“No way! Check this out!” I loudly exclaimed. Many years ago, while at the Adventist Book Center, I stumbled upon an Ellen White compilation I’d never even heard of: Mind, Character, and Personality.
My wife looked at me, hit my elbow, and shushed me. Apparently I was being too loud. I couldn’t help myself; I was excited! In that instant I had found the thrilling combination of my favorite topic written on by my favorite author. I felt like I had won the Adventist lottery of being the first table called at potluck!
As we drove home, my wife read to me from my newfound treasures…and I finally learned how God, writing through Ellen White, really felt about psychology and counseling.
Excited? Not So Much…
I still remember the day when I told my parents I was interested in psychology as a career. The look on their faces and their amalgamated level of excitement reminded me of how I felt when, many years ago, on Christmas morning, I tore into my first present, only to find…a six-pack of tube socks!
I’ve come to realize that my parents’ lack of…shall I say, “enthusiasm”…about my choice of careers reflected many Seventh-day Adventists’ feelings about psychology in general and counseling specifically.
Now, I understand why folks’ antennas go up whenever someone speaks of psychology as a whole, because, although I took several psychology courses at one of our fine Adventist universities, I was largely educated and trained by a secular university. Since then I’ve received training and several post-graduate certifications from various Christian organizations.
However, as I was going through my undergraduate program, I never once stopped to think critically about how God viewed psychology. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school, studying counseling, that I truly began to investigate God’s perspective on the multiple theories of psychology, personality development, and counseling that I was studying. Initially, I did it not so much because the question kept me up at night, but because I was attempting to allay the fears of prospective conservative Christian clients.
As I began to honestly and purposely hold up these ideas and principles—worldviews, really—to the perfect truth of God’s revealed counsels in both the Bible and Ellen White’s writings, I was amazed by what I learned.
I expected the Bible and Ellen White to basically stomp psychology and counseling, but I found the opposite to be true. Both sources elevated these disciplines of study, but clearly warned that they, like any other academic discipline, divorced from a core underpinning of who God is and His position in our lives, could be warped and used inappropriately.
So what do the Bible and Ellen White have to say about psychology and counseling? What, if any, schools of thought or larger theories of psychology and counseling merge well with a Seventh-day Adventist Christian worldview? And further, how can these psychological theories accent and assist our spiritual walk or hinder and harm it?
Ellen White and Psychology
In Ellen G. White’s lifetime (1827-1915), psychology—the science that studies the mind, its powers and functions, and how it affects human behavior—was in its infancy (Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 1, p. 2). However, that didn’t stop her from making these surprisingly clear and positive statements about its primacy:
- “To deal with minds is the greatest work ever committed to men” (ibid., p. 4).
- “To deal with minds is the nicest work in which men ever engaged” (ibid., p. 3). (In this context, “nice” means “delicate; requiring utmost care, accuracy, and skill.”)
- “It is the duty of every person, for his own sake and for the sake of humanity, to inform himself in regard to the laws of life and conscientiously to obey them. All need to become acquainted with that most wonderful of all organisms, the human body. . . . They should study the influence of the mind upon the body and of the body upon the mind, and the laws by which they are governed” (ibid., p. 3).
I’ve been involved in psychology since 1990 and counseling since 1996, and I agree with her: a basic understanding of psychology and counseling is crucially important for all Christians—even if we never speak to a counselor, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. “But why?” you may ask. Simply put, it helps us all to be more effective soul-winners. When we understand the basics of what makes people tick, we can be wiser and more discerning in how we “bait our hooks” as we fish for men for the Master.
Not All Ponies and Rainbows
Before you go thinking that Ellen White has nothing but praise toward psychology, she feels just as strongly about its dangers:
In many cases the imagination is captivated by scientific research, and men are flattered through the consciousness of their own powers. The sciences which treat of the human mind are very much exalted. They are good in their place, but they are seized upon by Satan as his powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls. His arts are accepted as from heaven, and he thus receives the worship which suits him well. . . . Through these sciences, virtue is destroyed and the foundations of spiritualism are laid. (ibid., p. 20)
Specifically, she says, “It is the special work of Satan in these last days to take possession of the minds of the youth, to corrupt their thoughts, and inflame their passions” (ibid., p. 22).
As Ellen White implies, many—even the majority of—psychological and counseling theories are erroneous! You may think this is a harsh statement, but after studying and being involved in both fields for more than twenty-five years, I’ve learned that we need to be discerning and careful about what we allow into our minds. These wrong and dangerous theories are largely based upon two erroneous worldviews:
1. The idea that human beings are basically good. This is called “humanistic psychology” or “secular humanism.” Many people in this camp believe that:
- humanity as a whole is inherently good;
- we have within us all we need to be the best that we can be;
- as time progresses, we evolve and become even better.
They subscribe to the principle: “What the mind can conceive, the mind can achieve.”
2. The closely related idea that there is secret untapped potential in each of us, and with specific training/mentorship, each of us can rise to our full potential. This idea is rooted in eastern religions and is a hallmark of such practices as hypnosis (what Ellen White termed “mesmerism”) and many theories of psychology, personality, and counseling. Specifically, person-centered counseling, positive psychology, and Jungian psychology are centered in occult practices and thinking. We’ll look at each of these practices and theories in turn.
Author Dan Delzell writes, “Altered states of consciousness and other mystical practices open doors in the spiritual realm. Once a door is opened, a person becomes vulnerable to any spirits which come through that door.” He recognizes the crucial fact that Franz Anton Mesmer, the founder of hypnotic therapy (hence the term “mesmerism”), was a practitioner of the occult.
Hypnosis is basic to the Eastern religions. Prominent hypnotists have estimated that there are probably over 100 different stages of hypnotic trance. Christians should never allow themselves to be put in a trance….regardless of who is leading you into that mental state of relaxation. No matter what obstacles we face, God will help us if we rely upon Him rather than magical or mystical experiences. It is very dangerous to open hidden spiritual doors through hypnosis.
Practically speaking, anytime you place yourself into an altered state of consciousness, you are giving up control and letting down boundaries—boundaries that God has put there for your own protection.
This is a key counseling approach under humanistic psychology. The founder, Carl Rogers, believed that the best person to understand the client (the person receiving the counseling) is the actual client. He summarized his theory like this: “It is that the individual has within himself or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering his or her self-concept, attitudes and self-directed behavior—and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.”
Rogers felt that it was important to give the client what he called “unconditional positive regard” in an effort to make the counseling environment so nonthreatening and comfortable that the client would come to their own conclusions about what they believed, felt, and should do. In other words, Rogers believed that the counselor shouldn’t disagree with the client at all or come to any external judgments or conclusions that weren’t those of the client—the counselor should simply listen to the client.
This type of counseling is dangerous because it is basically the postmodern cultural worldview wrapped up in a counseling theory. The theory is founded upon the idea that the client’s feelings, thoughts, values, and emotions can never be challenged and are therefore—by default—“right.”
The prophet Jeremiah laments, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9, NIV). The practitioner of this dangerous theory can only sit helplessly by and watch clients wallow around in their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and values…only to hope that one day they come to the Holy-Spirit-inspired right conclusions.
“Positive psychology is one of the newest branches of psychology to emerge.” It “focuses on how to help human beings prosper and lead healthy, happy lives.” During the 1950s secular humanist thinkers such as Carl Rogers, Erich Fromm, and Abraham Maslow developed “theories that focused on happiness and the positive aspects of human nature.” While many other branches of psychology focus on dysfunction and abnormal behavior, positive psychology is centered on helping people find fulfillment, productivity, and purpose.
The basic problem with positive psychology is that, although the theory recognizes the importance of what these thinkers call “spirituality,” it doesn’t recognize the validity, exclusivity, joy, and power of a relationship with Jesus. Jesus Himself said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NIV).
The wisest man in the history of the world, King Solomon, in his diary, the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, writes in twelve agonizing but crystal-clear chapters of his own failed attempts at finding all the things that positive psychology advertises it can offer. He called his attempts “vanity!” The bumper stickers are true: “Know Jesus, Know Peace; No Jesus, No Peace!”
Carl Jung, one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, was heavily involved in occult practices, and much of what he writes about can be most closely described as souped-up shamanism. His focus on the mystical and on dream interpretation is dangerous. Also, he admitted to placing himself—on a regular basis—in “trance-like” altered states of consciousness. Many of his theories are related to “insights” he had while he was in those states or gained through his careful immersion in and study into mysticism.
Although Jung rightly believed that we all have two basic forces of good and evil working and warring within us, anyone who is an observer of the human condition can clearly see this fact.
Now that we’ve looked at some unbiblical psychological theories, in Part 2 we’ll search for psychological theories that do mesh with a biblical worldview.