[Editor’s Note: Everyone has mental health experiences on the spectrum between thriving and struggling. Perhaps you (or a friend) are in a season where you need extra mental, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical support. In this #mentalhealth series we want to balance personal experience/story with input from mental health and medical professionals. We want to also explore, “How does our faith in Jesus relate to our mental health?” Our desire is to support you as you work towards mental well-being.
If you are considering hurting yourself or someone else, or you know someone who is, please contact a mental health emergency hotline. If you need urgent counselling support, Kids Help Phone is also available for young adults up to age 29 for phone calls, Facebook Messenger, or texting conversations.
This article was written by Jenna Zhao. Jenna is a graduate of Providence Theological Seminary, where she earned a Master of Arts in Counselling degree in 2020. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Therapy (2001). Jenna works in Saskatoon out of her private practice, Jenna Zhao Counselling, focusing on individuals 11 years of age and older. She also works for a non-profit organization that gives her the opportunity to live out her passion for befriending and supporting newcomers to Canada.]
Many different models have been proposed regarding the relationship between psychology and Christian theology. They range from: complete rejection of secular psychology, attempts to keep the two disciplines separate, or even efforts to integrate them in some manner. For a comprehensive understanding and critique of several of these theories, I encourage you to read Psychology and Christianity: Five Views.
Christians do hold varying views on this subject, and it is important to respect and love one another regardless of which view one holds.
Learning how to interpret the Bible
I am enormously grateful for the opportunity I had to pursue my counselling degree through a seminary rather than a public university. It stretched my faith in ways I never imagined.
I am thankful for my seminary professors who equipped me to better handle the Word of God. They encouraged me to approach the Bible with humility, an attitude of curiosity, and an understanding that true theological reflection can never be separated from a relationship with the Triune God himself. Therefore, it is impossible to “figure out” our theology apart from God. As God is infinite, the task of learning about him is also infinite – it will never be finished! They also emphasized that we are constrained by our own human limitations as well as our time and place in history. Thus, we need to carefully consider the historical, cultural, and literary contexts of the verses we are reading, lest we misinterpret the meaning.
Ongoing research into various disciplines (for example, archaeological excavations) may uncover new knowledge which can shed fresh light on our understanding of Scripture. As we engage in theological reflection (a fancy word for thinking about God), we must be open to the fact that we may have some of our theology wrong. As we humbly approach the Word of God with God, we may be led toward repentance and ultimately to revise our thinking and understanding.
This has happened to Christians throughout history. For example, consider Galileo’s discovery that the earth revolves around the sun. An ancient interpretation of Scripture gave the impression Scripture supports the earth as the centre of the universe. However, not many Christians hold to this idea today. Does this mean that Scripture is non-authoritative and untrustworthy? Some may draw this conclusion. However, a more reasonable answer is that our interpretation of Scripture needed to be revised. As David Entwistle, author of “Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity” (2015) wisely points out, “we must guard against confusing the authority of Scripture with our theological interpretation of Scripture.”
When I began to approach the Word of God with this new understanding, it was freeing––but also scary. Freeing, because I knew that God welcomed my questions. Scary, because I learned that certain beliefs I had always assumed were “biblical” were actually more cultural than anything. However, the process of letting go of my long-held beliefs and assumptions has grown my understanding of God, who is ultimately far beyond our human comprehension.
Integrating theology with psychology
Now how does this have anything to do with mental health? A lot, actually!
As I worked through my counselling courses, the professors often required us to “integrate our theology” into our academic research papers. I was forced to think about how the Word of God related to the research and clinical practice of counselling. For example, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV) states, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” How was I supposed to reconcile this verse with the psychological research that grief must be both embraced and expressed to move toward healing? A cursory approach to Scripture would be unable to resolve the tension between these two ideas. Perhaps this is where some of our Christian platitudes have arisen when “comforting” others who are mourning with statements such as, “This loss is God’s will so you should give thanks to God even in this circumstance.”
However, what does the rest of Scripture say about grief? Scripture must be interpreted within the context of other Scripture. The laments in Psalms, Job, and Lamentations also contribute to a scriptural understanding of grief. These should change my understanding of 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. Does God truly require me to be thankful and joyful every single moment of my life without ceasing? The Bible is full of paradox––two seemingly opposite ideas that can be true at the same time.
As I took my Integration of Psychology and Theology course, I was exposed to the idea that truth about God can be discovered through the created order, knowledge that is known as “general revelation.” In Romans 1:20, we discover that God infused his truth into all of creation: “For since the creation of the world, his [God’s] invisible attributes, his divine power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
An important consideration, however, is that, although truth is revealed through both Scripture and creation, this does not mean that both of these sources are equally authoritative in all aspects of life (McMinn & Campbell, 2007). For example, if I have a rare genetic disease, the Bible does not contain a detailed treatment manual. The field of medicine (part of God’s general revelation) provides greater guidance in this matter. However, for matters related to repentance and salvation, the Bible (special revelation from God to humans) is our instructional guidebook. It can get more complicated, however, when the topic we are looking at is not so cut-and-dry.
McMinn & Campbell, some of the foremost contributors to the field of the integration of psychology and theology, challenge us to consider the following questions:
What does each discipline say about the issue?
Are they in competition with one another, or can they somehow complement one another?
Is each perspective equally reliable and valid?
If not, how much should each perspective be relegated?
These are difficult questions, and it is important to note that not all Christians will agree on the answers. Again, this is why it is so important to humbly wrestle through these questions with God—the Author of all truth.
I like to think of the process of integrating theology and psychology as a puzzle, examining how pieces of knowledge from different sources all fit together. I must keep in mind that I do not have all the pieces to the puzzle—only God does. Over time, we may get more puzzle pieces as our understanding of God grows and changes as we learn more and more about his creation. This opens the door to consider that the study of both science (psychology) and theology can influence each other. David Entwistle, in his book Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, asserts that because psychology and Christian theology “come from different directions, with different assumptions, methodologies, and goals, they provide unique perspectives that together have the potential to provide a more complete picture than either would provide in isolation.”
There is still a certain suspiciousness when it comes to integrating theology with psychology. Much of this can be traced back to the Enlightenment and eventual separation of the church (theology) from the sciences. Psychology, along with other disciplines, began to be studied apart from God. However, the division between the sacred and the secular aspects of our lives is arbitrary. Why, then, are we still hesitant to integrate current “secular” psychological findings with our theology? Why do we divide counsellors and psychologists into “Christian” and “non-Christian” categories? Do we hold our doctor or dentist to these same standards? There is definitely a case to be made for wanting to meet with a counsellor who shares the same faith. However, this does not mean that all non-Christian counsellors use “non-biblical” methods.
How the church should engage with mental health challenges
In terms of how Christians in Canada view mental illness, we’ve made progress. For the most part, gone are the days when medication was viewed as contrary to God’s will. Many people now recognize that humans are not exclusively spiritual beings, but also physical, mental, emotional, and relational. Many would now be comfortable referring others to a mental health professional—just as we would encourage those suffering from cancer to seek medical attention. However, there is still much more room for growth. We need to loosen our grip on the idea that psychological findings are always contrary to Scripture. They may be, or even appear to be, at first. Should we allow the truth of Scripture to challenge these findings? Definitely. But will we do the reverse—allow the psychological findings to challenge our interpretation of Scripture? Will we be humble enough to admit that perhaps our understanding is wrong? Will we be brave enough to face these intimidating questions that have the potential to challenge our faith?
I fear that if we do not allow our beliefs and assumptions to be challenged, it will hinder our growth with God and our conversations with those who do not know God. The stakes are high. I pray that God will lead us as we seek to correctly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). Therefore, I am reluctant to refer to myself as a “Christian counsellor,” for fear of perpetuating misunderstanding, that spiritual means alone are enough to overcome mental health challenges. Yes, I integrate a biblical framework into my work with clients who want this. But I also believe that integrating knowledge from psychology is essential if I want to serve my clients well.
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