“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.” (Psalm 1:1-2)
One time I spoke to the Evangelical Theological Society on the theme “The Behavioral Sciences Under the Authority of Scripture.” I told the delegates that while we sat and debated the finer points of theology, the pastors and missionaries had left us for the psychologists and anthropologists. To illustrate I told them of two recent classes at our school, Columbia Biblical Seminary. A small upstairs class of twelve students met with the dean of evangelical theologians, Carl F. H. Henry, while downstairs in the auditorium 120 students met with a newly minted psychologist, Larry Crabb. That was a paradigm for the future, I told them. And so it proved to be.
A quarter century later I was in a conference of several hundred pastors where I shared the platform with a world-renowned psychotherapist. In the breakout sessions he would deal with psychological issues for several hundred pastors and I would, by request, introduce the study course, Life in the Spirit, to a handful of pastors. As I taught, my mind wandered. I contemplated what psychology could do and what the Holy Spirit could do.
We accept with gratitude every advance of medical science and celebrate the ways in which our bodies feel better and last longer. But we don’t expect the doctor to give us eternal life. We have to go to the evangelist for that! But when it comes to counseling, somehow we tend to forget that deep and permanent healing and health of our inner person ultimately awaits the work of the Holy Spirit. For the most part, we aren’t doing our behavioral sciences under the authority of Scripture.
At one point at Columbia Biblical Seminary we needed to find professors of counseling/psychology who were actually doing their work under the authority of Scripture. The search was not easy. I developed a check list of key questions to test the extent to which a prospective teacher did his work under the authority of Scripture. When the reader needs to choose a counselor, perhaps these questions will guide the choice.
- Who needs professional counseling? When the response is that the majority of people have their “trusters” or “choosers” broken so they cannot obey the injunctions of Scripture until the professional “fixes” them, I think, “It’s too bad the Holy Spirit didn’t know that and make provision in Scripture.” When the candidate responds that they do their work on the assumption that, with the Holy Spirit’s enabling, anyone can understand, trust, and obey Scripture, unless there are organic reasons for the dysfunction, I know we have a candidate who attempts to do counseling under the authority of Scripture.
- What are the major causes of dysfunctional attitudes and behavior? If the answers are limited to early environment and present circumstances, and sin as the root cause is left out of the equation, I know we have a therapist who doesn’t do his work under the authority of Scripture.
- What are the major factors in what a person becomes? Here I’m fishing for the four basic factors Scripture teaches, not the single factor of environment, especially not environmental determinism. True, early environment is recognized in Scripture as a factor, as is the impact of inherited factors such as a sinful disposition. But far more than heredity and environment, Scripture emphasizes from start to finish two factors: human responsibility for choices made and the intervening grace of God. If these two factors do not dominate therapy, how can it be said to be under the authority of Scripture?
- Are feelings morally neutral? Of course, the therapist should not go to the other extreme and promote false guilt, when the subject is fighting off temptation, not sinning; and he should certainly promote honesty about one’s feelings. But to make all feelings morally neutral is to undercut a major emphasis of Scripture. The Bible holds the basic problem to be of “the heart” and the victory promised is not just for bad actions but a bad heart, yes, for wrong feelings.
- What is the goal of therapy? If the goal is diagnosis and developing coping strategies to modify behavior, and no hope is offered of supernatural transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit to ever greater likeness to Jesus, to a restored image, how can the therapy be of deep and lasting value? Naturalistically-based psychology can help in diagnosing the problem and helping develop strategies for more healthful attitudes and behavior, but is impotent to transform the essence of human nature. Restoration of God’s image isn’t in the objectives of most practitioners, yet that is the core message of Scripture.
- Is a person responsible when unable to change behavior? The Bible holds us responsible for our choices and what we become, but it does much more: it offers differing degrees of supernatural change.
- Are any common counseling or therapeutic techniques unacceptable for a Christian therapist? Many hold that none are off-limits if they work. Express your anger, it’s unhealthy to hold it in, use pornography, if necessary, to improve your marriage, lie if it’s the loving thing to do. But Scripture makes no such allowance for breaking ethical standards.
- How important is self-love to wholeness? This usually lies at the core of therapy, but to be under the authority of Scripture one must delve into two other loves – love for God, and love for others. My wife and I were reading a devotional book that insisted we are commanded to love ourselves. I asked for the references, and she read them off. All were repeats of the command to love others – “love your neighbors as you love yourselves.”
How might you use these questions to bring consciously and constantly to the bar of Scripture evaluation of the validity of church-based counseling and preaching/teaching?