Psychological Theory Sketches

Those seeking counseling are often “at the end of their rope”. They may have consulted with pastor or priest and visited many health care practitioners seeking relief from their debilitating symptoms. They may have gone through numerous psychotropic medications and still they are suffering. They have read countless self-help books and can recite relevant psychological jargon but they know they are no better. In an emotional sense this is not unlike the woman in the New Testament who desperately sought to touch Jesus for physical relief (Mark 5: 25-34). She had been bleeding for twelve years, suffered under many doctors, and spent all she had in search of help.

Faith-based therapy is ultimately based on Biblical principles, not evolving psychological theories. With that in mind here is a very brief overview of several counseling techniques coupled with comments about their interface with faith-based approaches.

We believe all valid scientific truth comes from God. Every invention and every discovery is a gift from Him according to His plan for a particular time and place. God keeps molding  His-story, and He uses advancing technical understanding as a tool. Whether we study pure or applied science, we can often find His ways.


Sigmund Freud is considered the father of psychoanalysis. Many of his landmark theories from the early 1900’s have influenced every generation of students and practitioners since.

Freud viewed the mind as consisting of id (the driving biological and sexual energy), ego (the self that experiences and reacts to the environment), and superego (the moral conscience holding id in check).

Freud identified developmental stages in the young child, and believed that if age-appropriate adjustments are omitted later difficulties will result. He further proposed that delving into a person’s past could solve all emotional problems. Freud did not emphasize individual temperament differences, seeing man instead as basically the sum total of his experiences.

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory gave the world the extremely helpful concept of an unconscious realm in man. He postulated that the thoughts and memories we can access are like the visible tip of an iceberg, and that most of what goes on in the mind is concealed from us. Though an atheistic Jew, Freud was unwittingly expounding Biblical truth. Scripture repeatedly refers to the hidden things of the heart (e.g. Jeremiah 17: 9). Today most people, whether religious believers or not, acknowledge that the depths of our being are largely mysterious.

Freud distinguished specific ways people unknowingly hide from truth, calling them “defense mechanisms”. Some of these are:

~Denial-suppressing or repressing unwanted realities

~Minimization-seeing everything through “rose-colored glasses”

~Rationalization-explaining away unacceptable behavior

~Projection-attributing one’s unacceptable motives to another

~Reaction formation-adopting opposite behavior to hide actual feelings

~Displacement-discharging emotion felt for a person to someone less threatening

~Intellectualization-hiding behind learning, facts, and words

~Regression-reacting to stress by engaging in childish behaviors

~Identification-adopting the exact attitudes of an abuser

~Overcompensation-overdoing to cover up weakness

~Sublimation-channeling an unacceptable urge into an acceptable enterprise

~Fantasy-using an imaginary world to escape from reality

~Dissociation-mentally splitting the consciousness away from harsh circumstances

Freud’s list is brilliantly accurate; we all use these defenses and others like them like the  “fig leaves” that Adam and Eve in the Bible used to hide their nakedness and vulnerability from each other and God . It is necessary to break through such protective barriers in order to find the true self within.

In summary, many of Freud’s discoveries and theories are still useful today, though often applied in modified form. For example, when counseling we often look for roots to current dysfunction, acknowledging the huge influence of childhood trauma on adult unhappiness.

We admit Freud’s influence but we do not agree with some of his core concepts. He placed too much emphasis on early sexual development, to the exclusion of other factors such as inborn temperament traits. He was good at assigning blame for lack of adjustment in adulthood, not so good at showing how parental mistakes can be transcended through forgiveness and letting go. Most importantly, his work is permeated with the conviction that religious belief is a form of fantasy or wish fulfillment “comparable to a childhood neurosis” (The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud, 1927).


In 1903 the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov published his studies about teaching dogs to salivate at the sound of a metronome or bell, coining the term conditioned reflex. An atheist named B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) carried on this work, developing the theory of operant conditioning, which led to the branch of psychology called Behaviorism. One of the most influential social scientists since Freud, Skinner contributed techniques of behavioral reinforcement that are used ubiquitously in therapy even today.

Behavior modification works strictly on changing negative behavior, using such concepts as aversive stimuli, shaping, negative reinforcement, and token rewards. A person’s childhood issues are considered relatively unimportant in treatment.

Paradoxical intention is the behaviorist practice of giving a person what they want, but in the extreme. For example, to cure alcohol cravings a patient is repeatedly taken to a clinic where he is forced to drink himself sick. Over time merely the thought of drinking is enough to cause nausea.

Examples of aversive conditioning: a sex addict may be shown pornographic slides paired with a painful electric shock, or a patient is instructed to put a rubber band around the wrist and snap herself whenever she reaches for a cigarette.

Through experiments using animals, behaviorists discovered that long-term change is more affected by positive than negative reinforcement. They also showed that intermittent rewards can be as successful in replacing undesirable behaviors as those given consistently. This may help explain why some people remain with violent or abusive partners who give them an occasional morsel of love.

Behavioral techniques can be useful in a limited way, but they are not designed to deal with root causes. Often when one behavior is extinguished, another can pop up that is just as destructive. This is called transfer of addictions or symptom substitution.

Applying Skinner’s ideas can be helpful when teaching children a new skill. Behaviorist techniques are also applicable when dealing with a troubling habit in a person who is eager to change. In our therapeutic work, however, we have found that root causes must usually be addressed first, before their destructive effects can be successfully reprogrammed.


In the 1960’s Fritz Perls operated a psychological treatment center called Esalen Institute in the Big Sur coastal region of California. This was during a time when hippies, drugs, Eastern meditation, and investigation of alternate forms of awareness were fashionable. People stayed for weeks at Esalen while Perls helped them move from an external to inward frame of reference using his Gestalt Therapy. The German word gestalt means whole, and the goal of this approach is to discover what is going on at the present moment in the whole person.

Using Perls’ model, a patient in group therapy is sometimes directed to a “hot seat” where she role-plays what is occurring in her personal life. She may act the part of a parent or imagine she is speaking to an offending party while she faces an empty chair. Another technique is the narration of a dream or memory as if it were actually occurring in the here and now.

Perls was not a Christian and was known for being abrupt and sometimes harsh. He modeled a philosophy of not living to anyone else’s expectations, encouraging everyone to “do their own thing”. This idea was much in societal favor at the time. Nevertheless, Gestalt Therapy was the forerunner to the modern psychodrama, which uses role-playing to facilitate emotional expression.

In faith-based counseling we sometimes ask persons speak to a perpetrator as if that person were present. This can greatly help the sufferer access and process repressed feelings.


Aaron Beck is credited with developing Cognitive Therapy, which is geared toward helping a person change destructive action patterns by transforming negative to positive thoughts. This approach looks for the time and place where a negative thought began, then seeks through different techniques to replace it. It does not, however, attempt to heal root causes.

Albert Ellis created Rational Emotive Therapy, which teaches that we predetermine our own destiny by talking to ourselves in thoughts (self talk), thereby developing a personal belief system that controls our life. He coined the A-B-C theory. “A” stands for activating event, “B” stands for belief system, and “C” stands for the conclusion.

Christian Theophostic Counseling, developed by Ed Smith, searches for root lies a person believes and asks the Lord to replace the lies with His truth, thus applying cognitive therapy principles to Biblical soul healing.

All of these theories provide valuable information regarding the mental mechanisms we use to keep ourselves in bondage.

In our work we understand that beyond healing of memories is the acknowledgment and relinquishing of lies, vows, root judgments, and false identities we adopted as a result of life’s wounding. Cognitive therapy techniques can help uncover many of these “misbeliefs”.


Carl Rogers promoted the idea of coming alongside the counseling patient with “unconditional positive regard“. He believed that if you in an empathetical manner enter a patient’s inner reality, healing will naturally follow. In this “phenomenological” approach, the therapist takes a passive, responsive role and is rarely directive. The idea is to ask the right questions that draw out understandings leading to healing. This theory, which is widely accepted in the therapeutic community, includes a process called reflecting feeling tones, in which the therapist regularly restates the client’s words and implied emotions.

Rogers’ work stresses the necessity for accepting the person without judgment. Love is crucial in counseling, and in faith-based therapy we certainly desire to model this. At the same time it must be said that without a clearly formulated worldview, there can be no moral parameters for decision-making.


Existentialism is a philosophical framework adopted by European intellectuals in the 1940’s. Rollo May and Victor Frankl created a psychology around this perspective on life, which basically says there is no God and that we are all autonomous beings with no one to answer to. Thus our only hope is to live moment by moment, knowing full well the ultimate futility of striving, and taking total responsibility for all our actions.

Though many people, especially academics and artists, embrace existential ideas, the typical fruit of this approach to experience is depression and self-centered despair. Ultimately without God there can be no real hope; hope is at the heart of faith.

At the same time, practicing rigorous personal responsibility for our choices and centering on the present are not incompatible with belief in God. Jesus said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6: 34).


In observing individuals, some social scientists have concluded that understanding human behavior can be reduced to the study of need fulfillment. William Glasser developed Reality Therapy, which bases human motivation on the following ideas: we all love and need love; we all need recognition and a sense of worth; and being responsible fulfills these needs.

Other similar psychological constructs have also been devised, such as that of Abraham Maslow, who identified a hierarchy of needs in every individual. Erik Erickson built a list of universal primary human needs at each successive stage in a child’s development.

Wants and needs are very much influenced by temperament characteristics, which for the most part are not addressed in approaches like these. In addition, recognizing natural desires does not by itself bring healing. However, an understanding of basic human needs is valuable in accepting our common vulnerabilities and connecting with every person’s innate longing for relationship.  Also, ability to recognize motivations based on need helps us understand root causes for wounding, and gives us empathy for present pain in troubled individuals.

Working in depth counseling we often see how a person’s early experiences have resulted in profound and pervasive problems in adulthood. Sharing personal history and our faith journey can communicate to affected persons how our needs have been fulfilled.


Carl Jung (1875-1961) was a student of Freud who rejected his master’s overriding emphasis on primitive sexual drives. Jung spent his life studying man’s “inner space” and developing theories to explain it. He expanded on Freud’s idea of the unconscious mind by creating a concept called “collective unconscious”, defined as the realm of knowledge known to all people below the level of awareness.

According to Jung, the collective unconscious is composed of archetypes or organizing principles.  Some archetypes he identified were: the mother, the father, the family, the child, the hero, the wise old man, the animal, the trickster, the hermaphrodite, the mana, the shadow, the persona, the anima, and the animus. The self is the ultimate archetype in Jung’s framework.

Introversion and extroversion are also models generated by Jung. In fact, his personality theory with its four functions–sensing, thinking, intuiting, and feeling–was used to develop the widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test.

Jung thought that dreams connect us with the collective unconscious. His concept of synchronicity attempts to explain seeming coincidences as connections with underlying universal awareness. This and many of his other premises are consistent with aspects of Hindu philosophy, spiritualism, and New Age ideas, as well as parts of Freud’s writings. Jung approached the spiritual realm from an evolutionary framework; at the same time he believed we would all wake up after death and find out that we were from the beginning God.

Many pop culture artists like Stars Wars filmmaker George Lucas and science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin have embraced Jung’s theories. New generations interested in psychic phenomena and universal consciousness continue to be drawn to his work.

Jung replaced the simple truths of the Bible with his own convoluted mix of fantastic and complex ideas, which instead of explaining reality tend to make it seem obtuse and unperceivable. Those looking for spirituality outside Christ can easily be influenced by concepts like that of a collective unconscious. For our part, we believe that many of Jung’s hypotheses are anti-Biblical and cannot be verified. In our understanding deep connection to the universal God is found in relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Even so, did Carl Jung contribute anything of value to faith-based therapy? Some of his ideas are in fact very useful. For instance, we refer to the language of the heart by using many rich symbols and imagery, as in Jung’s dream analysis. And his concept of the archetype is applicable to the study of myths, literature, artistic expression in general, and religious symbolism. Archetypes seem to capture basic “units” of self-expression and touch deep roots in our humanity.

The Bible is full of symbols and archetypes; it can be interpreted on many levels and is supremely valuable as truth, story, and art. Jung helps us notice figurative references and sense the emotions they provoke. As well, dreams and visions employ universally understandable references and signs. However, Christ and self are more than archetypes. Jesus Christ is God. God exists. Our essence or spirit is real and will live forever. We are not God, but we can be with Christ eternally.


The above is merely a sampling in the myriad of psychological theories seeking to diagnose and change aberrant behavior. Nuggets of truth are discovered, analyzed and recorded every year in both the so-called hard sciences and the social sciences. At the same time, all intellectual understanding needs to be examined from the standpoint of the particular worldview it supports, because every hypothesis is based on some first cause. Popular present theories are not always founded on final truth, and are prone to constant change. For faith-based researchers and clinicians, applicable new scientific techniques and treatments should always be consistent with a Biblical worldview.