The Bible, The Church and Psychology

This may be the first post where I don’t really draw a conclusion nor state a strong opinion. That is because it is one thing I have been struggling to get my arms and head around for years. I’m hoping this post may be useful to start some dialogues toward a better understanding. The issue is this. The bible talks about behaviors and also addresses why we misbehave. It even addresses extreme behaviors identifying spiritual and demonic causes. On the other hand psychology studies behaviors, mental and emotional states and also proposes reasons and solutions. This to me seems to be a large overlapping grey area.

Many churches and Christians now defer to psychology placing more faith in its “scientific approach”. But many fail to realize that as a science it lacks many of the rigors of physics, chemistry and even biology. For example in those struggling with depression they find a chemical imbalance in the brain. One would think, “Oh well there is the cause”, but it is really an assumption of cause. It could very well be the effect of something else. Because emotional states cannot be measured; they must be communicated. Therefore cause and effect relationships cannot be rigorously established.

In modern psychology the naturalistic paradigm assumes that all behaviors must have physical experiential causes and therefore physical solutions. From personal experience dealing with my own children struggling with ADHD, after years of denial and mistakes I had to accept the reality of such a mental disability having behavioral consequences.

Naturalistic psychology denies the metaphysical but as Christians we believe in the metaphysical. Though the metaphysical or spiritual cannot be measured it can and does often affect the physical.

innerbeing

In this diagram Christians accept what is both above and below the physical divide. Naturalistic psychology only accepts what is below the divide. In the past Christians may have tended to lean toward metaphysical causes for behavioral issues while giving less consideration to the effects of the physical which wasn’t the best course. Now many are leaning the other way. So then how are Christians to discern what is caused by that which is above the divide from that which is caused by the physical below the divide.

Let us consider some examples.

In Mark 9:14-29 Jesus comes upon a boy who is mute, has seizures, and often tries to throw himself into a fire to cause personal harm. Jesus commands the unclean spirit to leave. The disciples ask why they couldn’t cast it out to which he says “this kind only comes out with prayer.” Today this child might have been diagnosed with epilepsy and self-injury disorder.

In Mark 5:1-2 Jesus comes upon a man living in a graveyard. The man is violent and when bound he breaks even chains used to bind him. Jesus talks to the unclean spirits and then commands them to come out. Today this man may be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder or some other disorder. I heard of a middle school student diagnosed with spectrum disorder who is often agitated and violent and tore a drinking fountain off the wall.

Does Jesus response necessarily infer that these symptoms are always prescriptive of an unclean spirit? Maybe not necessarily, but then how are we to discern? If we always defer to a physical or mental cause then some may be condemned to a life of spiritual torment. These are some examples of extreme circumstances. Other less extreme ones include:

In James 1:13-15 speaks about temptation to sin. In Matthew 21:28-31 Jesus tells of a son asked to work who says yes but then doesn’t and a second son who says no but regretted and did the work. Jesus asked which obeyed to which they all agreed the second son. I’ve experienced this in Boy Scouts working with scouts having ADHD off to do what is asked and later found distracted by other things. The bible speak of discipline in Proverbs including both penal and verbal rebuke to dissuade bad behavior. But some schools of Psychology propose that all psychosis or tendencies to bad behavior are the result of past trauma. Therefore discipline such as punitive action is traumatic and only positive reinforcement and encouragement should be enacted.  However this is in direct conflict with scriptures statement that we are by nature sinful and that if sin isn’t punished our hearts will scheme to do more evil (Ecc 8:11).

There are more examples in scripture which may be compared to modern society and psychology. And in many cases there are contrasting views and responses between scripture and psychology. But many questions still remain how to discern spiritual from physical causes. How to discern whether punitive or positive redirection is required. How to discern spiritual causes for behavior along with or apart from those caused by mental disabilities. Its a difficult topic but one the church should address while not giving in to the temptation to defer to modern sensibilities.