequently neglect to pay attention to what lies beneath, focusing instead only on the visible symptoms. Because of this psychodynamic approach, this writer cried to the Lord, “Show me the root!” This psychological theory sparked a desire in me to examine my formative years in more detail.

On the other hand, Freud attributed paranoia and neurosis to religion. Research asserts that psychiatry has a long history of throwing off religious practice and questioning it. Religion has often been viewed as irrational, outdated, and dependency-forming by mental health professionals in Western societies, and as a source of emotional instability.

Another pioneer in the field of psychology who intrigued me was Erickson. Like Freud, Erickson believed that our personality develops in a series of stages. He theorized that social interactions and relationships play a major role in the development of the self. There are eight stages of Erickson’s psychosocial development. The stage that captured my attention was the first stage; the infancy stage, where infants/children begin to learn to trust or mistrust others based on the consistency of their caregivers. I recognize this stage as the most critical period in one’s life because it shapes our view of the world and our personalities.

Another theory that piqued my interest was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is comprised of a five-tier model of human needs. When examining this pyramid of human needs my eyes immediately fixated on “belongingness and love needs.” I wondered why.

Consider Counseling Boulevard, a street where you can go from one therapy shop to the next. You discuss your ongoing issues with anxiety and depression in each store and hear about the over 600 top-name psychotherapies that are currently available. However, it becomes confusing because nearly every store provides a different remedy. According to one therapist, you have low self-esteem and need to feel better about yourself. Another explains that you are depressed because of your distorted way of thinking. Another person claims that you exhibit all of the symptoms of repressed memories and trauma. A therapist, like a doctor, bases diagnosis and treatment on what he or she believes is the source of the problem. However, because secular psychologists do not agree on the problem, their treatments differ greatly. There is no such thing as standard psychology or therapy.

According to the Bible, the effects of sin on the soul are the root of all human problems. Unfortunately, the Holy Bible is not one of the references in therapy shops. In the measured tones of academia, humanistic psychologists and psychiatrists urge people that sin is obsolete and that we should not be concerned with it. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine how they could discover the appropriate treatment. They approach problems from various perspectives, but one thing they all have in common is that they all begin with a biblically flawed view of man’s nature, namely, that man is fundamentally good and capable of solving his problems apart from God. Since the fall into sin, the human race has faced serious problems.

If having a personal relationship with the living God, as well as studying and applying His Word, weren’t enough to address these issues, and we instead needed the insights of modern psychology to address them, then God had abandoned people for the previous 2,000 years until Freud and company came along to save the day. Unlikely, indeed! God who went to such lengths to save us from sin would not abandon us to the ways of the world to find solutions to our most profound problems (Rom. 8:32).

As a trained secular mental health professional, I value the biopsychosocial model of human nature and believe that we can learn about the mind, thoughts, feelings, attachments, and psychosocial development from many branches of psychology. However, I cannot reduce all pathology to a biopsychosocial model of human nature. The Bible states clearly and repeatedly that most problems are based on sin, bitterness, and unforgiveness. I firmly assert and believe, that the principles found in the Holy Bible are sufficient to address one ‘s root causes and that there are no “new” problems for which Christ is insufficient.

The mission of Jesus Christ and his followers is written in the book of Luke: proclaim the good news to the poor; heal the brokenhearted; proclaim freedom for the captives; release from darkness the prisoners, and comfort all who mourn. In his sovereignty, God permits trials in every life, some mild and some severe. Some people have horrific childhoods, and physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, that cause deep emotional wounds. The question is, where does a person turn for healing? God’s word repeatedly says that our healer is God himself. I believe that the Bible is completely adequate for the role of counseling and that it is superior to any approach that the world has to offer to believers and unbelievers alike.

The Bible contains numerous stories about godly, influential men and women of faith who struggled and battled their way through dark times of emotional and mental distress. Though the Bible doesn’t use the word “depression” except in a few translations and verses, it’s often referenced by other similar words, such as “downcast,” “brokenhearted,” “troubled,” “miserable,” “despairing,” and “mourning,” among others.

King David was troubled and battled deep despair: In many of the Psalms, he writes of his anguish, loneliness, fear of the enemy, his heart cries over his sin, and the guilt he struggled with because of it. “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear,” David penned in Ps. 38: 4.

Elijah was discouraged, tired, and afraid: after great spiritual victories, this mighty man of God feared for his life and fled. He sat in the desert and prayed, defeated and worn, that God would take his life. In I Kings 19:4, Elijah cried, “I have had enough Lord. Take my life, I am not better than my ancestors.”

Jonah was enraged and wanted to flee when God summoned Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh. He fled as far as he could. Jonah obeyed God after being swallowed by a great fish. Even when God reached out to Jonah again with compassion, he responded, “…I am angry enough to die.”

Job endured great loss, devastation, and physical illness. This righteous man of God had lost everything. His agony and tragedy were so great that even his wife exclaimed, “Curse God and die!” Though Job maintained his faithfulness to God, he still questioned, “Why did I not perish at birth,” “I have no peace, no quietness, I have no rest, only turmoil,” “I loathe my very life,” “Terrors overwhelm me…my life ebbs away, days of suffering grip me.”

Jeremiah struggled with feelings of loneliness, defeat, and insecurity: Jeremiah, also known as the weeping prophet, was constantly rejected by the people he loved and reached out to. Despite being called by God to preach, he lived and ministered alone, and was poor, mocked, and rejected by his people. Jeremiah demonstrated great spiritual faith and strength, but we also see his honesty as he struggled with despair and a sense of failure. Jeremiah 20:18 says, “Cursed be the day I was born…why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow…”

Even Jesus was troubled by what lay ahead of Him: He knew what was to come. God had called Him on a journey of great tribulation. Jesus was willing to pay the price for us, but it wasn’t an easy path. According to Isaiah, Christ would be “a man of many sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Throughout the night, alone in the garden, Jesus prayed to His Father, pleading with Him for another way, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death…”

All of these stories, and many others, including this one, have one thing in common: God was present; close; nearby. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit,” the Bible says in Psalm 34:18. He was present in both the good and bad times. He didn’t shame them for their concerns and anguish. He reached down into their deepest pit of agony and pulled them out. He was concerned; he was compassionate, he was merciful, and he brought hope. He instilled purpose and provided the victory. God will never waste our suffering seasons but will use them to bring good, instill purpose, help others, and strengthen us.

Every day, as a Christian working as a clinical social worker in a secular profession, I am exposed to secular programs that do not produce long-term results that demonstrate changed lives. I see a revolving door of clients, many plagued with self-hatred, unforgiveness, phobias, fear, disappointment/anger with God, anxiety, and psychosis. Despite the use of social media connections, an abundance of material things, and an increase in mental health awareness and support, the modern world is in the grip of a mental health crisis, and spiritual/biblical components are rarely considered viable solutions.

Belief and practice of Scripture and the Bible are among the most influential differences in the fields of secular psychology and biblical principles. Several years ago, I had to take a graduate-level course called Spirituality, Religions, and the Helping Tradition, which focused on how spiritual and religious perspectives affect the strengths of individuals, families, and groups. More recently, attention has shifted toward the study of the term spirituality. Researchers say that spirituality is the core of what it means to be religious, in the traditional definition. The term was used to describe persons who are profoundly religious and who lived a life dedicated to and surrendered to the Divine. However, the modern concept of spirituality has become much broader, covering those deeply religious people and those who are not deeply religious, and those who are not religious at all (i.e., secular humanists). Spirituality has become largely self-defined and can mean almost anything a person wants it to be.

As stated in his article Demon Possession and Mental Illness (Cook, 1997) it is recognized that psychiatric conditions, as well as a wide variety of so-called ‘somatic’ disorders, are of a multifactorial etiology that involves both psychological and social, as well as physical components. For example, if people can become depressed as a result of bereavement or physical illness, why can’t they also become depressed as a result of demonic interference in their lives? Surprisingly, according to a Barna survey, the majority of Christians believe that spiritual forces such as demons or evil spirits can influence people, even though many of these same people believe Satan is merely a symbol of evil.

The four gospels offer numerous examples of Jesus casting out demons. When Jesus did deliverance, it was never a strange or hidden part of His ministry. He never went to the “basement” of the temple and closed all the doors. He did it in broad daylight and often with a crowd looking on in amazement. It was a normal part of His ministry as He showed us the Father’s desire to bring healing and wholeness. So why should spiritual factors not play a part too? We must bear in mind a truly holistic view of the human condition, involving both spiritual and psychological, social, and physical dimensions.

No doubt others will ask, “Why is your religion the answer?” There are approximately 4300 religions around the world, according to Britannica. Various religions have different beliefs and worship systems from primitive times. Each religion with its belief system has consequences for mental health and illness. I am committed to Jesus Christ’s teachings found in the holy scriptures. In John 14: 6, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. He also states in Luke 4:18 “The spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor: He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.

My position is that the secular approach does not promote dependence on the Lord, salvation, or sanctification. Secular methods do not address what I believe to be the underlying cause of pathology (separation from God). Some may argue, “I tried Bible study, prayer, and obedience, but it didn’t bring me relief from the pain of my childhood. Why not use psychology to help resolve this pain?” I have to wonder if you truly followed God’s Word. To say you followed God’s Word but it “didn’t work” is to accuse God of breaking his promises. Turning away from the Word in favor of the ostensible wisdom of secular humanism is akin to rejecting the living God in favor of empty cisterns that hold no water.

The Holy Bible identifies the root cause of human problems in our culture of endless therapies. Genesis 1–3 emphasizes the issue of sin against our Creator. Indeed, any truly biblical approach to human problems must start with these foundational chapters. Unlike the world’s shifting theories, these chapters speak the absolute truth about mankind’s needs. The Word of God is sufficient for life and godliness and equips us for every good work. “Everything about life and godliness,” without a doubt, includes our emotional or psychological well-being.

The Bible is its own authority, and it always defends itself as truth. The Bible provides numerous insights into how intimately God is involved in His people’s emotional and mental lives. Consider the list of the fruit of the Spirit (“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” Gal. 5:222-23), which describes an emotionally balanced and psychologically stable person. Why use modern psychology when God’s Word and Spirit can accomplish the same thing?


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