For those who believe psychology is an enemy of the faith, Steve Arterburn is target number one. As cofounder of New Life Clinics, which absorbed the Minirth-Meier organization in 1984, Arterburn oversees 85 clinics in North America. New Life is the largest Christian provider of psychiatric and psychological services, offering both inpatient and outpatient care. Because of New Life and Minirth-Meier, evangelicals are much more comfortable calling a therapist for help than we were a generation ago.
Despite being the author of 25 books dealing mostly with psychological issues and being the host of a national daily radio program dealing with people's problems, Arterburn himself is not a psychologist but a licensed minister. Still, he has taken on the mantle as the most visible apologist for psychology among evangelical Christians.
How did your interest in psychology and counseling develop?
An early hero of mine was Gertrude Behanna. When I was 12, my father gave me one of her recordings. In it she talked about how she had been very wealthy, lived in the Waldorf Astoria, and eventually became an alcoholic. Later, while recovering from her alcoholism, she opened up her mansions for other alcoholics to live in. She said something that never left me: "Once I began to recover I no longer looked down on people; but then I had the final battle that I had to fight, and that was looking down on people who looked down on people." I thought that that was such a wonderful statement of truth, that she was going deep. I had been raised around a lot of people who never went that deep into their own motives, their own character defects.
Another formative experience was meeting a recovering alcoholic during a seminar on recovery groups at Southwestern Seminary. That led me to work at an alcohol- and drug-treatment center in Fort Worth. So I got trained in addiction and really fell in love with working with addicts. I loved working with them because of their lack of pretense. When an old redneck Texas cowboy came in with puke all over him and just completely out of his mind, it was very difficult for him to put on a facade the next morning. I had lived all my life around people in the church who acted like their act was together, so I found that very refreshing.
Why are recovery groups effective in battling pretense?
Because in an AA group there is someone there, someone who's been around, to tell somebody else to sit down and shut up when they become inappropriate. In church, to tell somebody, "I'm not going to put up with this superficiality anymore" wouldn't be considered "Christian"; and so in being nice to people, we let them be superficial.
Let me give you a personal example. When my wife and I got married, the sexual intimacy of our marriage wasn't working. We were involved in a support group of four other couples who were older than us, but after one year we began to feel it was a waste of our time to attend. One week my wife said to me, "Next week we're either going to talk about our problem or we're not going to be involved with this group."
The next week she did, explaining that you could count the times we had attempted sexual intimacy on one hand. At the time, we didn't know that thousands of couples experience this in their twentieth year of marriage, much less their first. We just wanted help and felt these older couples could give us come insight. But their only response was to finish off the evening with a polite "Oh, we're so concerned, and we want to pray for you."
As it turned out, my wife's authenticity was such a threat that they never came back, and the group ended. Something that could have had a wonderful impact on our lives and could have been an invitation for the others to open up became a horrible experience. Because of the humiliation and rejection we felt, my wife and I didn't deal with our problem for another year.
Seen theologically, this kind of posturing is idolatry—worshipping polished, unblemished images we have created of ourselves for others to see and adore.
What prevents us from sharing our problems more openly at church?
Just look at what invitation to conversion we use: "Come to Jesus, and your life is going to be wonderful. It's going to be great, fantastic. All these problems are going to go away." There's some truth to that, but when you hear Dietrich Bonhoeffer say, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die," that's the reality that I've seen in the Christian faith.
I have problems now I would never have had if I hadn't accepted Christ. There's guilt that I've experienced that I would never even have thought twice about. We have to be realistic with people and tell them that when you come to Jesus, there is a new purpose and a fulfillment, but the struggle is going to continue. We have so many lukewarm Christians or people who turn away from the faith because they've been promised this ease.
I was in Hawaii doing a conference for pastors. I'm very self-disclosing in everything that I do, and I shared my testimony about how I had paid for an abortion when I was younger, had lived a promiscuous lifestyle, and had reaped the consequences of my actions—describing what happens in a life when you are in control versus God being in control. Afterwards, a minister of a very large congregation told me, "I can never confess to any struggle unless I've already experienced victory over the struggle." Congregations and pastors need to overcome such false ideals. Those that do will strike a blow against the pretentiousness we're talking about here.
I think that's part of the appeal of pastors like Willow Creek's Bill Hybels or your pastor at Saddle Back, Rick Warren. They seem to share their struggles openly and appropriately.
Definitely. When someone says to Rick, "I really don't know if I love my wife," he responds, "Really! I used to hate my wife. You're in much better shape than we were!" Then he talks about the struggles they had. That's inviting to people.
Churches need to allow pastors to have problems. History shows that when a church doesn't allow a pastor to have little problems, many times those pastors go out and get really big ones.
Why do some churches oppose Christian psychology?
Let me say first that I would agree with much of the criticism leveled against Christian psychology 20 years ago. There were many calling themselves Christian psychologists, but there was nothing Christian about what they did. They just happened to go to church on Sunday—and some of them weren't even Christians.
But today it's a totally different picture. Over the past 15 years Christians have begun to take psychology back. You've got more marriage and family counselors coming out of Christian colleges than you do from secular colleges. They have a biblical spiritual foundation, which is only right because real psychology is biblical. Psychology means the study of the soul. And while there are ideas within the broader practice that are false, those don't negate the things that are true.
What makes the Christian therapeutic community stand out today from much of secular counseling is its goal: not to help people feel good or cope, but to come to the end of themselves. The goal is not to help people get into themselves, but out of themselves, and to move beyond their problems so they can go on the heal others.
What battles have you had in getting churches to work with New Life?
One of my great experiences was with a pastor who asked to meet with me. He told me, "I used to preach against you and against psychology. And I sure preached against anybody taking medication. Then I ended up with a depression so debilitating I could not get out of bed. I languished there for about a month." Finally his wife convinced him that he had to get help. The church board was going to fire him, and he went to see a Christian psychiatrist who gave him medication. And he said, "Now the thing that I used to preach against is the thing that has set me free to preach."
Something else happened in the process. He discovered that not only did medication not separate him from God, it allowed him to know God in a more real way. He'd always had a thinking problem—adult attention deficit disorder. He just couldn't focus and concentrate. But once he got on medication for the depression, it helped clear up his thinking, and he was able to study the Bible in a deeper and richer way.
So he came and said he was sorry for all the years that he had preached against this.
Now I'll tell you the most dramatic horror story in our area, in Orange County. There was a young man, Michael Pacewitz, who was a paranoid schizophrenic released from a mental institution at the age of 16. He was on heavy medication. A local church took him in, and he did errands around the church. He even did some babysitting. It was a wonderful story of a very severely mentally ill man finding healing and acceptance in the church community.
He became a Christian about a year after going to that church. And the pastor said to him, "Michael, now that you've accepted Christ, you're a new creature, and you no longer need medication because you're a new creature in Christ." Michael stopped taking the medication.
The Orange County Register interviewed him from a jail cell after he had plunged a knife through the heart of a little girl. They interviewed the pastor, and he said, of course, "I will never, ever recommend that a person stop taking medication."
The fact is, psychology has given us tremendous insights into many human problems. Christians, of all people and for Christ's sake, should be the first to recognize and use these insights for the healing of others.
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