Psychology and faith in God have been set up as sparring partners, but I believe they can be friends who help each other.
Let me be honest up front, as a provisional psychologist and an active Christian, I have a desire to see them as such. I listen to many comments from Christians who believe psychology has no place in the life of a Christian. If God knows everything about us and has all that we need, why do we need professional mental health clinicians to counsel us through our issues?
There is a concern from some Christians who believe that psychology presents itself as a rival world-view to Christianity, one that tells individuals they are fundamentally good and that they can do anything they want with their lives if they simply think and behave differently.
The concern is that psychology encourages people to do life without God, thinking they can manage things in their own strength.
Do Psychology and Christianity overlap?
Christianity explains the universe we live in and our place within that universe. On the other hand, psychology specifically explains the mind and behaviour. It is my belief that within a Christian world-view, psychology is a useful tool in helping us understand how our thoughts and emotions impact the way we live. I can gain understanding through psychology about how the unhelpful and irrational beliefs I hold are keeping me from achieving what God has called me to.
If you read enough of the Psalms, you'll notice these poetry and songs are full of emotions. Emotions have been given to us, by God, to experience him. If we were emotionless robots, could we have a meaningful relationship with God?
David often shares his thoughts with God in prayer and worship. In the New Testament, Paul's beliefs about what is important and not important in life inform his decisions. It is quite clear psychology simply works with concepts we see within the Bible, whether it is emotions, thoughts, beliefs, behaviours, etc.
The tension between psychology and Christianity most likely lies in a person's understanding of how psychology works with these concepts. Psychology often works with people to change (seemingly) unhelpful thinking patterns, yet these thinking patterns may be central to a Christian world-view and understandable within that framework.
For instance, my belief that without Jesus, I have nothing of meaning and can do nothing of meaning (John chapter 15, verse 5) may be seen by some psychologists as unhelpful. This belief could be seen as contributing to an unhealthy relationship whereby I am dependent on another person. However, this belief is obviously central to my faith, and without it, I would be held back from fully exercising my faith.
Whilst there are many differences between a biblical world-view and psychology, there are several ways in which they complement each other.
Psychology seeks to care for people holistically, which includes caring for their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Within Christianity we also see Jesus caring for people's physical, emotional and spiritual needs.
In 2 Corinthians chapter 10, verse 5 it says that "we take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ." In a similar way, psychology encourages people to consider their thoughts and whether they are helpful or unhelpful. Both psychology and Christianity want to see people restored and functioning at their full potential. Psychology can even help remove roadblocks preventing people from moving towards God.
I would suggest that psychology complements Christianity. Not only that, but psychology mirrors many of the things that Christianity talks about.
Should Christians ever go to see a Psychologist/Counsellor?
Some people may be sitting on the fence, saying Christians should only see Christian psychologists or counsellors for help. The assumption being a therapist who is not a Christian will simply not be able to understand the different aspects of our faith. This may be true, however, seeing a psychologist who is not a Christian may still provide an opportunity to reflect on your thoughts and emotions, and consider how they are impacting your behaviour. Additionally, seeing a psychologist who is not a Christian may provide an excellent opportunity to verbalise what your faith means to you, therefore cementing thoughts of God's faithfulness and sovereignty in your mind.
If the issues you are facing are primarily of a spiritual nature, it may be more appropriate to see someone who is more experienced in matters such as these, such as your church pastoral care worker, or a Christian counsellor or Psychologist.
Aren't you just helping people to try and manage things on their own?
It is important to note that, as a psychologist in training, I am daily working out how my faith fits into my work. As psychologists, we are bound by a code of ethicsâthis prohibits me from utilising my personal views with clients. However, I do believe my faith impacts the way I work and the care I show in helping to challenge people's thoughts about things. I am sure this tension will continue throughout my career, and I trust in God to give me his wisdom.
Christian, go easy on us psychologists, we can't "fix" things. For those of us who are Christians too, please know we want to impact the world for Christ, we're just working out how to do it.
Sarah Young is completing her Masters in Clinical Psychology and loves spending time engaging with young people. She spends her spare time writing songs, running and going on adventures with her husband, James.
Sarah Young's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/sarah-young.html