March/April 2002

Just What Do You Mean
Christian Psychology?

by Doug Trouten

According to a recent Gallup Poll, more than 60 percent of Americans say that if they need mental health assistance, they want to see a counselor with spiritual beliefs and values. But finding that counselor may be harder than you think. A different study found that while 72 percent of Americans view religious faith as one of the most important factors in their lives, only 33 percent of clinical psychologists feel that way.

The Christian world isn't exactly at war with psychology, but the relationship is at best a tenuous truce. Some Christians believe that psychology is nothing more than man's effort to solve his own problems apart from God, and that Christian psychology is a contradiction in terms. But others see psychology, like modern medicine, as just another tool God can use to bring healing.

Sometimes Christians are reluctant to seek psychological help, believing that if only they had more faith, their problems would disappear.

Christianity vs. Psychology

Clinical psychologist Dr. Willard F. Harley, author of the best-selling His Needs, Her Needs and the most recent Fall in Love, Stay in Love, has first-hand knowledge of the uneasy relationship between psychology and Christianity. "When my Dad went into psychology it was viewed by his church as Satanic," he recalls. "Even though he went to Wheaton College [an evangelical school] to get his degree in psychology, he was kicked out of his church."

That attitude has changed, but that change is less than two decades old. Dr. Randolph K. Sanders, executive director of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, recalls, "We reached a point in the late '80s where you could say in some ways that Christian counseling came into vogue, and maybe a great part of how that happened was through the self-help literature that was out there. If you went into a typical Christian bookstore in those days, a lot of the shelves were filled with books written by Christian psychologists, professional therapists, marriage and family counselors or whatever."

Still, even today, some influential Christian leaders insist that psychology has no place in the life of the believer -- that Jesus is the only "counselor" a Christian should need, and that all of the answers to life's problems can be found in the Bible.

To that, Dr. William Backus, author of the bestselling Telling Yourself the Truth, says, "People make assertions like that and attack others. But all truth is God's truth. A lot of it is there in Scriptures, but there are truths we need to live by that aren't in Scriptures, like traffic laws and so on."

Harley agrees, "For somebody to say that all the solutions to marital problems are found in Scripture is as absurd as saying that all of the solutions to our electrical problems are found in Scripture."

Scripture Alone?

Dr. Don Johnson, chair of the psychology department at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota, says, "Years of clinical research shows that there are issues in common with ADHD, with major depression, with anorexia," explains Johnson. "You're not going to find a specific treatment modality -- that has been shown to be successful over the years -- in the Bible. The Bible may provide an umbrella, but it's not going to give you the specific mechanics for a special population. That's not the purpose of the Bible."

Sanders agrees. "I certainly think that the Scripture has pride of place in our hearts and our minds and should be the basis on which we live our lives. At the same time I do think there are understandings and insights that have come from psychological research that helps us both affirm and fill out what we understand as Christians. If I have something wrong with my gall bladder, I would want to seek out the assistance of a surgeon, and perhaps my general practitioner, as well as my pastor, understanding that God can use the abilities of people from several fields."

Johnson notes that problems such as late acquisition of speech in children or dyslexia can be treated successfully by developmental psychologists and educational psychologists.

Pastoral Counseling

While people from several fields might eventually be involved in confronting a mental health problem, for the Christian person seeking help, a pastor is often the first call. That's fine -- as long as the pastor recognizes his own limitations and knows when it's time to refer somebody to a qualified mental health care professional.

"Studies have been done suggesting that pastors are one of those front-line groups of people in helping people with mental health concerns," says Sanders. "That's one of the groups people are most likely to go to first. But in the great number of cases, pastors are not equipped to deal with this. Most pastors have not received extensive training in counseling during their seminary work. While it's really appropriate for the pastor to be involved as a front-line person in this, quite often a person who goes in to see the pastor may need to see someone else as well."

"It depends on the pastor," adds Backus. "There are people who don't have the slightest idea what they're doing in counseling. There are others who are fairly sophisticated in knowing how to help others. A lot of that you're born with -- there are people who just haven't got the personality type to be good counselors, and there are others who can be excellent counselors with very little training. They just have the skills to care about people and be careful not to push them around with legalism."

"When people have medical problems, they should go to their family doctor," explains Johnson. "The family doctor can say, 'I can take care of this,' or 'I'd better refer you to a specialist.' It's the pastor's job, I think, to know their limits and when to refer."

Johnson continues, "Clinical psychology can deal with issues that are very imbedded in one's personality; where the client has no idea why they do what they do. The cause of their issues is unknown. The therapist's job is to help them gain understanding of what's going on within them and then help them restructure the way they think, feel and act. There's a difference in depth."

Many seminaries offer students some counseling training, but a pastor is unlikely to have had specialized training in treating psychological problems such as depression -- perhaps the most common condition that leads people to seek pastoral counseling.

"Treating depression is a highly complex specialty," explains Harley. "It's like a person going to the pastor for a broken leg or something. Do they know anything about his illness? Does it help anybody to tell them to read the Bible more often and turn their depression over to God? Does anybody ever get helped when you tell them that? No -- nobody gets helped. It doesn't solve anybody's problems. And yet that's what pastors are telling people. Unless the guy's been trained, the best he can do is refer you to somebody who has been."

Harley hasn't always felt this way. When he started practicing, he emphasized the spiritual approach almost to the exclusion of modern psychological principles. Since then, he's come to a more balanced view on the role of spirituality in mental health. "Spiritual problems in general do not cause mental problems. There are lots of people who are out of the will of God who are just happy as a clam. And there are a lot of people who are born-again Christians who are so unhappy they can hardly live another day. The thing that got me to this point was trying the spiritual approach and knowing that nobody ever got better."

What Values?

Taking a spiritual approach to counseling doesn't guarantee success, but that doesn't mean that Christians shouldn't look into the values and beliefs of a counselor before beginning therapy. While we don't necessarily look for Christian plumbers or Christian auto mechanics, psychological care is different.

"There's such an interface between the Christian faith and what goes on in the counseling room," says Sanders. "One of the primary areas in which that is true is the issue of values. An example might be the couple who comes in and is interested in getting some marital counseling. What will be the counselor's response after he or she hears the nature of the problems? Some counselors are much more ready to hit the divorce button if they hear different things, but you're much less likely to hear that from a Christian counselor."

That's certainly the case in Harley's practice. "I certainly try to keep marriages together," he notes. "[Some] therapists will break up a marriage to cure depression -- and to be honest it sometimes works, but you're achieving an objective by violating a value. There's more at stake for a Christian counselor. A lot of Christian counselors aren't highly skilled in helping a person get over their mental problems, but they are good at impressing them with their values. On the other hand secular people can get the job done, but sometimes at the expense of their values. To find somebody who's a good mental health professional with Christian values can be like finding a needle in a haystack."

Seeking out a psychologist with Christian values may be hard, but it's important for one's spiritual health, says Backus. Secular psychologists aren't likely to tell their patients to abandon their faith, but they will still have an influence. "In hours and hours of contact with a therapist who has only secular beliefs, you'll find that you'll pick up that way of looking at problems. He won't say God won't help us, he just always uses secular approaches, and the client will imitate that. It's been demonstrated that clients tend to pick up the values of their therapist if they have successful therapy. It's also true that an awful lot of therapists have different values than the average evangelical Christian."

Even if a non-Christian therapist doesn't change a patient's values, the therapy may not be as effective as it could be with a therapist who shared the patient's spiritual outlook. "A person coming in to talk to a psychologist knows that they'll be talking about deep personal issues. If faith is a part of their deep commitment, they're going to want to have that accepted," says Johnson. "There's nothing like knowing that someone can really understand where you're coming from. That's the job of a clinician: to help the patient understand where they're coming from. We call that therapeutic alliance.

If you have similar values, that's a plus for the client. Research shows that clients will feel better toward a counselor when they know the counselor shares their values. So I would say that when possible, people should seek out somebody that shares their faith values."

Reluctant Christians

Sometimes Christians are reluctant to seek psychological help, believing that if only they had more faith, their problems would disappear. Sanders encourages such people to see counseling as another means God can use to bring healing. "One of the things we sometimes do as Christians is narrow the opportunities by which God might help us. One of the ways I think God can impact us is through counseling. It's not the only way, but counseling represents one more way the Lord can help us."

Johnson concludes, "We're going through this process called life, and the Bible says that as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. The idea that we don't need people is about as anti-Christian as we can get." 

Doug Trouten is the President of the Evangelical Press Association.


Shouldn't Christians be able to solve all their problems through prayer, Bible study and counseling with pastors and other mature Christians?

The spiritual truths of the Bible -- salvation, forgiveness and spiritual healing through our Savior, Jesus Christ -- transcend all ages. Yet changes in society since the Bible was written have created problems that are not extensively addressed in the Bible. Some problems require help from a counselor with specialized training.

Other people can handle their problems, so if I just try harder, won't I be able to handle my problems too?

Comparing yourself with how others seem to be coping is not fair to yourself. Emotional problems are often deeply rooted in our past and can also be biologically induced. All people do not share the same past experiences, and all do not have the same abilities to cope with problems. You may need help handling problems that others are able to deal with on their own.

Isn't psychology the secular humanist's way to cope with life without God?

Yes and no. One of the traditional fields of hostility between Christianity and psychology revolves around the belief in God and the concept of moral absolutes. Yet thousands of Christians have entered the field of psychology and are qualified practitioners. Many integrate their faith with their practice. As with any major decision, Christians should educate themselves and use discretion in finding an appropriate psychologist or counselor.


A Short Glossary of Professional Psychologists

Psychologist -- a general term meaning a specialist in human behavior. Some psychologists are not trained or state licensed in counseling or therapy, even though they may hold masters or doctoral degrees. Psychologists may specialize in many areas -- education, industry and law enforcement -- to name a few.

Clinical Psychologist -- a psychologist with a Ph.D. or Psy.D., licensed to practice therapy. Typical services of a clinical psychologist include assessment and measurement, diagnosis and treatment within a broad range of populations.

Psychiatrist -- a medical doctor trained in treating psychological problems caused by medical disorders. A psychiatrist can prescribe psychotropic medication as well as provide talk therapy.

Psychoanalyst -- a doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist and licensed counselor who has undergone a personal analytic experience and received extensive supervision of his or her own analytic work with patients. Usually requires 5-10 years to complete psychoanalytic training after completing university work.

Therapist­used in the context of psychology, a broad term to define a specialist in conducting therapy. Therapists may or may not have a degree, and depending on state requirements, may or may not be licensed. Therapists may specialize in behavior-based treatment, cognitive therapy, insight-oriented therapy, marriage and family or child therapy.


 Common Psychological Therapies

 INSIGHT THERAPIES  A variety of individual psychotherapies designed to give people a better awareness and understanding of their feelings, motivations and actions, in hope that this will help their adjustment.
 PSYCHOTHERAPY  The use of psychological techniques to treat personality disorders.
 PSYCHOANALYSIS  The theory of personality developed by Sigmund Freud as well as the form of therapy he invented.
 PERSON-CENTERED THERAPY  Carl Rogers' non-directional form of therapy calling for unconditional, positive regard of the client, to help the client become fully functioning.
 BEHAVIOR THERAPIES  A therapeutic approach based on the belief that all behavior, normal and abnormal, is learned and that the objective is to teach people new, more satisfying ways of behaving.
 COGNITIVE THERAPIES  Psychotherapies that emphasize changing a perception of a life situation as a way of modifying behavior.
 COGNITIVE THERAPY  Therapy that depends on identifying and changing inappropriately negative and self-critical patterns of thought.
 GROUP THERAPIES  Psychotherapy in which clients meet regularly to interact and to help one another achieve insight into feelings and behavior.
 FAMILY THERAPY  A form of group therapy that sees the family as at least partly responsible for the individual's problems and that seeks to change all family members' behaviors to benefit the family unit as well as the troubled individual.
 COUPLE THERAPY  A form of group therapy intended to help troubled partners overcome their problems of communication and interaction.


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