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The Myth That Psychology Can Heal the Past
Article by Ed Bulkley
According to widely accepted psychological theory, humans are captives of their past. Many Christian writers use the term “adult children” to describe people who were damaged in their youth by divorce or emotional or physical abuse. They generally believe that we must return to the past in order to experience healing in the present. One Christian psychologist says, “We are as much our past as we are our present and our hopes for the future. To cut off the past is to erase part of our story, our journey, our self. The reclamation of the past involves the courage to be all that we are so that we can be all that we will be in our relationships to others.”1 He lists three purposes for the journey into the past: “removal of the denial, reclamation of the self, and movement toward real change.”2
While I agree that we should not deny the facts of the past, I find no scriptural command to return to it or to reclaim one’s self in order to accomplish real change in the present. Instead, I find the command to deny ourselves and to take up our cross daily to follow Christ (Mark 8:34, 35).
Another prominent Christian psychologist concurs with the current psychological concept of “the inner child.” In order to heal this inner being, he suggests that you “use your memories as the key to understanding your past and the influence your inner child has had on your emotions and reactions as an adult.”3 He recommends the use of your imagination to free you from your past.4
Inner Healing and Imagination
Collins points out some of the legitimate concerns believers have with occult practices that often appear in the garb of psychology: “biorhythms, reincarnation, astrology, ESP, Eastern meditation, altered states of consciousness” and more.5 As a result, he says—
some writers have condemned visualization, self-talk, the healing of memories and other frequently used therapeutic methods. These have been labeled “occultist,” and even their Christian advocates are described as misguided and deceived. These are serious allegations. If they are true, then psychology is indeed a more dangerous force than most people suspect.6
To integrationists, “visualization, imagination and guided imagery are related words that describe the use of mental pictures to bring increased understanding, relation or self-confidence.”7 For example, visualization takes place when an athlete mentally reviews each move he is about to make or when a speaker imagines the positive reaction his audience will give him. It sounds innocent enough. So what’s the problem?
Dave Hunt writes in The Seduction of Christianity:
So in the name of the latest psychology we are being led back into primitive paganism/ shamanism, which then enters the church because psychology is embraced as scientific and neutral. Tragically, this is often done by sincere Christian leaders who imagine that they are bringing a revival to the church.8
Is Hunt overreacting? I don’t think so. A book entitled Self-Talk, Imagery, and Prayer in Counseling makes several observations about how the mind processes thoughts with images. I agree with some of the statements about the effect of one’s thought life upon behavior and emotions. For instance, the author says:
In this type of counseling, we encourage the individual to engage in self-observation, to become sensitive to what he or she is saying inwardly. Scripture teaches this. “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23, 24).9
I do not disagree with the writer’s conclusions about the importance of the thought life. Note, however, that the passage he quotes asks God to search the heart. Self-observation can lead to self-deception unless done under the intense spotlight of the Scripture. This is because man’s nature is so wicked that “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). We are warned that “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Romans 8:7). Paul warned the Colossians that an “unspiritual mind puffs [a person] up with idle notions” (Colossians 2:18). He told Titus that “the minds and consciences” of impure people “are corrupted” (Titus 1:15).
The author of Self-Talk explains his concept of the healing of memories:
Through the use of imagination, the counselee endeavors to recreate the painful memory and actually visualize it as it once took place. Then he prays, asking God for the kind of help he needed in that situation. A child or teenager might ask God to heal her of a terrifying or damaging experience that has emotionally crippled her.
In our minds we can walk back in time with Christ in order to minister to the hurting person. This does not change the event that occurred, but God can release the hurt and the damage.10
An Unproven Theory
There are at least three weaknesses with the increasingly popular healing-of-memories theory. First, the theory itself is unproven. Not only is there no solid scientific evidence that mentally repeating an event aids in healing, but there is also no scriptural warrant for the practice. Instead of looking backward in time, we are encouraged to look forward. Paul said, “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal” (Philippians 3:13). I am not implying that memories must be repressed, but grace, forgiveness, and the power of God are sufficient to heal memories without deliberately ripping old scars open.
Often, returning to past suffering, failure, and pain can reignite the hatred and bitterness that God has already dealt with and can reopen the wounds that Christ has already healed. One woman told me that she went to a supposedly Christian counselor who insisted that she return to her past for healing. Instead of experiencing freedom and joy, she felt violated and defiled. “Pastor,” she said, “at the end of the counseling, I felt so dirty all over again. Does a person really have to go through all of her pain over and over?” Her forehead was creased with anxiety and concern. When I shared some biblical concepts of God’s forgiveness and healing, peace began to appear in her face once again.
Inaccurate and Selective Memories
A second weakness to the healing-of-memories theory is the fact that memories are inaccurate and selective. Psychologists and psychiatrists who lead their clients back into the past can actually create memories of events that never took place. Memories can become distorted with time so that the recollection of an event may bear only a hazy resemblance to reality.
Growing Doubts About the Accuracy of Memories
One of a series of articles by journalist Bill Scanlon was headlined “Incompetent Therapists Are Turning Patients’ Fantasies into Repressed Reality, Some Experts Are Saying.” The article questions the validity of delving back into the past for repressed memories. “Increasingly…a vocal number of psychologists and researchers question whether repressed memories are memories at all. Instead, some experts believe, they often are fantasies coming from overactive imaginations fired by incompetent therapists.”11
The potential harm is incalculable. “Twenty-eight percent of the cases of reported incest are based on repressed memory, according to a survey by the Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse. Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist and memory expert at the University of Washington, says there is no way of knowing how many of those accusations are true.”12 Who knows how many innocent people are accused of abuse on the basis of questionable memories? It seems that there are many. “It’s very painful, these stories I hear,” Loftus said. “Everywhere I go, it’s amazing. I’ll give a talk about memories, and two or three people independently will come up to me and tell me a story about someone in their family who thinks they’ve been wrongly accused—a repressed-memory story.”13
How are suppressed memories resurrected? “The commonality seems to be the therapist, not the person. They go to therapists who believe that a huge amount of women have been sexually abused and a lot of them don’t remember it.”14 According to Scanlon’s article, therapists often suggest the existence of hidden memories: “The line of questioning goes this way, Wakefield said: ‘Have you ever been abused? No. Are you sure? Let’s talk about it, let’s explore it…maybe you were. Let’s help you get the memories back.’ ”15 The theory is, if you can’t remember any specific sexual abuse, but have a vague feeling or suspicion that it might have happened, it probably did.
The media and publishing industries have helped to foster the concept of repressed memories. According to the article, one can find more than 200 books on incest, recovery, and repressed memories at The Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver. Incest-recovery books are hot sellers, but their scientific reliability is doubtful.
“ ‘It’s probably possible you can repress something,’ Loftus said. ‘But whether whatever comes back 20 or 30 years later is an authentic version of reality—there is no proof of that.’ Memories, she believes, are unreliable.”16
Dr. Martin Orne, a psychiatrist at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital, also disputes the concept that painful memories are frequently repressed:
“Typically, memories of horrible things are not forgotten,” Orne said. “People who were in concentration camps, who were treated horribly and saw people die before them—they know exactly what happened.”
Orne and the other skeptics say there is a crucial difference between people who have always remembered the abuse they suffered as children and those who “remember” it decades later, usually after reading a book or going to a therapist.17
Others share Orne’s skepticism:
The idea that the brain can store traumatic memories, then produce them in exquisite detail in a flashback, is simply wrong, argues Dr. George K. Ganaway of the Ridgeview Center for Dissociative Disorders in Atlanta.
“Reconstructed memories may incorporate fantasy, distortion, displacement, condensation, symbolism, and other mental mechanisms,” Ganaway said. “Their sum factual reliability is highly questionable.”18
The article reports the story of a woman who was convinced by a therapist that she had been abused by her father:
It took a prying therapist, bizarre psychological techniques and several types of medication to convince her that her father, her mother and her grandfather sexually abused her, too.
Today, after three years of therapy hell, Lynn believes she was abused by a hysteria run amok, not by her parents.19
Many therapists have come to believe that virtually everyone is a victim of sexual abuse, and the lack of memories is cited as proof. Sometimes, however, the abuse is perpetrated by incompetent therapists.
The therapists kept working on her memories, [Lynn] said. “The therapist insinuated and interpreted more to my relationship with my father than I remembered.”
She recalled to her therapist that she walked in once on her mother and father making love. And she felt bad about it.
“My therapist’s theory was that I felt bad because I’d caught my lover with another woman.”
On Dec. 3, 1986, she wrote a letter to her parents, accusing her father of abuse.
“After I got away from therapy, my memories began coming back to me,” she said. “Within six months, I knew my dad did not abuse me, nor my mother or grandfather.”
Happily, “My dad never held me accountable for those accusations. He accepted me back wholeheartedly.”20
Christian Therapy Embraces the Healing of Memories
The theory of repressed memories has even infiltrated Bible-believing churches. A woman’s tragic personal testimony of “repressed memories” was published in the magazine of a large metropolitan church in the Chicago area. It was full of psychological descriptions relating her inner battle between her “conscious mind and [her] unconscious mind.” She confessed to having “repressed memories of sexual abuse,” but as her “flashbacks came more frequently, [she] began to lose hold of what was real.” She was finally committed to a mental hospital, where, she said, “I lost hold of the reality of God.”
She said she tried to imagine where Jesus had been during the time of her abuse, and the image she conjured up was this: “I saw Him standing in a darkened corner. He was watching [as she was abused]. His face was expressionless. His hands were in His pockets and He was leaning against the wall,” in seeming unconcern. The image devastated her, and she lived with that imagination for two years.
During that time, she said, “I didn’t want anything to do with the Bible,” and, though she continued attending church, she did not find peace. “I was afraid of being stuck in the corner forever—the little child inside me needed for Christ to move. If the little child’s hope died, all of her childlike ways would perish—her spontaneity, her joy, her undying trust toward God and life. And I would be left an empty shell.”
So she continued imagining Christ in His corner until she imagined Him reaching out to her and saying, “Come and let Me hold you.” Instead of finding relief, “a new wave of memories” hit her, this time involving satanic ritual abuse. Then she imagined Jesus saying to her, “Imagine being on a warm beach playing in the sand…imagine being the princess of the sand castle…imagine a warm tender creature.…”
She saw her defense mechanism as a gift from God to help her survive. “I went to the beach in my mind. I got away from the horror and covered the horrendous with the beach and a flying creature. And I forgot. I had found a safe place. Christ had demonstrated His love.” In spite of His love, she admitted, “I still don’t fully trust Him.”
Her source of comfort was to return to her “safe place. He takes me there on His wings. He comes by my side and strokes my hair. He whispers to me ways in which to survive, and even thrive, no matter what happens.”21
Do you see a problem with this woman’s testimony and therapy? Nowh ere in the article is it even hinted that she found Christ as He is represented in the Scriptures. Instead, she sought comfort in imaginations that in no way resembled Jesus. Is it any wonder that she still finds it difficult to trust in God?
Before publishing the above example, I contacted the church that had presented her story to see whether the article accurately reflected the position of the church.
I received a two-page response to my inquiry that only increased my concern. The unsigned paper, titled “Some Additional Thoughts on ‘Borne on His Wings,’ ” said that “someone with an abusive past will inevitably have a distorted view of God.…” It pointed out that the woman in question was “not…uninformed or biblically illiterate, but…a mature believer revisiting a deep, unresolved wound.…”
The response stated that such psychic wounds, “like a physical wound, won’t necessarily go away with new information. More than truth is often needed to heal such a person because more happened to her than being misinformed.”
Then the letter states a commonly believed assumption of psychology: “Sometimes, like a physical infection, our emotional wound has been ‘covered over’ without adequately healing, and must be reopened. The wound may require ‘lancing’ to heal.”
I do not question the sincerity of the therapists who worked with this woman. But the letter they sent powerfully illustrates my concerns. Psychologically driven systems consider it “inevitable” that those who have experienced abuse will have a distorted view of God. But the truth is that left to ourselves all humans have a distorted view of God. The solution is found in His supernatural revelation about Himself, not in psychotherapy.
The letter states that healing often requires more than truth, pointing out that the woman was not biblically illiterate, but was a “mature believer.” The respondent seems unaware that being biblically literate is no sign of spiritual maturity. Obedience to the Word is the point. The Bible isn’t just “new information.” It is God’s own revelation to man about our woeful condition and how He can transform our hearts. It is not a matter of merely hearing the truth, but following it (James 1:22–25).
Why does God tell us to leave the past behind (Philippians 3:13, 14) if it is necessary to revisit, reopen, and resolve a wound by “lancing” it? And how does one “lance” a psychic wound? For many therapists, this psychological metaphor has become an actual goal so politically correct that few question its scientific or biblical validity.
A more powerful method of healing inner wounds is to apply the two-edged sword of God’s Word, which penetrates so deeply that it reveals the thoughts and intents of the heart itself (Hebrews 4:12).
The Danger of False Memories
In a column titled “Don’t Always Believe the Children,” Nat Hentoff reported a tragic result that shows just how twisted psychological thinking can become. Hentoff relates a 1992 CBS News report that a father was accused of raping and sodomizing his eight-year-old daughter, even though she had told police that a stranger had climbed through her bedroom window and attacked her. “ ‘Her description of the intruder,’ said the CBS report, ‘closely resembled a convicted serial rapist. A footprint his size was found nearby. But Wade, her father—a Navy petty officer with a drinking problem—was at home when the attack took place. And the authorities immediately suspected him.’ ”
Hentoff writes, “Having been accused, Jim Wade was presumed guilty. Alicia was taken from her parents and assigned to foster homes and to a county therapist who, after 13 months of treatment finally heard the child say that her daddy did it.”
The problem was that the father was innocent, and was exonerated by incontrovertible evidence that had been ignored for more than two years. A member of the grand jury said, “The therapist kept telling the child she’d feel better if she’d just say, ‘Daddy did it.’ I think the therapist was so convinced the father did it, she never listened to the child.” A family was broken up and the eight-year-old girl was separated from her parents for 2–1/2 years because a therapist had convinced a grand jury that the father was guilty.
Hentoff concludes, “In New Jersey and North Carolina, among other places…there are people serving very long prison sentences because therapists, prosecutors and juries would not listen to anyone but the children.”22
I cite the articles above not to deny the existence of sexual abuse. It is happening with growing frequency, and the effects on the abused are devastating. But many of the reports are questionable and some are fabricated, and the effects on those who are falsely accused are devastating.
Secular Indictments of Christian Memory Therapies
Even in the cases of genuine abuse there is simply no evidence that mentally revisiting one’s past abuse produces inner healing. There is no value in forcing a woman to relive the incestuous attacks of a drunken father in order to forgive him, and the therapeutic technique of imagining does not produce the inner healing so desperately desired. “Embracing one’s pain” increases the agony and prolongs the cycle of despair. It does not heal the wounded heart.
The problem of therapy-induced memories has grown to ridiculous proportions. It has become so widespread that family members “who believe someone has falsely accused them or another relative of incest, pornography or even the worst of the worst, ritual sexual abuse that includes satanic or occult activity,” have formed an organization called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.23 It is a stain on the evangelical Christian community when secular newspapers report accusations that false memory syndrome “sufferers are victims of their therapists, particularly Christian counselors who plant these ideas of past abuse in their heads.”24
The same suburban paper related a story about “Jane,” a woman whose family had been damaged by false accusations. She said that her sister “was unwilling to take responsibility for her own problem, in this case, her weight; counseling became a crutch; the charge of sexual abuse came at the suggestion of the therapist.” Eventually the accusing woman was put into group therapy, and finally into a hospital psychiatric ward. There, it seems, the woman was convinced that she had also experienced satanic abuse. Jane said, “I personally believe when you open your mind up to things other than the Lord, that gives Satan an open playground to open your mind to evil powers.”
Jane explains why people seem to respond to the victimization concept: “It’s a nice way out.…In this generation of not wanting to take the blame, this is really convenient. And not only does the therapist have a solution, but a lifetime client at $125 an hour.…The whole thing is nuts. It’s tragic. I think these counselors should be punished.”25 Though the newspaper did not endorse Jane’s sensible explanation for her sister’s behavior, it is amazing that secular publications are blowing the whistle on questionable Christian therapy, while Christian magazines are propagating this insidious doctrine!
A third weakness of the healing-of-memories theory is that the focus is placed upon the counselee, his suffering, and his past instead of on the God of healing, His power, and our glorious future in Christ. You will not find this emphasis on the self in the Scriptures, but it certainly i s found in psychological systems:
Conventional psychiatry holds that an essential part of treatment is probing into the patient’s past life—searching for the psychological roots of his problem because once the patient clearly understands these roots he can use his understanding to change his attitude toward life.…[Standard theory believes] if a patient is to change he must gain understanding and insight into his unconscious mind.26
Though the concept of memory is mentioned more than 200 times in the Bible, I have found none connected to the healing of memories. The term imagine or imagination is found some 40 times in the Bible, yet none of these relates to the healing of memories. Instead, the Scriptures encourage people to remember God, His powerful deeds, and His righteous attributes. Consider passages such as Psalm 78:35: “They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer”; Psalm 78:42: “They did not remember his power—the day he redeemed them from the oppressor”; and Psalm 143:5: “I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.”
David pleads with God not to remember his past: “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord” (Psalm 25:7). One verse that may refer to psychic distress is Psalm 42:6: “My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you.” Even here, the healing involved remembering God, not experiences of the painful past.
Why then do psychologists insist that their patients return to their past? Psychological interpretation of memories is based on the concept that repressed memories damage the psyche. As one Christian psychologist writes:
The reason [memories] hurt is because they tend to be mostly buried and emerge only when they choose. The more painful these memories are, the more hidden and repressed they become. They hide, as it were, in a corner of the deepest cavern of our minds. Because they are hidden, they escape healing.
What do you do with a painful memory? You may try to forget it, or you may act as though it did not occur. Trying to forget the pains of the past gives these memories power and control over your life.…
How does healing occur? By facing your memories, remembering them, letting them out of their closet. Henri Nouwen said, “What is forgotten is unavailable and what is unavailable cannot be healed.”27
Where is the scriptural support for this theory? It does not sound all that different from Freud’s concept of the unconscious.
The Concept of the Unconscious
In Freud’s twisted system, the mind is comprised of three distinct areas: the conscious (thoughts, concepts, and ideas a person is aware of), the preconscious (ideas that are not in the forefront of one’s mind but can easily be drawn out by an act of the will), and the unconscious (ideas a person cannot be aware of due to repression). Carl Jung expanded the concept of the unconscious to include not only one’s own past but also one’s collective ancestral past. Is Freud’s theory of the unconscious a scientifically proven fact? No, but it is a sociological belief so deeply ingrained in our culture that society accepts the concept without question.
Most integrationists teach it as truth. Christian counseling books are deeply colored with this theory, and the general Christian public accepts it as though it were scripturally based. Prosperity prophets take us a step further and equate imagination and the unconscious with faith itself. The pastor of the world’s largest church writes in Solving Life’s Problems, “Many suffer because of a negative way of thinking.…God works through the imagination. As long as one allows these negative thoughts to be dominant, God himself is blocked from helping that person, for imagination is even stronger than will power in controlling a person.”28
Dealing with Memories Biblically
I am not taking issue with the statement that negative thinking can cause suffering. The biblical contrast to negative thinking, however, is not “fourth-dimension thinking,” or “positive thinking,” or “possibility thinking.” The opposite of negative (carnal) thinking is Philippians 4 thinking:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 4:4–9).
For emphasis, I repeat this fact: The Bible does not encourage us to return to the past to experience our pain all over again. Instead, it says, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13, 14; emphasis added).
1 Dan B. Allender, The Wounded Heart (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1991), p. 186.
3 H. Norman Wright, Making Peace with Your Past (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1985), p. 30.
4 Ibid., chapter 4.
5 Collins, Can You Trust?, p. 104.
6 Ibid., p. 105.
8 Dave Hunt and T.A. McMahon, The Seduction of Christianity (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1985), p. 174.
9 H. Norman Wright, Self-Talk, Imagery, and Prayer in Counseling (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1986), p. 59.
10 Ibid., pp. 118–19.
11 Bill Scanlon, series in Rocky Mountain News, September 13,14, 15, 1992.
21 “Borne on His Wings,” Willow Creek Magazine, 1990; reprinted in The Beacon, February 1992, pp. 3–5.
22 Nat Hentoff, “Don’t Always Believe the Children,” Rocky Mountain News, December 31, 1992, p. 53.
23 “Presumed Guilty,” The Daily Herald (Chicago), October 7, 1992.
26 William Glasser, Reality Therapy (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1965), pp. 42–43.
27 Wright, Making Peace, pp. 40–41.
28 Paul Yonggi Cho, Solving Life’s Problems (Plainfield, NJ: Logos International, 1980), p. 45.
Ed Bulkley "Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology. Harvest House Publishers (July 1, 1993).
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