Browsing Tag

nouthetic counseling


why Christians can’t trust psychology

At PCC, one of the classes I had to take was “Educational Psychology,” and I was initially puzzled that PCC had a class like that, let alone required every education major to take it. The world I grew up in has a deep, deep distrust of psychology– I can’t even number the times I heard it referred to as as a pseudoscience, like there’s no more truth in psychology than there is in phrenology. There’s an entire cottage industry inside conservative Christianity for “biblical” or “nouthetic” counseling as an alternative to secular therapy methods, which I strongly recommend everyone avoid.

When I got into the class, though, the confusion evaporated. The only “textbook” we were going to read for the class was called Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology, and the class only covered two topics: why every psychological theory about education is wrong, and how to emotionally abuse children in a classroom setting (which they called “classroom discipline”). Unfortunately, it was a class I did extremely well in.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog talking about Christian culture’s aversion to psychology– there’s a fivepart series on “biblical counseling” and an entire review series on Tim LaHaye’s How to Win Over Depression. Most of that time has been spent trying to show how that point of view is at odds with the evidence: therapy is helpful and can be an incredibly healing experience, while the “methods” that nouthetic “counselors” pursue have been demonstrated to merely re-traumatize victims and cause even more harm.

However, many Christians are willing to speak at length about why they don’t trust psychology, and most of it revolves around how they think it’s impossible to treat spiritual problems — because all mental health issues are of course really spiritual problems– without recognizing the Truth. Psychology, they say, tries to tell us that we’re fine and good and we just need to talk things out, while the Truth of the matter is that we’re not fine and we’re most definitely not good and we need repentance, not therapy.

Interestingly, I’ve never really addressed this claim. I’ve largely ignored it, because I was trying to show that Christians can benefit from therapy, and that the nouthetic approach to “counseling” is damaging and dangerous. However, the more I learn about psychology and therapy, the more I realize that these Christians are right to identify psychology as a threat to their faith system. Modern psychology and therapeutic techniques are fundamentally at odds with evangelical and fundamentalist theology.

I’m hardly the first person to notice this. Most of the Christians I knew growing up have been shouting about this as long as I’ve been alive or could remember. I just didn’t really see it the way they did. How could something capable of bringing healing and peace– backed up by rigorous study– be diametrically opposed to a theological system? All therapists are doing is helping us identify and respond to our emotions in a way that doesn’t cause more harm, and psychiatrists are just trying to find chemical imbalances so we can fix them. How is any of that opposed to Christianity?

And then I started looking into things like cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, and encountered a concept known as negative and positive cognitions (link opens a PDF). As you can see, essentially every single “negative cognition”– the side of the chart that CBT/EMDR therapy methods are attempting to counteract with a “positive cognition”– is not just openly acknowledged by conservative Christianity but actively taught as essential doctrine. Evangelicalism is trying to get everyone to believe in the “negative cognition” side of the chart, while modern therapy wants the opposite.

I am a bad person. Mark 10:18, “no one is good.”
I am shameful. Isiah 64:6, we are “filthy rags” (or used feminine pads, עִדָּה means “menstruation“)
I deserve only bad things. … basically every verse interpreted as “you deserve hell’s damnation.”
My judgement cannot be trusted. Jeremiah 17:9, our heart is “deceitful” and “desperately wicked.”
I am not in control. I Chronicles 29:11-12, God is the “ruler of all things.”
I have to be perfect. Matthew 5:48,” be perfect as God is perfect.”
I am permanently damaged. Ephesians 2:1-3, we are “dead in our sin,” and wrathful “by nature.”
I am in danger. Hebrews 9:27, we are “appointed to die” and then face “judgement.”

All of the others from the chart are echoes of these, in my opinion, and I’m sure we could all sit down and think of many more verses that are used to badger us into believing that we are disgusting worms condemned by a mighty god to eternal torment. These are ideas identified by modern psychology as being harmful to our mental and emotional health, and should be overcome– and I agree. These are also just some of the theological foundations of the Christian evangelical and fundamentalist religion. The Sovereignty of God, Original Sin, and Eternal Conscious Torment … you can’t get any deeper into the bedrock of that theological system. Contradicting these also means that you’re contradicting another foundational idea: the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture.

I didn’t see this before. To me, therapy became just a helpful tool and equally as routine and normal as getting my blood pressure checked. I left behind fundamentalist teachings about psychology long before I started looking for secular therapy, so I didn’t realize how deeply it contradicted the faith system of my childhood. And because I started interacting with more “normal” evangelical Christians who also thought therapy was a good idea and “biblical counseling” is a load of poppycock, it didn’t really occur to me to examine how the fundamental assumptions of each might gainsay each other.

I take all of this as just another indication that American Christian evangelicalism and fundamentalism are unhealthy to their core. They do not promote mental, emotional, or spiritual well-being and instead lead to lifelong damage. A few years ago I adopted what I think was Jesus’ hermenuetic: a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. If an interpretation or application of Scripture leads to harming myself or others, it is bearing bad fruit and should not be considered a credible interpretation. Doctrines like eternal torment and original sin cause harm; therefore, they should be rejected. I will prefer readings and interpretations that prioritize love and justice–not empty, meaningless wrath and shame.


Introduction to the Review Series: "How to Win Over Depression"

The poll I put up last week had Francine River’s Redeeming Love and Tim LaHaye’s How to Win Over Depression neck-and-neck almost the entire time. At the very end Redeeming Love won out by a few votes, but I’d already decided to work on Tim’s book instead. Also, I’m reading through Why Does He Do That? by Bancroft in preparation for another series I’ll be doing sometime soon, and I don’t think I can handle reading about Michael Hosea being both an abuser and a rapist in the context of a book that glorifies it.

The copy of Tim’s book that I have is the original edition published in 1974. There’s an updated and revised edition he put out in 1996, but I’ve seen a copy of the book and the changes seem to be unsubstantial– for example, in the opening illustration the woman is “attractive” and in her mid-thirties in the 1974 version, but both descriptors are removed in the 1996 edition. For this reason I’m going to be paying less attention to the specific language he uses (which he may have changed) and focus more on the big-picture problems.

How to Win Over Depression has been an extremely influential book in conservative Christian circles– in some cases, this book or books like it are the only education a pastor receives about depression, and since it echoes the common cultural myths about mental illness it’s received as reliable information.

For a glimpse of how people typically respond:

I read this book years ago and it was the key to winning over depression. Excellent book. Since then I have bought several to give to others to help them learn how to manage depression and conquer it. It’s an awesome teaching and I recommend it to everyone. [from Christian Book, September 2008]

When I picked this book up at a library, I figured it would be like all the other unhelpful books on depression I had read. However, the book was amazing! This book literally changed my life! I had been suffering from depression for 6 years and tried therapy, hypnosis, anti-depressants and had a struggling relationship with the Lord … The book opened my eyes to that fact that my self-pity was a sin and the root of my depression. The book showed me how to beat the depression by giving me details on how to change my thinking. I have been relatively depression free since reading this book. Try reading this book, it might change your life too! [from Amazon, February 2000]

This book really ministered to me when I was in the depths of my depression. I even bought a few to give away. Looking through the book now, I really wish I had taken it more seriously and heeded the advice in it sooner. My only complaint is I didn’t really care for the chapter that lists common cures for depression, such as antidepressants because it needs to be updated and reiterated that abiding in Christ and walking in the Spirit is the only true cure for depression. [from Goodreads, March 2008]

After experiencing depression for over 20 years, I was given a copy of this book by my pastor. One reading is all it took to cure me of depression. I’ve gone through many tough times since reading it and though I have been down at times, I have never experienced depression. Faith in God and the Bible were the keys for me as well as the great writing skills and wisdom of Tim LaHaye. If you believe it, you’ll live it. [from Barnes & Noble, July 2003]

Negative reviews exist, although I think it’s important to note that most of those reviews seem to come from non-Christians who are primarily reacting to the “Christian” views– it was unusual for someone to criticize the ideas he presents, shrugging them off as being “not for them.” This is one of the reasons why I think it’s important for someone like me to critique this book– I’m a Christian, and capable of separating out the parts of this book that are truly Christlike and the things that are a result of Tim’s … misunderstandings.

It’s about 240 pages long and split into 20 segments, so I’m going to do my best to cover two chapters each week, since I’m not super interested in spending half of this year on it. We’ll see how it goes, though. I might need to step away from it some weeks, and I’ll do my best to put up a review of a book I think y’all should read (for example, Rachel Held Evans’ new book, Searching for Sunday, comes out next Tuesday and it’s definitely her best book yet– and I’m going to put of a review of it next week so you know exactly how awesome it is).

Anyway, so why did I pick Tim’s book over some of the others I could have chosen? Well, first … I already owned it (it was one of the “oh, you should totally review this on your blog!” gifts) so I didn’t need to give anyone more money. Second, Tim LaHaye is an important figure in conservative Christian culture. He co-wrote the Left Behind books which made so much money Nicolas Cage himself starred in a film adaptation of them (in my opinion, he should have just stuck with Knowing as his apocalyptic movie). Tim’s also written a bunch of other self-help and Christian-life-advice style books which were also successful in Christian circles.

Here’s to wishing us all luck and endurance. As always, if you’d like to read along and have a book-club-style discussion in the comments, that would be fantastic. Multiple points of view always help.

Social Issues

learning the words: disorder

mental illness

Today’s guest post is from one of my amazing readers, Airmid. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

Having grown up in a very conservative homeschooling family, I remember certain areas in which it was simply accepted that we were right and everyone else was dead wrong. It was an atmosphere that distrusted everything conventional. Education, medicine, nutrition, politics… we believed most people were wrong. Possibly it was deliberate, possibly they were all just deceived, but either way, the conventional wisdom could never be accepted.

One of the areas where I remember this being most strongly expressed was anything remotely related to psychology. Even Christian psychology was regarded with great suspicion, and not to be trusted because psychology itself could not be trusted. In fact, I remember seeing a commercial—a rarity in and of itself, because it meant the tv was on—for a Catholic hospital advertising a treatment for depression, and the response from my mother was “it’s so sad that they proclaim the name of Jesus but aren’t offering the true solution.”

Contributed to by a number of complicated factors including family tragedies, being very overweight, and probably a genetic predisposition on both sides, I experienced several severe episodes of depression as a teenager. One in particular, lasting a year and a half, is the time I refer to as living in a black hole.

Thing is, I have to assume it was depression then. Even though I had most of the symptoms and almost certainly would have met the criteria for a diagnosis, I don’t know what to call it because I was never allowed to look for help. The message I received, whether intentionally communicated or not, was “You chose this. Yes, tragedy may have happened and you had a right to be sad for awhile, but snap out of it and pull yourself together. Don’t you see the shame you’re causing us? You have no right to be depressed. You’re just angry at God.”

And to a certain extent they had a point. To a certain extent, I was choosing to hang on to the depression. To a certain extent I was angry at God. To a certain extent. I thought it was the only thing that made me me. Looking back, I have to wonder how your child believing depression was her identity and she had to hold onto it or lose herself was not cause for even more serious concern than simply depression in and of itself.

I want to go back to the thought “you have no right to be depressed.” I believed that. I believed I had no right to the name depression and no right to call it a disease outside myself. I believed that I was at fault for being depressed because I “chose” it. Because that was the message I had always received. ADHD and every other behavioral disorder out there? Maybe real. Some of them. Certainly over-diagnosed. Depression? Suck it up and look on the bright side. Anxiety? You’re not trusting God enough. All these disorders weren’t nearly as real as the world was making them out to be. They’re taking sins  slapping a label of “disorder” on them, and suddenly the treatment isn’t discipline or prayer or trying harder and being less selfish, it’s just medication.

In some rare cases, there might be a valid point there, but all it ever did was hurt me. That mindset told me that I could never actually have a disorder. Whether it was intended or not, the message I got was that it was all my fault. Many years later, having been clinically diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and still strongly suspicious of clinical depression as well,  causing my college years to be their own version of hell, I had a conversation with my parents about the possibility of medication for treatment, since I was still a financially dependent college student. In response, my parents told me in the strongest terms imaginable that the idea was unthinkable and not only would they not support me, I would not be allowed in their house if I chose to take anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication. They emphasized that accepting a diagnosis and seeking treatment would make the disorder me. Accepting the version of reality in which I was a person with depression and anxiety would make me identify with the disorders and they would become an inescapable fate.

And in that moment, I realized with utter clarity it was a lie.

Everything I had heard up to that point made the disorder my identity. The only thing to make it separate was naming it. A name set it apart. A name made it other and outside me. A name gave it an identity as something Not Me. And with a name, I could fight it.

Without a disorder, I was fighting an unknowable opponent in the dark. Or worse, fighting myself. With a disorder, strangely, I now have hope. Because something outside of me is something I can fight. Most of all, it’s something I can have hope of beating without destroying myself in the process.