When Christianity Meets Psychology

Should Christians be willing to receive counselling or psychological treatment from a non-Christian practitioner?

This is one of the questions posed in my upcoming book, Down Not Out.

I believe that all things being equal, a Christian person would ideally see a Christian counsellor - a person who shares their worldview and will speak from that position.

But of course, not all things are equal. One practitioner might charge too much money for the person to afford. Maybe you live in a rural area where you simply have to receive the support available.

Or, like me, as an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital, you simply don’t get to choose your medical support team.

And so, we need to cultivate discernment. I was once told by a non-Christian psychologist that I should completely cut out a person in my life who they deemed unhelpful to my mental health. As a Christian, I couldn’t reconcile this advice with the call to love a neighbour who was not exercising abusive behaviour.

But it’s hard to have discernment when we’re struggling to know up from down and day from night in the midst of depression and anxiety.

Enter the world of biblical counselling. In his book, Effective Biblical Counseling, Dr. Larry Crabb very helpfully asks the question, ‘Christianity and Psychology: Enemies or Allies’?

Dr. Crabb proposes three flawed models of how Christianity and Psychology ought not to interact:

Model 1: Separate But Equal

This model asserts that the Bible is to deal with solely spiritual matters and is not concerned with the physical. So, for matters of faith we go to the Bible and for matters of physical wellbeing we go to doctors/psychologists. In other words, the Bible has nothing to say on many aspects of life. But Dr. Crabb himself points out this flaw:

Psychological malfunctions usually consist of stem problems like guilt, anxiety, resentment…Even the most casual reading of Scripture quickly reveals that it has a great deal to say about these sorts of problems.
— Dr. Larry Crabb, Effective Biblical Counseling, p.34

Model 2: Tossed Salad

Another option is that we try to take the best of Christianity and the best of Psychology and blend them together like we would the ingredients of a salad. The problem with this model is that it fails to deal with the kind of advice I received as a Christian to cut somebody out of my life. What if the best of psychology contradicts the best of Christianity? How do we know what wins out? The tossed salad model quickly becomes problematic and confusing.

Model 3: Nothing Buttery

This model represents what many in the first generation of biblical counselling concluded - that the Bible is all we need and psychology brings little, if anything to true healing from depression and anxiety. Crabb points out that the flaw of this is that it places sole emphasis on human behaviour. By ignoring the legitimate physiological reasons why people can struggle with mental illness, the Nothing Buttery approach essentially assumes that a little more faith will ensure healing and restoration.

In my experience, both personally and as a pastor, I believe the reality is there is always a mix of a heart problem and a brain problem, and for holistic restoration to be cultivated, it would be wise to hit depression and anxiety from both of these angles.

The Alternative Solution: Spoiling the Egyptians

And so, what do we do? Like Dr. Crabb, I believe Christianity and Psychology can dwell together.

This model makes reference to Moses’ departure from Egypt, where he took goods from the Egyptians to sustain Israel on their travels. But while those goods brought blessing, Israel also took many false worship practices of Egypt. In other words, they were wise to take some things, but not others.

Why relate this to mental health? Because we ought to take some of the things we have learned from psychology, but not everything. In other words, we need to show discernment. Crabb is realistic when he concludes that:

The job of careful screening is no easy matter. In spite of the best of intentions to remain biblical, it is frighteningly easy to admit concepts into our thinking which compromise biblical content.
— Dr. Larry Crabb, Effective Biblical Counseling, p. 48

How do we avoid falling into an accidental trap of the tossed salad approach? We remind ourselves of the complete authority of scripture - that it is God’s wisdom and love spelled out for us.

Made in the image of God, even non-Christian psychologists will exhibit his wisdom with what they have learned about the brain which he has designed. But theirs, like ours, is a wisdom that is seen through veiled lenses.

And so, we would be wise to engage in what psychology has taught us about matters of mental health. But true biblical counselling means that when psychology contradicts scripture, we must believe and trust that God’s ways are higher and greater.

So how are we to be discerning? First, we grow in deeper knowledge and love of God’s word. Knowing God allows us to say yes at certain times and no at others. He has shown himself in the truths of Scripture. We can take confidence in the Spirit to remind and convict us of this truth, and so we don’t have to rely on our own wisdom to work out the difference between right and wrong. Like Paul, we can pray for discernment (Philippians 1 v 10). If you are new in your faith, or there are areas of advice you feel unsure about, it may be helpful to sit down with a pastor or Christian mentor and examine what has been discussed in a counselling session. God gives us his word, and he also gives us one another to help live out the truths of Scripture.
— Down Not Out, pp. 94-95