Restoration Quarterly Vol. 1/No. 1 (1957): 12-16

Psychotherapy and the Christian Mission

Ralph V. Graham

Jesus Christ is the content of the Christian message. The mission of Christianity is human redemption, redemption which embodies forgiveness of past sins, the hope of immortality, and that maturity of personality which is the abundant life of the Christian. The standard of Christian maturity is the radiant personality of Jesus (Col. 1:28, Eph. 4:11-14). To enjoy the fullness of Christian maturity one must have a spiritual rebirth and be renewed in spirit day by day (John 3:3-5; 2 Cor. 4:16; Titus 3:4-7). This is spiritual transformation (Rom. 12:2).

It is possible to facilitate this redemptive and sanctifying process by applying the knowledge and techniques which the psychological sciences have discovered in their study and treatment of personality. Psychology, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and psychotherapy provide much clinical data which is most helpful to those who concern themselves with the well being of the whole man. But, when Christians and psychotherapists work exclusively of one another, their knowledge, technique, and achievements are distorted, deficient, and retarded, However, when the efforts of these two groups are allowed to complement each other, man is the recipient of a healthier and fuller life. Though it is not always the case, these two redemptive forces, Christianity and Psychotherapy, can be quite compatible and mutually profitable.1


Common Interests of Psychotherapy and Christianity

With regard to subject matter, both Psychotherapy and Christianity are concerned with man’s nature, behavior, motivation, maturation, mental and spiritual health, and relationships. Both reflect the universal conviction that there is a good life attainable for men. Each claims the ability to lead man into a healthier condition. Essential to the achievement of health and maturity is self-knowledge. Consequently, the Bible is not only a revelation of the one true God, it is also a mirror of man’s true nature (James 1:23, 24).2 Man must know his weaknesses and ills as well as his capacity for goodness and productiveness. Christianity provides motivation, power, and guidance for man in the realization of man’s highest possibilities.

Psychotherapy and Christianity are both concerned with human goals. The integration of self, the cultivation of responsible love, and satisfactory personal relationships are sponsored by both alike. Both aim at the reduction, if not the elimination, of undesirable symptoms in man, and the building up of a new capacity for responsible self-direction and creative interpersonal relations.

It is often thought that Psychotherapy strives toward the reduction of tension in personality while Christianity seeks to inspire action by creating tension. But this seeming contradiction is removed when we become aware of the fact that tensions are of two kinds: creative and destructive. There are deficit motives and growth motives. The former demand the reduction of tension and the restoration to homeostasis. This may be instinctual or infantile in character. Growth motives maintain tension in the interests of distant and often unattainable goals such as ideals, long range purposes, and subjective values.3 Psychotherapy and Christianity are both interested in the resolution of the tension conditioned human problem of how to help the individual to become his true self (potentiality and possibility), how to help him learn to live with his fellows in responsible freedom.

Psychotherapy and Christianity are concerned also with moral values and man’s ethical well being. The a-moral drives and impulses in man must be controlled whether their cause is a will corrupted by sin or infected by a neurosis. Both systems agree that the power and form of this control must come from and operate within and be based upon valid self-knowledge, self-acceptance, self-affirmation, and it must be directed toward interpersonal relations characterized chiefly by mutuality and love. Reason and conscious purpose must govern man’s impulses. Love is the only force that can cope with man’s lower nature and his unruly will. It inspires health and goodness, makes productive use of psychic energies, and knows no defeat, failure, self-contempt, or despair.

Both the Christian and the therapist seek to remove guilt and to overthrow the tyranny of a morbid conscience by reshaping the conscience and encouraging spontaneity and self-affirmation. Many psychotherapists believe that the tasks of Christianity and Psychotherapy are one and the same, namely, to remove or weaken the obstructive forces to the growth of the personality and to regain one’s capacity to love altruistically: "reciprocal service in the evolution of our ever increasing human dignity, fraternity, and opportunity."4 This involves the rejection of moralism and a positive emphasis upon the rational direction of life and the natural upward thrust of life toward freedom, love, and self-realization.

Psychotherapy and Christianity both agree that life is growth toward meaningful living unhindered by authoritarian tyrannies and taboos. Both stress that spontaneity and mutuality are good signs ‘of authentic human vitality. A certain permissiveness must make possible men’s freedom to find courage and strength to live without servility and to be their real selves. Only a free assumpti~ of responsibility and self control in interpersonal relations will make possible the experience of individual self-acceptance and self-expression. Psychotherapy and Christianity insist that only love, truth, and devotion can generate an atmosphere in which human character is transformed in the fresh air of freedom, dignity, and peace (see Rom. 12:1, 2; Eph. 4:15).5


Tensions Between Secular Psychotherapy and Christianity

There is much division, sectarianism, and error in the therapeutic sciences just as there is in Christendom. We do not reject Christianity because of those who have misrepresented, or marriage because of abuses and failures. Neither should we reject the valid clinical data of the psychological sciences or the techniques and insights of those whose presuppositions and findings are not incompatible with Christian teaching. Psychotherapy can be Christian as well as naturalistic. First, let us note some of the tensions which secularistic psychotherapy generates between its advocates and Christians.

From Freud to Fromm, the men who have made psychotherapy were heirs of the Enlightenment, the secular revolution against Christianity.6 The rationalists denied the reality of sin, limited life to its earthly span, and held that the perfection of the good life can be achieved by man alone. Naturalism is man’s declaration of independence (of God) and human sovereignty in the world. Man is thus the measure of himself. It denies man’s dependence upon God, and his moral responsibilities, the necessity of Christ’s atonement, and immortality. Freud viewed religion as a neurosis and an illusion and the concept of God as merely a projection of the father-image. There are many, however, who recognize the value of his clinical discoveries who do not accept his philosophical bias.7 We must, therefore, distinguish between the actual clinical data of psychoanalysis and the general philosophical view of the world which Freud and others have added to this. Tension is created between Psychotherapy and Christianity when psychotherapists try to substitute Psychotherapy for the Christian ordering of life, or when they attack the essence of morality and responsible freedom with views of deterministic mechanism or social adaptability. On the other hand, Christians ought to beware, too, that they do not attribute a moral quality to illnesses of the natural order. These are not sins and they do not need repentance but cure.

The Freudian view of man contradicts the Christian conception. For men like Freud or H. S. Sullivan, the self is independent of the idea of God. Here is Freud’s structure of the human personality.8 The primal center of the self is called the ID, the hedonic drive which has but one aim, the discharge of tension and homeostasis (a condition of complete neutrality). Its energy is relatively constant, uneducable and a-moral. The survival of the organism depends upon curbing its heedless desires and setting up patterns of constraint and direction. These inhibitory and directive patterns emanate from two dynamic sources, which with the id, comprise a single energy system. The ego, the conscious self, seeks to order energy by the foresighted calculations of utility and reason which seek adjustment with reality. The superego represents the self-concern for social adaptation. It endeavors to domesticate the unruly libidinal drives by imposing taboos and sanctions of society, as these have been introjected into the self from the parents and surrogates of society. The whole self is the precarious resultant of these non-parallel forces; it is the system of desire organized by controls which are partly authoritarian and partly rational. The human self is considered to be independent, autonomous, and self-sufficient. Its purpose is adaptability and its destiny is confined to the natural order.

The limitations of secularistic psychiatry are most obvious when we observe how much relevant data they reject so perfunctorily. There are areas of tension between secularistic therapy and, Christianity which must be resolved before Psychotherapy can be carried on in a Christian context. Medical naturalists or culture analysts cannot reach a true estimation of the worth of persons if the human person has a final value. Further, without depth renegeration as the precondition of self-fulfillment, psychotherapy is always incomplete. Completeness is attainable only in reconciliation with God. Also, the secular therapist relies upon nature’s resources as the principal means of maturation. But the resources of the Spirit of God are essential to full maturity. Dr. Elliot Emmanuel, professor of psychiatry at Magill University, Montreal, in an address in early March, 1956, declared that faith, prayer, and confession are superior to psychiatry and psychotherapy in curing mental and nervous disorders.9 Again, humanistic therapists conceive of human foresight and planning as decisive in the organization of society. They are most optimistic about the effects of programs of social change, reform, and progress. But the Christian will insist upon a radical social ethic which transcends compromise, social adaptability, and mere amelioration, and which is anchored to a stronger foundation than an empirical social system. Humanistic therapists rest their hopes for man’s future on what man can do for himself. The Christian’s confidence rests upon God’s activity in past, present, and future, especially his activity in Jesus Christ. Despite these tensions, however, the Christian is profoundly indebted to the psychotherapists for their wisdom and clinical effectiveness which are not derived from anti-Christian viewpoints.

(Continued in next issue)



1 W.Earl Biddle, Integration of Religion and Psychiatry, New York: the Macmillan Company, 1955, p.21.

2 Eric Fromm, Man for Himself, New York: Rinhart and Company, Inc., 1947, p.7; Albert C. Outler, Psychotherapy and the Christian Message, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954, p.229.

3 Gordon Allport, Becoming, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955, p.68.

4 Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth, pp.847-77; Fromm, Psychoanalyses and Religion, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955, p.87; Henry Stack Sullivan, Conceptions of ModernPsychiatry, New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1947, p.87.

5 Outler, loc. cit., p.39.

6 See Signiund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, New Yrrk: Liveright Publishing Co., 1949; Fromm, Man for Himself, and Psychoanalysis and Religion.

7 Francis J. Braceland, Faith, Reason, and Modern Psychiatry, New York: P. J. Kennedy and Sons, 1955, pp.17, 113; C. S. Lewis, Christian Behavior, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946, p.20.

8 Calvin S. Hall, A Primer of Freudian Psychology, New York: the World Publishing Company, 1954, pp.15-30.

9 Philadelphia Inquirer, "The World of Religion," ed. Robert 0. Kevin, March 26, 1956.

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