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Christians and psychology

by Jacob Ninan

There are some Christians who hold the view that psychology is the work of man or the devil, and that it would be wrong for a Christian to use psychology when he can follow the teachings of the Bible instead. They like to point out the fact that psychology is never mentioned in the Bible, the early Christians did not have psychology or counselling to help them with their problems and that the Bible was sufficient for the Holy Spirit to use to meet their needs.

A similar argument could be made in connection with medical services, and there are some Christians who claim that to use medicines for healing would imply a lack of faith in God's ability to heal.

When Christian scholars talk about the sufficiency of the Bible, we need to understand what they mean by it. Of course, they do not mean that the Bible is sufficient for every part of our life! We don't consult the Bible when we want to use a computer of building a house to find instructions. We realise without any questioning, that the Bible is not written as an encyclopedia containing all knowledge that human beings will ever need. We know that the Bible talks about God and His dealings with us, and when it comes to these matters, the Bible is sufficient. In anything to do with our salvation, our relationship with God and the moral standards God has given to man, we consider the Bible as the final authority. But when we want to use a computer we refer to people who have become experts in that area. We don't feel there is nothing ungodly in referring to computer experts, doctors, engineers, architects, scientists, etc.

What we are thinking in this case, perhaps without realising it, is that these two areas are distinctly different. The Bible talks about spiritual things and there are other people who talk about earthly things. But when it comes to psychology we are confused because there seems to be a lot of overlap between what we think of as spiritual and what psychology deals with.

If we know that we are made up of body soul and spirit (1Th.5:23), it is easy to differentiate between body and soul. But what about soul and spirit? The Greek word used for soul is psuche, and the word for spirit is pneuma. In a general way we can define our soul as our mind, with our ability to think (the rational part), feel (the emotional part) and make decisions (our will or our volitional part). Animals also have body and soul, even though their soul is very limited compared to ours. But we human beings have another entity in us called the spirit, which animals do not have. Since God is spirit, without a body or form, it is through our spirit that we are able to communicate with Him. In His case, His soul is contained in His spirit, and He also thinks, feels and makes decisions just like us, and this is part of His image in which He has created us. When animals die they perish, and that is why God allows us to kill and eat them. When we die, our body perishes, but our soul remains with our spirit till we are given a new glorified body.

In the Old Testament, the word soul is used less precisely than in the New Testament. In the OT, sometimes soul refers to the human spirit also (from which has come the concept of 'saving souls'). But the NT is more precise, making a distinction between soul and spirit.

Our soul forms a link between our body and our spirit. Even when God speaks to us in our spirit, it is through our mind (soul) that we think about it and process it. If our body becomes sick, our mind gets affected by it (sometimes our spirit too). If we have fallen into some sin, our spirit is affected by it, and then our mind also feels the result. (On a longer term, even our body gets affected.)

Because of the Fall, every part of our being has been affected in a harmful way. Our body begins to degenerate and get sick, our thinking becomes foolish, our feelings become negative and our will becomes confused. When our body gets sick we go to a doctor and when our spirit gets affected we go to a pastor or a spiritual leader. But what do we do when our mind gets affected?

If we don't make a distinction between soul and spirit, we will go to the pastor or spiritual leaders even when our mind is affected, thinking that it is a spiritual problem. There could be some spiritual linkage, but not always, and not necessarily. In such cases, what the pastors or leaders will do is to use spiritual principles and apply common sense 'psychology' also! What is psychology, after all? It is a study of our mind (soul -- psuche). We all learn something about the human mind as we observe ourselves and other people, and psychologists are those who have specialised in this matter! Why should we keep away from psychologists?

They way psychologists study the mind is like this. They observe a lot of people, and then they form assumptions (hypotheses) out why people behave in a certain way. Then they conduct some experiments to prove (validate) their theories. They then start trying to correct things that are going wrong in our thinking, feeling or will by different exercises. For all this they use the abilities God has given them, just as engineers or doctors do in their field. So there is nothing inherently wrong with psychology.

But not everything that psychologists say is right, because their assumptions could be wrong and their methods could be wrong. They may also be influenced by their worldview, in terms of what they think about God, sin, accountability, etc. So what we need to do is to check their theories and practices with what God has revealed to us through the Bible. Then we reject ungodly things and questionable things, and take only what God approves. In other words, we filter psychological theories and models through the Bible before we accept anything from them. But let us remember, there may be need for us to seek the help of a psychologist and not just a pastor.

Our 'mind' functions through the operations of our brain. Sometimes these operations can go wrong because of chemical imbalances or other factors. This is an area which is the specialisation of psychiatrists who are doctors who have specialised in psychiatry. Christians too can have medical problems with their brain, just like with any other part of the body. So then we should also be happy to consult with psychiatrists, especially if referred to by psychologists or counsellors.

Igorance of these matters hold back many Christians from receiving the help that God has prepared and kept for them in the form of counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists. By thinking that any problem connected with the mind is spiritual in nature, people delay their healing and sometimes make things much worse.

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