To diagnose a problem, first define the nature of the patient.

Every Sunday Philip was there to hear the series on spiritual depression, but afterward he was still depressed.

He told the pastor he had lost interest in everything and withdrawn more and more from people. He was also overeating and watching more television, though these things were giving him little pleasure, serving merely to distract him temporarily from his boredom.

His pastor first assumed that Philip’s depression rose from an underlying spiritual problem. Philip assumed that too, but after a number of conversations, both agreed they were wrong. Evidently the causes were not as simple as they had first assumed. This was the heart of the pastor’s problem: how to understand Philip and help him.

Philip’s pastor is not unique. Most Christians are involved with people they wish they could understand better and help, and that can make informal helping frustrating. We long to be better equipped for what we do, but are unsure where to look.

Of course, the first thing a nonprofessional counselor needs to know is how to detect cases he has no right to tackle. A later article will handle this, but it need not discourage nonprofessional counselors. They can provide a great deal of help. In fact, often they can help people who would never consult a professional counselor. So if you are not professionally trained, take heart: your task is necessary and important. But as nonprofessional counselors, we can do even better with a little help.

We can improve our informal skills in helping people by getting acquainted with the formal helping processes counselors use. Immediately, however, we face the problem of where to begin. A recent study found over 250 current approaches to therapy, and this diversity extends to Christians. Although some argue that one approach or another is the biblical one, Christian counselors and therapists actually follow a broad range of approaches that seem compatible with biblical theology.

How, then, does a Christian begin to evaluate the bewildering variety of current therapies? He does it by beginning where the various theories themselves begin: with their assumptions about human nature and the way it affects daily affairs. The most Christian or non-Christian part of any approach to counseling is its view of human nature. The techniques it employs are, for the most part, neutral and often relatively independent of the theoretical orientation.

This has led many Christian therapists to assert that their therapy is Christian not because of techniques that differ from those of their non-Christian colleagues, but rather because of their view of man, which is scriptural. This permeates their therapy, influencing it in various ways.

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Freud, Rogers, Ellis

The intelligent Christian layman can learn a good deal about helping people if he will start by evaluating various representative views biblically. To illustrate this, let us look at what three current approaches to psychotherapy would say about Philip’s depression, starting with one related to Sigmund Freud, and going on to those of Carl Rogers and Albert Ellis. We will not try to be exhaustive, or mount an argument for any one over the others. We will rather identify their basic assumptions about how people function, evaluate these in light of Scripture, and then see how they can assist a Christian to understand people better.

Psychoanalytic therapy is a less intensive form of Sigmund Freud’s classic method of psychoanalysis. Although proponents of newer therapies have long predicted its death, it continues to be the basic orientation of many therapists. Freud said that all behavior comes from one of two basic drives: sex and aggression. All other drives are derivatives of these two, which are predominantly irrational and often self-destructive. On this basis, Freud was a pessimist about human nature. So he reduced aesthetic, moral, and even religious aspects of personality to expressions of sexual and aggressive drives. We have no higher motives.

A psychoanalytic therapist would view Philip’s depression as a symptom of an underlying unconscious conflict. Further, he would assume that its roots lie in some even more basic unresolved childhood conflict. The goal of therapy would therefore be to understand this unconscious conflict and help Philip make corresponding changes in his behavior.

Historically, Christians have been apprehensive of psychoanalytic psychology because of Freud’s well-known views on religion, and his reduction of higher values to sex and aggression. Christians have become more open to his ideas, however, as they have seen that his view of religion is not a necessary part of his therapy. Other versions of psychoanalytic psychology have also developed that see the root causes of behavior as more than sex or aggression. For example, the object-relations theory asserts that the fundamental drive is for relationship.

The view of man that is basic to client-centered therapy sharply contrasts with psychoanalytic theory. Carl Rogers, its founder, rejects the view that the basis of human personality is a set of irrational and frequently destructive drives. Instead, he argues that the basic drive of everyone is to tap his or her full potential—that is, to become fully functioning. At the core of personality Rogers sees not conflict, but a pull toward wholeness. In this he exhibits his faith in our basic goodness, and his therapeutic approach reflects this optimism.

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As Rogers sees it, we develop problems when people important to us accept us only conditionally. As children we are told to be good or else we all displease Santa, or God, or parents, who will then withhold the benefits of love. We continue to face this conditional acceptance from others right on into adulthood in only slightly less blatant form. According to Rogers, this is at the root of all psychological problems because it forces us to deny the parts of ourselves we feel others won’t accept.

From this perspective, Philip’s depression is not simply the result of insufficient love but rather a complex consequence of his having denied important parts of himself. The task of a client-centered therapist working with Philip would therefore be to accept him unconditionally, and without judging him. Responding to this, Philip would then be able to accept himself and rediscover the denied and lost parts of his personality.

Rational-emotive therapy was developed by Albert Ellis. It is currently the best known of a group of approaches referred to as “cognitive” therapies because of their focus on beliefs and thoughts. These views of therapy have rapidly become very popular.

The view of man in rational-emotive therapy stands pretty much between psychoanalytic and client-centered therapy. Ellis views man more optimistically than Freud, but more pessimistically than Rogers. According to Ellis, we possess the capacity for freedom, choice, and reason. However, while we are free to choose to be rational, Ellis notes instead we usually choose the irrational. This curious propensity to irrationality—that is, our refusal to use our reason and instead to believe in foolish propositions—is the basis of all psychological problems. To Ellis, the most basic determinant of what we feel and how we act is this: what we think. Quoting the early Stoic philosopher Epictetus, Ellis notes, “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.”

What would this position make of Philip’s case? It would judge him to be depressed because he believes something that is simply irrational. What is that? Perhaps he believes he must be loved and respected by all people at all times if he is to feel worth anything. Ellis would label this an irrational belief because it is impossible to get such love all the time. The belief is therefore self-destructive, setting Philip up for failure. How can we know if he holds this belief? Ellis would say we can assume it if he acts as if he believes it. So Philip will act depressed when he finds that someone does not love or respect him.

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Actually, any of a variety of irrational beliefs could be the basis of Philip’s depression. The task of the rational-emotive therapist would be to examine what in fact Philip does believe and think, and try to change those beliefs that are judged irrational.

When we compare the views of human nature in these representative therapies we see ourselves described in one of three ways: we are in conflict, or we are striving for fulfillment, or we are thinking creatures. From these assumptions come different ideas about our degree of freedom to choose, our fundamental motives, and our basic character as good or evil.

The Bible Says …

What, then, does Scripture teach us about human nature? Two ideas seem most directly relevant: we were created in God’s image, and we subsequently fell into sin. We will consider each of these briefly and relate them to the issues raised by the three therapies. Then we will identify the points

of greatest agreement and disagreement between each therapy and the biblical view of man.

Any view of man that calls itself Christian must start with the truth that God created man in his image. Although Scripture discusses the “image of God” directly in only a few passages, it characteristically assumes it to be foundational. This doctrine asserts that God placed man at the pinnacle of creation, designing us to be in personal relationship with him. Although he assigned value to all things he created, and planned for them to exist in harmony with him, man alone is described as being “in God’s image” (Gen. 1:26). According to G. C. Berkouwer, this means no one can understand a human being unless he sees him in relation to God. If we examine man in and of himself, as do many schools of psychology, we will not understand him. This is because something fundamental to his nature is being excluded from consideration—his relationship with God.

But we cannot talk very long about man being created in God’s image and about his original and intended relationship with God without quickly adding the truth of his fall into sin. While none of our worth was lost in the fall, the doctrine of total depravity asserts that all aspects of our nature now bear the mark of sin. The Reformers never intended to suggest that we were as evil as we could be, or that all that was good about us was lost. However, we are now thoroughly sinful, no aspect of our personality being free from the effects of sin.

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Here we must make a subtle distinction: because man still bears God’s image we can still accurately describe him as good with regard to his standing in creation. We have not lost our supreme value but continue to stand as creatures of incalculable worth. This is attested to by biblical assertions like Psalm 8, which was made after the fall, and more important, by God’s redemptive plan in Christ Jesus. God judged us to be worth saving, even at the ultimate price—the death of his only Son.

However, we cannot accurately describe human beings as good with regard to their moral standing or even to their capacity to choose ultimate good. The Old Testament asserts that the heart of man is deceitfully wicked (Jer. 17:9), and Christ himself tells us that it is not what goes into man that defiles him, but what comes out from within (Mark 7:15).

It is important to realize that while this fall into sin resulted in alienation from God, man still necessarily had a relationship with God, and was responsible to him. God’s image in man was broken and marred, but not obliterated. Had it been, man would no longer be man, for at the very heart of his humanness is his likeness to God.

As the result of the fall, however, man lost both his place and his identity. Like a puzzle with the most important pieces missing, man is incomplete until he stands once again in intimate communion with his Creator. However, unlike the incomplete puzzle, man constantly searches for the missing parts and for his elusive identity.

When we understand that man is striving to find his place, we can understand both his fundamental drive for meaning and his innate religiosity. Humans were created to be self-transcendent, to lose themselves as they served God and other men. This is what it means to describe man as innately religious. He was created to serve, and his only choice is who he will serve. We must see his religious nature as a fundamental part of his personality. All men are religious; some serve the true God and others serve false gods. Man has lost his proper place in the world and seeks continuously to find it again. This produces what we recognize as both his striving for meaning and his incurable religiosity.

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Yet combined with these strivings rooted in God’s image we see men’s ambivalence. Due to sin, he also hates God or actively rejects him, so he is trapped in contradictions. He senses that a critical piece is missing, though he often does not realize it as fellowship with God. In fact, he may turn his strivings to the worship of false gods, other humans, or various philosophies.

Comparison And Evaluation

How, then, does the biblical view of human nature help us examine the issues raised by Freud, Rogers, and Ellis? An understanding of the sinfulness of man seems much more compatible with Freud’s psychoanalytic view of human nature than the humanistic view of Carl Rogers’s client-centered therapy. Psychoanalytic psychology asserts that the closer we look into the motivation behind the way people function, the more we are forced to see what Eric Fromm has called “the syndrome of decay,” that is, evil and destructiveness. Philosophically, Ellis’s rational-emotive therapy grows out of existential and humanistic psychology, sharing most of its values with this tradition. However, Ellis’s awareness of man’s proclivity toward irrationality shows that he departs from rosy humanistic optimism. In this he seems to stand closer to the pessimistic but realistic view of Freud’s psychoanalytic psychology.

What can we learn from the Bible’s view of the relationship God intended us to have with him? The fundamental drive in personality is the search for one’s place in the universe. Our religious and spiritual nature is not something added on to an already intact personality, but it is rather a way of describing the core of our humanness. Saint Augustine’s familiar assertion that we were created for God and are restless until we find our place in him expresses the drive for meaning that is identified by logotherapy and other existential therapies.

We must view this basic life drive as standing in sharp contrast to classical Freudian thought, which strips man of any such noble aims. However, none of the three therapies we have considered explicitly recognizes this aspect of man. While the striving for self-fulfillment depicted by client-centered therapy perhaps comes closest, it still falls far short of man’s search for his God and his need to find his place in him. On the other hand, although none of the three therapies explicitly recognizes this aspect of man, only the versions of psychoanalytic therapy that reduce his drives to sex or aggression would rule it out. All three therapies could, therefore, accommodate such an understanding of the way we function.

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When we consider the biblical perspective on human motives, we must also note the fundamental deceitfulness of the human heart. Christ characterized the Pharisees as whited sepulchers. He recognized that what looks good on the outside is often vile on the inside. But it is not just others whom we deceive about our truest motives; we also deceive ourselves. To fight this tendency, David cried out for God to search his inner motives and reveal his evil ways to him so that he might be cleansed. This awareness of our duplicity and deceitfulness once again stands in accord with the psychoanalytic emphasis on unconscious motives that can be expected to be much less noble than their conscious counterparts.

Finally, it is important to note the biblical emphasis on our thoughts. Centuries before Ellis (and even the first-century philosopher Epictetus), the author of Proverbs said, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7). Similarly, we see that Paul’s prescription for the Christian is the transformation or renewing of his mind (Rom. 12:2). These and many other passages strongly support the emphasis placed on our thoughts by rational-emotive therapy.

A biblical look at the view of man held by these three representative therapies suggests several conclusions. First, none of the three corresponds exactly to the biblical picture of man, and, in fact, all three differ from it in some important way. However, each of the three does contain some aspect of the biblical view, and each seems to bring one of these aspects into particularly sharp focus. Thus, on the basis of this brief evaluation, we shall neither completely reject as unbiblical nor unreservedly accept as entirely biblical any of these three approaches.

Second, the Bible has much to say about human nature; these matters are most essential for any Christian who wishes to help people. However, we must also note how much more clearly discernible these biblical teachings on man become when we consider them in light of current therapeutic theory. And this, of course, is the major value of learning such theories. We learn more about what questions to ask of Scripture, and therefore we greatly increase our understanding of human nature.

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But what about Philip? The Christian who has critically examined the assumptions about human nature raised by any of the current approaches to therapy is now much closer to a truly biblical understanding of Philip and his problems, and is, therefore, in a better position either to help him himself or refer him to someone who can. In either of these ways he has equipped himself more thoroughly as a servant of God.

Psychotherapy has come to be an important institution in our society. Although it is quite appropriately criticized as having become the secular religion of our age, the Christian should see it as an important avenue of ministry to the broken fives of both Christians and non-Christians. To see it properly, however, a Christian must carefully examine the assumptions about man the various psychotherapies suggest. This task is essential not only for Christian therapists who take seriously the integration of their Christian faith with their professional practice. It is also important for any Christian who wishes to do a better job of helping people informally.

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