For many years, Psychology and Christian Spirituality were seen as being in opposition, having nothing to do with each other. In Christian circles Psychology and therapy were frowned upon by many. Some Christians held that all we need for guidance and healing in our lives can be found in the Bible, so a good Christian has no need to go elsewhere. If you are anything like me, you love, respect and submit to the scriptures while at the same time realizing it does not address every issue under the sun. The Bible is about God, what He has done and what He will do. It is not about us. The Bible is not a self-help book. Though we can certainly treat it as one by looking for specific verses that speak to our specific issues, sometimes twisting scripture to awkwardly fit our situation.
I believe that the Bible speaks wisdom into many life experiences and issues. We see how to appropriately express anger and grief through the many lament Psalms, the book of Lamentations and the book of Job. We see how God interacts with various types of people and we see how even the most faithful people in the Bible fail and struggle (see David, Moses, Paul, Peter…..and almost every other Bible character!).
When Psychology and the Church are at odds with each other, so much richness and depth is missed. I believe God shows His truth through other means such as other people and nature. I believe Psychology and therapeutic concepts bring to light truths originally found in scripture. It is not always bringing up alternative ideas but often ideas backed up by scripture! For example, in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, a core idea is the paradox that in order to change, a person needs to be accepted just as they are. Compare that with Romans 5:8 which says, “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We see that God did not wait for us to be perfect to engage in relationship with us just as DBT therapists as well as pretty much all therapists are trained to have unconditional positive regard for their clients, no matter what they have done or what their issues are.
I know that my study of Psychology and therapeutic theories has helped me to understand myself and therefore, God better. My faith has increased as I see how truths in scripture play out in the real world, in the messiness of people’s broken lives. Psychology is not the enemy of faith but has the potential to be an amazing enhancer of faith.
John Calvin once wrote, “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.” Similarly, Thomas Merton wrote, “A humble self-knowledge is a surer way to God than a search after deep learning.” In addition, David Smith creator of Theoddysey, a rich and in depth spiritual formation study, writes, “It is possible to have a comprehensive grasp of the Bible and yet be entirely estranged from God. We can study and learn about God at the highest levels of academia, and yet never give him the consent of our hearts.”
We cannot compartmentalize ourselves or separate our secular from our spiritual self. God requires our whole self. But how can you give God your whole self, just as you are if you are unaware of who your are and why? As these men above explain, we can have all the head knowledge about God and still lack an intimate, life changing relationship with Him. We can hold beliefs about loving others even when it is hard but treat people horribly. We can cognitively understand that God loves us no matter what but still feel crippling shame and low self-esteem when we fail or don’t seem to measure up. This breaks my heart. God does not want us living a lie. He wants us to live in reality because that is where God lives. If we believe what He says about Himself, we know He already knows everything about us. So trying to hide from Him is a pretty useless endeavor anyways.
What is difficult as Christians is that it is so easy to over-spiritualize our problems, traumas and wounds. Over-spiritualizing is a way of denying or minimizing a great pain in our lives under the guise of being super spiritual and faithful. But its not, its dishonest. For example, maybe someone grew up in an abusive home, heard the Gospel as a young adult and surrendered their life to God. They may experience a transformation and then tell themselves, “Yes my childhood was rough, but now I have a new family in Christ and He has taken away all my pain!” While that could be possible, and you do have a new family in Christ, the effects of your childhood trauma will remain. Maybe they will go underground for awhile, eclipsed by the spiritual ecstasy your new faith brings, but it is still there. Whether we acknowledge our trauma and difficult emotions or not, they still impact us. And if we are unaware of them, they can even impact our relationship with God.
As I have explained in previous blog posts (See Change Your Thoughts to Change Your Life), we all have a lens through which we view ourselves, others and the world around us. It is also the lens through which we view God. Our experiences and relationships impact the beliefs we develop. These beliefs color the way we see God and can unfortunately distort our image of Him.
I once had an elderly client who was uncertain of her salvation. She believed that as Christians we gain salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross not by what we do. Despite this belief, she worried about her salvation, also believing that she was not good enough to be accepted by God. This distorted belief is way too common among Christians. A core belief of Christianity is that we cannot earn our salvation. If we could, God would not have come to earth as a man and died a horrible death. And the reality is that we are not good enough to deserve God’s grace. But that is why God gives us grace-unmerited favor- because he knows we cannot be perfect enough to earn our right standing with Him. And He loves us anyways. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith– and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Anyways, going back to my client: As we worked together, we uncovered a great deal of shame and self criticism. As we went further, she revealed that her father was incredibly harsh and critical of her. After months of working together, I asked her, “What do you think God thinks about you?” She said something about Him loving her but also keeping track of what she does or doesn’t do and getting disappointed with her. A huge light bulb went on for me and I told her, “That sounds almost exactly the same as how you describe your Father.” She looked at me shocked for a moment, buried her face in her hands and sobbed uncontrollably. She had never made that connection and couldn’t see how her experiences with her Father distorted her ideas about God and her relationship with Him.
We might have a hard time believing God is there for us because the people who are supposed to be there for us the most, parents, siblings, spouses, etc, haven’t been. We may subconsciously rationalize, “If my own parents didn’t care enough to show up for me, why would God?” The good news is that God is not our parents or any other person we have met. He is perfect in every way, unlike the humans around us who will fail us in one way or another. It can be difficult to grasp this, however, since the only tangible relationships we have to base our understanding of relationship with God, are with humans.
Another major distortion Christians can hold and and that can keep them from seeking emotional health is that struggles are a sign of weak faith. We can get messages both directly and indirectly that if we have bouts of anxiety or depression, or explosive anger or any other “bad emotion” then we are not trusting God enough. Yes the Bible says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6, ESV). Jesus also talks about worry, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25, ESV). Both of these passages, however, are talking about worry and anxiety about material possessions and provision. The words translated as worry and anxious in both passages are the same Greek word meaning, “to take thought or to be troubled with cares”. This seems to focus on anxious thinking which we do have some power and control over if we know how to change our thoughts. Unfortunately, we often generalize these passages to all kinds of anxiety. These passages are not talking about the anxiety and panic someone who has a history of abuse feels when they get a trauma reminder or someone who has an overactive nervous system. Often anxiety like this is very involuntary as its a natural, automatic response of the brain to tell the nervous system to get ready to fight or flee when it feels threatened. When someone with this kind of anxiety hears the advice, “Don’t be anxious! Just pray!” it only makes them more anxious because they think they are praying wrong or that God does not hear them or, even worse, that God does not care. In addition, it heaps shame on them. We cannot just slap Christian band-aids on deep emotional wounds. If someone is highly anxious, they need to bring that to God and explore why that is. Chances are there is a deeper healing that needs to take place.
Feeling low or depressed is seen throughout the Bible. Its pretty incredible that Christians can still see depression and other emotional struggles as a lack of faith or someone not being right with God. One of my favorite passages is 2 Corinthians 12:7-10:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’. . . That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
This is written by the Apostle Paul who wrote the majority of the New Testament. He gave his life to sharing the truth about Jesus and sacrificed status, comforts and his own safety for the sake of the Gospel. Yet, he has this “thorn” that will not go away. He prays for God to remove it, and God does not. So maybe when someone is struggling and God is not removing their struggles we should think before assuming its because of a moral failure or lack of faith on their part. The Philippians passage I quoted earlier continues, “And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). It does not say, “And God will give you what you want” or “God will take away your struggle.” God never promises that we will never have problems. Instead He promises to be with us while we face those problems. I believe God wants us to be as healthy and healed as possible. This may require looking at some painful stuff. Our anxieties and depressive episodes are often symptoms of something that God wants to heal in us whether it is past trauma, distorted thinking or painful childhood experiences. This is why it is so important to bring our “weaknesses” before God. If we bring our whole selves to Him, He can work with us. If we continue to keep some parts of ourselves off limits, His healing power will be limited in our lives. If we are quick to judge any negative emotions and stuff them down instead of acknowledging them to ourselves and God, we stay hidden.
So all of this sounds great in theory, but how do we actually live the truths of our faith out in an honest and emotionally healthy way? Here are some ways to begin:
- Become more aware of your feelings. Print out a feeling chart if you have a hard time putting words to what you feel. Talk to God about what you felt throughout your day and be curious about why certain emotions came up when they did.
- Look for any distorted beliefs about God. Some common ones are, “I know God loves everyone, but not me”, “I have to earn God’s love”, “God won’t really give me good things”, “I can’t fully trust God”. Again, be curious, not judgemental. God already knows your thoughts and He won’t be offended when you acknowledge them.
- Go to a Spiritual Director and/or Therapist who understands your faith background to start going deeper into these feelings and beliefs. It can be helpful to have a guide and to have someone on the outside since it is often hard to see ourselves accurately.
If you want be more honest with God and yourself for the sake of becoming more emotionally and spiritually healthy, give me a call or fill out the contact form below. God loves you and wants you to be free from anything that keeps you from experiencing that love fully. I would be honored to walk with you as you heal and transform more into the person God wants you to be.