Psychoanalysis has been no friend to religion. Sigmund Freud regarded it as no more than a “childhood neurosis” and even worse:
· The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life. It is still more humiliating to discover how a large number of people living today, who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions. (Civilization and Its Discontents,1930)
Therefore, psychoanalysis failed to give it any credibility as an aid in treatment. However, many therapists now recognize the need to take faith seriously and respectfully. Alan Fontana and Robert Rosenheck wrote about those who have experienced severe traumas:
· One of the most pervasive effects of traumatic exposure is the challenge that people experience to their existential beliefs concerning the meaning and purpose of life. (“Trauma, Change in Strength of Religious Faith, and Mental Health Service Use among Veterans Treated for PTSD,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 192, 9 (2004): 579)
If we are flesh and blood, we have to seek flesh and blood solutions to our problems. However, if we are also moral and spiritual beings, then these dimensions must be addressed, and even more so if this is the presenting concern of the client:
· Pursuit of mental health services appears to be driven more by their guilt and the weakening of their religious faith than by the severity of their PTSD symptoms or their deficits in social functioning.
· A primary motivation of veterans’ continuing pursuit of treatment may be their search for a meaning and purpose to their traumatic experiences.
While Freud regarded feelings guilt as an artifact of evolution, perhaps even neurotic, at the least, these feelings require serious attention. A.A. Howsepian, assistant professor of psychiatry, UC San Francisco, writes:
· Guilt about one’s own perceived morally damaging combat actions is a significant additional risk factor for suicide in war veterans. (Christian Research Journal, Vol.36, Number 02, 23)
However, resolving guilt requires more than a therapist simply communicating, “You are a good person. Be gentle with yourself.” Counseling has to recognize that guilt is more than a feeling. Instead, it is like a fire alarm. It is not enough to turn the alarm off. The reality – the fire - that set the alarm off must be addressed. Feelings of guilt usually indicate that there is a fire raging somewhere. Sometimes, the fire is a matter of making reparations for the offense of the soldier. Howsepian affirmatively writes about Vietnam Veterans of America, an organization that seeks to help veterans heal by linking them up with humanitarian projects in Vietnam.
This program recognizes that there was a real and objective wrong that, at the least, must be restituted. Clearly, it is not enough to merely visualize helping victims – a technique of systematic desensitization. If guilt is real, it has to be addressed as such. If I cheat on my wife, and she finds out about it, it would not be appropriate to inform her that I feel better about the situation, having done some visualization exercises. Neither would it be enough for me to apologize by saying:
· I don’t really believe that I did anything wrong, but I feel bad because I can see that I hurt you. Therefore, I won’t cheat on you anymore.
This is a demeaning response. It fails to acknowledge that my wife has a legitimate grievance. It treats her feelings as if they are completely arbitrary, subjective and not reality-based. It conveys to her that she is simply not “enlightened” enough.
Even more importantly, if my morality and behavior merely depend upon feelings, then I will eventually return to the same tempting behaviors when the feelings change, which they will. Besides, if my wife goes out of town, and I think I can have a fling and get away with it, why not!
On top of this, my wife will never trust me. If I really don’t believe that my behavior is wrong in an objective sense, then she will realize that I lack sufficient motivation to resist future temptations.
Instead, contrition and confession offer the only real hope of forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is a complete and humble confession acknowledging real guilt, there is real healing and forgiveness. I’ve experienced this relief and reconciliation many times. Without this, the discomfort is so great that we are inevitably constrained to deny and rationalize our guilt.
If we refuse to acknowledge that our guilt feelings reflect very real transgressions, we block the possibility of an authentic reconciliation. When we don’t experience this reconciliation with our closest friends and family, it might also be that we don’t experience this on a divine level.
Therefore, we have everything to gain to consider the possibility that we have transgressed a higher moral principle. Admittedly, this idea can be terrifying. However, Scripture promises:
· If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)