Biblical counseling has a history of being picky about words. Sometimes it sounded as if we had our own version of George Carlin’s dirty word list. For example, off limits were terms like: self-esteem, needs, psychological, or any psychiatric diagnosis unless you were going to critique it a bit first.
Well—we have our reasons. Our list was not so much words-that-an-orthodox-person-dare-not-speak; they were terms that were left dangling without the benefit of biblical interpretation. As such, we never wanted to ban certain words; we wanted them to be brought within Scripture’s reach. One of our goals is to take every counseling-related word and provide biblical oversight. Terms that stay isolated from Scripture end up in the bin of “psychological problems”. Our mission: empty that bin.
Here are some of the words that appear in the psychological bin. Some of them are holdovers from the old dirty word list. As you scan the list, notice that it might be hard locate any of these in Scripture.
• Psychological problems and anything preceded by the word psychological such as psychological disorder
• Self-esteem and other self-words such as self-love, self-protection, self-loathing, self-care, self-worth
• Emotional problems
• Free will – this one is a quasi-biblical category that inevitably goes renegade
• Thinking or cognition
• Clinical, as in clinical depression
• Executive functioning deficit disorder
• Some specific diagnoses such as ADD, Bipolar, Asperger’s, Borderline personality disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Schizophrenia
CCEF has generated a number of publications that reclaim these words. The basic strategy is to understand what people mean by them (which is not always an easy task) then parse the words so they can be understood biblically.
Here is a little speed parsing.
Ready. Set. Go.
What is it? It is the stubbornly enduring feature of humans that makes them identifiable and unique. “I am an introvert.” “I am an optimistic person.”
How does Scripture understand this observation? Personality is actually a blend of two biblical categories: character, and strengths and weaknesses. Character is a matter of the heart. Character is our growth in godliness and patterns in doing right or wrong. It is traced back to our spiritual allegiances, though unbelievers can certainly be people of impressive moral character.
Strengths and weaknesses are dependent on the status of our physical bodies, and include cognitive abilities to see ironies, incongruities and understand various types of humor. You can identify your friends according to the things they find funny. This ability is dependent on adequate brain functioning. When people lose brain functioning they typically also lose their sense of humor. They are “no longer themselves.” Emotional intensity is another brain ability. For example, I know someone who is wonderfully extreme in her emotions. She loves strongly. She loathes strongly. She gets depressed strongly. If her emotional intensity were dulled by drugs or brain injury, I would miss her.
What is it? It is a way to retain a sense that we are active agents and not cosmic puppets. It is responding, in part, to those who take a strong position on God’s sovereignty. Especially when it comes to human wrongdoing, free will wants to tip the scales in favor of human agency and go lighter on God’s sovereignty.
How do we think biblically about it? Though seemingly innocent, free will suggests that there is a no man’s land between the kingdom of heaven and the realm of Satan’s darkness in which we have some autonomy. It leans toward deism, i.e., God is occasionally passive in dealing with world events. He is letting things run their course until he returns. In response, Scripture makes it clear that each person is responsible for his or her own sin, and sin certainly can have dire consequences on others. Yet the cross of Christ demonstrates that God will even use the evil of humanity to serve his purposes of bringing glory to himself. He is the sovereign God. The world is not merely billions of people exerting their free will. It is where God brings history to its certain climax.
What are they? Problems in living that affect how we feel. Depression and anxiety are the most common. They are usually distinguished from “spiritual problems,” and they are sometimes a synonym for psychological problems.
How do we think biblically about them? Biblical counseling believes that we are embodied souls. Therefore, our emotions have two major contributors: our “hearts” and our bodies. So, sometimes our emotions display the affections of our hearts. For example, our fears might be saying that something we love (life, health, appearance, another person) is in jeopardy. Depression might be saying something similar, but it focuses more on the loss of the thing loved.
There are other times when our emotions are merely physical experiences that are disconnected from our affections. Just look at the side effects of medications. Many of them have depression or anxiety as a common reaction. In other words, they are physical experiences that can mimic the responses associated with our hearts, but they are physical events without any spiritual contribution.
How can you tell the difference between the two? Usually you can’t. Yet regardless of the cause, difficult emotions are always spiritual matters in that their deepest solution is in faith that is expressed in love. That won’t necessarily change the physical experience, but it will do something even better.
This agenda to reclaim everything in the psychological bin is, I think, an ordinary one. As people who have received revelation and illumination, we always ask, “What does God say about this?” From political processes to financial investments, to how we treat our neighbors, we want Scripture’s interpretive gaze to claim everything.
Edward T. Welch, M.Div., Ph.D., is a counselor and faculty member at CCEF and holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a neuro-psychology specialty from the University of Utah as well as a Master of Divinity degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. Ed has been counseling for over twenty-six years and has written many books and articles on biblical counseling.
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