Psychology: Friend or Foe? Part 2: The Good Side

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Psychology: Friend or Foe? Part 2: The Good Side

In Part 1 of this article, we looked at the importance of understanding the human mind as well as some ways Satan has twisted the study of the mind. Despite the many pitfalls in the field of psychology, as a Christian and counselor, I can use my discernment to recognize that there are some theories and principles of psychology and counseling that display hallmarks of biblical truth (praise God!). These can be paired with what the Bible says about effective life change to help the people I work with.

The question that any person who ministers to others—that’s all of us—must answer is: “What is the theory of counseling that

  • best matches what the Bible says in terms of life change and
  • is most successful in creating positive and consistent life change in a person?”

Before that question can be answered, we must first answer this basic question: “How does a person change their behavior?”

The answer is this: if we change the way we think, we change the way we act. It’s that simple! Well, it’s simple, but not easy. It takes a lot of concerted effort and “reprogramming,” so to speak, but it’s possible and very effective.

Ellen White asserts:

As a man “thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). Many thoughts make up the unwritten history of a single day, and these thoughts have much to do with the formation of character. Our thoughts are to be strictly guarded, for one impure thought makes a deep impression on the soul. An evil thought leaves an evil impress on the mind. If the thoughts are pure and holy, the man is better for having cherished them. By them the spiritual pulse is quickened and the power for doing good is increased. And as one drop of rain prepares the way for another in moistening the earth, so one good thought prepares the way for another.” (Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 2, p. 655)

The Power of Our Thoughts

Inventor and self-made millionaire Henry Ford wrote, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.”

After all my years in psychology and counseling, I have come to believe that the most important principle that encompasses both disciplines is that of the power of our thoughts; specifically, recognizing what they are and controlling and changing them. Entire schools of psychological thought, personality theory, and counseling practice are built upon this principle: that in order to change our behaviors, we must first change our thoughts. The counseling theory called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), or in more modern times Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), most closely matches this biblical idea.

Here’s the basic concept behind CBT:

  • Problems/events lead to
  • Thoughts based on predetermined core beliefs, which lead to
  • Feelings/emotions, which ultimately lead to
  • Actions/behaviors.

When something goes wrong, we tend to already have a predetermined core belief about what that specific event represents to us. These core beliefs are formed within us by the family we’re raised in or the experiences we’ve had in our lives. These beliefs may be negative and unrealistic, causing us to perceive the world from a standpoint of helplessness and powerlessness or a sense of being unworthy and unlovable. These disordered, distorted, and unhealthy beliefs cause similar thoughts. Those thoughts drive us to feel a certain way—typically not good—which then causes us to act or behave in a specific way—again, not good.

The biggest problem is that many of us believe we can’t change anything, and thus we are doomed to a lifetime of unhealthy thoughts and negative experiences. When these beliefs lead to consistent negative thoughts, they will ultimately result in negative actions and entrenched behaviors, habits, and addictions—what Ellen White called “inherited and cultivated tendencies” (see Messages to Young People, p. 68, and elsewhere).

Demolishing Strongholds

The Bible also has a name for this specific type of belief/thought/behavior: a “stronghold.”

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:3-5, NIV)

Here, Paul clarifies the importance of thinking rightly and closely evaluating every thought that enters our mind. Why? Simply because Paul recognizes the primacy and power of our thoughts.

All of these principles are reflected in the theories of CBT with similar, self-explanatory terms such as “thought-stopping,” “thought-evaluation,” “thought-replacement,” and “challenging negative thoughts.” The Bible, Ellen White’s writings, and CBT all champion the importance of training yourself to think about your thinking and learning to think rightly.

The truth is that we can change our thought patterns and our resulting behaviors, and here is where the Holy Spirit comes into play. To learn more about how to change your thoughts, you can check out a prior piece I wrote called “Anxious . . . For Nothing?” Ellen White also writes extensively about our thought life in Mind, Character, and Personality, volume 2, chapters 34 (“Thought Habits”) and 35 (“Right Thinking”).

Ellen White’s “Laws of the Mind”

In her writings, Ellen White listed several governing principles or “laws” related to the mind. These laws are also affirmed by sound psychological/counseling theories.

1. By beholding we become changed (2 Cor. 3:18):

It is a law of the mind that it gradually adapts itself to the subjects upon which it is trained to dwell. . . .

It is a law both of the intellectual and the spiritual nature that by beholding [God’s character as revealed in the Bible] we become changed. The mind gradually adapts itself to the subjects upon which it is allowed to dwell. It becomes assimilated to that which it is accustomed to love and reverence. Man will never rise higher than his standard of purity or goodness or truth. If self is his loftiest ideal, he will never attain to anything more exalted. Rather, he will constantly sink lower and lower. The grace of God alone has power to exalt man. Left to himself, his course must inevitably be downward.” (Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 2, p. 418)

2. The things we speak become realities. In counseling-ese, this is called a “self-fulfilling prophecy”:

It is a law of nature that our thoughts and feelings are encouraged and strengthened as we give them utterance. While words express thoughts, it is also true that thoughts follow words.” (ibid., p. 663)

3. Some addictions cannot be tapered; they must be stopped with clear and direct force. In addictionology (the study of addictions), the term “cold turkey” is used. Jesus alluded to this principle when He said, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43, NIV).

Great harm is done by a lack of firmness and decision. I have known parents to say, You cannot have this or that, and then relent, thinking that they may be too strict, and give the child the very thing they at first refused. A lifelong injury is thus inflicted. It is an important law of the mind—one which should not be overlooked—that when a desired object is so firmly denied as to remove all hope, the mind will soon cease to long for it and will be occupied in other pursuits. But as long as there is any hope of gaining the desired object, an effort will be made to obtain it. (ibid., p. 419)

A Christian Approach to Psychology

God, in His Word, warns us that we need to be “alert and of sober mind” (1 Peter 5:8, NIV). We need to learn the importance of thinking rightly and clearly about ideas and philosophies: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Col. 2:8, NIV).

Ellen White goes a step further and asserts that the Christian can effectively understand the workings of nature, including the human mind, only through the lens of God’s Word:

  • “The true principles of psychology are found in the Holy Scriptures” (Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 1, p. 10).
  • “The Christian alone can make the right use of knowledge. Science, in order to be fully appreciated, must be viewed from a religious standpoint” (ibid., p. 16).

So we see that Ellen White perceived psychology not as contradictory but as complementary to the Scriptures. However, psychological practices such as hypnotism, transcendental meditation, dream interpretation, and other practices based in the occult/new age/eastern religions are not only ultimately ineffective but extremely dangerous as well.

If we aren’t firmly grounded in Christ, we will be washed away by Satan’s misuse of sciences pertaining to the mind. Ellen White warns:

In these days when skepticism and infidelity so often appear in a scientific garb, we need to be guarded on every hand. Through this means our great adversary is deceiving thousands and leading them captive according to his will. The advantage he takes of the sciences, sciences which pertain to the human mind, is tremendous. Here, serpent-like, he imperceptibly creeps in to corrupt the work of God.

This entering in of Satan through the sciences is well devised. Through the channel of phrenology [the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities], psychology, and mesmerism [hypnosis], he comes more directly to the people of this generation and works with that power which is to characterize his efforts near the close of probation. The minds of thousands have thus been poisoned and led into infidelity.” (ibid., p. 19)

The only theory of counseling I have found that matches the patterns and principles outlined by both the Bible and Ellen White’s writings is CBT, which is the study and science of thinking about our thinking and learning to discern, substitute, and control our thoughts—in essence, retraining ourselves to think rightly. Learning to control our thoughts, through the power of the Holy Spirit, holds the key to effective, positive life change and sanctification.

God, through the Apostle Paul, reminds us that He wants us to use all available means to reach and minister to the lost in His name (1 Cor. 9). A basic understanding of both the dangers and the benefits of psychology and its various theories—specifically counseling theories—will enable us to reach out more effectively to a world in desperate need of the life-giving message of Jesus’ love, grace, and salvation.

Additional Resources

Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 1 (entire book available online for free)

Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 2 (entire book available online for free)

Steps to Christ by Ellen G. White

Persuasion: How to Help People Decide for Jesus by Mark Finley. Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (1994).

Kay Kuzma books: http://www.adventistbookcenter.com/authors/kay-kuzma and http://www.familymattersministry.com

James Dobson books: http://www.paperbackswap.com/Dr-James-Dobson/author/

Henry Cloud and John Townsend books: http://www.boundariesbooks.com

Jan Silvious books: http://www.jansilvious.com/shopping (two especially great ones are Foolproofing Your Life and Look at It This Way)

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Omar Miranda, a counselor for more than 20 years, specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of sexual and pornography addiction. He was the editor/director of Insight Ministries for Adventist teens and has written numerous articles and books. Omar lives in very unplain Plainville, Georgia, with his wife and two children. Check him out at omarmiranda4.wix.com/mirandawrites.