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The consolations of psychology

Monday, 23 June, 2008

So in some circles of the world, debate is brewing about the over-diagnosing/over-psychoanalysis of church people, and whether the gospel is enough to meet all their emotional needs, as well as their spiritual needs. In Part 1 of the dialogue about Steve Timmis' and Tim Chester's Total Church, Simon Flinders even writes (to Timmis),

Before we go any further, can I also say a very sincere ‘Thank you’ for your work (with Tim) in producing Total Church. It really is one of the most stimulating books I've read in a long time. I think what I found so refreshing and helpful was the combination of your utterly biblical approach and your willingness to speak honestly and challengingly on a range of topics. Your treatments of social involvement (chapter 4), pastoral care (chapter 8), spirituality (chapter 9) and apologetics (chapter 11) were particularly thought-provoking for this reader! Your book revealed some blind spots in my life and ministry which I suspect may be broad ‘Sydney’ blind spots too. For example, I was left questioning whether the speed with which I tend to refer people to counsellors/therapists might represent an unintentional crisis of confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture (p. 127).

(NB: I'm just citing Flinders as an example of where this debate is popping up, not criticising his view.)

Now, I don't want to engage in the debate; I don't have the time or the energy. But I did wnat to say something about the benefits of counselling for the Christian life—completely based on my own experience, of course, and therefore completely biased. I don't think saying that one is better than the other—that treating people with doctrine and the truths of Scripture is better than treating them with counselling or anti-depressants or cognitive behavioural therapy—because the issue is way more complicated than that. I just want to say that there are some benefits to counselling, and here they are.

(NB: I am much indebted to Kirsten Birkett's work in her article, “In Your Right Mind: Christianity and psychotherapy”, Case #9, 2006, pp. 18-23. It's an excellent article; I read it several years ago and I'm still thinking about it.)

Counselling helps you to understand yourself better

You are a unique creation in Christ. God did not create clones; he created individuals. We're complex people, influenced by our family background, our culture, our upbringing, and so on, and sometimes we behave in ways which seem inexplicable but can actually be traced back to something or other. Take anger, for example: you may know that you tend to get angry easily (as in wrathful, throwing things about the room sort of angry), but you may not know why. The Bible's answer is that you're sinful, and because you're sinful, you sin in your anger. But it cannot tell you why you specifically get angry—what it is that's setting you off. Birkett writes,

[A] person comes to the pastor with a problem—‘I'm forever losing my temper and shouting at people’. From the Bible, the pastor can clearly counsel that this is wrong behaviour, and the person should try to stop it with prayerful willpower. At the same time, tools from psychology might be very useful in that effort. The person can be helped to understand ‘What is my self-talk at the time I get angry?’, ‘What emotional reactions from my past have I not properly understood and dealt with?’, ‘What behavioural cues can I change in myself to help me control my angry outbursts?’

In this way, both the moral directives of the Bible and the psychological techniques of counselling are working in the same direction. We know that this person must try to control his anger. But if he does not understand why he gets angry, or what is happening when he gets angry, he may well be trying in a totally wrong way. Effort alone will not necessarily create right actions (although of course the Bible itself, with the help of the Holy Spirit, contains guidance). A child learning to ride a bicycle may be putting tremendous effort into pushing the pedals backwards. Some helpful instruction about pushing forwards can enable the effort to be far more effective. (Source.)

As you learn to observe yourself and understand yourself, you start to see what your anger is about. You can start to separate the hurt you may have felt from something in the past from the hurt you feel from something in the present so that your anger no longer assumes cumulative proportions. And then the next time something triggers your anger, you're better equipped to take a step back—to look at your anger in the context of all the other times when you've been angry because you've been hurt (because, after all, anger is a defence mechanism and it usually masks hurt) and react more appropriately to the situation at hand. You learn not to sin in your anger but instead to register all the emotions which are going through your brain and deal with them in turn. You learn to understand yourself better, and what has made you the way you are.

Counselling can help you sort out inappropriate guilt from appropriate guilt

This is really a continuation of the above point, only talking about guilt instead of anger. Guilt often lies at the heart of depression, the problem being that the depressed person is weighed down by unnecessary guilt. You can feel bad about the strangest things—for example, for not calling your friend, for not giving enough money to Christian organisation, for not reading your Bible or praying enough, and so on. You may even think that other people think you're a bad person for doing/not doing these things. In addition, other people may make you feel like you're a bad person for doing/not doing these things (e.g. your mum who tries to make you feel guilty for not calling).

Counselling can help you sort through all those feelings of guilt so that you learn to separate inappropriate guilt from appropriate guilt. We are all appropriately guilty of sin—of failing to meet God's standards, for rejecting him and shaking our fists in his face—but there are some things in which we are not guilty. So you couldn't get out of bed to go to church; you've been having a tough week, you've been suffering from rather severe depression, and you know that going to church doesn't earn you your salvation in God's eyes. So don't feel guilty about it. Yes, it's good to go to church and gather with other Christians and hear the Bible taught faithfully. If you were well enough, you'd probably do it. But you're having enough trouble getting dressed and feeding yourself, let alone getting in the car and driving to church. So don't worry about the church thing; just focus on getting better for the time being, and when you're up for it, come back to church. Yes, you're still a sinner, but remember you're a sinner who has been forgiven and washed clean in Christ.

Keep these things in perspective. Sort the inappropriate guilt from the appropriate guilt. Don't beat yourself up about things you don't need to beat yourself up about.

Counselling gives you extra tools in the war against sin

This point is also a continuation of my first point. Understanding yourself better gives you more tools to combat sin. Take the example of anger again: when you know and understand what you makes you angry (e.g. you hate it when people say “Sorry” but don't mean it because that's something your father used to do, and his lack of repentance hurt you), you are better able to spot triggers to your anger and you are better able to resist the temptation to sin in your anger.

It's the same with addiction to pornography. To over-simplify, often addiction to porn arises from a desire for intimacy that has become perverted and redirected into porn (images of human beings) instead of a proper relationship with another human being. If you can identify where you feel this lack and learn to confront the issue, often the temptation to look at porn becomes less of a problem. (I'm not going to say “always” because I'm not a counsellor or a psychologist; I'm just a hack basing everything on my observations of human behaviour.)

I think the Spirit works in tandem with the counselling; it's not like the two are operating in isolation. As the Spirit transforms and renews your mind, and changes you to become more like Christ, the greater awareness of yourself that you receive through counselling helps you to turn aside from sin and, instead, turn to righteousness. I think we're pretty lucky (i.e. blessed) that God also uses people who have studied the human mind to shape us and mould us into the sort of people he wants us to be—holy, beloved, perfected, and so on.

Counselling helps you to understand humanity better so that you can love your neighbour better

Of course, it's not all about you. Counselling can also help you to understand others. It often seems to me that the issues that I confront also confront others, if I'm alert enough to see the signs. For example, having lived with depression for the past five years, I've learned to identify symptoms of it in other people, along with things which might have caused it. I'm not saying that people are exactly the same—depression affects different people in different ways—but I think there are patterns that you start to see. And certainly a working knowledge of why someone would feel the way they feel is helpful when someone else sins against you. The other day when I bought my new rice cooker, I could totally see why the lady at the cashier was stressed and a bit snippy: three customers and another member of staff were all clamouring for her attention. She said to me, “Can't do everything at once, can I!” “No,” I said to her, totally empathising. “You're only one person. You can't be in two or three places at once.” And she deducted payment off my credit card, put the rice cooker in a bag and smiled at me.

See, a better understanding of humanity and what makes people tick helps you love other people better. It makes it easier to walk around in someone else's shoes. You'll know to be a little more gentle—a little more considerate—a little more patient—when you see the view from their eyes.

A final note about feelings

I think I might have talked about this before on this blog but I wanted to reiterate something about feelings. Feelings are a problem if you are basing doctrine on them. For example, God is no closer to you if you feel like he is than if you feel like he's not; you don't enter God's presence simply by feeling him because he is everywhere (and if you are a Christian, his Spirit certainly dwells within you). But sometimes we take our distrust of feelings to the extreme and say they can't be trusted at all. This isn't true: feelings are actually hugely helpful because they are signposts: they point you to something you may not have noticed about yourself.

I remember one night I was helping fold cards at church with a group of people who were also watching TV while folding. When one particular program came on, one girl said, “I hate this show, it's so stupid.” Five minutes in, she said, “Actually, it's not too bad.” 10 minutes in, she said, “This is great! I should totally watch this!” and I just wanted to throttle her. I talked about it with my counsellor afterwards and realised it's because I'm against wasting words: I value speech and communication, and I think you should use your words wisely instead of speaking without thinking. But that's something I learned about myself, not something that necessarily needed to be applied to the girl who was irritating me.

Feelings are not morally good or morally bad. People think that anger is morally bad but it's not; sometimes it is entirely appropriate and good to feel angry about certain things. I am angry about the way our country treats refugees, the torture and murder of Christians in the Sudan, and what pedophiles do to children. These are all good things to be angry about. But people are afraid of anger because of what it makes people do. We need to remember what Ephesians 4:26 is really saying—that anger is not a sin (because God feels anger and God is sinless) but that we are susceptible to the temptation to sin in our anger.

Feelings are not good or bad. No-one can deny that you feel something—they can't say, “No, you don't.” (They can completely disregard your feelings but that's a whole other kettle of fish.) Feelings just are. And usually they're trying to tell us something about ourselves.

We need to train ourselves to feel appropriate emotions—joy at the birth of a child, sadness when someone who should have known better hurts us, anger at the sinfulness of mankind, and so on. We should not rejoice in the downfall of others or grumble when someone receives a promotion instead of us. We should learn to trust what our feelings are telling us and change appropriately when what they're telling us is something problematic. We should not suppress our feelings because they will not stay suppressed; sooner or later they'll come bubbling out and we will be ill-equipped to deal with them.

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