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So, now on to our presentation today – Mental Health and the Bible.
The church I grew up in put forth a bias against things psychological. Some of the outliers there even thought it was – if I can use this word – devilish. This series here is to help Christian people understand where the Bible and psychology overlap each other and to help people understand where it might help them or their families and friends.
When I went back to school to study psychology, one of the greatest concerns I had, in fact, regarded the integration of any psychological knowledge that I might learn with the Bible. So, did psychology and the Bible match up at any points? Or did the Bible say one thing and psychology something else about the human mind and human nature and all the things that are of concern to us, as Christians?
Well, what I learned is this: many psychological theories conflict with each other and some of them conflict with the Bible. But, in the program I went to, I was taught to stick to the enduring theories. And that made sense to me. They endured, I was told, because they work. They were helpful to people. That’s why they wanted us to stick with those. And the people that I had teaching me were all in private practice, which is very unusual in today’s educational system. So they knew what worked and what didn’t, just from their experience. I also noticed, as I started to learn and focus in on these enduring theories, that, for the most part, they were also – generally speaking – compatible with the Bible. And that also made a lot of sense to me. They worked because they were, for the most part, in accordance with revealed biblical truth about the way the human mind works. There’s an old saying: “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and then.” Even without God, we can stumble across things that work, because we’ve stumbled across a principle that’s in accordance with the One who made the human mind.
So let’s now take a look at four ways of thinking about the human mind from a psychological point of view and see how they might square with scripture. These four things that I’m going to talk to you about are just sort of fundamentals of psychology today. I want you to notice – as we examine these elements – that we’re talking about how the human mind works. So we’re talking about something that’s fundamental – foundational.
Why would this be of value? “What would we care about psychodynamic theory?” some Christians might say. “We have the Bible.” Well, let’s see if we’ve ever noticed these things in the Bible. And let’s see if noticing them can be helpful to us. I found it extremely helpful to me, personally, to think about what’s been in the Bible all along that I never thought much about before. It’s like looking at the Bible from a different perspective. And that caused me to see things that were there all along that I had just read over. So, it’s been good for my understanding of the Bible and also for my mental health. I hope it will be helpful to you for the same reasons – for your understanding of the Bible and also for yourself and others around you.
Okay, four elements. Here’s the first one: the concept of the unconscious.
Have you ever had someone point out to you that you were drumming your fingers on the table, and you weren’t aware of it at all, until they pointed it out to you? That’s an example of how our minds work. What’s causing our fingers to drum on the table? Well, out mind is. It controls everything, doesn’t it? You know, if I talk about your breathing, you weren’t aware of that until I mentioned it, and now you can be. In fact, 90% of what’s going on in our heads is unconscious process. And aren’t we glad that’s the case? We’d all go bonkers with breathing, and past memory and present all at once. We do things all the time that we’re not aware of. Besides breathing, our minds think, and emote, and retain attitudes that we’re not conscious of. Let me give you an example:
I mentioned previously that I used to work in a large urban church with lots of teenagers in it. And when I first moved there, they would stand off from the adults before and after church. They’d be out in the hall, up against the walls, backs away from the crowd. And they weren’t aware of the fact that they were standing off from others, because they didn’t feel a part of them. That was just them unconsciously acting out how they were feeling. As they felt connected – which they did eventually – they started to move into and interact with the group as a whole. And they didn’t intend that either. It just happened, because that’s also an example of unconscious behavior.
Now there are good things about having part of our mind that functions unconsciously. A woman, who unconsciously marries a guy who is just like her father, whom she dearly loves might make a really good choice because of that. On the other hand, the more a person’s behavior is influenced by unrecognized impulses, the more prone we are to encounter problems in living. Suppose our father was an alcoholic or an abuser. And suppose we unconsciously marry somebody that’s just like our dad. Then it’s a problem, isn’t it? So the problematic part of the unconscious is that there is a whole aspect of the mind that’s capable of controlling our behavior, and yet, we’re not aware of it. And that can be either good or it can be a problem. It can also include a person’s relationship with God, couldn’t it.
Okay, let’s move to the second principle that I wanted to mention: conflict and defense. Let me explain that to you.
All mentally healthy people have a conscience. It’s like a moral compass, isn’t it? When we contemplate doing things that violate our conscience, or when we actually do them, that creates an internal conflict. The conflict creates anxiety. People tend to defend themselves against anxiety, because it’s unpleasant. So there’s always a tension in the human mind over what we want to do and what we think we ought to do.
To complicate things more, all our consciences contain distortions from the conscience of God. We often feel guilty for things that God really wouldn’t hold us accountable for. For example, I used to feel guilty when I didn’t go to church on Sunday as a kid. God wasn’t condemning me for that, but I condemned myself. I was conflicted about it on the weeks that I wouldn’t go to church on Sunday. So that’s an example of how our consciences contain divergence from the conscience of God.
Now, for people who don’t believe in God, this isn’t really a problem for them. But for those of us who are Christians, it is, because our conscience has been modified since we became a part of God’s family. You know, one person might feel guilty for setting up chairs on the Sabbath at church, while another one wouldn’t. Or, others wouldn’t feel guilty about setting up chairs, unless they were not set up straight. Some of us have been taught erroneously, when we were children, little girls should always love their mothers – translated by the child as, little girls should never be angry with their mothers. What does the Bible say? Well, it says, “Children should honor their parents,” but it doesn’t say anything about not being angry with them, does it? It says instead, “We should be angry and sin not,” and we should not hold on to anger, but it seems that the Bible is quite clear that people do get angry.
So that little girl, who is angry with her mother, grows up conflicted about her feelings toward her mom. “I know I shouldn’t be angry with my mother” – which really isn’t true. Her conflict is based on something that’s not true. And that creates anxiety in her. Usually people don’t feel a certain way toward somebody without some seed of causation there. The anxiety is unpleasant, so the little girl makes her anger unconscious, so she doesn’t have to feel the anxiety. That’s the defense. Conflict and defense.
So, driving something down into the unconscious – repressing it – is the defense. We can see how conflict and defense work with the unconscious mind. The defense – quite a lot of the time – is make things unconscious.
So this is all unconscious with her. She’s the picture of the caring daughter. She goes over and takes care of her mother and helps her – spends time with her – and does that, and gets a migraine every time, because there’s all these unresolved, unconscious anxiety and anger present within her – unknown to her. The defense she’s employed doesn’t really work for her, does it? She’s traded anxiety for a migraine. Wouldn’t she be a lot better off if she came to terms with the feelings about her mother, instead of keeping things under wraps, so to speak?
Okay, well, that’s the second one. The third one is the experiencing self, the observing self. There are two aspects of the mind that can be thought of as the continuum. I’m going to talk about the two extremes and you can imagine what’s in between.
All human beings have the capacity to experience themselves. And they also – at the other side of it – have the capacity to observe themselves. Now, experiencing ourselves has to do with our feelings and with our behavior. And observing ourselves has to do with self-analysis and evaluation.
People, who are primarily experiencers, do what they feel without a lot of self-examination. You may know people like that – you know, whatever flits through their mind comes out of their mouth or shows up in some sort of behavior. People, who are primary observers, tend to weigh and monitor without much tolerance for spontaneity. Those who are over on the left side – monitoring side – use the judging, comparing, weighing, evaluating, analyzing side of the mind. And they tend to focus on others, too, so they can tend to be judgmental and hard-hearted toward other people.
A sixteen-year-old came to my office many years ago, and I said, “What can I do to help you?” And he looked at me sheepishly, and he said, “I threw a rock at a police car.” And I said, “How can I help you with that?” And he said, “I need you to help me learn to think about stuff before I do it.” This boy already knew that he needed to slow down on the experiencing and ramp up on the self-monitoring side. So, do you see what I’m talking about now? People get out of balance in these things and it causes them all kinds of problems.
On the other side of it, another client told me – at his intake – that he suffered from analysis paralysis. He was always overthinking all his actions and was fearful of taking important steps. His manager was telling him at work that he needed to step it up and make some decisions at work.
So, both of these are good aspects of life, but being without the opposing aspect leads to problems. So, this is the way the human mind works. I’m sure you’re aware of the desires that you have, and then the evaluation that goes on regarding whether to do them or not. By the way, which kind of person would tend toward the more strict type of churches? And which kind of person might be more oriented toward the more liberal – you know, easy-going – type of churches?
So it is helpful for me to recognize that when we choose a church and worship accordingly, at least in part and unconsciously, we go toward what our personality is like and what kind of person we are – what we feel comfortable with. It’s kind of scary really, you know. That’s why God wants us to start to become like Him, so we can become balanced. Now notice, also, it’s possible, using these three constructs we’ve talked about already, to talk about humans without a godly or moral element to them. But what would they look like if we added the Bible to the mix? Do these three ways of looking at mental function square with the Bible?
Let’s look at the last one of them and just keep that question in mind. If you think of the elements I’ve mentioned already, you can think of it as a triangle. There’s the observing self, the experiencing self, and the self – “It’s me” – that’s the one that I’m talking to and the one taking this in. So there are three elements there that we can think about. Freud called them the ego, the id, and the super-ego. There are all kinds of take-offs on this down through the ages – psycho-dynamic therapy – there’s a lot of them.
So what does the Bible have to say about the triangle of self, the experiencing versus observing self, the conflict and defense, and the unconscious? Well, it doesn’t mention them by name, because these are humanly devised constructs. I say, “Devised….” They came about by observation of what is pretty obvious by most people. But here are some biblical concepts. Let’s go to Jeremiah 17:9. It says:
Jeremiah 17:9 – The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked – or actually, sick, is the way that word should be translated. In the ESV, it does translate it that way. And then it asks, Who can understand it?
When we read this scripture, the first thing I think about is the ability to repress things into our unconscious – you know, the little girl who didn’t want to think of herself as a bad person because she was angry with her mama, so she wouldn’t let herself think about it. The things that we don’t want to admit, or face, or feel, we can “forget.” I’m putting quotes around that word, forget. And this makes us, as seen here, sick. That’s exactly what psychology says. Defenses work for us when we’re little and we can’t do anything else, but when we grow up, they become problems to us.
Have you ever wondered why there are so many jokes about shrinks? Well, it’s the same reason there are so many jokes about lawyers. Nobody wants to go there. We just want to keep things submerged, hidden, under wraps. Let the back stuff stay where it is and don’t bother with it.
Okay, the next one – 1 Timothy 4:2:
1 Timothy 4:2 – …speaking lies and hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron.
We tend to sear over the conflict within. We keep it repressed. There’s that unconscious thing working again. And the point there is, that the Bible is full of references to the conscience, the observing/evaluating part of the human heart – you know, we don’t like the evaluation, so we just don’t think about it. And if we’re unwilling to listen to it, we can sear it over and drive that stuff down inside, where we don’t have to deal with it – at least, consciously. All those things come out in our behavior though, and then our life is messed up because of it.
The third thing to read is in 2 Corinthians 10, starting in verse 4, where Paul said:
2 Corinthians 10:4-6 – For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh. They’re not Abrams tanks, and missile launchers, and automatic weapons. The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds. What’s that talking about? What strongholds? Well, he explains it. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish disobedience when your obedience is complete.
So there’s a war going on within us – conflict, in other words. So there’s that principle as well. The battle is not a physical battle in our mind. It’s the conflict. It’s thoughts, opinions and arguments – heart stuff, in other words – what’s going on inside us. And what’s the war about? Well, 1 John 2:16:
1 John 2:16 – For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh, and the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not from the Father, but is from the world.
That’s an interesting statement. You know, we talked about the experiencing self that wants to do the things of the body – you know, sexual pulls and eating and all that kind of stuff – having money and power – desire of the eyes and the pride of life. Okay? And it says that’s not from God. So somehow, that desire has been twisted. It’s a struggle between doing what we want and what is right for Christians.
So, those two parts of us, that cause the conflict – the experiencing self and the evaluating self – are part of biblical thought as well.
What is the Holy Spirit interface in all this? When somebody is baptized, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit – God the Father and Jesus Christ come to dwell within them, we’re told. Notice Hebrews 4:12:
Hebrews 4:12 – For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and the intentions of the heart.
So, it makes sense out of the conflict and it educates our conscience. It interfaces with us there. And it sets us on a track to become like God. Okay, so it’s right there! The Holy Spirit informs the part of us that observes our thoughts and intent. Again, what part would that be? Well, that would be the observing self, would it not?
You know, I teach parents, when they’re in conflict with their kids and their kids finally do something that they wanted them to do, not to brag on them and boast, because it feels like their rubbing it in that they won the power struggle, but to just simply ask them to notice they did it, and then ask them, “How did you do that?” That’s talking right to the conscience – the observing part – strengthening it, making it stronger, so that it can take more control.
Now, let’s stop and think about this for a minute. As I mentioned, when a person becomes converted, they receive the Holy Spirit. And so what happens? Does God suddenly do away with the functional elements of their mind? Or, does He just help us steer better and change our destination? It says we’re a new creation, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a conscience anymore, or that we don’t have an unconscious anymore. The fundamental way God created us stays the same. It’s just that we use it differently.
You know, Elaine got a new car. And it has one of these new safety things on it. If you go to sleep and drift toward the line, it fights you for the steering wheel. And if you get too close to the car in front of you, it flashes a light. And if you get still closer, it squawks at you. And if still closer, it puts on the brakes. Right? So, I kind of think of the Holy Spirit as being like…Elaine still has to make most of those corrections – just like our minds, when we have the Holy Spirit. The same ability to evaluate, experience, feel emotions and repress them – that’s all still there. It’s just that we have a different GPS setting with new settings and an early warning system. This is why a non-believing therapist – if he or she is a good one – can help converted people with their problems. It’s still the same car and it still works the same way. And so they can still help the converted person get where they want to go, because all humans work alike. The problems don’t come from the Holy Spirit. They come from the human part of it. So think about that.
Okay, there you have it – the same elements organized in different way – one biblical and one psychological. This all sets the stage for a sweeping series about Mental Health and the Bible. We will examine various kinds of mental health issues in the light of the Bible and psychology. We’ve already done this, but we’re going to update it. And the idea there is a way for Christians to think about realtime issues from a complimentary biblical and psychological approach.
As we conclude, I would like to draw your attention to this ministry. It’s a child advocacy ministry. And why would we talk about mental health, then, in a child advocacy ministry? Well, children do not exist in a vacuum. They need support from adults to exist and grow. And, if we want them to have a relationship with Jesus Christ – which is our goal for this ministry – then, they’re going to need adult support. In the Christian context, they need parents, family and a congregation filled with adults who realize one of their responsibilities to God is the children of their congregation. So, if we’re to effectively help children, we also need to effectively help all those who impact the lives of children around them. And so, as one part of our effort to help the entire congregation, we offer our revised series, Mental Health and the Bible.
If you want to know more, you can sign up for our newsletter, read our blogs, or download our podcasts. How to do all of that is explained on our Website, liferesource.org. We can also come to your congregation and help you make it a more kid-nurturing place – something for you to think about there.