By Esther Davis, Mental Health Provider at Fuller Living Counseling
I’m grieved by the fact that many Christians are highly resistant to consider talk therapy for treating mental health. In some cases this resistance persists even asthey watch their friends and family struggle with suicidal ideation and other mental health issues. One held belief is that psychology doesn’t belong in the church because Freud wasn’t a Christian and neither were many of the early founders of the field. Another reason for this resistance is the belief that mental health is best treated with more Bible reading, more prayer, more faith, and/or pastoral counsel.
The deeper question is, “Can a Christian benefit from the service, the expertise, the work or craft of a person not ‘saved by grace’?” When it comes to getting a haircut, or getting served at a fast food restaurant the answer is more clear. When it comes to mental, physical, or spiritual healing the issue becomes more critical. Since mental health involves the healing of the mind, emotion, spirit, and body, we don’t want to put the depths of ourselves into the hands of just anyone.
I’d like to suggest that just like a saved or unsaved medical doctor has access to knowledge and treatments that promote healing, a saved or unsaved mental health clinician has similar access to interventions that promote mental health and healing. If God has called us to love him with all parts of ourselves (Deut 6:5), cognitive behavioral therapy (presented below) is arguably a God-given practical tool in helping the believer to fulfill this commandment.
What is Deuteronomy 6:5?
The religious leaders in Jesus day asked him what the greatest commandment was and Jesus told them,
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
He was referencing the ancient text from Deuteronomy 6, where the Lord gave his people guidelines that would prolong their life, and would help life to go well for them. This command refers to the inner parts of a human being. The mind, the heart (emotion), the soul (spirit), and the body (strength). As discussed below, the most commonly used and evidence based form of therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy) is based on tending to these very inner parts.
What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven to be a highly effective form of therapy by numerous research studies (1). The basic idea is that a person’s symptoms of failing mental health (such as depression and anxiety etc.) are influenced by negative thought patterns, negative emotions, and unwanted behaviors. Treatment involves identifying and challenging negative core beliefs and thoughts as well as making behavioral changes in order to relieve symptoms.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the idea that our minds, emotions, body (and for some spirit) are so interconnected that the well-being of one affects that of the others. For example, if I carry a negative core belief that my value is determined by my performance (mind), I might find myself feeling anxious when I’m not being productive (emotion). So, instead of enjoying my day off and doing something to help my body relax I might overexert myself at the gym or sit on the couch for extended periods of time scrolling on social media or binge watch TV shows (body/behavior/strength).
The CBT therapist will teach the client to identify the negative thought and challenge it with a rational or true thought. Further, the therapist might coach the client to participate in mindfulness exercises to help the client calm her body and overcome anxious behaviors.
What’s Your Point?
Why does CBT work so well? The way by which CBT teaches the client to overcome lies with truth was God’s idea before it was psychology’s idea. In essence, one could say the work of CBT is similar to what Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 10:5,
“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.”
The believer is not exempt from mental health challenges. One of the greatest heroes of the faith, King David expresses his experiences with anxiety and depression throughout the Psalms. In Psalm 143 he shares how he dwells in darkness, and how his heart is dismayed. David seems to combat despair by choosing gratitude in verse 5, “I remember the days of long ago, I meditate on all your works.” Then, he turns to the morning sun as a reminder of God’s unfailing love for him. (verse 8)
David had much to feel anxious about as he was for many years hiding from a man who wanted him dead. David speaks on behalf of all afflicted and urges them to exalt the Lord (Psalm 34:2). Then, David praises God for delivering him from all fear in verse 4. David proclaims how freedom from fear and despair is found when we “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Taking refuge in the Lord and seeking him. (Verse 8)
Much like David finds freedom in practicing gratitude as well as dwelling on the goodness of God, CBT urges the client to gain a healthier balance of what is good and right in one’s life. Further, often CBT challenges clients to strengthen the positive core belief that an individual has inherent value and one’s self is no exception. The strengthening of this belief leads one to behave in ways that are beneficial.
If God has called us to love him with all our “mind, emotions, soul, and strength”, cognitive behavioral therapy is arguably a God-given practical tool in helping the believer to fulfill this commandment.
- David D, Cristea I and Hofmann SG (2018) Why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Is the Current Gold Standard of Psychotherapy. Front. Psychiatry9:4. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00004