When evangelicals started blending psychology into theology back in the 1980s, they subtly shifted the Gospel’s emphasis from the Lord Jesus Christ to human beings. Okay, problems started before that point, particularly as a result of Pentecostal and Charismatic teaching, which unapologetically centers on personal (and therefore subjective) experience. But the advent of “Christian” psychology definitely made things a lot more narcissistic than they were.
I confess to still struggling with residual narcissism in my relationship with the Lord. I admit that fact with great shame and embarrassment, accepting ultimate responsibility for my self-centered attitude toward Christ. But, while understanding that God holds me completely responsible for this sin, I believe He will also hold accountable those who try to integrate the two disciplines.
Attempts to infuse human philosophy into Christianity didn’t begin with the 20th Century, of course. If you follow my Tuesday series on the Reformation, for example, you’ll see how the Roman Catholic Church corrupted itself by fabricating doctrines that had absolutely no basis in Scripture. Going further back, my Monday series on Jude has shown that false teachers even infiltrated the First Century Church.
The apostle Paul warned the Colossian church against ideas that compete with the purity of the Gospel.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. ~~Colossians 2:8-10 (ESV)
Psychology, especially when couched in evangelical terminology, appeals to our fleshly senses as counselors promise to give us deeper understanding of ourselves. Typically, they work on raising our self-esteem by explaining that our sin patterns come from involuntarily responses to our environment.
Psychologists would likely attribute my anger, for instance, to behavior I learned from my dad. Admittedly, Daddy did use anger to control my sister, inadvertently teaching me by example that anger helps me get my way, but the real source of my anger is the fact that I’m a born sinner. Years of psychological counseling might raise all sorts of interesting speculations about my relationship with Daddy, some of which might even be true, but the anger would remain. In fact, the counseling would provide a convenient excuse for my tantrums.
Conversely, the Gospel tells me that my anger exposes the depravity of my heart. My anger condemns me as a sinner, highlighting my need for a Savior. By His grace, Jesus bears the penalty for my sin of anger and His Spirit teaches me to control my tantrums by obeying His Word. It’s not comfortable, but neither is it complicated.
Whether or not my father’s example encouraged me to practice anger as a means of gaining control really doesn’t matter. And dredging up memories (some of which would probably be false) would only make me more preoccupied with myself. The answer comes as I focus on Christ, desiring to behave in a manner that honors and glorifies Him.
Psychology, like other human philosophies, directs our attention to ourselves. We may dress it up to appear “Christian,” but that dressing up doesn’t change the truth that it keeps people self-centered. On the other hand, the Gospel turns us to our merciful Savior, reminding us that our lives belong to Him. We can’t afford self-centered distractions.