It is amazing how, in our modern day, psychologists have identified so many “mental illnesses.” Many of them seem rather benign. Others, however are truly bizarre. For instance:
∙ Standhal’s Syndrome is a psychosomatic illness that can occur when an individual is exposed to a large amount of beautiful art in a short space of time.
∙ Cotard’s Syndrome makes a sufferer believe that he or she is dead, non-existent, is putrefying or has lost his/her blood or internal organs.
∙ Celebriphilia is an abnormally intense desire to have a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a celebrity.
∙ Munchausen Syndrome happens when a person feigns, exaggerates, or creates symptoms of illnesses in himself or herself in order to gain attention, sympathy, and comfort from medical personnel.
We could go on and on with these. The point is, modern psychology has come to a point that makes it almost a laughingstock in many ways. Nowadays, anything can become a mental illness. And the only criteria is that someone identifies some behavior as unacceptable. By the same token, some things that in the past were considered mental illnesses are now seen as normal. Another problem is that the criteria for naming something a mental illness is simply the vote of the American Psychological Association. It is, indeed, a strange world we live in.
The literal meaning of the word psychology, based on its Greek origin, can be rendered “the study of the soul.” In our current day, though, the concept of soul is considerably different than what people thought of in times past. The study of psychology in modern times has almost completely been defined by and absorbed into a Naturalistic framework. As such, it has become necessary to first deconstruct the meaning of the current prominent understanding before we can reasonably construct a Christian approach to understanding psychology. The most effective way to do this is by looking at how the different worldviews approach the topic.
How Do the Four Worldviews Approach Psychology?
Naturalism approaches psychology in two different ways. The first is behaviorism which truly considers human beings nothing more than an animal with a highly evolved brain. As such, they believe it is possible to manipulate human behavior by using the proper psychological techniques. To the behaviorist, the purpose of psychology is to use techniques to eliminate the perceived mental pain of the patient.
The second Naturalistic approach to psychology is to facilitate self actualization in an individual’s life. Since this life is all that exists for a Naturalist, it is incumbent on the psychologist to help his patients achieve the highest degree of personal satisfaction possible in this life.
In both cases, the underlying premise is that there is no such thing as a supernatural reality. Thus, all of the elements that we might associate with the idea of soul are necessarily physical in nature. As such, the human sense of self-consciousness and free will are nothing more than a function of a physical brain which has evolved to a level which is complex enough to operate that way. As a result, Naturalistic psychology involves learning how to manipulate the brain in ways which do away with the pain and problems that humans seem to experience in life.
Psychology in Animistic thought relates to appeasing the spirits. It is based on the belief that all human problems are the result of spirit beings who are displeased. The cure for this is to discover which spirits are displeased and appease them through performing the right rituals and other actions.
Far Eastern Thought
Psychology in Far Eastern Thought focuses on “higher consciousness.” It is based on the belief that ultimate reality is an impersonal life force. While no personal god is acknowledged which is capable of giving us guidance and direction, it is believed that we can experience the life force within ourselves and get direction from it. The goal of human beings, then, is to gain a higher consciousness by leaning how to experience the life force within. As we do this, life’s problems disappear. As such, psychology is based on helping people get in touch with this inner life force.
The Theistic approach to psychology acknowledges a dualistic understanding of mind and body. Theists believe that a transcendent God created human beings to be self-conscious spiritual beings – beings whose core essence is spirit which is housed in a physical body. It is generally understood that when individuals have issues which trouble the soul, they relate to ones sin against God. The solution to these issues is to understand the true nature of reality and to make things right with God.
Christianity and Psychology
Obviously, our Christian faith is founded on a Theistic worldview. But it does have its own particular understanding about all areas of reality based specifically on the teachings of the Bible. As we deal particularly with the topic of psychology we can see that the Christian understanding of this topic is quite specific and has broad differences from other worldview approaches. As we examine this topic, Christians must grasp the implications of these differences if we are going to truly understand the nature of humanity.
In many ways this is a difficult topic because modern psychology is dominated by secular schools of thought which completely discount God and do not acknowledge the spiritual essence of humanity. As a result, a Christian view of psychology is going to run quite contrary to much of what modern psychology asserts. But the truth is, there is a Christian approach to psychology and we must understand it in order to truly be in a position to understand ourselves and give help to those who need it.
As was mentioned above, the essential meaning of the word psychology is “the study of the soul.” This creates a bit of a problem in most modern psychology which is based on the belief that human beings are merely physical animals. In general, an understanding the concept of “soul” carries with it a spiritual meaning. But with no spiritual part of the human person acknowledged, Naturalistic psychologists are left to define the soul as nothing more than the physical self. This automatically leads to psychological methodologies which do not address the spiritual part of the person and leads to methods of dealing with human problems which do not address the problem of sin.
As we explore the Christian understanding of psychology, it becomes necessary to focus on the nature of the human soul – particularly as a spiritual expression. When we understand that, we put ourselves in a position to effectively deal with the issues we face in our own lives, as well as to give true help to those who are struggling with psychological issues in their own lives.
So, exactly what is the soul? Essentially, the soul is that eternal part of a human being. It is the part of our personhood which extends beyond our mere physical existence. As human beings, we certainly are physical creatures. But contrary to the belief of Naturalists, there is a spiritual part of us which objectively exists beyond the physical.
Essentially, the soul consists of the faculties of thought, action, and emotion. It is the part of our personhood which makes us uniquely an individual person. It is immortal, as it is the part of us which stays intact and continues into eternity when the physical body dies.
In our current physical life, the soul is integrally connected with the body. Thus, if our physical brains become damaged, it is possible that it might affect our memory and sense of personal identity during our current life on earth. But even those who have serious problems because of physical breakdowns in the brain still have a soul which will be free of those problems once that soul is freed from the constraints of the fallen physical world at death.
Fallen Human Nature
Understanding the fact that we are eternal spiritual beings, though, is not enough to provide a sufficient Christian explanation of psychology. There is within humanity something that is fundamentally flawed which causes us to act contrary to what we know to be right. When Adam and Eve first disobeyed God, sin entered the world in a way which inserted an infection in human nature which has persisted throughout the rest of human history. This sin infection has had, and continues to have, a profound effect on our cognitive processes.
This Christian understanding of the nature of mankind has deep implications regarding the source of all human psychological problems. Using the common Naturalistic approaches to psychology, curing human psychological problems is a matter of fixing wrong thinking by using behavioral techniques. The physical body is all there is, after all. But the Christian teaching asserts that human psychological problems are not simply based on wrong thinking. Rather, they are due to individuals being out of alignment with God. Psychological problems, then, are basically problems of the heart, not merely wrong thinking and behavior. And, since human beings are morally responsible before God, the essential fix to psychological problems is spiritual, not physical.
Guilt Is an Actual Thing
In Humanistic psychology, guilt is nothing more than wrong thinking. If that is the case, it can be fixed by learning how to think in a way which discounts the acts which brought on the guilt. That is, it tries to help the person reconsider the deed in a way which allows them to drop the guilt feelings.
But that simply does not reflect reality. God is a rel person and rebellion against him is an actual offense which puts objective guilt on us. When we sin, we really are guilty of rebellion against God. That being the case, the guilt feelings that we experience when we rebel are simply the natural outworking of that guilt in our consciousness. It is the spiritual equivalent of the physical pain we feel when our bodies are injured. Christian psychology does not simply try to explain away the feelings of guilt. Rather, it points us to the means for actually correcting the problem which brought it on. It is confession and repentance to God based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which are the real cure for human psychological problems.
Most True Mental Illness is Physiological
As a result, what many secular psychologists call mental illness is nothing more than spiritual illness. This does not mean , though, that there is no such thing as mental illness. There are problems which are caused by brain damage, tumors, chemical disorders and the like. These, however, are in a different category than the problems which are caused by wrong understandings of reality and acts of rebellion against God.
The Problem of Suffering
In secular psychology, suffering itself is seen to be the enemy. As such, the entire healing process is designed to end perceived psychological pain – generally by discounting the source of the pain. But in a Christian worldview, suffering is not a problem in and of itself. In fact, it serves two very important functions.
First, as was mentioned above, suffering may be a symptom of some kind of spiritual illness. If the suffering a person is experiencing is of this type, simply coming to the conclusion that the sin is not real is nothing more than trying to mask symptoms. It is like taking aspirin to keep a cut from hurting. It will mask the pain, but will not cure the cut. If suffering is because of a wrong understanding of reality, the cure is a right understanding. If the suffering is because of sin, the only cure is to receive forgiveness.
But in the Christian understanding of psychology, there is a second important function of suffering. We understand that God sometimes actually uses suffering in our lives to bring about positive change. Sometimes God uses suffering to strengthen us or perhaps to help us develop discipline in our lives. Often, working through the struggles which cause suffering help us become stronger and more effective in various parts of our lives.
The Ultimate End of Psychology
The Christian understanding of psychology places responsibility for personal morality squarely on the shoulders of the individual and provides two positive outcomes. First, it works to right a broken relationship with God. Secondly, it gives meaning to human suffering. Rather than trying to mask the pain or transfer the guilt to someone or something else, it actually works to solve the problem.
The source of psychological problems in humanity is sin. This does not simply relate to the various sins that we commit on a daily basis. Rather, it refers to the actual objective sin that is part and parcel of our very existence because of the effects of the Fall in our lives.
God provided the actual means for that sin to be forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, we can actually be declared “not guilty” by God. As we learn to actually live a lifestyle which puts sin aside, the source of our psychological problems can become less and less.
Psychology is not merely a technique to make us feel good about ourselves. It actually points to who we are as human beings. We are more than a physical body. We are a spiritual person created in the image of God. When we allow our lives to get out of line with his purposes, we bring spiritual illness upon ourselves. The cure for this is correcting our relationship with God. As we understand our sin and receive God’s forgiveness, our spirit is cured and we are able to live life with meaning and purpose.
© 2010 Freddy Davis