A number of years ago, a church I was in, invited a group of Christian therapists to come in and teach for several months (men and women were in separate groups to facilitate openness). Let me admit upfront that I like psychology and have often benefitted from its insights. Yet, in my class, the teacher made a statement that caught me off-guard. He told us that, in counseling, we should never to use words like “should”, “ought”, “must”, “need to” and so on.
No one else seemed to notice, but this set my spidey senses tingling. I got up and walked to my office, returning with a Bible concordance, showing the class that it was filled with the word “should” (371 times in the NIV), not to mention the other words he had listed. He, a committed Christian, was echoing the precursor of what is now called “tolerance” today. As I’ve mentioned before, the meaning of tolerance has changed. Once it meant treating one another with civility despite our differences. Now it means that we’re not allowed to call anyone else’s beliefs wrong or we’re “intolerant”. Read my column, (#72 on our website ) for a more complete analysis. What was ironic, too was that he was telling us that we shouldn’t say “shouldn’t” – a bit of a double standard, don’t you think? It’s hard though, to follow the Lordship of Christ if there are no “shoulds”. Jesus often, unapologetically, gave His followers not just “shoulds”, but commands.
Although I appreciate the many insights of psychology, and have used lots of them, this opening illustration represents one of the challenges that believers face when they go to therapy or read the latest psychology book. My challenge to us today is not to avoid modern psychology, just to recognize its limitations and to use it wisely. I realize that I’m making generalizations about a study with a wide range of teachings, many of which differ from one another and some of which are more Christ-oriented. I’m also assuming, by the way, that you’re already a follower of Christ. If you haven’t yet turned to Him for salvation, that’s your starting point.
What are the limitations of modern psychology?
1. Modern psychology often has a murky metaphysic
I’m using the word “metaphysic” to mean the presuppositions and underlying values of psychology. Although, modern psychology is, in many ways, a science, undergirding that science are certain non-scientific beliefs. How does the psychologist decide what is right or wrong, good or bad? These values cannot be proven scientifically, but are often simply assumed and, in fact, concealed. A common value is: “If it hurts no one, and is beneficial to you, go ahead and do it.” Or “Who am I to say what’s right or wrong for you?” The Bible, however begs to differ. It says that there are absolute values and that these are decided, not by us, but by God. He determines what’s right.
2. Modern psychology often assumes the basic goodness of human beings
Our problem, it turns out, says much psychology, is ignorance. We do hurtful or foolish things because we don’t know better or because we’ve been damaged. People are basically good. With wise education and practice we can eliminate or reduce these flaws. While there is certainly some truth to this; many of us want to do right, and training and healing can help, the Bible says that the problem is deeper than these causes. At the heart of many of our malfunctions is something called “sin”. Sin is a universal resistance to God and His standards of right and wrong which all of us have inherited. Until our sin nature is dealt with, basic flaws remain in us. We may become well-adjusted sinners, but we’re still sinners in God’s eyes.
3. Modern psychology assumes the sufficiency of human beings to fix themselves
I’ve already implied this. We certainly can learn a lot without consciously turning to God (although He Himself gave us this ability to learn in the first place). But the foundational transformations, which have to take place we cannot make without God’s help. Jesus said, in John 15, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” By this, He meant, do nothing of eternal significance, which, in the end, is all that matters. We need the help of the Holy Spirit, who gives us strength and a new nature to turn toward God and His ultimate goodness and truth.
4. Modern psychology often focuses on the wrong goals
Again, this has already been implied, but let me make it extra clear. According to the Bible, our main purpose in life is not to be happy, to fulfill our dreams, to have a good marriage, etc., though we all want these and they’re laudable goals. In the end, what matters most is whether or not we please God. If He’s not satisfied, in the end, all of these other benefits are short-lived and will crumble to dust at God’s final judgment. His primary goal is to save us and then have us achieve His will for our lives. Even an apparently well-lived life, if lived independently of God, is not enough. This leads to our second question:
How can I use modern psychology wisely?
1. I use modern psychology wisely when I allow it to be governed by God’s metaphysic
The Bible is by no means a comprehensive manual on how to live. It gives us general standards and leaves out many of the practical how-to’s. If modern psychology can fill in some of these gaps, and it can, by all means use it. Let it give you tips on anger management or communication skills. But make sure that these are guided by God’s standards. Our ultimate goal is to obey and please Him, not ourselves or the world. This godly metaphysical understanding, by the way, takes work to achieve, since, as my opening illustration showed, my Christian friend hadn’t completely integrated his faith with his education.
2. I use modern psychology wisely when I rely primarily on God Himself
Modern psychology can provide useful tools, but only God can offer us the spiritual transformation we all need. We’re told in Proverbs 3 to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” He gives us a new nature guided by the Holy Spirit. Listen to the Him and turn to Him for help at all times. He’ll not only strengthen us, He’ll keep us humble and connected with God.
3. I use modern psychology well when I consistently work at developing and maintaining a close relationship with God
A strong love relationship with God is the key to all of life. This doesn’t happen by accident. We need to set aside regular time to be alone in His presence – more than a “five minutes and out the door” sort of thing. These longer devotional times strengthen our connection with Him and help develop our spiritual instincts. A lot of the change we need happens just by hanging with the healthiest Being in the universe. And don’t let it stop there. Dialogue with Him throughout the day. Turn to Him for wisdom and strength. Trust Him. Make Him your best friend.