Mike was what many people would call “a troubled child.” He described life in his Chicago home with his alcoholic father and depressed mother as miserable. He struggled to keep his personal frustrations and anger under control, and his poor verbal skills added to his problems.
Those who knew Mike said it was visibly apparent when he became angry. “You could see the anger build,” one person noted. “His eyes would begin to bulge, he would clench his fists, and his forehead would perspire. The veins in his neck and forehead would noticeably pulsate.”
When this happened, the next thing Mike would know was that he was being held in restraints—a last-ditch effort by therapists to help Mike control his anger and to protect those around him from harm. Life was just going nowhere for him.
Eventually, however, Mike was referred to “outdoor therapy” with animals. Clearing horse stalls and washing, feeding, and cleaning the animals might not sound like therapy, but it was for Mike. The physical outlet allowed time for his brain to become more “balanced,” and his angry outbursts began to lessen. This and other lifestyle shifts led to dramatic changes in how effectively his brain was able to process his environment. In time, Mike became a more productive person.
Dealing With the Mind
The work of a psychologist is a challenging and rewarding adventure. Consequently, we’re not surprised when we’re told that “to deal with minds is the greatest work ever committed to men.”1 In order to carry out this work, psychologists study the mind and behavior of people through the use of scientific methodology. Psychologists are trained to describe, understand, predict, and determine the factors that influence behavior and mental processes. It’s the Christian psychologist, however, who brings to their work a unique understanding about human nature. The Christian psychologist understands that men and women are more than mind and body—but spirit, too.
Scripture informs us: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7).2 Consequently, the potential for healthy psychological functioning should develop within the context that we were created for worship and communion with God. As a result, the search for the true principles of psychology will not eliminate or disregard the necessity to explore the deepest spiritual needs of men and women. Our physical health also plays an important role, as shown by Mike’s experience.
In order to clarify the Christian approach to psychology, the mind/body/spirit orientation is reflected in three fundamental assumptions about behavior. These core assumptions distinguish Christian psychology from other schools of psychology because of its unique understanding of human nature, spirituality, and wholistic health.
Human Nature Assumption
God created us in His image and glory. A Christian psychologist fundamentally believes our minds and bodies reflect the work of a Master Designer (see Gen. 1:26, 27). He created us with a high potential for intellectual and physical achievements. Before sin arrived, the divine plan was for men and women to continually reach higher levels of knowledge of God and the universe. Humans were created for a noble purpose: “Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do.”3
The first man and woman—Adam and Eve—rebelled against God and were removed from the perfect world of direct communication with God. Sin brought moral, physical, spiritual, and mental decay. The original plan was sidetracked. Misery, unhappiness, loneliness, spiritual deprivation, and mental and physical disease were the sure results of sin.
Because humanity’s nature was corrupted by sin, sin requires a divine solution. Secular psychology provides only a temporary solution for the problem of sin by using various psychological techniques. The depth of the depravity of humanity requires a deeper cleansing of the soul. Christian psychologists emphasize the need to submit to God’s Word and His will. Therefore, the answer lies within the Scriptures.
When depression strikes or other mental anxieties occur, God will help us to recall specific Scriptures to heal the soul. The regaining of optimal physical and mental health requires a spiritual connection. But how is this connection established? It’s done through prayer.
The religion that Christ practiced and the relationship He maintained with His Father must prevail for us, as well. The result will be a spiritual transformation. The fruits of the spirit will be seen in the transformed life. Positive mental health will be observed when all the fruits of the spirit are practiced, such as “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal. 5:22, 23). Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we receive His grace and power to become Christlike.
Wholistic Health Assumption
The wholistic assumption means that mind, body, and spirit are interrelated. A problem in even one of these three areas will profoundly influence a person’s overall well-being. Ellen White writes: “The relation that exists between the mind and the body is very intimate. When one is affected, the other sympathizes. The condition of the mind affects the health to a far greater degree than many realize. Many of the diseases from which men suffer are the result of mental depression. Grief, anxiety, discontent, remorse, guilt, distrust, all tend to break down the life forces and to invite decay and death.”4
The wholistic assumption also means that positive mental health is achieved when the personality is fully integrated. An integrated personality results when the mind, body, and spirit are balanced and functioning in harmony with one another. Furthermore, when God breathed into man the breath of life, he became a conscious, spirit-filled person. Spiritual discernment and power were given to each of us. This life energy force, or what Ellen White describes as “vital forces,”5 will directly contribute to the development of an emotionally balanced person.
Before I started teaching, I worked at an urban psychiatric hospital. Numerous patients there suffered from a wide range of severe psychiatric disorders. Interestingly, many of them benefited from tending the hospital vegetable garden. Patients were taught how to prepare the soil, plant seedlings, and use tools for weeding and watering. Patients who spent time outdoors experienced fresh air, sunshine, and physical exercise, which produced better results than using medication alone. Their moods improved, they became more socially engaged, and often they were more cheerful.
One of the fundamental principles I teach students is to remember a simple health phrase: “Changing your lifestyle will change your brain, and when your brain changes, it will change your behavior.” Lifestyle is a broad term encompassing, among other things, our personal patterns of diet, exercise, sleep, spirituality, and thinking style. It’s important to understand that our thoughts control our behavior and feelings. This is particularly true with depression and anxiety. For example, I’ve found that exercise is a lifestyle practice that everyone should adopt. Depression has been linked to disturbances in the brain’s neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine. Exercise helps to regulate the production of these vital neurotransmitters in the brain, and the effect is amazing. In addition, exercise encourages the release of endorphins, which help a person to feel better and have increased confidence. Exercise can also increase body temperature, producing a calming effect. It allows the mind to be distracted from negative thought cycles, generates a better attitude, and lessens anxiety.
The wholistic approach for the study of psychology will focus on how the restoration of the moral image of God in men and women is developed. Human nature, spirituality, and wholistic health assumptions are further explained by 10 basic principles that govern and influence human behavior.
1. God’s Word is a vitalizing and sustaining influence upon the life. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You” (verse 11).
2. Sin is the origin of human problems. Selfishness, cruelty, and hateful emotions produce unbalanced minds that are unwilling to forgive (see Rom. 6:12; Eph. 4:31, 32).
3. God provides for our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Therefore, He provides spiritual power to overcome sin as we are obedient to His Word. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
4. A mind is changed into the likeness of what it beholds. A healthy mind is the result of beholding Jesus Christ. To have the mind of Christ means to produce the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23; Phil. 2:5; 2 Cor. 3:18).
5. It is with the mind that we worship God. A new mind and heart are given to those who have surrendered themselves to Christ. They will daily bear fruit unto righteousness and holiness, so that they may reflect the character of Jesus (Eph. 4:23, 24; Ps. 51:10).
6. Positive mental health is achieved by being in harmony with God’s will and the laws of nature. The correct understanding of the interdependence between religion and psychology brings people into harmony with the laws of God. Mental and emotional health are the result. “I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart” (Ps. 40:8).
7. Vital forces provide for total health. A brain/behavior/immune system effectively maintains the vital forces, and the application of eight natural remedies—nutrition, exercise, water, sunlight, temperance, air, rest, and trust in divine power—strengthens them. Sufficient vital force enhances physical, mental, and spiritual health. The psychology of vital force is the foundation for understanding the relationship between mind, body, and spirit. “God . . . breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7).
8. Biblical psychology is transformational. It provides a better understanding of how we are restored from sin. Health, peace, and perfection of character are the result of knowing Jesus (The Ministry of Healing, p. 17; Isa. 26:3).
9. Mind and body interact with each other. Everything psychological is simultaneously physiological. Our thoughts and emotions are intimately tied together (1 Chron. 28:9; Luke 10:27).
10. Psychology is a part of the gospel. Spirituality and true psychology are redemptive and work together to restore the minds of men and women (Ps. 103:2, 4; Luke 4:18, 19; Matt. 11:28-30).
A Unique Approach
The Christian approach for psychology is unique. The true principles of psychology, as understood by Seventh-day Adventist Christians, are to restore the moral image of God in humans. The achievement of a healthy personality and the enjoyment of positive mental health occur within the context of Christian character development. The purpose for studying psychology from a Christian perspective is derived from this powerful statement: “It should ever be kept prominent that the great object to be attained through this channel is not only health, but perfection and the spirit of holiness, which cannot be attained with diseased bodies and minds.”6 In other words, it is more difficult to reflect the character of Jesus when our minds are dysfunctional and we are in poor physical health. Consequently, psychology helps us understand the mechanisms and factors that will aid in the process of reflecting the character of Christ.
1 Ellen G. White, Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 1, p. 4.
2 All Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3 Ellen G. White, Education, p. 17.
4 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 241.
5 Ellen G. White, Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 144.
6 Ellen G. White, Healthful Living, p. 54.
Grant Leitma is chair of the Psychology Department at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland. This article was published August 18, 2011.