Sunday, June 28, 2009

Loneliness, Isolation, and Depression

It is both odd and tragic in this age of the internet, cell phones, text-messaging, and various forms of e-communications, that we should still be discussing the ills of isolation and loneliness. However, despite all the outlets at our disposal to “reach-out,” the problems seem to be escalating along with the resulting depression. Psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz cite two “major studies” in this regard. In the first:

“McPherson found that between 1985 and 2004, the number of people with whom the average American discussed ‘important matters’ dropped from three to two. Even more stunning, the number of people who said that there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled: in 2004, individuals without a single confidant now made up nearly a quarter of those surveyed” (The Lonely American, 2).

This is particularly serious, because loneliness and isolation seem to provide optimal conditions for social-psychological breakdown. Olds and Schwartz observe that, “A great many people who think of themselves as depressed have in fact a sense of isolation at the core of their feelings” (5-6).

Many explanations are brought forward to explain our growing isolation. Some cite America’s legendary pioneering spirit and our emphasis on self-reliance. Others suggest that loneliness is a product of our frenetic pace. However, these explanations fail to explain the recent nose-dive in levels of intimacy, since we have always been self-reliant and frenetic! In addition to this, there is the finding of James Buie that “Depression…for those born after 1950 is as much as twenty times higher than the incidence rate for those born before 1910” (quoted from Edward Welch, Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, 113).

What then has happened to us in recent decades? I’d like to suggest that one of the greatest culprits for this phenomenon has ironically been the cult of “self-esteem.” Welch appropriately asks: “What happens when people are raised on a steady diet of ‘You are great, you can do anything, you deserve it, you are the best’…Depression and denial are the only two options left.”

Why this dismal assessment? For one thing, we become addicted to relying upon an inflated self-esteem to get us out of bed in the morning. This means we need increasingly higher levels of the “drug” of self-esteem. It also suggests that for the self-esteem fix to work, we have to believe it. Therefore, before long, we come to believe that we are a highly superior person and, consequently, to maintain our emotional high, we deny and repress all data to the contrary. Isn’t this our natural inclination anyway? How much easier to succeed at this when society is telling us that believing in ourselves is such an admirable goal!

What then happens to our relationships when we believe we are god-like and deny everything that contradicts us? We cease to share a common reality—a necessity for meaningful relationships. Have you ever tried to relate in a meaningful way to someone who thought he was Napoleon or Caesar? It’s impossible!

Consistent with the “religion” of our day, I too had convinced myself that I was a superior human being and that nothing could stop me once I made up my mind. Although it gave me a confidence and a swagger, I was paying an increasingly high price for this mental addiction. First of all, failing to assess myself correctly, I made many foolish and painful decisions. But perhaps even more importantly, I had isolated myself from others, although not purposely. On an unconscious level, I needed others to affirm what I believed about myself. When they treated me according to what they saw with their eyes, I, of course, was offended. They had failed to give me the acknowledgement I thought I deserved and had contradicted everything I was trying to tell myself. Furthermore, whenever I had a disagreement, having already denied my own culpability, I was convinced that all the blame belonged to the other guy. I was “Caesar,” and everyone else refused to recognize this fact.

It is only as I became assured that Christ loved me and would accept me forever that I was able to accept myself. It was only in the context of His love that I had the courage to face the painful truths about myself along with my self-delusions.

Now, I love to be transparent and laugh at my foibles in front of my students. They find this liberating and are drawn closer to me because of this. One student remarked about how different and refreshing this experience is from being with someone who maintains his fa├žade and brags about himself—something that drives people away and kills relationships. Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32) He has certainly set me free from my delusions and isolation.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Morality: One of God's Footprints

Here’s the classic moral argument for the existence of God:

1. Without God, moral absolutes can’t exist.
2. Moral absolutes do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists!

I just want to look at premise #2, the most contentious premise. Everyone agrees that we are wired for moral truths. Piaget and Kohlberg demonstrated that children’s moral judgments develop as their brain develops. More recently, there’s been a rash of books confirming this, and even going further to claim that even the belief in God is determined by our nervous system.

Acknowledging the fact that we’re programmed for moral truth, C.S. Lewis famously reasoned that making moral judgments is unavoidable:

"Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promises to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining, ‘It’s not fair.’"

"If we do not believe in decent behavior, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The truth is we believe in decency so much—we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so—that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility." (Mere Christianity)

At this point, the Darwinist readily admits that, although programmed for morality, this programming is the product of blind, purposeless evolution:

"I might react morally, but I know that this reaction is not a product of some higher truth hanging out there somewhere, but merely of the way that the forces of natural selection biologically equipped our race. As a result, I don’t see this as any proof of moral absolutes or that there’s a God who is somehow setting the rules of the game. It’s just a matter of our wiring!"

Well, who can blame the Darwinist! He simply fails to see how our moral impulses prove that there is a God. Perhaps Paul was wrong by insisting that all are without excuse:

"For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" (Romans 1:20).

However, it seems that Paul anticipates the atheistic challenge and offers a rebuttal:

"You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things" (Romans 2:1).

Although the atheist claims that there is no absolute basis for judgment, he too judges as if he believes in absolute moral standards. According to Paul, the moral impulse is more than a programmed knee-jerk reaction. It’s also something that we make our own! Just watch the atheist for five minutes, and you will see that he agrees with Paul, at least with his behavior. The atheist passes judgments as quickly as the theist. When someone pushes him, he’ll want an apology. He doesn’t say:

"Although I had this bio-chemical, "moral" knee-jerk reaction, I can’t really hold you accountable for pushing me, since there are no absolute moral truths, and therefore, there no moral rules of right and wrong which you have violated. So I have no absolute basis to judge your behavior."

Instead, the atheist becomes indignant and remains indignant long after the knee-jerk reaction passes, proving that he endorses the charge that he has truly been wronged. It is this endorsement, and not merely a knee-jerk reaction, that makes him a hypocrite. On the one hand, he passes absolute, objective judgment, while on the other hand, he claims that there is no higher standard than himself by which to judge! It is also this endorsement that makes him the object of wrath:

"But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed" (Romans 2:5).

Friday, June 26, 2009

ReVisiting Darwin

Is the case for evolution a slam-dunk? According to the arch-militant-evolutionist Richard Dawkins, it is: “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” These kinds of bombastic statements attempt to intimidate and warn that the case for macro-evolution, the vertical evolution that has allegedly produced us from our amoeba-beginnings, is unassailable. However, there’s another side to this story.

We all recognize that species change over time (micro-evolution). From our two parents, all the human races came forth, but do these minor changes provide any evidence for growth in complexity (macro-evolution)? Even hardened evolutionists admit that the evidence is lacking:

"There is no theoretical reason that would permit us to expect that evolutionary lines would increase in complexity with time; there is also no empirical evidence that this happens." (John Maynard Smith, E. Szathmary—quoted from John Lennox’s book, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God, 107. All the following quotations are taken from this masterful book!)

"In the whole experimentally accessible domain of microevolution (including research in artificial breeding and in species formation), all variations have certainly remained within the confines of basic types" [species, more or less]. (Siegfried Scherer)

Cell biologist E.J. Ambrose of the University of London argued that it is unlikely that fewer than five genes could ever be involved in the formation of even the simplest new structure, previously unknown in the organism. He then points out that only one in 1,000 mutations is non-deleterious, so that the chance of five non-deleterious mutations occurring is 1 in a million billion replications. [This means that every organism will probably die before it adds a new organ!]

Lennox observes that there seems to be a pre-planned limit within a given gene pool, beyond which it can’t go:

"If there are limits even to the amount of variation the most skilled breeders can achieve, the clear implication is that natural selection is likely to achieve much less. It is not surprising that he [Grasse] he argued that microevolution could not bear the weight that is often put upon it." (108).

What is this “weigh?” Militant evolutionists trying to use evidence of micro-changes as proof of macroevolution! However, Lennox points out that this evidence is entirely lacking. Nor is there any laboratory evidence for macro-evolution:

"In his book, Grasse observed that fruit flies remain fruit flies in spite of thousands of generations that have been bred and all the mutations that have been induced in them…More recent work on the E. coli bacterium backs this up. In this research no real innovative changes were observed through 25,000 generations of E. coli bacterium." (108)

Assessing the odds for macro-changes taking place, astro-physicist Fred Hoyle concluded: “Well, as common sense would suggest, the Darwinian theory is correct in the small, but not in the large. Rabbits come from other slightly different rabbits, not from either [primeval] soup or potatoes.”

Nor does the fossil record deal any more gently with the militants! Lennox continues:

"The impression that microevolution is limited in its scope is confirmed by the comments of Wesson and others to the effect that the fossil record gives no good examples of macroevolution." (110).

Even Darwin confirms this dismal assessment:

"The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed on the earth, [should] be enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such graduated organic chain." (The Origin of Species)

This indeed is a tremendous problem. Instead of demonstrating a gradual progression among the various species—something that Darwinism must be able to demonstrate—the fossil record reveals that, for the great extent, species have remained unchanged. Regarding this embarrassment, the late eminent Stephen Jay Gould wrote:

"The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as a trade secret of palaeontology. The history of most fossil species includes two features particularly inconsistent with the idea that they gradually evolved: 1. Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking pretty much the same as when they disappear…2. Sudden appearance. In any local area a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and 'fully formed.'” (111)

Other evolutionists make similar confessions:

"Palaeontologist David Raup of the Field Museum of Natural History…said, 'We are now about 120 years after Darwin and the knowledge of the fossil record has been greatly expanded. We now have a quarter of a million fossil species, but the situation hasn’t changed much. The record of evolution is still surprisingly jerky and, ironically, we have even fewer examples of evolutionary transition than we had in Darwin’s time.'" (111)

"Eldredge [American Museum of Natural History] makes an astonishing admission. 'We palaeontologists have said that the history of life supports [the story of gradual adaptive change] knowing all the while it does not. (111)…I tried in vain to document examples of the kind of slow directional change we all thought ought to be there every since Darwin told us that natural selection should leave precisely such a tell-tale signal…I found instead that once species appear in the fossil record they tend not to change very much at all. Species remain imperturbably, implacably resistant to change as a matter of course – often for millions of years.'” (113)

Now we find the militants barricading themselves in the Alamo of genetics and the DNA record where they hope to find evidence for a common lineage among the species. Here they point out the genetic commonalities between us and the apes and chimps in an attempt to argue for a common ancestry. However, this reasoning is inadequate as Lennox points out:

"Thus the similarities in the DNA sequences could logically equally well be read as evidence of common design." (114)

Even the arch-militant Dawkins acknowledges a problem:

"It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it wouldn’t work. You don’t need to be a mathematician or a physicist to calculate that an eye or a haemoglobin molecule would take from here to infinity to self-assemble by sheer higgledy-piggledy luck." (103)

Well, isn’t Darwinism a theory of “chance?” Isn’t it supposedly guided by nothing more than natural selection and random mutation? Dawkins, above everyone else, rules out any idea of a Creator. On the basis of what, then, can he conceive of evolution as something more than chance? Sounds like a substitute deity evolving clandestinely from his back pocket—something that will fill in the gaps left after his expulsion of God!

What is even more astounding than Dawkins’ reasoning is the way we Christians have imported this false “deity” into our churches where it continues to undermine doctrine and our confidence in our Bible.

(You must read John Lennox’s, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God! This book is head and shoulders above others on this subject. He’s got three PhD’s. Evidently, he’s learned something along the way!)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Masochism’s Inner Logic

Why do we resort to masochism? We all want to be happy! How then do we explain self-mutilation and other forms of self-punishment? When we look only at sadomasochistic sex or at people who cut or torture themselves, we’re tempted to regard these phenomena as pathological. However, when we recognize the full range of masochistic behaviors, we’re forced to seek a more global answer—perhaps one based upon our common humanity and having a common rationale. I’m going to try to identify the thread that ties all of the individual manifestations of masochism together.

First of all, let’s take a look at a form of masochism with which most of us are familiar. Masochism seems to be at work when we silently endure painful relationships, ones we need not endure. How does this work? We feel guilty about something and therefore want to atone or compensate for this guilt by enduring the discomfort. Strangely, there seems to be a subconscious life-script, an inner logic that requires us to transact a mysterious deal: we pay the price by enduring the discomfort, and we receive a reduction in guilt.

Similarly, according to this hidden contract, after having paid the price of suffering, we entitle ourselves to enjoy the things that are more important to us, like sex. Likewise, I had my own script that determined what pleasures I could enjoy. Over-consumption would make me feel guilty. Consequently, if I restricted myself to a three minute shower, I was entitled to feel that I was a good and worthy person. If I exceeded the limits that my legalistic script imposed upon me, I’d have to compensate with some form of saving-the-planet. Similarly, when I’d get an “A” on a test, I’d feel worthy and entitled to buy a chocolate milkshake. However, if I failed to receive the “A,” the milkshake wouldn’t have felt quite right going down. Somehow, I understood that my coveted sense of worthiness came at a price. Either I would have to earn it or suffer for it. Hence, we are in bondage to an uncompromising slave-master.

In many religions (or perhaps all), self-denial and/or self-flagellation have become the staples for everyday righteousness or feelings of OK-ness. Sometimes they take the form of puncture wounds or walking on hot coals or even knives. As an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther endured walking on his knees, walking barefoot in the snow and long periods of sleeplessness in a vain attempt to prove himself to God. The faithful prove themselves by what they suffer.

In other religions self-denial is accomplished by making costly sacrifices, sometimes human, in order to earn the favor of their deities. As the plague stalked Europe in the 1300-1400s, a flagellant sect arose. They thought that the plague was a sign of God’s displeasure and punishment. Therefore, the flagellants paraded through Europe whipping one another, convinced that this would earn God’s favor. And for this, they received high grades from their admirers.

Masochism takes many forms. Benedict XVI writes about another form of masochism. He notes how Western culture, en masse, has turned against itself and its own Christian heritage:

“This case illustrates a peculiar western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological. It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure…Multiculturalism, which is so constantly and passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one’s own heritage.” (Quoted by Jean Bethke Elshtain, First Things, March, 2009, 36)

Self-castigation is subconsciously understood as a reasonable payment for self-validation, a necessary defense against shame. It works something like this: “I am a good and worthy person if I champion the interests of others and am willing to criticize my own traditions.” (It is not my intention to devalue good deeds, but rather their self-righteous motivations!)

Can we ascribe all of these phenomena to pathology or to the idiosyncrasies of a limited number of cultures? Obviously, there is something more global taking place. Ordinarily, it would have been more in keeping with our pleasure-seeking nature to believe, “I make my gods happiest with me when I’m thoroughly enjoying myself”? However, this type hedonistic religion always seems to give way to its more masochistic forms. Why? Why haven’t we become more proficient in rewriting our scripts to eliminate the necessity for pain and to maximize pleasure? Why has this mysterious script proved itself so impervious to editorial “improvements,” especially in view of the encouragement given to hedonism by our permissive age? Evidently, there is something else indelibly taking place in humanity’s game-plan. This is why human history consistently testifies that we are more than ready to pay the price of self-mutilation and self-deprivation.

I don’t think we’re ready to answer this question until we have expanded our inquiry to include the sister of self-denial—self-indulgence! They both address the identical problem of shame and unworthiness and seem to be opposite sides of the same coin. Writer and psychotherapist, John Bradshaw, points out that these opposite responses are both shame-generated:

“The most paradoxical aspect of neurotic shame is that it is the core motivator of the super-achieved and the underachieved, the Star and the Scapegoat, the “Righteous” and the wretched, the powerful and the pathetic.” (Healing the Shame that Binds You, 14)

Interestingly, both self-indulgence and self-denial are closely associated in the practice of Eastern religions. Some of their practices attempt to dry up desire and lust through the fires of self-mortification, like rain evaporating on hot Florida asphalt. By extinguishing desire, they hope to transcend the “world of delusion.”

However, the opposite teaching of self-indulgence is often taught as a more appealing alternative. Instead of trying to burn away their desires, some gurus teach radical self-indulgence. As one Hindu mystic commented, “Fasting will only increase desire, and you will only think about food. Instead, consume as much honey as you can, and you won’t desire it anymore.”

The Doors’ Jim Morrison had a similar outlook. As is the case with all of us, his sense of shame wouldn’t be silenced by self-denial. Instead, he believed that it had to be saturated by self-indulgence until it fell apart, like a soggy paper towel. He was convinced that this would result in freedom and spiritual purification:

“Sensuousness and evil is an attractive image to us now…It’s like a purification ritual in the alchemical sense. First you have to have the period of disorder, chaos, returning to a primeval disaster religion. Out of that you purify the elements and find the new seed of life.” (Quoted from Hungry for Heaven, Steve Turner, 96)

How do we explain self-mutilation and self-indulgence in the same breath? Is there a common thread connecting them? All humanity experiences guilt and shame. Counselor John Bradshaw claims that these feelings are so powerful that they are life-controlling. Guilt and shame tell us that there is something the matter with us and compel us to do something about the disturbing alarm they sound. We therefore resort to denial, self-mutilation, self-indulgence, drugs and even workaholism to convince ourselves that we’re really worthy people in the face of our persistent shame. We cut ourselves and for a few moments feel that life, once again, is good. (Clinical studies have shown that after an act of self-mutilation, cortisone production, directly associated with stress, is reduced.)

We deprive, afflict, and sacrifice ourselves for good reason. But why should self-castigation make us feel better? We are created in the image of God. Therefore, we are highly moral creatures, and we are painfully aware when we violate our internal God-infused rule book. In addition to this, we also have a sense that there must be retribution for the infractions. We’re then confronted with two choices: either we confess and seek the mercy of the One who created the rules or we deal with the problem ourselves. If we have a problem with God, we usually deal with the problem ourselves. This is exactly what Adam and Eve did. They covered their sin and shame with fig leaves—hardly an adequate solution. We, however, do the same thing. Instead of fig leaves, we cover ourselves with good deeds, accomplishments or self-affliction. We convince ourselves that we are fully able to pay the price for our guilt and shame. And we often do such a good job of this that we actually become convinced of our own righteousness, superiority and entitlement.

But an entitlement mentality is a lethal poison. Because of their self-inflicted punishments, the flagellants convinced themselves and others that they were even more spiritual and entitled than the priests. Consequently, they entered the cathedrals, driving away the “less worthy” presiding priests, sometimes even beating them.

Guilt and shame cause such psychological turmoil that we can’t ignore them. We feebly erect a wall of denials and self-righteous rationalizations in a vain attempt to shield ourselves against their indictments. However, we find that they are like inflated balls, which inevitably resurface no matter how valiantly and persistently we fight to keep them submerged.

Are we condemned to vainly pursue an unattainable freedom from these slave-masters? Have we become servants of denial and image management to hide the painful truths about ourselves? It would seem so. If we need to feel that we are significant and worthy people and our unalterable script tells us we’re not, we have a problem—a fatiguing quest after the transient feeling of worthiness.

The Biblical faith affirms that we do have a very real problem—God (and even our God-given human nature) has been offended by both our sin and our inadequate, self-absorbed attempts to atone for our sin through self-righteous acts and justifications. We have covered ourselves with fig leaves in the form of accomplishments hoping that this would obscure the offense and silence the guilt and shame. When this failed to work, we ran from God and refused to meet Him in the light of true confession. And we have been running ever since.

However, He paid the price through mutilation by our human hands so that we wouldn’t have to suffer mutilation at His hands or even our own hands. If we are convinced that Christ has paid the price for our sins in full and that nothing will separate us from His love and forgiveness, then the sense of guilt and shame and the need to continually prove ourselves is neutralized.

Bradshaw claims that “By being aware of the dynamics of shame, by naming it, we gain some power over it” (23). He’s right if by “being aware of the dynamics of shame” he means understanding that we have a real-live sin problem that only grace can adequately address. We do have to “name it” by confessing it, not in denying it or by covering it over by self-atonement or good deeds. Good deeds do play their very vital role, but not as a ploy to deny our guilt. As rain falls from clouds, so must forgiveness come from God. Any attempt to forgive ourselves is nothing short of masturbation and a refusal to grapple with the objective offense of our sins.

Martin Luther subjected himself to the most extreme and painful disciplines trying to earn God’s love. However, in the midst of his studies, the concept of grace and reconciliation through Christ suddenly came alive as never before. In his Commentary on the Book of Galatians, he wrote,

“Although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would satisfy Him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather murmured against Him…Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement, “The just shall live by his faith” [Rom 1:17]. Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Therefore I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through the doors into paradise.”

Luther discovered something that many of us have discovered—the Word of God is transformational! It and the God who gave it are the necessary antidote for masochism in its various forms. I still don’t enjoy taking long showers, but I no longer experience the need to prove my worthiness by keeping them under the three minute limit. In contrast to the reassurances of many psychologists that I was a “great guy,” it was only the Word of Christ that was able to convince me of this and free me from my internal shackles.

When we reject the gift of God’s righteousness procured on the Cross, we condemn ourselves to endlessly purpose our own righteousness, like Sisyphus self-condemned to push his boulder. When we fail to receive this payment for sin, we likewise sentence ourselves to lives of masochism, endlessly trying to pay off a debt that is far beyond our means to ever satisfy. Consequently, we are always paying, always pushing, always trying to prove ourselves.

In retrospect, I find it so remarkable that Jesus’ death on the Cross is the only antidote for humanity’s obsessions. It’s also the perfect piece to complete the jigsaw puzzle presented by our confused lives. Pleasure seeking, denial, and masochism each had failed to fill the gap. This forces us to ask the question, “Why is there is such an incredible fit between this Bible-centered event that occurred 2000 years ago and my mental well-being?” Perhaps, Christ is the missing piece!

The Meaning of Life

What’s life about? For many, it’s about proving to themselves and to the world that they are a “somebody.” Some call it “self-actualization.” The late and influential psychologist, Abraham Maslow, made this term an emblem for the “me-generation.” According to psychiatrist Sally Satel, Maslow maintained that, in order to flourish,

"Human beings must first satisfy their basic needs for food, water, shelter, and safety. As soon as these basic needs are met, a new set emerges: “belonging needs” and “esteem needs”…Individuals who felt safe, loved, and confident…could then move on to a higher state of creative or ethical being…" (One Nation Under Therapy, 60)

This is Maslow’s arduous ladder to success that must be climbed and endured if we are going to become “self-actualized.” It’s essentially up to us. However,

"Maslow claimed that only a small percentage of human beings, no more than 2 percent manage to reach this higher stage of being." (61)

Consequently, 98 percent represent the losers—a painful and discouraging thought to those of us who want to be the “somebodies.” (Maslow continues to remain popular, but that’s among the multitudes who all regard themselves as part of the 2 percent! Such is human denial!)

In contrast to this, in Christ, we are all important and beloved (Ephesians 3:17-20). We don’t have to worry if we’ll make it because we’ve arrived (Galatians 2:20)! It’s no longer about us, but about Him (Romans 8:31-32)! He has taken charge of our lives, and we represent His workmanship (Ephesians 2:10). We don’t have to worry whether we are good enough for this honor—and we aren’t!—because He has given us the gift of His righteousness:

"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor. 5:21)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Secular vs. Christian Counseling

A friend asked me to explain the difference between secular and Christian counseling. I’m sure that my response must have seemed quite judgmental. I accused secular, humanistic counseling of being essentially religious. However, I’m scarcely alone in this assessment. In One Nation Under Therapy, psychiatrist Sally Satel and ethicist Christina Sommers make the same indictment:

"At the heart of therapism [the no-fault, disease-pathology philosophy of psychotherapy] is the revolutionary idea that psychology can and should take the place of ethics and religion. Recall Abraham Maslow’s elated claim that the new psychologies of self-actualization were offering a “religion surrogate,” that could change the world. He had “come to think of this humanist trend in psychology as a revolution in the truest, oldest sense of the word…new conceptions of ethics and values.” Carl Rogers then looked upon group therapy as a kind of earthly paradise—a “state where all is know and all accepted.” The sixties and seventies were heady times for Maslow and Rogers. They were promoting a visionary realignment of values, away from the Judeo-Christian ethic, in the direction of what they regarded as a science of self-actualization." (217)

Secular, humanistic psychotherapy (SHP) is not only a religion, it is also a religion at odds with Scripture. I will try to demonstrate this. However, in doing so, I will have to resort to generalizations, which will not accurately describe all the therapists in the secular/humanistic camp. Nevertheless, I think these generalizations do capture the core essence of this religion.

1. While SHP understands us as a product of nature and nurture (genetics and environment), in other words, a pathological result, Scripture sees a broader, more creative process at work, which includes our own choices. Fundamentally, many of our struggles are self-caused. We reject the light in favor of the darkness (John 3:19-20), bringing upon ourselves all manner of ills (Romans 1:21-32; Proverbs 1:29-32). By rejecting God’s gift of righteousness, we condemn ourselves to pursuing a non-existent alternative righteousness, significance, and self-esteem resulting in self-justification and denial.

2. While the secular approach is client-centered, the Biblical is God-centered, acknowledging that God is the source of everything good and the ultimate answer to whatever our problem (Romans 8:31-32). Meanwhile, SHP claims that the answer is in us. Actually, the Christian counselor starts where the sufferer is (1 Corinthians 9:19-22) and later lead them to higher ground.

3. Consequently, while SHP tries to build a self-trust based upon self-esteem and behavioral mastery over fears and other conflicts, the Biblical rejects self-trust in favor of trusting in God alone (Psalm 62). Self-trust opposes the Gospel. Jesus instructed His followers that they could do nothing without Him (John 15:4-5; also Jeremiah 17:5-7; 2 Cor. 3:5). Furthermore, those who trust in themselves have fallen from grace (Gal. 5:2-4).

4. While SHP seeks to exalt the client, Scripture counsels humbling ourselves to the truth of our brokenness and need, trusting that God will exalt us (Luke 18:14; James 4:10).

5. While SHP is focused on symptomology and, in the short run, feeling better about oneself, Scripture is primarily focused on truth and thinking correctly (John 8:31-32).

6. Consequently, SHP is about affirming the self, while Scripture is about affirming God and His truth, and only secondarily, who we are in Him! SHP focuses on improving the client’s performance and feelings about oneself, while Scripture’s focus is upon performing for God, knowing that He will, in the long run, take care of our needs better than we can (Matthew 6:33).

7. SHP emphasizes self-expression, while Scripture emphasizes self-control and virtue.

8. SHP tends to be non-judgmental and tolerant of just about all forms of expression. Scripture maintains that truth has to guide all of our thinking and behaving. Underlying this distinction, SHP resorts to the disease model. In the same way that we are not responsible for contracting cancer, we are also not responsible for our problematic behaviors. Scripture has a higher view of humankind, and therefore we must take responsibility for our lives.

9. Because SHP is all about mitigating symptomology, it has little tolerance or understanding of the role of suffering. Consequently, it fails to be able to embrace the totality of our experience. Scripture however recognizes the need for suffering (2 Cor. 4:7-11), thereby helping us to accept it.

Tragically, the Church has failed to detect this SHP stealth virus as it has entered, pushed aside and denigrated the Gospel. Professor of religion, Philip Jenkins, writes:

"During the 1970’s and 1980’s, psychological values and assumptions permeated the religious world no less than the secular culture…But an intellectual chasm separates the assumptions of traditional churches from those of mainstream therapy and psychology. The medicalization of wrongdoing sharply circumscribes the areas in which clergy can appropriately exercise their professional jurisdiction, and this loss of acknowledged expertise to therapists and medical authorities at once symbolizes and accelerates a substantial decline in the professional status of priests and ministers." (“Opinion: The Uses of Clerical Scandal,” First Things, 1996, 60.)

Sadly, SHP also diminishes the Gospel, abruptly informing us that healing is only in the hands of the mental health professional. Nevertheless, I believe that there’s a lot we can learn from others. When Anita needed additional computer skills, I was all in favor of her taking some computer course offered by NY State. However, I find little that we can profitably borrow from SHP.