A basis for Christian counseling

The same God who has shown such deep concern for man spiritually and physically is just as interested in him mentally and emotionally.

Colin Standish, Ph.D., is dean of the college, Weimar Institute, Weimar, California.


As recently as the early twentieth century it was confidently predicted that universal education could solve such major societal problems of the world as poverty, crime, and insanity. Perhaps nothing did more to stimulate the thrust for universal education than the hope that man's upward evolutionary climb would eliminate these evils. But a sober evaluation of the world during the latter part of the twentieth century indicates that in the Western world, where now there is virtually universal education, there has been an intensification of each of these social problems.

The view that sees universal education as the solution to society's difficulties has its origin in Greek philosophy. Socrates believed man had an immortal soul that preexisted the body; a soul that was good. Thus man, who was initially good, could be corrupted only by an unfavorable environment. This led the Greeks to emphasize the structuring of a good environment to protect the emerging good man. On the assumption that "to know was to do," Socrates questioned the youth of Greece, believing that should they discover through his questioning what indeed was good and what was truth, they would automatically live "the good life."

With renewed interest in Hellenistic culture at the time of the Renaissance, comes a resurgence of the concept that man is innately good. Perhaps no one during the eighteenth century did more to continue this philosophy than Jean Jacques Rousseau in his book Emile. While one cannot argue with Rousseau on the desirability of a good environment, yet one cannot be a student of the Judeo-Christian tradition without strongly questioning the concept that man is innately good.

The twentieth century has seen a shift from the nativist approaches of Socrates and Rousseau, to the empiricist or tabula rasa view of man, which holds that man is born with no moral predispositions, and is simply the pawn of his environment. According to this idea, the individual is the sum total of the environmental influences that he has experienced from conception. While this concept is not new to the twentieth century, the past few decades have taken it out of its philosophic origins and placed it into the practicalities of psychological techniques and practice. The empiricist movement has received great impetus from evolutionary theory with its emphasis upon adaptation to environment and its failure to recognize God as a first cause.

Closely associated with the evolutionary impact has been the scientific focus. As science was achieving predominant respectability in academic circles, the old philosophical bases for most disciplines were eagerly shed to allow for the more prestigious scientific approach. By this time, the deterministic principles of natural science had been firmly established, and these of course were compatible with the empiricist view of man.

In modern psychology, these two views—that man is innately good (a nativist philosophy) and that man is born with no moral predisposition (an empiricist philosophy) underpin the vast majority of psychology of learning theories and counseling techniques. Perhaps no better examples of the two schools can be found than in the works of Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner, respectively. That within man is the knowledge of how to handle his own problems is implied by the nondirective therapy of Rogers. It cannot be denied that there are times when, by careful questioning, men and women can be brought to verbalize and act upon solutions that they have not previously acknowledged. However, to assume that all of us have inherently within us the best answers to every problem is to assume that man himself is capable of handling every issue and every need.

On the other hand, behaviorists like B. F. Skinner have become aware that a knowledge of good does not necessarily result in good behavior, that the Socratic dictum "to* know is to do" can no longer be considered tenable in the light of the overwhelming evidence that very frequently right knowledge does not lead to good behavior. Thus within the frame work of empiricism, it was easy to establish a concept that involved a direct attempt to change the behavior itself. Behaviorists found it possible, by the process of conditioning, to habituate certain behavior patterns and in this way they hoped to develop the "good man." Behavior-modification techniques, of Skinner and others, have received wide acclaim as the most effective method of changing the unacceptable behavior of children, of the mentally ill, and of delinquents into conduct that is desirable in society. Implied by behavior-modification theory is the view that good behavior is to be equated with the goodness of man.

Actually, in spite of the fact that the Rogerian technique is nativist in direction and Skinner's is empiricist, they have much in common in their approach to education and child training. The nativist postulates the need for a good environment as the only necessary prerequisite to retaining or maintaining innate goodness. Likewise, the empiricist hypothesizes that if a good environment can be maintained, the child will grow up to be a good man. Thus both theories are totally dependent upon the quality of the environment for the development of a good man and ultimately the development of a good society.

Contrary to the innate-goodness philosophy is the alternative view of the Bible that man is born in sin (Ps. 51:5), that his innate moral tendencies lead naturally to the establishment of a character and behavior that is self-centered and sinful. Such a view of man does not deny the advantage of good environment, but it does deny that a good environment alone is sufficient to produce a good man. If a good environment was all that was needed to maintain a good life, then there could not have been the pos ibility of the fall of Lucifer and his angels, or Adam and Eve. The empiricist's view, as exemplified in behavior modification, must also be rejected, for it assumes, as stated previously, that right behavior means right morality. The Scriptures make it clear that this is impossible. "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one" (Job 14:4). "The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Rom. 8:7). "It is impossible for us, of ourselves, to escape from the pit of sin in which we are sunken. Our hearts are evil, and we cannot change them. . . . Education, culture, the exercise of the will, human effort, all have their proper sphere, but here they are powerless. They may produce an outward correctness of behavior, but they cannot change the heart; they cannot purify the springs of life. There must be a power working from within, a new life from above, before men can be changed from sin to holiness. That power is Christ." —Steps to Christ, p. 18.

If we accept the idea that man's natural predispositions are contradictory to the perfect nature of God, the issue is not behavior modification but character transformation, as Jesus pointedly tried to make clear to Nicodemus (see John 3). The real issue, according to the Master, is the need for a new-birth experience. Behavior modification does not say any thing about the motives and the intents of the heart, and as such carries within it the worst form of legalism. Jesus clearly indicates that right behavior alone is not a basis upon which salvation can be expected or achieved. "Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you" (Matt. 7:22, 23). The issue here is not right behavior, for these workers of iniquity have performed good acts. The problem has been in the motives. Their behavior may have been consistent with Christian practice, but their hearts have not been transformed by the power of Christ. Christ further emphasizes this in His confrontation with the Pharisees. "For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (chap. 23:23). Jesus makes it clear that the paying of a faithful tithe is right behavior, but it has no significance unless it is the result of love that flows from a transformed heart.

One can only expect that those theories that are Biblically incompatible will lead also to conclusions that do not harmonize with Scripture. The behavior-modification therapist plays god to his counselee. He determines what is good behavior, and he administers those conditioning techniques that are likely to bring about the behavior that he himself determines is desirable. The non-directive therapist, on the other hand, allows the counselee to play the role of god, believing that inherent within him are the sure answers to his problem. The Christian counselor has to confess that neither he nor his counselee have the final answers to the problems that have produced depression, emotional instability, and neurosis. But he can point to the God in heaven who does have the answer.

A careful evaluation of all three views of man results in the conclusion that only the Christian view of man is a hopeful view. We face the reality of a world in which the vast majority of its inhabitants have a poor environment. Since both the nativist and the behaviorist depend upon a good environment to produce a good man, the vast majority would be hope less and helpless both in this world and also in the perspective of the world to come. However, the Christian concept views no one as hopeless. While acknowledging the advantages of a favorable environment, Christianity asserts that the power of Christ "is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him" (Heb. 7:25). The transforming power of Christ offers hope to all irrespective of environmental limitations.

The same God who through the Scriptures has shown such a deep concern for the spiritual and physical well being of His people is just as critically interested in their emotional and mental stability. Christian psychologists need to dig deeply into the Word of God to discover His principles. It is only reasonable to assume that God's Word provides for us principles and bases for mental health in the same way it provides those bases for spiritual and physical health. For with out emotional stability, there is little hope that a man or woman can fully reach the potential that God has for him or her, nor is it possible for such an individual to participate as fully as possible in the ministry and mission of God's church.

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Colin Standish, Ph.D., is dean of the college, Weimar Institute, Weimar, California.

April 1979

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