Christianity & Psychology: Are they Mutually Compatible?

Christianity & Psychology: Are they Mutually Compatible?
In a world dominated by ‘self-help’ gurus and pop-psychology TV shows, it is easy for Christians to dismiss the field of psychology as a humanist endeavour, of no value to believers.

Yet, when a Christian struggles with bipolar tendencies, or feels chronically depressed, or simply needs direction in life, sometimes Bible reading and basic church counselling does not seem to suffice. We spoke to Professor Nicolene Joubert of The Institute of Christian Psychology, to find out if there is a middle ground in this contentious debate…

It has been said that the very foundation of psychology is based on humanist philosophy – thus Christians can have no part in this, and should only get their help from the Bible. What are your thoughts?
Secular psychological theories are based on a Western humanistic worldview which differs radically from a Christian one. However, this doesn’t mean that we should reject all information gathered in the field of psychology. Research and observations of human behaviour provide valuable knowledge that we can use as Christians.

If we reason that we can’t use any psychological knowledge as Christians, we should apply the same rule to all scientific fields of study (medical field, economics, etc). Secular universities offer all their courses from a non-Christian worldview perspective and Christians have the responsibility to distinguish non-Christian principles included in these courses from Christian principles and to apply knowledge in a God honouring manner.

The Bible gives us sound guidelines for behaviour and spiritual growth, but is not a handbook on all mental disorders, the causes thereof or possible treatments. Biblical principles and truths are our point of departure but it doesn’t mean the total exclusion of the application of knowledge.

Many believe that Christians should be complete in Christ and thus not require the services of psychologists. (I.e. they should be “healed” from depression and anxiety through prayer alone)…
Rebirth takes place when one accepts Christ as Saviour and repents of one’s sins. The old self is regenerated, but it doesn’t mean that we are without sin or the brokenness caused by sin. The process of sanctification starts after rebirth and in this process Christians often struggle with wrong lifestyle habits and the consequences of their sins and the sins of others.

Victims of abuse suffer the consequences of the sins of other people and often struggle with unforgiveness and bitterness. In dealing with the aftermath of trauma, psychological knowledge about trauma could deepen the understanding of how to help a person in the healing process. Clinical depression is caused by a chemical imbalance and in this medication is required to help the person. People who are clinically depressed find it very difficult to pray and exercise faith and if they are accused of being depressed because they haven’t got enough faith, the problem gets worse and not better.

Psychological knowledge has a lot of value for understanding issues and treating mental illnesses. Although the power of prayer is not disputed and God can heal any situation supernaturally, He often works through his servants, medical doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists. In the area of psychological problems, the same principle applies. God may choose to work through a psychologist or psychiatrist to “heal”.

What is the difference between psychology and psychiatry?
Psychology is based on study of human behaviour, thoughts and emotions. Psychiatry is a branch in the medical profession specialising in mental disorders. Psychiatrists normally prescribe medication as part of the treatment, whereas psychologists provide psychotherapy (a structured process of talking and working on problem solving) as treatment without prescribing medication. Psychiatrists deal with the biological and medical aspects of the presenting problem and psychologists deal more with the psychological and emotional roots of a problem.

What is Christian psychology?
It is a development in the field of psychology calling for the reconstruction of psychology from a Christian worldview perspective. The conceptualisation of Christian Psychology as a science field started in the 1950s in America and it is an ongoing process.

In the 1950s a strong reaction against the humanistic worldview that underlies the fields of psychiatry and psychology was expressed in various Christian circles, ranging from ministers to Christian psychologists and psychiatrists. A debate regarding the integration of Theology and psychology was sparked and various attempts made to provide a “method” for integrating Theology and psychology.

Christian psychology is an approach to psychology that takes into account the spiritual needs and functioning of Christian clients and psychologists by explicitly formulating and addressing these needs.

How does it differ from traditional psychology?
Sigmund Freud is generally viewed as the father of psychology; his observations and analysis of human behaviour during his work as a neurologist and psychiatrist led to the development of a new discipline (i.e. psychology). Stemming from Freud’s psycho-analytical school of thought, various other psychological theories developed including views about human nature, human behaviour and how to solve psychological problems versus medical problems. Most of the traditional schools of thoughts are based on a humanistic worldview with the implication that faith and a spiritual level of existence are scarcely included or acknowledge in the theories.

Christian psychology postulates that humans are holistic beings, implying that humans have a physical, psychological and a spiritual dimension of existence. Christian psychology exerts that all dimensions of existence influence mental health and should be taken into account in the helping process.

Tell us of your role as a pioneer of Christian psychology in SA?
As a Christian studying psychology, I was frustrated about the general negative view of religious beliefs expressed in psychology theories and unhappy about the omission of such an important aspect of human functioning, (faith in God). The role of faith in God in human functioning was either ridiculed or seen as a primitive form of functioning. I couldn’t reconcile these views with my own experience of faith in God and I questioned the soundness of psychological theories regarding religion and spirituality. My concerns were strengthened by the need in many of my clients to discuss spiritual issues as part of their problems. In the light of this, I decided to investigate the role of faith in God in psychological well-being. A vast number of people seeking psychological counselling are Christians who believe in the healing power of God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

My own conviction that the Holy Spirit can lead us in counselling, brings comfort and works emotional healing in people, spurred the endeavour to develop an academically based training programme in psychology that addresses and incorporates the transpersonal aspect of our functioning. My desire as a Christian is to honour God and to acknowledge Jesus in everything I do, including my work as a psychologist.

ICP is not only a higher learning institute; many of your lecturers are in private practice. Tell us more.
Yes, several of our lecturers are in private practice and as such incorporate valuable practical knowledge in their lectures. Many of our B Psych students are pastors or lay counsellors, desiring to further their studies. Together with the lecturers, and former students, they also form part of our database of Christian counsellors that the public has access to and can request from us.

The self-help movement is a multi-billion dollar industry. How is it different from what you do?
In the self-help movement there is no requirement in terms of training. Clients suffering from serious mental disorders need more than a self-help book to guide them. They need long term professional help. Professional help in the form of psychotherapy is done as part of a range of medical services provided. Psychologists are professionally trained and have to be registered with the Professional Board of Psychology before they are allowed to practice. The fee structure is set to prevent the exploitation of clients.

What characteristics classify a patient for psychological help, as opposed to counselling?
The nature and intensity of the problem indicate whether a person needs basic Christian counselling, or more in-depth help in the form of psychotherapy. An example would be a person suffering from reactive depression because of the loss of a loved one and somebody suffering clinical depression. Reactive depression because of loss could be dealt with and resolved on the basis of grief counselling.

If the depression persists long after a normal period of grief the person has to go for psychotherapy (psychological help). Clinical depression based on a chemical imbalance requires more than basic counselling. A person suffering from clinical depression needs medication, as well as psychotherapy. Clients who suffer from serious symptoms of anxiety need psychotherapy and/ or medication.

Likewise people diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder I and obsessive-compulsive disorder need psychological help.  Children suffering from problems such as Autism and Asperger syndrome need psychological help and possibly medication.

A person suffering from work-related stress that hasn’t escalated into burnout symptoms could be helped by a Christian counselling process. It is important to consider the nature of the problem, the duration and severity, when a decision is made about the type of help recommended.

What advice can you offer to people who struggle with a problem which does not seem to improve despite seeing a psychologist?
A therapy process requires several sessions spread over a period of time before real and long lasting changes in behaviour, thoughts and emotions would be experienced. The first session can provide a feeling of relief (catharsis) because the person could unburden and vent, but this is not enough for deep changes in behaviour, thoughts and emotions to take place.

People who complain about not experiencing any results from therapy sessions have either terminated the therapy pre-maturely, resisted the process, or followed a process that simply didn’t work for them. In this case a psychologist following another type of therapy could be consulted or a combination of prayer, emotional support and therapy could be applied.