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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Scriptural Psychology

The conflation of scripture and psychology would seem to be an oxymoron. Religion after all concerns itself with matters of faith, by its nature things which are not provable in any scientific terms. Psychology, in contrast offers a scientifically grounded explanation for our emotions and the ways in which our minds work.

I have a good friend who is by profession a pastoral counselor, that is, an ordained minister who is also a trained psychologist. His practice approaches the typical challenges individuals and couples face: marriage issues; grieving, addictions; and debilitating neuroses among other things in a straightforward manner, but accompanied by a religious context, in his case a Christian context. One might ask why this added dimension matters?

Let me say that to my knowledge, those who seek out a pastoral counselor typically are not, as some might think, deeply religious or conservative Christian individuals. So why do they seek this particular form of assistance? Having experienced this work up close I believe the answer has to do with human existentialism. If we think about our life at all, inevitably we bump into the grounding questions, why am I here, and what is my purpose?

Psychology can help us unmask the behaviors, and the thoughts that underlie them. But understanding why we behave as we do may not provide us with any better solution to changing those patterns. If we examine scripture we find underneath the sometimes stilted language of another era, fundamental truths about emotional health. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or to put it psychological terms, you cannot express love towards another unless you love yourself and if you love yourself you will treat others in the way you wish to be treated.

For another example let's look at the story of Jacob and Esau. Who hasn’t experienced envy, much less rivalry between brothers or the struggles of the first and latter born? Eve? Well unless I am sadly mistaken most of us have faced temptation and perhaps, done something we knew with absolute certainty we should not. If new testament examples are more to your liking think about Peter, a man who swore his faith and belief but disavowed both three times in the space of one morning. Was it fear, doubt or something else? We may not know the answer but many of us have played out this same betrayal of our own beliefs at some point in our lives. The human will is not always as steadfast as we might wish.

Either the scriptural writers were good psychologists, or they understood what we might describe as immutable truths. That is why pastoral counseling offers something more powerful than traditional psychotherapy. It gets to the essential truths we intuit but often dismiss as irrelevant. I admit I have read the bible cover to cover more than once. Much of it remains opaque to me either due to arcane symbolism or arcane language, but some of it, in fact a great deal of it reveals insights into human behavior at its best and worst. More, through parable, and history, it offers an accessible lesson about our behavior and how it affects us and those around us.

Just for grins, the next time you are wrestling with a troubling aspect of your own or another’s behavior you might try giving scripture a shot. Think of it as a DIY manual for self-help. But do not mistake scripture for the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the bible of psychiatry. Certainly, the bible offers a veritable catalog of mental disorders and self-destructive behaviors, but the purpose is not to substitute one for the other. Rather it is to observe that what we know about the science of the mind is grounded in ancient truth, and its prescriptions for healing are equally immutable. It turns out that thinking about oneself in the context of a greater universe is the seed of human compassion and understanding. And that my friends is at the heart of human love, what Paul tells us is one of the three things that will last forever. Faith, Hope and Love of which Love is the greatest of all.

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