Beyond Suffering or Sin?

Everybody has something that they do not like about their job. I am no different. Don’t get me wrong. I like being a therapist and seeing people move from a position of hopelessness to healing, and I believe that a lot of good has come out of the advancements in psychology over the last several decades. I even think that, to some degree, the introduction of psychological principles and ideas to the mainstream media has benefited a multitude of people in both their individual and relational lives. There is a lot of good that has come of this field of study.

However, when I look at psychology as a field, what really bothers me is the humanistic and atheistic foundation of my profession. I know I cannot change that. I don’t intend to. Freud and many of the pioneers of psychology were atheists. It’s only to be expected that they would create a field of study that resonates with their worldview. But as a devout Christian, I sometimes find it difficult to integrate the psychological principles that define how to practice my profession with the theological principles that define how to live my life. I imagine I am not alone in this struggle. Of the five major world religions, only Hinduism (which can most easily absorb other worldviews into its system) and Buddhism (which most closely parallels the foundational thinking of psychology) will potentially not struggle with this psychology/theology integration issue.

For instance, Christians and Jews both learn in Jeremiah 17:9-10 the following truth: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”

On one hand this passage seems to validate psychology and the efforts it is trying to accomplish. After all, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is 991 pages long. But on the other hand, this passage seems to torpedo the entire notion of self-help, because if every heart is (at its core) deceitful and desperately sick, then reliance on any person, including your self, for deliverance is a foolish idea. Additionally, if only the LORD can accurately search the heart and test the mind, then what hope is there for the American Psychiatric Association or your local counselor?

The word “psychology” comes from two Greek roots, psyche and logos, that literally mean “the study of the spirit.” As a profession we have historically leaned towards the “study” side and away from the “spirit” side. Again, this does not surprise me because of the foundational leaders within the field. But if we are being honest, it is not only atheists who are “stuck” on the study side. Christians and other people of faith reside here as well. As a species with “deceitful” and “desperately sick” hearts we can codify behaviors that present specific patterns and label the grouping as a “disorder” and the patterned behaviors as “symptoms.” We can evaluate and diagnose based on those groupings and symptoms. We can even study different methodologies to see which one most effectively alleviates these symptoms. But all of our efficacy ends here. In other words, we can quantify how the physical, intellectual, and emotional experiences coalesce to shape a person, but we do so at expense of ignoring the spiritual component of people. This may not present a problem to those who do not acknowledge or believe in God. But to a person of faith, such as myself, this appears to be an egregious error. It is as if we have placed three tires on the car but ignored the need for a fourth.

Some try to rectify this issue by recognizing that a client’s spirituality is “true for them” and by giving the client opportunity to discuss how their issues intersect their faith. While this is often done in an attitude of respectful tolerance, it doesn’t always come across that way. Often it appears as if the counselor is either placating the spiritual person in order to move the process of counseling forward, or minimizing the confluence of the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual rivers of their life. To the Christian this is especially true, because the attitude that spirituality is “true for you” relegates our faith to an arena of postmodern relativism that we are unwilling to accept. Not because we are intolerant, bigoted pigs, but because to us Truth is a Person, specifically the person of Jesus Christ. To tell us that our spirituality is “true for us” seems to equate our faith in Jesus Christ to Jimmy Stewart’s faith in Harvey the Rabbit, that is to say that it is based on an individual’s perception of reality, rather than on an overarching Absolute that both describes reality and prescribes how to live within it. When this occurs, it feels neither respectful nor tolerant.

That is not to say that non-spiritual people are unhelpful with their spiritual clients. Several psychological modalities teach us professionals how to help our clients alleviate suffering and do it effectively. But it does highlight a major gap between those who approach life with a psychological point of view and those who approach life with a theological point of view. In the most simplistic terms, psychology seeks to alleviate suffering through natural means, or things that can be done within one’s self, such as self-denial, personal insight, or behavior modification (to name a few). Christianity, on the other hand, seeks to change the quality and function of a person’s soul by eradicating sin. This is done through supernatural means, most specifically through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins (what Christians call justification). This justification for our sins gives us God’s Holy Spirit within us in place of our old sinful one and begins a lifelong process of the Holy Spirit guiding and purifying us so that we becoming more and more like Christ (what Christians call sanctification).

Sanctification can look a lot like psychology as it may implement strategies of self-denial, personal insight, or behavior modification. However, it differs significantly in one main way: Psychology begins with the desired result, tries to teach how to do and maintain the result, but respects the individualism of the person so much that their core remains relatively unchanged. Christianity begins with the core, changes that, and then works from the inside outward so that those changes produce and maintain a “how” of doing life, which produces the desired result.

Additionally, Christians understand that suffering plays a unique role in their relationship with self, the sinful world, and Christ. Those who have adopted a biblical worldview remember that early church fathers often strengthened and encouraged new disciples of Christ by reminding them, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) This does not mean that Christians enjoy suffering or want to invite additional suffering into their lives, but they understand that suffering is a result of a fallen, sinful world, not just a conglomeration of choices that have been defined as “unhealthy”.

Suffering, for the Christian, is not to be avoided, as most modern thinking emphasizes. It is to be embraced. This is for two reasons. First, suffering is often the catalyst for the sanctification process, because it reorients us to a God-centered mentality and resizes our own view of our selves so that we confess as Paul did in Philippians 1:21 “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Suffering can teach, purify, and increase our understanding of God; and just like healthy conflict can improve a marriage or a friendship, so suffering can improve our relationship with God. For this reason we often find encouragement through the examples of biblical saints who have preceded us, for they provide an example of how to remain God-centric in the midst of suffering. Also, scriptures like James 1:2-3, 1 Peter 1:14-16, and 1 Peter 2:11-23 do not encourage alleviation of suffering but a specific type of living in the midst of it.

This type of Christ-like living is encouraged for the second reason of embracing suffering: to promote Christ and invite others into a relationship with Him. If Christians endure suffering like their non-Christian friends/relatives, then there is no distinction between how we live and how they live. But when a Christian embraces suffering and demonstrates that the power of God is working through them to produce a joy or a righteousness that is independent of their circumstances, then other people take notice of this strange response. It becomes intriguing to them and can, in some cases, make them acknowledge that only God could be working through you to accomplish what they are witnessing. Embracing suffering is not easy but it does promote Christ as it removes the element of trusting one’s self and instead trusts in God to do a work that has never before been witnessed. To be clear, though, this may or may not include the removal of suffering in your life, or even the alleviation of it. It may, instead, accomplish only the exaltation of Christ.

Again, this does not mean that psychology is useless. It only means that as a Christian (or a Christian counselor for that matter) one must decide how to approach and handle suffering. Will it be with a psychologized theology, focused more on alleviating emotional pain, or will it be a theologized psychology where biblical principles and worldviews take precedence over those of man? This is the choice I have to daily fight. It is not one I enjoy, but I have hope that as I embrace this struggle, it will both purify my soul as well as my counseling. Perhaps this makes sense to you. Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps you think it is just the ramblings of local blogger. Either way, it is my hope that in the small struggle of work I can learn wisdom that will be helpful to both myself and my clients that extends beyond the sufferings of this life only. As the apostle Paul says in 1st Corinthians 15:19:

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

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One thought on “Beyond Suffering or Sin?

  1. Mark, I’m so glad you entered this field and I’m sure you are helping many people. If it matters to you, just know I pray for you every day. Christian counselors like yourself can analyze and diagnose a person’s difficulties – AND share important personal experience as to how Christ is changing you to be more what God can bless in your life.

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