How valuable is understanding psychology in living a Christian life? Like, how much does it help us understand ourselves? Is the modern understanding of psychology valid (say, as opposed to pop-psychology)?
I’ve had this conversation plenty of times and it appears to be endless. I’ll break it down as easy as I can.
1) Secular psychology is useful for diagnostics and research.
While I absolutely believe Scripture is the highest court of authority as God’s sufficient powerful revelation, both for salvation and wisdom, there are “lower courts” of authority worth a listen.
Psychology says some whacky things about the human condition, particularly the causes and solutions. But two things in psychology are helpful: diagnoses and research.
While certain diagnostic labels like “bipolar” or “manic depressive” are shotgun phrases that cover a lot of things (most psychologists still can’t agree on definitions), it’s a good starting place to know how you’re diving in. Psychologists speak a specific language that others can pick up on, sort of a shorthand for an array of issues. So at least upfront, the vocabulary helps.
There are also TONS of insightful experiments of the human mind that are worth reading. Human reactions are fascinating. I’m doubtful about stuff like Myers Brigg or even IQ tests, which tend towards pop-psych, but it’s good to know experiments like Stanley Milgram, the Good Samaritan, the Eagles and Rattlers, and even the monkey prostitute.
2) Secular psychology says some dumb things, but it has a few truths that overlap with Scripture.
While a lot of models and therapy methods are more or less crap — humanism, shaping, conditioning, cognitive behavioral therapy, Maslow’s hierarchy, Piaget’s stages, Freudian psych (which modern psych pretty much ignores) — some of them have pieces of truth here or there. You almost have to reverse engineer some of these psych systems to fit them into Scripture. That creates problems on its own.
What psych calls disorders, we know as sin. What psych calls therapy, we call wisdom, accountability, counsel, or mentoring. What psych calls progress, we call sanctification. What psych calls self-actualization, we call discipleship.
You’ve probably noticed it already: secular psych covers a very shallow, surface-level understanding of the human mind. It assumes we are a chemical composition wired with animal motives that can eventually understand itself for a “fully realized” goal, which in itself is a concoction of neurons firing randomly. The Bible says we’re specifically designed, loved by the Designer, and that “fully realizing” ourselves is following Jesus to love God and love people at a cost, which goes against self-preservation.
The deeper you go, the more you see a disparity between psychology and Scripture. Psych does not answer Ultimates.
3) Psychology becomes untenable since it’s always changing; therefore deeper counseling must have a Gospel Core.
When I graduated with my Psych Major, the APA had the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders version 4). Apparently the Version 5 is coming out or already out, and a whole lot of definitions have changed over time. The DSM-IV is becoming less reliable, and itself was reviewed by peers who disagreed and/or were influenced by pharmaceutical companies. That’s not conspiracy; it’s a pretty well-documented fact.
While you can label things with psychology and find interesting research experiments to back your claims, when it comes to counseling you’ll need the Gospel. Psych falls apart when it comes to day-to-day living, because in the end it only offers drugs and coping mechanisms.
I’ve seen crazy-depressed people (not scientific terminology there) who were hooked on antidepressants come to shrug it off when they came to Jesus. This does NOT mean you will become instantly stable when you get off the meds and get on the Jesus-train. But meds by themselves do not suddenly offer a life worth being stable for.
In my biblical counseling class, a woman giving her testimony explained that she tried to go cold turkey on meds and had a breakdown, and her church counselor had specifically told her not to stop the meds. But over time she was able to wean herself off, and is now med-free. Please also note: I did not say depression-free, but she does have victory daily by the Good News.
It’s a bit sad to think psych can only offer how to cope instead of True Purpose, which we know is to follow Christ. Yet I’ll confess that psychology has helped me think with more clarity, make better connections about peoples’ behavior and motives, and open the gate to someone’s real issue. It’s a fascinating, flawed area of study that shouldn’t be ignored while also not being elevated.
5 thoughts on “Question: Christianity and Psychology Can Reconcile?”
ok. this is just too good.
I have a some words about this. I am bipolar with PTSD. The label did help me only bec I then knew what I was dealing with. That ultimate diagnosis (genetic so they say) did bring me to the Lord. I do thank him for his mercy upon me a sinner. It is a struggle at times, but I do think it keeps me humble. That is when I do get manic occasionally I then realize what is happening. At this point I would as you said, not stop my meds. I did have to resume therapy bec of and error being referred to my MD for maintenance. So back to the psychiatrist and theraphy. She has to honor my beliefs in my therapy. You know that we talk about my growing in handling my issues and The Lord being my Savior. She does say to set boundaries with people so in God’s way I do so they do not trigger my illness. I may not be cured now but, the Last Day I will be.
I realize this is 8 years too late so you very well not reply to this, but how would you say Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is “more or less crap”? Aside from it being incredibly effective for many people (myself included), I would also say its premise- challenging naturally occurring thoughts and challenging them– is very biblical. If you’re convinced you’re ugly and unworthy of love and, every time you have these horrible thoughts you challenge them with “I am made in God’s image and He loves me unconditionally” (or more specific Bible passages), that, in a sense, is CBT.
My general “Christian concept” of psychology (though it may be vague) is that psychology is made to make you as happy and at peace as possible on this earth. If you’re a Christian, some of these ideas or suggestions that may be put forth by a therapist might be unbiblical and so you’ll have to filter it out or, if you have a Christian counsellor, they’ll probably filter it out for you, because, while you want to be happy and at peace in this life, that’s not the ultimate goal and there are times you *will* have to carry your cross. (Example: occasionally, treatments are very central to the self and teach “me-first” which is contradictory to what God teaches us). I don’t think this means the science/art is incorrect but it was made for this earth and, while it can and should benefit us, as Christians we’re called to think beyond what’s just beneficial to us, if it doesn’t honour God.
Honestly, though, from my experience, most of what I’ve been taught through studying psychology in university or going to counselling since age 16 isn’t contradictory to the Bible or Christian beliefs. People just like getting upset with it because they don’t want to acknowledge that brain chemistry can be responsible for our emotions, too, and *not* the Holy Spirit, exclusively.
Hey there, thank you for sharing. You’re right, this was 8 years ago and I would definitely edit myself here. I think “crap” is too strong of a word and I was wrong to use it. CBT, mindfulness, EMDR, IFS—I’ve since learned many of these practices have value. I was way too skeptical before. I may just end up deleting this whole post.
There’s been research that CBT is incredibly effective, and at the same time is limited or even unsuccessful for PTSD.
One thing to note is that psychology is constantly changing. Which I think is a good thing. This also means that what seems to be the gold standard today may be completely debunked in a few years (It’s what happened with Freud, and it seems CBT is now being modified/changed as well). But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some value to all of it.
It’s wild what has changed for me in 8 years! Thank you again for challenging these thoughts here.
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Thank you so much for responding! I hope you know I wasn’t criticizing, I was just genuinely curious on your take because I’ve read a lot of your stuff and have so much respect for what you do. I tend to often root for the field of psychology because it’s helped me so much and I hope to use it to help other people (as well as the stigma it gets in the Christian community…. someone needs to cheer for the underdog) but I do definitely acknowledge it’s flawed. It’s a work in progress but almost every science seems to be– much of medicine is still focused on white patients and men and often the medical community aren’t aware or still don’t know of individual differences based on sex and race (as well as other factors).
I think this really shows that even the most “concrete” concepts we put our faith in in this world are flawed so it really makes no sense to die defending them as the single, purest truth.