Can the Gospel be described in Psychological terms?
The Gospel is not a matter of psychology. It is a message about the Kingdom of God: “Jesus is Lord”. But the contemplation of this, and the comprehension of it, can have profound psychological effects on the person concerned. This is because it matters that Jesus is Lord. It matters in all kinds of complex, subtle ways. It also matters in some very simple and confronting ways.
The Sample Space
This article is a look at what happens when this contemplation intersects a particular type of psychological phenomenon: the emotionally abused. All of these observations are derived from my own experience.
I actively seek out the junkies, alcoholics, recidivist criminals, the homeless, and those in transitory, low-cost housing and assisted living. In that section of the community it is hard, perhaps impossible, to find anyone who has not suffered terrifying abuse as a child. I also find myself talking with people from all walks of life, who have suffered marriage breakdown, violence, rape, or other traumas. These are the people I love, listen to, comfort, advise, reassure, and uplift.
I can’t claim as much experience with those who have not suffered as terribly. Perhaps what I have observed is relevant to them and perhaps it isn’t (I suspect it is…).
The poor in spirit
When someone is bullied and abused, particularly as a child, those experiences form the narrative in which the person tells themselves their own story. In an effort to make sense of the story, the child has to suppose why people have behaved in those particular ways. If the behaviour has been abusive, and there is no other apparent reason for it that a child can comprehend, the child will ultimately decide that they themselves are the cause of the problem. That’s an unfortunate error to make, but it is completely rational when understood from the point of view of a child.
A child is physically punished in an unpredictable environment. Perhaps an alcohol-affected parent is randomly violent and intermittently kind.
The child, in attempting to make sense of the situation, is looking for a way to predict the abuse, in order to avoid it in future.
The adult uses language like, “you drive me crazy”, or “why do you have to be so [anything]?” This sends a clear signal that the child is causing the violent responses.
The child will quickly form the view that it is indeed their own fault, and try to work out how to avoid doing whatever the adult identified as the trigger. Of course, the next time the adult is drunk, anything the child does will be identified as the trigger for violence.
The result is that the child remains even more convinced that they are causing the problem, and loses all confidence in themselves because they are unable to control this cycle. A process which is being presented to them as simple and obvious, but which is really completely elusive.
It may be worth mentioning here that this is precisely what happens in a violent marriage too. This is emotional abuse. It’s violent abuse too, but violence is functioning merely as the amplifier of the core problem. The deepest suffering is the emotional damage that occurs.
The effect of abuse
When an innocent person decides that they are responsible for the terrible and painful abuse of others inflicted on themselves, it creates a twisted perception of the whole of reality. In other words, lies start to look like truth, and those lies become the faulty basis for a whole range of other conclusions that they draw about reality.
Some of the common ideas that form in the mind of the abused:
1. I am causing this problem, therefore I despise myself for causing myself pain.
2. The problem would go away if I was stronger than my abuser, therefore I despise myself for being weak.
3. It is my responsibility to stop the abuse but I don’t know how to, therefore I despise myself for being powerless.
4. I despise myself, therefore it is appropriate for me to suffer the torment of abuse.
The “Faulty Framework”
This faulty framework of understanding becomes a burden because all new experiences are filtered through it. It can produce very unhelpful results.
A few common examples that I have encountered:
1. Faulty perception of genuine affection
An abused person might interpret genuine affection as manipulation and reject it, or engage with it in equally manipulative ways. They may be convinced that genuine affection is not possible, or at least, will never be possible for themselves. In one case, a person confessed to me that they had no idea what love actually is.
2. Considering abuse to be ok
An abused person might interpret abusive and manipulative relationships as being appropriate, and accept such abuse on the grounds that they believe it is somehow caused by themselves. Some will subconsciously seek out such relationships because it is a situation where they at least understand the emotional landscape. A healthy relationship is unfamiliar territory, and therefore frightening.
An abused person might exhibit uncontrollable rage. This can arise from an inability to safely vent frustration or it can be their own despised memory of helpless vulnerability being projected on another person. It can also be a desperate need never to be the weaker party, and therefore they are always an aggressor. It can be any or all of those! Almost always, “it’s complicated”.
An abused person may have any number of phobias and anxieties. Such things may seem irrational to the observer, but within the subjective, faulty framework of understanding, there are rationalisations for it. Hence, “irrational” is not necessarily the most appropriate categorisation of these fears. “Deceived”, is a better description…
There are other common manifestations, including compulsive lying, heightened sexual promiscuity (or conversely, the absence of sexual interest), substance abuse, any number of “obsessive compulsive disorders”, self harm, and countless more. Even trying to make a list is potentially unhelpful because it gives the impression that there is a finite range of symptoms. There isn’t. On the most fundamental level it’s all the fruit of one single problem: a faulty framework of understanding.
Why not just tell them so?
The old nursery rhyme goes, “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza…”, “Well, fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry…”
The whole rhyme finds itself in a rather circular muddle because Liza’s advice, sought at each point in determining how to solve each problem in repairing the bucket, eventually returns to requiring this same bucket to bring water, which it can’t because there’s a hole in it. (see There’s a Hole in My Bucket)
Just Stop It
In the same way, simply telling someone that they their interpretation of their own life events is “wrong” is not going to help. A person only has their own point of view, and from that point of view, their conclusions seem rational. In fact, for a very amusing look at what that approach ends up looking like, see this rather clever little Bob Newhart clip:
Clearly, this is not the way to actually solve anything. Alarmingly however, this is precisely the way most people actually try to “help” someone who suffers from past trauma! (Happily, a professional therapist does not do that, but their response is limited in other ways which I will outline below)
BEHAVIOUR AND WORLDVIEW ARE CONNECTED
Telling people simply to change their behaviour is the same as telling them to change their worldview. You can say it, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem. All you’re really saying, no matter how you dress it up, is, “stop it”! In fact, the way many well-meaning Christians approach another person’s problems is seven words that are equivalent to Bob Newhart’s terrifying “10 words” at the end of that YouTube clip: “Stop it or you’ll go to hell“.
But the Bible says:
These [regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”] have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. – Colossians 2:23
For a person’s behaviour to change, they need to understand their own story in new terms. Their story, having been retold in different terms, will lead to different conclusions about their present reality. Those different conclusions will affect their behaviour.
The very next verses in the Bible provide the alternative instructions, which are of value in “stopping the indulgence of the flesh”:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. – Colossians 3:1-4
Instead of “You are doing wrong, therefore ‘stop it'”, the alternative is, “God has gathered up your old life and given you a new one, therefore let your old behaviours go”. The actual instruction is effectively the same with respect to behaviour, but it is cast in a different story. But it is the story which makes all the difference! The story addresses the question of your identity, as one loved by God.
Love is the answer. Who knew?
Love is the only way to affect something as deep within a person as their worldview. In fact, as I outlined earlier, their worldview has been formed very substantially as an attempt to comprehend love, or the lack of it, in their own experience.
In the deepest part of our being, the physical world is an abstract concept. The only “real” thing that we deal with at our core is love or the lack of it; everything else is secondary. When someone starts to experience love in a way that they never have before, it changes their whole outlook on life. You see this happening with young people falling in love (and people not-so-young, too!) Suddenly, everything seems fresh and new. Why? Because their previous outlook was formed as a way of explaining their experiences with (or without) love in the past. Having experienced love in a new way, a new paradigm of understanding is possible.
Putting it together
What an abused person needs is a new experience of love, and a story in which to understand their past experiences in more healthy ways. Should it surprise us that God has provided precisely this?
As his ambassadors, ministers of Christianity have a responsibility to go beyond merely articulating a message of love. We need to live it. We need to love extravagantly. We do so as a way of teaching that the truth is different than what people have supposed. We do it so that people are able to comprehend the love of God through our example.
As we do this, we have the responsibility to tell the story of humanity in God’s terms, so that people can perceive their own place in that story. In that story, people will find that their abuser had a responsibility to behave well, and failed. They will find that their own experience is one of injustice, and that God has very special things to say about those who suffer injustice. They will also find the God of restoration, who doesn’t know the meaning of “ruined”, or “finished”, or “beyond help”. This is the “God of hope” (Romans 15:13).
Combining these two elements of genuine love and authentic story, is like playing with a divine chemistry set: the result is explosive. As I say above, a professional counsellor is prevented from providing both of these key elements. The expression of love required would transgress their professional ethics, and the casting of a narrative into the subject’s life transgresses their methods.
Is Professional Counselling Valuable?
Yes! Yes, it is! Or at least it most certainly can be. Professional Counselling can help people to untangle their thoughts and perceptions and help to discern a way forward in seemingly hopeless situations. It can prompt self-analysis and provide powerful tools so that the subject leads themselves on a course of discovery. Sometimes that can even end up precipitating breakthrough results. Particularly so, if the subject is praying at the same time and contemplating God’s self-revelation in the Bible, as they ask themselves the probing questions. I would suggest that the Counsellor merely makes the person ready for healing, but that the healing comes from elsewhere. I think most Counsellors would agree.
Because counselling is different, it should not directly be compared to Christian Ministry. The two can be complimentary, and I just caution that they are not the same thing.
As an anecdote, I have been told too many times to count that my friends have spent endless hours in counselling sessions with no subjectively measurable benefit, but after a solid conversation with me they feel that they have gained a massive breakthrough. In one case, with a person I had never ministered to before, it was, “I’ve just had 8 1-hour long sessions with a therapist, and nothing they said makes half as much sense as what you’ve told me in the last half hour”. That’s a common reaction. Why? Because I’m dealing with the real question: “Who is God, and how is that relevant to my own story?”
The answer to that question involves the word “love”.
Because love is the answer.