The Gospel and Self-Help

Recently in my missional community, one of my friends expressed skepticism. “How is gospel transformation different from self-help?” she asked.

That’s a thoughtful question. There are essentially three ways to approach it:

  • The Postmodern Answer: “There IS no difference. Both religion and psychotherapy/self-help are attempts to construct meaning in a world that has none.”
  • The Fundamentalist Answer: “They are completely different. All ‘worldly’ systems (like psychotherapy/self-help) are of the devil and have no truth in them. Only the Bible is true.”
  • The Biblical-Theological Answer: “Since the biblical storyline is true, we should expect that the effects of the Fall are known and felt by everyone. Psychotherapy/self-help may not diagnose the problem correctly (sin), but these disciplines do acknowledge that there is a problem (something is wrong with the world/myself). And for that reason we should expect some similarities in various approaches to ‘helping.’”

David Powlison makes this same point in his excellent book Seeing With New Eyes. He writes: “All counseling models – whether secular or religious – are essentially differing systems of ‘pastoral care and cure.’” And, observes Powlison, each system is made up of four components.

  1. Concepts are the first and defining ingredient in any system of counseling. Every theory defines its version of human nature and the dynamics of human motivation. Every theory defines or assumes an ideal of human functioning by which problems are named and solutions prescribed… The various personality theories and psychotherapies differ from each other – and from the Bible – in the ways they explain people and in the solutions they offer. The Bible’s truth competes head-to-head with other models… Instead of ‘psychopathology’ and ‘syndromes,’ we see ‘sins’ against [God], and we see sufferings that are ‘trials’ revealing our need for a true Deliverer and refuge.
  2. A counseling model also involves methods designed to facilitate a change process… Ephesians 4:15 crystallizes two central actions [in biblical counseling]: truth-speaking and loving. Of course, every other counseling methodology contains some analogy to or counterfeit of these. But Paul infuses loving conversation with its true contents and intentions: God-centered, Christ-centered, redemptive, and pastoral.
  3. Third, every counseling model entails a “delivery system,” a social structure. Ideas and practices inhabit institutions. In modern America, the “mental health system” is a vast complex of higher education, hospitals, publishers, third-party insurers, drug companies, licensing boards, and private practice psychotherapists. But the loving truth and truthful love of Ephesians 4:15 come embedded in a different social system: the church community. God’s new society in Christ, come into its own and coming into its own, is the institution for counseling ministry…
  4. The fourth element in every counseling model is apologetics… We make the case for what we believe is true and good. We subject competing models to systematic questioning. We defend our own model against critics. We develop our model under the stimulus of criticisms by others. We seek to win others. Each of the modern psychologies ministers its own distinctive “word;” each disciples its hearers into its particular ideal “image;” each criticizes other psychologies (and Christianity) for misconstruing the human condition. We also critique them from our standpoint.

[from David Powlison, Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003).]

We don’t believe the gospel because it’s totally different from any other approach to change. We believe it because it’s true. It correctly diagnoses the problem with us and with the world (sin). It offers a true and compelling answer (repentance and faith in Jesus’ sacrifice for sin, which brings about a new orientation – living for God and His kingdom instead of myself). And it brings true and lasting change by freeing us from self-worship/idol-worship, which are the source of all sin.

We worshipped our way into this mess, and we’re going to have to worship our way out.

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  1. How would prescription drugs for something like OCD fit into this framework? Can they be used to help worship one’s way out, or would they be seen as a crutch?

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