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Christians and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Truth in Love 69

Should biblical counselors use CBT?

Apr 5, 2017

Heath Lambert: This week, our guest on Truth and Love is Dr. Scott Mehl, the pastor of Cornerstone Church in west LA. He’s an adjunct faculty member at Eternity Bible College and is a member of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. Scott, we’re here this week talking about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It is a therapy that is very popular in our world today. But I think a lot of Christians don’t really know what it means, what it is, what it is about. So what is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Dr. Scott Mehl: Well, as you said, it is probably one of the, if not the most popular therapy used across the world today. What is it? It’s about changing your mood, your outlook, your productivity, and really how you feel by changing your thoughts and behaviors. If we can manipulate your thoughts, the automatic thoughts that come into your head, then we’re gonna make you feel different. You can be more productive if you can change the automatic behaviors, the things you simply do by habit without thinking. Then as those habits change, it changes your mood, it changes your productivity. So by using a combination of tools to address both the cognitive and behavioral sides, it changes the problems that are most concerning to most people, which are their emotional struggles and productivity problems.

Heath Lambert: So I think for the Christians who do know about this issue, there’s a temptation to think that this is maybe a really biblical approach to change because we care about thoughts and taking them captive and that kind of thing. Renewing our minds in a biblical worldview. How is cognitive behavioral therapy different than a biblical approach to change? Or is it different?

Dr. Scott Mehl: Yeah, I mean, the “or is it” is probably a great place to start, right? Because I think most of the time, you hear things like some of the skills-based behavioral interventions like problem-solving or systems of reinforcement, right? Accountability groups, that have to do push-ups for not memorizing a verse or for falling into sin that’s just a system of reinforcement, right? Even just having an accountability group is a system of reinforcement that we use. And so it’s having those types of systems of reinforcement that sound biblical. Also, just changing our thoughts and saying if we can change the way we think by recognizing an untrue, unhelpful, or unhealthy thought, then that sounds a lot like biblical change. I need to set my mind on something different. But there are some real fundamental differences. Cognitive behavioral therapy looks like what biblical counsel or discipleship looks like when it’s not engaged in the heart.

First of all, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy uses different truths. The truth of cognitive behavioral therapy is whatever is most helpful for you to bring about the change that you want, right? So if you’re feeling a certain way, if you maybe have automatic thoughts about what a failure you are, the truth that’s used isn’t some kind of universal truth but simply the truth that’s helpful. We’re going to tell you that you’re not a failure. That you really need to think about the fact that you’re not a failure and that there are areas in your life where you are successful, and if we can identify those and get you to think about those, then it’s going to make you feel better. But the truth of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy really is just subjective truth; it’s whatever is most helpful. But as Christians, we don’t have to default simply to using what’s helpful. We actually have what’s true, what God calls us to, and what brings about change in our lives isn’t just of practical benefit. When we meditate on what’s true, it actually transforms us. So, there’s a different truth used.

Secondly, there’s also a different means of transformation. I think sometimes as Christians we can fall into this where we say, “Okay, take two of these Bible verses and call me in the morning,” right? “Memorize this and think about this, and then you’re going to feel better.” But that’s actually not even biblical change. The biblical change goes far deeper than that, and it’s centered at the heart. The means of biblical change is spiritual, and these truths that we meditate on—who God is, about what He’s done, what He’s done in Christ, and who we are in Him—truly transform and inspire not just change here and there, but it inspires our worship. We take our minds off of ourselves and begin to worship the Creator rather than the creation. As we do that, our heart changes and transforms, and that produces changed behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. It brings that about, but the means of change is far deeper and far more spiritual.

Actually, some Christians would say that “well, okay, if we do Cognitive Behavioral Therapy but we use Christian truth, and if we do cognitive behavioral therapy and we use Christian means, then can’t we just do Christian cognitive behavioral therapy?” But ultimately, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is also aimed at a different goal. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy wants to help address the problems that you identify for yourself, the problems that you want to change. Maybe it’s emotions that you want to feel that you’re not feeling, maybe it’s productivity at work that you want to ramp up, or maybe it’s anxiety that’s getting in the way of the life that you want to live. But the goals in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are really self-defined. And the goal of biblical change isn’t just change for the sake of change. The goal of biblical change is transformation; the ultimate goal is Christ-likeness. As we change and transform, we become more like Christ. Even with that, some might say, “well, okay, what if we tried to do Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with Christian truth, Christian means, and a biblical goal?” And I say, “well, now you’re just doing biblical counseling and discipleship.”

Heath Lambert: It stopped being Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and it just started being the Bible.

Dr. Scott Mehl: Yeah, exactly.

Heath Lambert: Okay, so if Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a different approach to change than the Bible, then I want to ask a really relevant question. Because as Christians, we are living our lives with people who struggle with all kinds of problems, and we want to help. We want to speak into their lives. We want to speak the truth in love. What are some ways that Christians who intend to offer biblical care to people who are struggling can actually wound up offering Cognitive Behavioral Therapy instead?

Dr. Scott Mehl: Yeah, I think it’s a really good question, and maybe the question actually sounds even more clinical than the application of it in our lives. Maybe I should just answer the question. How do I tend to counsel as a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist in my Christian life? I mean, just with the people around me. The more that I study this, I realize that these are the types of things that not just Christians fall into but that I fall into, that I default to. I default to a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy type model when I’m content with behavior modification. It’s hard to spend time with somebody, and through your time together, they start feeling better and they start being less anxious. Maybe they’re happier, and a little bit more content. It’s hard to not just say, “oh my gosh, that’s a win, right? This worked, counseling and discipleship, it worked!” Or to set up behavioral parameters or guidelines to help gauge somebody’s addiction to porn or anything else and to see them stop doing those actions. It’s hard not to simply say, “look, it worked!” But as Christians, we can’t be content with just behavior modification. I think sometimes we’re tempted to declare success when people feel a little bit different or they’re acting a little bit different. But the question is, has their heart changed at all? Is this motivated by the worship of God, or are they just swapping out one idle for another?

Similarly, sometimes I can even use homework as a kind of Cognitive Behavioral tool instead of something to engage someone’s heart. “Here, memorize these verses, and these verses will make you feel better.” Instead of, “these verses will lead you back to the One who is home for you. And as you are led back to Christ, as you relate and engage with Him, you’re going to experience more than just happiness. You will experience true and deep-seated joy.” And I think all the time—not just in my counseling, but in my relationships with people as well—I’m tempted to use common sense solutions as opposed to ones that prioritize their relationship with God. What that actually does is it encourages them to put their hope in me as the one who has insight or can give them some good tips instead of me simply being an instrument used by God to point them back to Him where they can find the fulfillment, joy, peace, patience, and the self-control that is the Christlikeness that God is building up.