Thursday, January 12, 2006

Psychology and Gospel Preaching

I have been thinking about the issue of Psychology and its role in churches a lot lately, I have been somewhat hesitant to post on this because I am not sure where the boundaries belong. I think there is a place for pastors to come along side struggling congregation members and to sort through issues with them how much this counseling is to mimic psycho therapy sessions I am somewhat uncertain of. What I am certain of is that it is the gospel which we must look to to deliver wayward souls not psychological techniques. There seem to be two main areas which psychology has begun to take a grasp in our evangelicalism. 1) Our preaching, and 2) Pastoral counseling.

1) Our preaching

It is becoming all the more common in our hunger to build bigger churches in our postmodern culture that our preaching focuses upon "felt needs" of the congregation and the culture. The church growth men continue to tell us that if we are going to keep people's attention we need to speak to them where they are and not get them all jumbled in theological talk, speak their language and to their needs. And frankly this works! The problem that arises in my estimation is that the preaching coming from pulpits implementing these techniques is almost guaranteed to be man-centered. If we are setting out to address "felt needs" such parenting, guilt feelings, debt, marriage issues, self worth... Etc, it seems the inevitable result will be a psychologized preaching. I will try to give three examples of what is typical psychologized preaching a) An inner potential message, b) positive thinking, and c) self esteem.

a) Inner potential
It seems everytime I see the mega church types quote and exposit the Bible they strike out completely as to interpretation of the scripture because the are making the verses into a pop psychology message for the congregation. A prime example of this that I have seen was Joel Osteen, in a "sermon" he had quoted the passage where Christ and the disciples are in the boat and a storm arises and Jesus remains at rest, the disciples panic and yell at Jesus, and Christ rises up and calms the storm. (Matt 8:23-27) Application from Joel is (paraphrase)"Like Jesus we can't let the storm get in us, the disciples let the storm get in them and it affected them. Jesus didn't let the storm get in Him." The point he was trying to make is that we are to put a good face on problems hurled at us just let it roll off our backs. When life begins to get stormy we need to remain detatched from the Jesus in the boat.

We have to ask ourselves is that really the message Christ was intending to convey to His disciples from the experience in the boat? Was it because Jesus seemed cool and detatched in the midst of the storm that the disciples said "What matter of Man is this?" (Capital M)? If anything it seems the disciples were infuriated with Christ's tranquility not impressed. What caused the disciples to stand in fear and awe was the fact that Christ was sovereign over the storm. The biblical account points us to the incomprehensible depths of the person of Jesus Christ, not to a self help technique. One it seems to me has to do violence to scripture to extract psychologized applications and preach to felt needs.

What however strikes me the most about this specific message by Osteen is that there is no looking to God for relief. When life gets hard we are to not let our circumstances from without get within, this is all our doing. And this is the kind of "salvation" postmodern man feels he needs, saving from stress, anxiety, guilt, etc. When these become the chief issues which the preacher seeks to address our preaching on issues of life particularly sin will only be horizontal. Sinful habits only need to be dealt with so that you can walk in more freedom, have better relationships, marriages , homes, and less negative feelings. Sin however in the biblical framework is vertical "Against You and only You have I committed this evil" (Ps 51), it is God who we need to deal with and to whom we must give an account for sin. Thus a new type of salvation is seeming to emerge, promulgated by much of the new "Christian" leaders and authors mimicking the secular self help message. David Wells in "Losing our Virtue" has said,
"The self-help literature believes that healing is possible because the self carries within it it's own means of healing. What is needed is simply the right technique to tap into this potential. It therefore offers a secularized form of salvation". What Osteen is offering to his hearers is not a message he has derived from scripture, (rather he molds scripture to fit his message) but he offers us a technique which will prove to advance our estate shielding us from the onslaughts of life.

b) Positive thinking
I think the main issue underlying all of the influence of psychology is frankly unbelief. Unbelief that God's grace is sufficient to sustain the Christian soul, unbelief that God's word alone can adequately answer and address our struggles through life, and most jarring unbelief that the glories to come in heaven are not worthy to be compared with the best this life has to offer us. This unbelief leads us to cope with our difficulties by turning to technique gurus who can give us the steps to assuage any form of discomfort. The problem then is that God is only as valuable and desirable as He is useful in meeting "felt needs". And there is a world of difference between having feelings of guilt and contrition over sin. Everybody has feelings of guilt, of letting others down, not living to a standard, just a gnawing of our failures in life (horizontal) . But contrition is sorrow over living in a way which we have come to know is detestable to God knowing we have offended Him and are under condemnation (Vertical).

Again a psychologized technique is adequate to address the issue of feelings of guilt, positive thinking is a popular one. Just focus on our success not our failures, it is basically our duty to fight against anything that may make us feel bad about ourselves. Robert Schuller once said:
"I believe in positive thinking. It is almost as important as the resurrection of Jesus Christ".
Frankly, I don't know how anyone can call themselves a Christian and say such a a thing, it speaks of the fact that Schuller values his psychology techniques as much as Christ's finished work.

Another popular teaching under the positive thinking, and self esteem for that matter, is a spin on the biblical truth of sonship of believers. Comming in may forms the basic premise is the same that we need to see ourselves basically as royalty, sons of the king, not beggars. We are so special to God, the apples of his eye, He is ever waiting to shower us with blessings if only we let Him (by becoming a christian and daily deciding to remain one). This sort of stuff reminds me of what Jonathan Edwards said in "Religious Affections" (paraphrase) "There are many professors today who have heard repeatedly 'He makes much of you He makes much of you!' and finally they believed it and God in a sort appeared lovely to them." Edwards point is that God appears lovely to many based on the fact that they are told over and over how special they are to God, therefore they love God because He makes much of them not because He frees them to enjoy making much of Him forever. God therefore becomes subserviant to the grand self.
Positive thinking and self esteem go hand and hand, positive thinking is the technique good self esteem is the goal.

c) Self Esteem
The area of self esteem has become a popular issue in our culture, a good self esteem is seen as essential for a healthy person. As evangelicalism continues to mimic the culture that surrounds it it too has come to embrace this psychologized need of people. Prior to becoming reformed and rejecting the therapeutic movement, I heard the phrase "self esteem" far more often than the word "repentance". The last charismatic conference which I attended one of the speakers said:
"The main problem with the church today is that we do not have a healthy self esteem, we do not realize who we really are and our authority."

Upon hearing such nonsense I thought that is the main problem with the church, lack of self esteem? I find it odd that that is the problem due to the fact that these speakers go around on tours pumping people up with delusions of grandeur. I would say oppositely one of the problems is that we esteem ourselves far too highly, we have become so intoxicated with the notions of self esteem and personal worth that we are unable to stomach having our sin exposed. For many evangelicals to hear a message on the sinfulness of man is to speak in a foreign language. If man's sinfulness and thus his condemnation from a holy God is unknown, then equally the magnitude of the work of Christ is unknown. The way of salvation is not found in esteeming ourselves but rather despairing of ourselves and our own righteousness to place our hope in Christ's perfect righteousness. No doubt there are those who are stricken with a guilty conscience, yet it is Christ alone who must take away the feelings of guilt through confession and repentance.
"For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death." (2 Cor 7:10)

d) Conclusion
To sum up this issue of psychologized preaching, I think as I have said to turn to psychologized techniques and focus ones messages on felt needs of people in order to draw them in is frankly unbelief. It is unbelief that in the power of the proclamation of the gospel and the word of God, God will move in power to change the hearers
"So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but shall accomplish what I please..."(Isa 55:11)
Husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loved the church part of that is to "Wash them in the water of the word" (Eph 5:26) if our marriages are to be a picture of Christ and the church is seems clear that it is the word of God which is to be the source of the churches cleansing and nourishment.
"For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." (Heb 4:12)
It seems that the divinely inspired writer of Hebrews seemed to think quite highly of the word of God, it is powerful and sharp, it alone cuts men to the heart and from its testimony alone do we see ourselves as we are.
And it is this living word which causes new life via the Holy Spirit being pleased to glorify the word by implanting faith in the hearers.
"having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever." (1 Peter 1:23)

It is my prayer that we would turn from worldy techniques, manuals, and messages and fall in love with the precious treasure bestowed upon Christendom, the holy word of God. Psychology I think is to some degree valid,it but all that it can do is point out a problem and for solutions just prescribe a form of law (ex: We need to think positive, we need to forgive others, we need to not let the storm get in us etc...). However it is only in the message of the bible (The Book) do we find the words of eternal life, words which point us not to look within ourselves but to look to the fount of living waters, Christ.

"Be astonished oh heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid; be very desolate says the LORD. For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me the fountain of living waters, and hewn out for themselves cisterns-broken cisterns that can hold no water." (Jer 2:13)

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Great insight, Bob. This post was worth the wait! You summed it all up when you said that psychology causes to look to ourselves not to the Lord for help - deliverance and salvation. It can show us the problem but He alone has the solution.