Psychology: Servant or Master?

Note: A few years ago I wrote on the subject of psychology and the Bible and the question of self-love or self-esteem. Wherever I go this subject keeps coming up. Pastors, lay people, book publishers, discipleship ministries, just about everybody is talking about the fact that churches are now embracing twelve step programs and a host of other methodologies, and the ideologies that come with them. What follows is a concise statement of my beliefs on this subject, stripped of anecdote and elaboration.

I know from past experience there is a lot of defensiveness concerning this subject and I ask you to please note that I am very supportive of counseling that is truly biblical and contributes to a person’s growth in relationship with God and development of spiritual disciplines and Spirit-filled living. This is not intended as a criticism of any church or counseling center, just an overall evaluation of a church trend that concerns me.

An increasing number of American Christians are less familiar with the meaning of terms such as “atonement,” “sanctification,” “holiness,” and “judgment” than “codependency,” “enabling,” “dysfunction” and “abuse.” The biblical model of personal responsibility, man’s sin and God’s redemption is being replaced by the psychological model of victimization, dysfunction and recovery.

Teaching in many evangelical churches increasingly contains less biblical content and more psychological formulas and buzzwords, following the ever-changing drift of current thought. Many Christians perennially stay in recovery groups focusing on past abuses and present addictions, but do not join Bible study and discipleship groups focusing on biblical truth, prayer, fellowship and Christian growth. The concept of recovery is eclipsing the concept of discipleship. Knowing and caring for yourself is viewed as more fundamental than knowing and following God.

My observations come out of thirteen years of pastoral experience at a large church, six as “Pastor of Counseling and Family Ministries,” and five years of extensive travel and dialogue in churches across the U.S. My overseas missions trips suggest this psychology fixation is largely an American trend, not the product of the Holy Spirit, but of the self-focused spirit of our particular time and place.

People in need should admit their problems and get help. The church should provide good counseling. I enthusiastically endorse biblical counseling and support groups that conform to God’s Word, focus on Christ and help people deal with their pasts in ways freeing them to go forward. The question is not whether believers ever need counseling or should seek it, but the assumptions and nature of that counseling. Many evangelicals routinely embrace psychological beliefs and counseling practices that warrant much closer biblical scrutiny.

Foundations and underlying assumptions. No philosophy or methodology rises above its fundamental premises. “Who is God?” “Who is man?” “What is the nature of the human dilemma?” “What is the solution to the human dilemma?” “What authority should govern our beliefs and methodology?” “To whom, if anyone, are we ultimately accountable?” Despite valuable insights in some areas, secular psychology has the wrong answers to all these fundamental questions. It fails to recognize God as Creator, Savior or Judge. Changing the adjective from “secular” to “Christian” often amounts to a superficial attempt to convert and baptize psychology. It’s easy to claim submission to the authority of Scripture, while in practice we simply take psychological beliefs and methodology and reinterpret Bible verses to support them. We thus place ourselves under the authority of a world view which we’ve not carefully evaluated, but uncritically assimilated. We end up seeing ourselves, others and even God through the eyes of psychology rather than the Scriptures.

Self-preoccupation. The “self” emphasis of modern psychology too often leads to legitimizing and glorifying selfishness. “Self love” has been elevated from an ever-present human instinct we should rise above to a positive virtue we should cultivate (2 Tim. 3:2; Rev. 12:11; Is. 14:12-15; Lk. 18:9-14; Rom. 12:3; Is. 57:15). Countless evangelicals leave their spouses because they’ve come to believe they have a right to happiness and self-actualization (however they wish to define or obtain it). The pursuit of happiness eclipses the pursuit of holiness, and for many “freedom from guilt” now means freedom to feel good about sinning (self-actualization that violates God’s Word).

Victim mentality. Dysfunction and abuse are normal in a sinful world (1 Pet. 4:12). The common assumption that life shouldn’t be so hard leads to self-pity and endless finger pointing. We see life as unfair and ourselves as its victims. We focus on the offenses others have done against us. And we fail to realize all these offenses pale in comparison to our own offenses against God, who not only forgives us, but both requires and enables us to forgive others and move forward free from the past (Matt. 18:21-35; Phil. 3:8-16).

Minimized personal responsibility. Getting drunk and other behaviors are treated as symptoms of diseases caught or inherited. But Scripture condemns drunkenness and holds people fully accountable for it, never suggesting the disease model (Luke 21:34; Rom. 13:13; 1 Cor. 5:11; 1 Cor. 6:10; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:18). In therapy many people come to believe their lives will be inevitably centered on their “disease” (e.g. they are lifetime “sex addicts” or “food addicts” or “alcoholics” or “adult children of alcoholics”). But 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 says otherwise. Without this truth, people are robbed of hope in the power of God’s grace. The beginning of life-change is confession and repentance, to which God responds with grace and empowerment. This requires that people take full responsibility for their choices.

Underestimated power of conversion and sanctification. The life-changing power of conversion is grossly underestimated (2 Cor. 5:17), as is the Holy Spirit’s empowerment in sanctification (Rom. 6:8-23). Lack of Christ-centered living becomes the norm in the church—“let’s be real; we’re only human.” Of course we are, but God graciously grants us a new identity and empowers imperfect humans to live holy lives. Therapy is helpful when it directs us to biblical long-term changes in thinking and behavior, to overcome entrenched patterns. But is it possible some problems meant to be dealt with in a moment at the cross have now become the center of years of therapy?

Undermined evangelistic emphasis. Much “Christian” counseling is decidedly non-evangelistic. The old belief was “people are sinners in desperate need of salvation and life-changing power in Christ.” The new premise, spoken or unspoken, is “people are hurting and need principles to help them live more fulfilled lives.” Too many Christian counselors are content to help people feel good about themselves and live better lives, at the end of which they go to hell for eternity. Are we here to help people learn to get by without God?

Focus on present gratification, rather than eternal perspective (2 Cor. 4:16-5:10). Psychology’s priority of helping each other feel good is put above Scripture’s priority of helping each other be good (2 Tim. 4:2). Self-sacrifice and suffering are carefully avoided (1 Pet. 3-4; 2 Tim. 3:12). Christians love self more than God and neighbor, and are left unwilling and unprepared to suffer for Christ or others.

Failure of integration. Much “integration” ends up heavily tilted toward psychology and away from the Bible. Psychology must not merely be integrated but subordinated to Scripture. Christian psychologists correctly say “all truth is God’s truth.” But that begs the question. The point is, not all psychology is truth, and we must use something besides subjective current opinion to decide what’s true and what isn’t. Psychology’s truth must be determined by whether or not it agrees with the only reliable authority, God’s Word (2 Tim. 3:16).

Conclusion: Much in psychology is beneficial and usable. But on its own, as an authoritative lens through which to interpret reality, psychology is one more man-centered attempt to think and live without God, ignoring life’s eternal dimension. If we recognize its inherent flaws, inadequacies and dangers, it can be a helpful tool we can use wisely, setting it aside as required. Psychology can be a good servant, but when left unchecked it quickly becomes Master. Like all potential idols, it will vie for ascendancy in the church, tempting us to mirror the temporal spirit of a fallen culture rather than the eternal spirit of the risen Christ (1 Cor. 1:17-2:16; Prov. 14:12).

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1995 edition of Eternal Perspectives, EPM's quarterly magazine.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries