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Psychology and the Bible
The problem with much of the teaching in Christian psychology is that it sounds so close to the truth. Integrationists frequently use Bible verses and Christian jargon to give seemingly biblical support for their psychological counsel. Indeed, I am sure many of these counselors have sincere intentions as they attempt to interweave biblical instruction with psychological concepts. Yet a careful examination of the books written by these counselors shows that the Scriptures, in many cases, are being handled quite carelessly. And because few Christians today know their Bibles well enough to detect teaching that stands in subtle or even blatant opposition to God’s truth, many have actually been led further away from God rather than closer to Him.
How does this happen? There are at least nine ways that Christians are deceived by the unbiblical teachings of Christian psychology: 1) Scripture is quoted out of context; 2) Scripture is distorted by poor methods of interpretation; 3) Scripture is denied; 4) statements are added to or deleted from the Scriptures; 5) God is redefined; 6) man is redefined; 7) theological terms are redefined; 8) claims of new revelations are made; and 9) the leadership claims unquestionable authority.
Let’s examine each one of those problems more closely.
Quoting Scripture Out of Context
As you read their books, note how integrationist writers often pull proof texts out of their biblical setting. An example is how John 3:17 is used in the book Self-Esteem, The New Reformation. The author writes:
Surely Christ never puts down a human being, “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn…” (John 3:17). He builds up, redeems, and sanctifies persons and personalities. We might even conclude—at least have reason to suspect—that the level of the Lordship of Christ in a life can be measured by the rising level of Christian self-worth.1
The context of the verse shows that God is not pushing Christian self-worth, but rather is warning that humans are already condemned in their sin and that they desperately need Christ as their Savior. Read the follow-up verses:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son (John 3:17, 18).
Jesus was not declaring man’s basic righteousness and the need of healthy self-esteem. On the contrary, He clearly stated in the next verse that “men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Pulling John 3:17 out of context makes it say something never intended in the passage. This sort of biblical quackery is rampant in psychological writings.
To distort means “to twist out of natural shape” or “to misrepresent.” It is a subtle thing and difficult to detect. Peter referred to this problem in his second epistle: “[Paul]’s letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16).
When a writer quotes the Scripture to support his position, he can make it sound very biblical. Satan is a master of this. When he was tempting Jesus to prove His deity, the devil quoted from Psalm 91. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone’ ” (Matthew 4:6). The context of the passage that Satan quotes, Psalm 91:11, 12, is that God comes to the aid of those who love and obey Him. Nowhere is there a hint that we have the right to deliberately place ourselves in danger to force God to act. That’s why Jesus replied, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ ” (Matthew 4:7).
Integrationists use the passages that talk about loving your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:33; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9, 10; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8) to teach that until we learn to love ourselves we can’t love others. Therefore, their doctrine goes, we really need to concentrate on loving ourselves. Then, in time, we will be able to love others too. The Bible says, however, that we already love ourselves. “After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:29). Paul reproved the church because “everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:21). He wrote to Timothy predicting that in the last days “people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy” (2 Timothy 3:2). In direct contrast, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Paul says that distortion of the Word should have no place in the ministry. “Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
When cults disagree with a biblical doctrine, they simply deny it. The founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, didn’t like Genesis 2:7: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” So she wrote, “Is this addition to His creation real or unreal? Is it the truth, or is it a lie concerning man and God? It must be a lie, for God presently curses the ground.”2
Incredible as it sounds, one sincere integrationist has written that the Bible does not make a clear statement about man!3 The truth is that the Bible makes many statements about the nature of man, which, though not particularly complimentary, are clear. We are told that man is a direct creation of God, made in His image (Genesis 1:26). Man is ignorant intellectually and spiritually (Job 8:9; Ecclesiastes 8:7; Micah 4:12). Because of man’s decision to sin, the world is under a curse of suffering (Genesis 3:16–19; Romans 8:20–22). Every individual person is a sinner by nature and by choice (Romans 3:10–18; 5:12). Man willfully rebels against God (Romans 1:18–32), and as a result, his understanding is darkened (Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:18).
Obviously, the Bible does give a clear statement about man, why he is here, why he is so full of suffering, where he is headed, and how he will get there.
Adding to or Deleting from the Scriptures
Joseph Smith found it necessary to “discover” a whole new set of writings to support his unbiblical doctrines that God is a highly developed human, that humans can become gods with their own planets, that salvation must be earned by one’s own efforts, and that the current leaders of the Mormon church are apostles giving new revelations from God.
In fairness, I cannot accuse integrationist writers of adding to the Scriptures overtly. They do, however, border on deleting from the Scriptures by ignoring the passages they don’t like or which do not fit their psychological theories. In their emphasis upon man’s innate goodness they gloss over the passages that clearly teach the depravity of man—passages such as “They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good” (Psalm 14:1).
Though cults use Christian terminology, b
Though few integrationists deliberately attempt to redefine God, their doctrines have that very result. Under psychological dogma, God is not seen as the omnipotent Creator who fully understands the heart of man and reveals in His Word how to solve the deepest problems of living. Instead, we are told that Christians need the deep insights of secular psychology to truly cure complex inner hurts.
In integrationist writings, man is redefined as basically good, but containing a dysfunctional inner child who longs to be loved and accepted. He is not a sinner in need of salvation, but a wonderful being who is OK and just needs to realize it.
Redefining Theological Terms
Theological terms are redefined so that they no longer mean what they did under historical orthodox Christianity. Sin, selfishness, and salvation are given new meanings when connected to the integrationist theology of self-love. Walter Martin has observed:
The revolutions in culture which have taken place in the vocabularies of technology, psychology, medicine and politics have not left untouched the religions of the world in general, and the theology of Christianity in particular.…It is therefore possible for the modern theologians to use the terminology of the Bible and historic theology, but in an entirely different sense from that intended by the writers of Scripture.4
Claiming New Revelations
Mormons have their new revelations: The Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price, Doctrines and Covenants, and the ongoing prophecies of their presidents who are alive at the time. Christian Science has Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health, With Key to the Scriptures. Seventh-Day Adventists have the writings of Ellen G. White. Scientology has Dianetics, written by L. Ron Hubbard. Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own version of the Bible, which is called the New World Translation.
The new psychological faiths do not present a single new writing called scripture. Their source of new revelations comes from within. “You’ve got to learn to follow your heart,” they say. A professor of psychology at a major university recently appeared on a talk show in Denver and told people how to interpret their dreams so they could find guidance for their lives. “Listen to your dreams,” he said. “They can be a lot of help!”
One Christian woman I know has decided that she must disobey her husband and the elders of her church because she knows God spoke to her and told her to “follow my heart.” She is being actively supported in her rebellion by Christian psychologists who warn against pastors and elders who oppress their churches with toxic faith and “beat people up with the Bible.”
It seems to me that whenever a psychologized Christian is confronted with the convicting words of the Bible, he might claim that he is being bullied by the church. Though conviction isn’t pleasant, God has said, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Hebrews 12:5, 6). Under today’s revised rules for Christians, however, God Himself would be charged with abusing believers!
Claiming Unquestionable Authority
When all else fails, cult leaders claim that they are beyond question. Since they have received special knowledge and revelation, they scorn the ordinary humans who have the insolence to doubt their authoritative statements. Intimidation of their followers is a major tool that cult leaders use to keep their people in line.
In psychology, the intimidation factor is just as real. “Who are you to question me?” psychologists seem to say. (No matter that psychologists regularly contradict one another’s observations, conclusions, and therapies.) It is this intimidation factor that has silenced so many pastors and kept them from questioning the statements that psychologists deliver as though they received them from God Himself. Psychologists are quoted from the pulpit as though their observations and theories are proven truth—truth as trustworthy as the Bible.
If an ordinary pastor dares to dispute the opinions of famous Christian “authorities” on marriage, sexual abuse, dysfunctionality, or a host of other psychological ailments, people are shocked and then a bit amused that a psychologically untrained clergyman is taking issue with his superiors. Condescendingly, they shake their heads and whisper, “Fanatic!”
Isn’t it amazing that pastors are called fanatics for having the audacity to suggest that the Bible really is God’s Word, that it really means what it says about mankind, and that it is sufficient to solve all our problems of living?
Why Psychology and the Bible Are Incompatible
At this point integrationists might want to ask, “What if somehow we are able to integrate psychological theory and biblical truth without undermining the Scriptures? Would that not become a truly biblical psychology?”
I contend that integrating the two is simply not possible because psychology is rooted in humanism, it opens the door to satanic influence, and it offers a faulty view of self that ultimately depreciates the value of Christ’s completed work on the cross.
Psychology Is Rooted in Humanism
It is disturbing that so few people see the absolute impossibility of merging humanism with Christian doctrine. Those committed to humanism have no difficulty seeing the gulf that is fixed between the two systems. Corliss Lamont, who wrote The Philosophy of Humanism, has stated that “there is no place in the Humanist world view for either immortality or God in the valid meanings of those terms.”5 Atheist Paul Kurtz has said that “Christian humanism would be possible only for those who are willing to admit that they are atheistic Humanists. It surely does not apply to God-intoxicated believers.”6 Harold Rafton has said that humanism is “a rationalistic religion based on science, centered in man, rejecting supernaturalism but retaining our cherished moral values.”7 Doesn’t that sound hauntingly similar to psychology?
David Noebel writes that “Humanist theology, start to finish, is based on the denial of God and the supernatural. This denial, however, leads the Humanist to another necessary theological conclusion: man is the Supreme Authority.”8 Since psychology is firmly rooted in the soil of humanism, it is obvious that psychology and the Bible approach the issue of solving human problems from two opposite and mutually exclusive poles.
The major theorists of psychology have been humanists with declared atheistic beliefs. Erich Fromm declared openly, “I am not a theist.”9 Abraham Maslow makes it plain that humanism and psychology go hand in hand: “Humanists for thousands of years have attempted to construct a naturalistic, psychological value system that could be derived from man’s own nature, without the necessity of recourse to authority outside the human being himself.”10
Psychology Opens the Door to Satanic Influence
“Claiming to be neutr
Some Christian psychologists see no incompatibility between yoga, hypnotism, chanting, and Christianity. Having accepted the idea that psychology is a value-neutral science, integrationists often include unbiblical theories and methods in their own counseling practices.
Psychologists call meditation, guided imagery, and visualization forms of altered states of consciousness. Bill Zika writes, “During the past decade, a great deal of attention has been focused on the application of meditation, hypnosis, and other consciousness-altering techniques to psychotherapeutic outcomes.”15
What are we talking about when we discuss altered states of consciousness, visualization, and guided imagery? According to E.L. Hillstrom, Associate Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College, many of these concepts are doctrines of Eastern religions:
Many have also adopted a modified theory of evolution which proposes that men are evolving mentally and even now are on the threshold of a revolutionary change. These changes would include new (or newly discovered) mental powers such as telepathy, psychokinesis (the ability to move objects by mental powers alone), the ability to enter into altered states of consciousness, to heal physical disorders in others by mental means, the ability to experience other “spiritual realities” (i.e., to contact spiritual beings), or even the ability to separate at will from one’s body.16
Hillstrom says that mystical experiences can cause a variety of phenomena, and that “the varied altered states may also provide mystical and transcendent experiences in which supernatural forces or beings may be sensed, seen, or even communicated with.”17 Hillstrom believes that these supernatural beings are demonic in nature:
From a Christian perspective these developments within the consciousness movement are unsettling because the “spirit guides” sound hauntingly similar to demons, and the “spiritual evolution” they presumably promise seems to be no more than an elaborate scientific cover-up for one more diabolical attempt to deceive and destroy. The movement, whose stated goal is to unite science and religion, is apparently attracting fairly substantial numbers of educated men and women who may perceive it as a way to satisfy their spiritual longings without meeting the costly demands of Christianity. Christians should certainly be made aware of the potential implications and dangers of this new area of study.18
When our understanding of the very nature of man is derived from New Age psychologies rather than the Scriptures, confusion is inevitable. The Bible addresses such confusion when it says, “For the fool speaks folly, his mind is busy with evil: He practices ungodliness and spreads error concerning the Lord; the hungry he leaves empty and from the thirsty he withholds water” (Isaiah 32:6). When all they receive is psychological counsel, hurting people whose souls hunger and thirst for the healing truths of God’s Word go away in greater pain. Peter puts it this way: “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Peter 2:1).
Blaming Everything on Demons
An equally destructive error takes place when a counselor attributes all dysfunctions to demonic possession. There are pastors and counselors—particularly in hypercharismatic circles—who blame the devil for every problem of living. If a counselee is timid, they might attempt to exorcise the demon of fear. If a person yawns during a service, he might be diagnosed as having a demon of lethargy. If a man has trouble keeping his mind pure, he may be told he has a demon of lust.
At the request of a friend, I reluctantly attended a “signs and wonders” conference where people were being taught how to heal people and exorcise demons. I watched as groups of people formed circles around individuals, holding their hands out and shaking them at their targets as they yelled loudly in tongues.
One troubled man I had known for some time ran up to me, excited and wild-eyed. “Pastor Ed!” he exclaimed, “I’ve just been freed from the demon of lust!”
I asked him, “Do you mean that you’ll never be tempted by lust again?”
“Never!” he replied. “I’ve been totally delivered!”
“Then, my friend,” I said sadly, “don’t look at any billboards on your way home. Don’t open any magazines, or read any papers. Don’t watch any television. Because you will find that lust quickly returns. It’s something we have to fight every day as we submit to God.”
He was grieved at my unbelief and insisted that he was permanently delivered. He walked away in disgust, convinced that his problems were over. He was attending a large charismatic church at the time, but was not taught the simple truths of God’s cleansing forgiveness (1 John 1:9) and the believer’s power to resist sin as he humbly submits to God, resists the devil (1 Corinthians 10:13; James 4:6, 7; 1 Peter 5:5–9), and fills his heart with the Word of God in order to keep his ways pure (Psalm 119:9, 11).
Within a year this man was arrested for sexually abusing his two little girls. If his was truly a case of demon possession, his counselors failed miserably to give him relief. The cure was not to perform sacred witchcraft, waving hands and chanting unintelligible syllables. What he needed was clear instruction from the Word of God about repentance and cleansing, godly counsel in renewing the mind, and a system of strict accountability within the local church.
Attributing every “dysfunction” to demons is an error as devastating as psychological theories of victimization; it removes personal responsibility for attitudes, actions, and reactions. It places the blame on others (in this case, demons), and prevents a counselee from honestly examining his heart in the light of the Scriptures.
This is not to discount the fact of genuine demonic possession or oppression. Much of what is diagnosed as insanity—schizophrenia, paranoia, manic-depression, multiple personalities, and the like—may indeed be demonic in origin. But most ordinary problems of living, such as lethargy, procrastination, anger, lust, and jealousy, should be seen as the result of sinful thinking or behavior. James asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1). Rather than blaming
Psychology Offers a Faulty View of Self
Another major error that places psychology at complete odds with the Bible is the psychological concept of the self. Psychology advocates self-gratification, while the Bible teaches self-denial.
A sincere integrationist asks, “Is the building of self-esteem, the search for self-fulfillment or the actualizing of self-potential really as dangerous as some claim?”19 He admits that “self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-gratification, self-fulfillment, self-assertion, self-confidence…have become widely accepted values in contemporary society.”20
In his book entitled Me, Myself & I, the dean of the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary attempts to “more properly relate Christian theology to secular psychology.”21 He believes that we “desperately need the insights of psychology to help us diagnose our problems, coupled with the insights and power of Christianity to solve them”22 (emphasis in original).
This Christian psychologist believes that a major cause of a twisted view of the self is pastors with faulty theology. “Personal harm is often perpetuated by well-meaning but unwitting preachers of the gospel,” he writes. “Sick pastors produce a sick theology that shapes a sick church to yield sick selves” (emphasis in original). He goes on to say, “I call such ministers ‘pathogenic agents’ because they create pathology wherever they go.”23
Does this psychologist understand the self better than the pastors he criticizes? He defines the self as “the essence of what it means to be a human being.…The self is the totality of the person.”24 Later he says that “deep within each of us is a place we call the self. It is a secluded place at the very center of our being.”25 So are we now to conclude that deep within the self is another self? Evidently not, because a few pages later he writes, “The self is not a thing, a place, or a person.”26 To make it even clearer, he expounds, “The ‘self’ does not exist as such. It is not a person with a person. The self is the person. I am, you are, that person. There is no other entity within us.”27 But wait! He sheds further light on the question when he points out that “we can observe ourselves from without.…Self-awareness gives me the capacity to stand outside myself and observe what it is I am doing and feeling.”28 He describes this idea as “a self within myself.”29
Am I missing something here? This is a man who criticizes pastors for not having an adequate understanding of or appreciation for the self, yet there seem to be some contradictions in his own explanation.
In his attempt to “more properly relate Christian theology to secular psychology” he rarely turns to the Scriptures, but hands down his psychological theories as though they were proven truths. As I read the book I found myself asking again and again, “Where is that taught in the Word?”
I agree that there is a great deal of pastoral confusion about the self, but it is not because pastors are the “pathogenic agents.” The reason there is so much confusion is that seminaries and pastors have turned to psychology for insights about the human condition instead of the eternal truths of God’s Word.
Why has the evangelical church been seduced by secular psychology’s emphasis on the self? Pastor Don Matzat writes:
Those who promote the integration of psychology with biblical theology have failed to grasp the basic essence of the Christian faith. I know that is a very serious accusation, but nonetheless, when you examine the writings of Christian psychologists, it is very evident. They speak of Christianity as a specific, limited body of religious truth addressing the subject of human behavior. For example, a popular book defining the principles involved in the integration of psychology and theology states: “Many individual Christians look to psychology for new insights that will relieve personal discomfort or despair. They hope that psychology will provide answers to questions not specifically addressed in Christianity”30 (emphasis in original).
Matzat makes an excellent point, and his book deserves careful consideration in this debate. He continues:
According to this way of thinking, the integration of psychology with theology poses no problems. Both disciplines deal with the same subject matter of human behavior and are both dedicated to helping people live more meaningful lives. Since it is philosophically correct to say that all truth ultimately comes from God, it is therefore reasonable to suggest that psychology is able to fill up that which is lacking in the body of Christian truth. This understanding is based upon a wrong definition of the very essence of Christianity.31
According to Matzat, integrationists have redefined the purpose of Christianity and have lost sight of the person and work of Christ. The heresy is not merely in substituting psychological principles of counseling for biblical principles of counseling. The heresy is substituting anything for the completed and sufficient work of Christ. Matzat writes, “Since the essence of Christianity is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ, any claim that the Christian faith falls short in providing answers for the needs of hurting people is in fact a criticism of the sufficiency of Jesus Christ.”32
A Biblical View of Self
What does the Bible teach about the self? The Scriptures deal with the self as desperately needing reformation. Little, if anything, is mentioned which would support the modern psychological and sociological confidence that man is basically good.
In stark contrast to the prevailing view, the Bible paints an accurate picture of the self. It speaks of self-appraisal (Romans 2:1), the need for self-control (Galatians 5:23), man’s propensity for self-deception (Jeremiah 17:9; Galatians 6:3), the desperate need for self-denial (Matthew 16:24), man’s continual striving for self-exaltation (Ezekiel 31:10, 11; Obadiah 3; Luke 14:11), man’s need for self-examination (Psalm 139:23, 24; 1 Corinthians 11:28; 2 Corinthians 13:5; Galatians 6:4), man’s inherent selfishness (Proverbs 11:26; 21:13; Malachi 3:8–10; Luke 12:15; 1 Corinthians 13:5), man’s belief in his own self-righteousness (Luke 18:9; 1 Corinthians 10:12), and man’s inclination toward whining self-pity (Proverbs 19:3; Lamentations 3:39; Philippians 2:14; 4:11–13; 1 Timothy 6:6; Hebrews 13:5).
Sin and Self
The genesis and taproot of sin is self. Satan’s rebellion began with the desire to exalt himself to the position of God. In Isaiah 14 Satan
The apostle John confronts this concept and breaks self-sin into three categories: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life (1 John 2:16). A perfect case history is found in Genesis 3:6. Eve “saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food [the lust of the flesh], and pleasing to the eye [the lust of the eyes], and also desirable for gaining wisdom [the boastful pride of life].” Adam voluntarily joined her in the rebellion and sin entered our race.
When God confronted them with their sin, Adam and Eve resorted to the psychological behaviors of self-excuse, victimization, and the blaming of others. “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some of the fruit,” Adam said, no doubt pointing at Eve. In effect he said, “Look, God, I’m a victim of circumstances. You’re the One who put the woman here! Not only that, but she gave me the fruit. Don’t blame me.”
When God turned to Eve, she said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” She might as well have said, “Hey, it’s not my fault. Don’t blame me. I’m as much a victim as Adam!” But God didn’t buy their excuses. He banished them from the Garden and the curse of sin came upon the whole earth.
God will not accept our excuses either. We can claim to be innocent victims, but the Scriptures teach that we willfully choose our rebellious ways (Romans 1:18–32). God says that we are without excuse (verse 20). Psychology, however, says that mankind is basically good but dysfunctional because of what others have done to us. If we only learn to love ourselves, the theory goes, we will naturally love others and do what is kind.
The main scriptural passage that self-love advocates use to support their doctrine is Matthew 22:36–40, and the phrase they lift from this passage is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Note, however, that this passage does not in any sense command self-love. Instead, it assumes the fact of self-love—that man already loves himself. I stress this point because self-love is such a foundation of psychological doctrine.
Paul points out the fact of self-love in Ephesians 5:28, 29, where he commands husbands to love their wives as they already love their own bodies, for “no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church.” Understand that Paul is not calling for self-love. Rather, his emphasis is upon loving the Lord and loving one’s mate in an unselfish manner.
The Bible’s Call to Self-Denial
Paul deals with the issue of self-denial in Philippians chapter 2. He warns believers against doing anything “out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (verse 3). He reminds us that we should be unselfish, as was Christ, who gave up the glories and pleasures of heaven to become a man willing to serve others rather than Himself (verses 5–11). Paul further commands us to “do everything without complaining or arguing” (verse 14) in order to be a pure and shining testimony to our depraved generation.
Jesus clearly taught that we must deny ourselves if we are His disciples. In Matthew 16:24 He said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This is the very opposite of the psychological doctrine of self-love. Self-denial can mean leaving home, friends, and cherished possessions (Luke 18:29, 30). It can mean giving up one’s livelihood (Luke 5:27, 28).
Self-denial involves restraining one’s appetites (Proverbs 23:1, 2, 20), controlling the natural impulse to worry about food and clothing (Luke 12:22), and keeping a spiritual perspective on the natural anxieties which come from the daily pressure of living (Luke 21:34). Self-denial demands that Christ’s disciples exercise self-discipline for the sake of eternal priorities (1 Corinthians 9:27).
How can a person become less self-consumed and more centered upon the needs of others? Jesus makes reference to the process in Matthew 16:24 when He says we must take up our own individual crosses. Paul picks up this theme frequently and teaches that we must put the self to death, so to speak. He tells us in Romans 6:6 that “our old self was crucified with him.” In Romans 8:13 Paul writes that we must “put to death the misdeeds of the body.” He commands that we “put to death…whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed” (Colossians 3:5).
Peter supports the concept of self-denial when he writes that the believer “does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2).
Does all of this mean that the Christian is to lose his individuality, that he is to blend into “the Force” in a manner similar to what Hindus teach? Is there some metaphysical act that one must perform in which he literally kills the self? Of course not. What Jesus, Paul, and Peter are dealing with is selfish motivation.
Paul understands that man’s greatest slavery is to self, and that the chains of sin are composed of the links of selfishness. The cause of most “mental problems”—marital and family dysfunctions, or personal anxiety—are connected to an unhealthy preoccupation with one’s self.
Achieving Freedom from Self
Galatians 5 is an essential passage for understanding the biblical concept of the self. Paul writes in verses 1–6 about genuine freedom and how it can be achieved only through faith in God and loving behavior. Knowing that man is innately selfish, Paul warns against using freedom to indulge one’s sinful nature (verse 13). Instead, we are to “serve one another in love” (verse 14).
The purpose of God’s law was to instruct mankind in character and behavior. If the key element in successful social development is self-love, we would expect to find the concept taught as a central truth. However, Paul says that successful interaction is based upon this summary of the law: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). Note again that he does not say that one must first love himself so that he can love his neighbor properly, for people already love themselves.
How can we love others as we are commanded? Paul tells us in Galatians 5:16, 25, “Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.…Keep in step with the Spirit.”
The contrast is obvious: We will live for self or for God. If we live for self, there will be mental and social distress. If we live for God, we will find mental, social, and spiritual harmony in our lives.
There you have it. We can attempt to change people’s lives by giving psychological counsel that is rooted in humanism and that points to self, or we can give biblical counsel that is rooted in divine wisdom and points to God.
There is no middle road.
1 Robert H. Schuller, Self-Esteem, The New Reformation (Waco, TX: Word Publishers, 1982), p. 48.
2 Jan Karel Van Baalen, The Chaos of Cults (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1960), p. 99.
3 Gary R. Collins, Search for Reality (Wheaton, IL: Key Publishers, 1969
4 Walter R. Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1977), p. 18.
5 Quoted by David Noebel in Understanding the Times (Manitou Springs, CO: Summit Press, 1991), p. 51.
6 Paul Kurtz, “Is Everyone a Humanist?” in The Humanist Alternative, Paul Kurtz, ed. (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1973), p. 177. Quoted by Noebel, Understanding the Times, p. 57.
7 Harold R. Rafton, “Released Time or Democracy,” The Humanist, Spring 1947, p. 161. Quoted by Noebel, Understanding the Times, p. 61.
8 Noebel, Understanding the Times, p. 63.
9 Erich Fromm, You Shall Be as Gods (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), p. 7, quoted by Noebel, Understanding the Times, p. 357.
11 Collins, Can You Trust?, p. 103.
12 Ibid., p. 104.
15 Bill Zika, “Meditation and Altered States of Consciousness,” in Christian Counseling and Psychotherapy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), p. 132.
16 Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), p. 224.
19 Collins, Can You Trust?, p. 143.
21 Archibald D. Hart, Me, Myself & I (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1992), p. 7.
22 Ibid., p. 9.
23 Ibid., pp. 17–18.
24 Ibid., p. 43.
25 Ibid., p. 69.
26 Ibid., p. 74.
27 Ibid., p. 76.
30 Don Matzat, Christ Esteem (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1990), pp. 28–29.
31 Ibid., p. 29.
32 Ibid., p. 30.
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