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A Good Thing and the Best Thing: The Relationship Between Secular Psychology and Biblical Doctrine

By Debra J. Lawson


In the late 19th century "psychology separated from philosophy and began to emerge as an independent science" (Corsini, 1995, p. 19). There have been many secular psychological theorists in the intervening years, including Freud, Adler, Ellis, Rogers, Beck, Glasser, and Yalom. Through careful observation, they have researched and theorized about man's psyche, what ails him, and what can help.

At the same time, the Bible, God's word, has been telling us for thousands of years about man's psyche, his heart and soul, what ails him, and what can help. The language and form of biblical doctrine is distinctly different from modern secular psychology, so much so that we are tempted to treat them as unrelated fields. In order to understand more clearly the relationship and the differences between biblical doctrine and secular psychology it is important to think through the foundations and assumptions upon which each rests.


How do we know what we know? God makes known his truth in two ways: general revelation and specific revelation. General revelation is available to all of us through the world around us. The way things work, the patterns in nature, the tendencies inherent in man and animals all reveal certain truths. Through observation and the scientific method we can form conclusions about ourselves and the world around us.

Specific revelation is truth that God has revealed to men directly through His Spirit. The Bible, our holy scripture, is specific revelation that is "God-breathed" (2 Timothy 2:16). Through it we gain understanding that may or may not be observable or repeatable.

Secular psychology relies strictly on the inductive reasoning of general revelation. It can tell us what men do under varieties of circumstances, but it can only postulate on the ultimate reasons why men do what they do. This is not to undermine the wealth of reliable information and correlations that have been determined over the last one hundred years. Men with brilliant minds and keen powers of observation and insight have looked hard and well into truth God has made available to them in this world. We do well to learn from them.

However, general revelation is limited. It cannot tell us about the full nature of God or man. It cannot tell us what the purpose of our existence is. It cannot tell us, therefore, how we miss the mark of our purpose, or how we can be restored to our design. It is simply limited in what it can offer. To that extent, secular psychology is also limited. The truth available through scientific research is not inaccurate, but it cannot give us the full picture of man's psyche.


Who is man? How are we to understand man's psyche, his heart, his soul, his nature, his motivations, or his purpose? Since general revelation is limited, an anthropology based on general revelation (science) will be limited. Consequently, the secular theorists' understanding of man is only partial at best.

Freud saw man as biological and social, with unconscious wishes and drives that need to be civilized. Adler saw humans as unique, amoral beings who, largely non-consciously, choose their own life-style and goals. Some theorists focus on man's creative, actualizing tendencies (Rogers and person-centered theorists), some on man's rational or emotional motivations (Beck and Ellis), some only on man's actions (behavior theorists). Recently, it has become popular to combine the theories or to pick and choose in an eclectic style which features of man on which to focus. All of these contribute to our understanding of man. However, even the most complete or complex secular views of man are still only a partial understanding drawn from what we can observe.

What does the Bible tell us about man? There are two basic components of man's nature, setting him apart from the animals, which the scriptures reveal to us in Genesis. First, we are told man is made in the image of God, in his likeness (Genesis 1:26). Second, man is sinful (Romans 3:23).

In some way, man has a reflection of the very nature of God in his core. An adequate understanding of man, therefore, is reliant upon our understanding of the nature of God. To be good students of man, we need to be good theologians (something secular psychology has abandoned as either irrelevant or a pathological deterrent to mental health). From the Bible, we know, for example, that God is personal. He thinks, feels, and wills. As image bearers, we are personal as well, with similar capacities. We also know that God is relational, existing eternally as the Trinity. Made in his image, man is in his basic nature a relational being, created for belonging and relationship with God and with each other. God is also teleological, purposeful in all his actions. So likewise, man is a purposeful being, with a need for meaning, purpose, and significance.

However, the Bible tells us that, unlike God, man is sinful, fallen. He has chosen to rebel from the God who created him and has chosen to go his own way rather than to obey God. This fallen nature colors, perverts, and obscures the fullness of God's image in man.

Man is not merely biological, rational, emotional, behavioral, or social, as secular psychology would have us believe, though he certainly is all of those. Nor is man amoral, consciously or unconsciously choosing his own reality. Rather man's greatness is greater than anything science could imagine (the very image of God) and his depths are worse than science could conceive (rebellion from God, Himself). In all the glory and horror that could be implied, man is a fallen image bearer.


What is wrong with man? What is the basic problem or obstacle that keeps man from attaining ultimate fulfillment? The answer to this question is as varied as the theorists themselves.

Freud saw man's problem as the unsuccessful resolution of intrapsychic conflict and an upset in the balance of pressure of drives and the defense forces of the ego. Adler believed our lifestyles are self-defeating and socially useless because of discouragement or inferiority feelings. Person-centered theorists see man's difficulties coming from either detachment from or disapproval of vital, good parts of himself. For rational emotive behavior theorists and cognitive theorists, the obstacles to fulfillment are emotional upsets and behavioral disturbances which stem from irrational beliefs. For secular existential theorists, man's problem is neurotic anxiety that stems from a repressed conflict about life's ultimate concerns.

For all of the secular psychology theorists the basic problem seems to boil down to pain. That pain is either intrapsychic pain (personal discomfort) or interpersonal pain (problems in relationships). Since it is observable inwardly or outwardly that things aren't working, that life and relationships aren't running smoothly, adjustments clearly need to be made.

Biblical doctrine, while not refuting the very real intrapsychic and interpersonal pain observed by secular psychology, tells us something different. It says the real problem is sin; that is, man's fallenness, his broken relationship with God and with others. Man has used his freedom not to love, obey and serve, but to disobey and rebel. Man was made for harmony, for what Plantinga calls shalom, the "wedding together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight" (Roberts, 1997, p. 246). In light of this, "sin is culpable shalom-breaking" (p. 247).

According to the Bible, therefore, sin is man's basic problem. Sin reveals its effects in personal and relational pain of all sorts, in addiction, neuroses, psychoses, strife, imbalances, negativity, conflict, etc. Pain in these forms is not the primary problem of man, though it is often an observable symptom of the deeper problem. Psychological and relational pain are indicators that something more important has gone awry, that the shalom we were built for has been broken. Something has usurped the place of our dependent loving trust in God, badly warping our intended design. No longer are we living for the glory of God, to know and love him and one another. Through sin, we lose our sense of relational security as well as our sense of purpose.

Soteriology and Sanctification

So what can help people with their most basic problems? Help and healing depends upon your definition of the problem. Differing theories result in differing therapies. Each theory has its own understanding of salvation and fulfillment.

For Freud, healing comes through understanding ourselves, how our neurotic symptoms and behaviors are derived from unconscious conflicts, which then allows us to make rational choices rather than responding automatically. Adler believed we need encouragement to decrease inferiority feelings, change our life style and faulty motivations, and activate out social interest. Change and growth for Rogers is a self-directed process aided by another's genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and empathy, resulting in greater self-esteem and acceptance of oneself and others. Cognitive theorists advocate overcoming faulty thinking by identifying and modifying cognitive thoughts and assumptions that maintain maladaptive behaviors and emotions. Behaviorists redirect behavior in a way that reshapes one's corresponding thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Existentialists believe neurotic anxiety must be confronted, reducing them to fears which are objective and can be dealt with, while the unavoidable existential anxiety in life must be tolerated so we can live fully and creatively.

For all of the secular psychology approaches, the intrapsychic and interpersonal pain of life may be minimized through one or more of a variety of techniques. In a meta-analysis of psychotherapy conducted in 1977 by Smith and Glass, outcomes used to assess effectiveness of therapy were: increases in self-esteem, reduction of anxiety, improvements in school or work achievement, and overall adjustment. Again, these are measures of an internal (personal) or external (relational) reduction of some form of pain. In this study, comparing various types of therapy (including psychoanalysis, rational-emotive therapy, client-centered therapy, and behavior modification), it was found that "the average client receiving therapy was better off than 75 percent of the untreated controls," and that "the results of research demonstrate negligible differences in the effects produced by the different therapy types" (Hock, 1999, pp. 256, 258).

Secular psychotherapies, therefore, based on an understanding of man derived from scientific research and observation (general revelation), do seem to help decrease personal discomfort and relational discord. God has provided wisdom and truth, available to us in the natural realm, which is able to increase our sense of well-being and our ability to relate with one another. There is help and understanding available to us through the theories and work of these secular psychologists.

However, according to biblical doctrine (special revelation), there is more to the story than alleviating our pain and providing a greater sense of well-being. Man's primary problem is not pain, it is sin, the broken relationship between God and man. Personal and relational discord are symptoms of the more basic problem, that is, the fall, man's rebellion from God.

What is the solution for the problem of sin? Unfortunately, on our own, we can do nothing to solve the problem of sin. All our attempts to cover over or fix or deny the problem are fruitless. Our only hope and help must come completely from the resources of God.

Thanks be to God, through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the ultimate problem of sin has been taken care of! Christ died and rose again, satisfying the requirements of God's perfect holiness and the desires of His perfect love. As we surrender all our hopelessness and helplessness to Him and rest in belief and trust upon His redemptive provisions, the final problem of sin in our lives is resolved. Relationship with God is restored.

Unfortunately, we are still left with the residual effects of sin in our lives in the form of our "sin nature" (Romans 7). The sin nature is the part of ourselves that is out to satisfy itself, to gratify itself, to protect itself, to glorify itself. It lives for the self. This is the continuing effect of sin in our lives and the ongoing problem in man.

Here again, our own best efforts at eradicating sin in our lives are fruitless. Biblical doctrine illustrates this quite clearly through "the law." Try as we might, we cannot fulfill the law on our own strength. In fact, it seems the harder we try, the worse off we are. Despite our best effort, the law kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). Using our own resources, we are hopeless and helpless.

Again, thanks be to God! He supplies the resources we need to participate in the maturing process of sanctification, that is, becoming holy, transformed more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. This is the process wherein the power of sin and selfishness in our lives is decreased and the power of the Spirit is increased. More and more we can be freed to live for the glory of God rather than the glory of ourselves. Gradually, we can know and love God more and have a resulting deeper love and compassion for those around us.

So what are some of God's resources for us? One is the power of the residue of the image of God the Father stamped upon us. There is a uniqueness and beauty in each one of us, which, though disguised by the fall, remains in our hearts. In quiet moments, we know deep down that we were created for Something More. We have longings that we cannot quench, pointing us toward deeper relationship and belonging, and toward greater significance, purpose, and meaning in life. The image of God is a resource that draws us to be more of what we were designed to be.

Another resource is the comfort, encouragement, and exhortation of the Holy Spirit as He gently draws us to let go of our sin nature and rely instead on Him. He speaks directly to our psyches, our hearts and souls. He comforts us with His love, with His presence, with His peace. He encourages us to take heart, to persevere, reminding us that the battle is His. He patiently exhorts us to let go of our reliance on our own powerless resources and to turn from our empty, foolish ways.

A third resource God provides for us is the community of believers. Other Christians are His very body in our world, His hands and His voice to each other. Through one another we are reminded of who we are, that we are washed clean in Christ. We are reminded of the beauty of God's image in us and of the courage and comfort provided for us by the Holy Spirit. Through each other our sin is seen more clearly and we are encouraged to set it down and move according to the Spirit, instead. We are a resource of strength, love, and encouragement for one another in the maturing process of sanctification.

Paradoxically, another resource God uses in purging the power of sin in our lives is pain. Paul says, "We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us" (Romans 5:3-5). Similarly, James encourages us to "consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work in you so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:2-4).

God's purpose for pain is to use it to draw us toward himself, maturing us to live more for His glory. Our sorrows and difficulties can drive us to an awareness of our helplessness and our need to depend upon Him. As we relinquish our own control and selfish independence, we can learn to trust God, to persevere in our reliance upon Him. Pain and suffering can be resources God uses to disempower sin, which is man's greatest problem.

In working with others therapeutically, if our only intention is to diminish their pain, we may be working at cross-purposes to God. It is possible to eliminate pain and at the same time fortify the flesh, the sin nature. In his collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers of the fourth century, Thomas Merton recounts this story:

Abbot Pastor said that Abbot John the Dwarf had prayed to the Lord and the Lord had taken away all his passions, so that he became impassable. And in this condition he went to one of the elders and said: You see before you a man who is completely at rest and has no more temptations. The elder said: Go and pray to the Lord to command some struggle to be stirred up in you, for the soul is matured only in battles. And when the temptations started up again he did not pray that the struggle be taken away from him, but only said: Lord, give me strength to get through the fight (Merton, 1960, pp. 56-57).

Pain of various sorts is a problem, certainly. But pain is not the problem. Sanctification only occurs as pain is surrendered to God for His purposes, to be relieved in His time (hopefully, the sooner, the better), for His glory.

Relationship between Secular Psychology and Biblical Doctrine

There are many important differences between secular psychology, based on a general revelation understanding of man and his problems, and biblical doctrine, based on a special revelation understanding. So how do they come together, or must they always be separate? Is one "right" and the other "wrong"?

Secular psychology, relying strictly on scientific observation, is at best limited. Its findings are not necessarily wrong; they reflect the truth of God as observed in nature and man. However, secular psychology does not go far enough. It cannot supply the resources we need to address the real problem in man's soul, his sin.

Biblical doctrine is where we get the true picture of man's nature and problem and an adequate understanding of the resources we need to become whole. The Bible must be our underlying foundation at all times in working with people. We must never lose sight of God's perspective on man as revealed in His word.

With God's view clearly and firmly before us, any of the observations gathered by secular psychology may be used to enhance what we do with people. Perspectives about unconscious motives (Freud), or encouragement to decrease inferiority feelings (Adler), or unconditional positive regard (Rogers), or irrational beliefs (Ellis) are all helpful when submitted to the purposes of God.


Many years ago, I heard a preacher on the radio. He gave the sort of a sermon where he repeated one line over and over, interspersed with clarifications and illustrations. Each time he gave the line, his voice would get louder and more passionate. In this particular sermon, he was lyrically intoning the line, "Even a good thing is a bad thing if it's put above the best thing."

I have thought about that line frequently in the intervening years. Now, as I ponder the relationship between secular psychology and biblical doctrine, I think of it again. Secular psychology is certainly a good thing, a very good thing. Much helpful, valuable understanding has been given to us through secular thought and research regarding man's psyche. However, for a deeper understanding of man's heart, the Word of God is the best thing. What God reveals to us directly through biblical doctrine gives us the best insight into man's innermost being.

I echo the wisdom of the radio preacher, "Even a good thing is a bad thing if it's put above the best thing," when I relate secular psychology and biblical doctrine. Is our energy for our self put above our energy for God? Is our desire to be rid of pain and anxiety a higher priority than our desire to mature in God and love Him in the midst of our pain? Are we introspectively seeking insight and understanding of ourselves above seeking to know God and His ways? Do we yearn for unconditional positive regard from others more than we long to love God and our neighbor? Anything put above God is idolatry. Any good thing is a bad thing when put above Him.

However, in full submission to God, good things are redeemed. Surrendered to Him, our desire to lessen pain and anxiety in ourselves and others is a worthy desire. Insights into ourselves and our neighbors can be part of our maturing process. Techniques of therapy can be utilized with joy when acknowledged as gifts of God and used as He leads us. A good thing, including secular psychology and its energies for helping people, remains a good thing when submitted to the best thing, God and His ways as revealed in His Word.


_________. (1984). The Holy Bible: New international version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Corsini, R. J. & Wedding, D. (1995). Current psychotherapies. Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.
Hock, R. R. (1999). Forty studies that changed psychology: Explorations into the history of psychological research. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Merton, T. (1960). The wisdom of the desert. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Roberts, R. C. & Talbot, M. R. (1997). Limning the psyche: Explorations in Christian psychology. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

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