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.