“The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is. Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it also does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner. The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth. The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness. The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God. The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community
There is an important familial back drop to this excerpt from Bonhoeffer (selections below from Wikipedia):
His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a distinguished neurologist. In 1912, he moved the family to Berlin to become a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Berlin and the director of the psychiatric clinic at Charite Hospital.
Nonetheless, the Bonhoeffer family seldom attended church services.
Expected to follow his father into psychiatry, Bonhoeffer surprised and dismayed his parents when he decided as a teenager to become a theologian and later a pastor. When his older brother told him not to waste his life in such a “poor, feeble, boring, petty, bourgeois institution as the church,” fourteen-year-old Dietrich replied, “If what you say is true, I shall reform it!”
There are many angles that could be taken on this quote and history. Do all psychiatrists reduce people to their biology? Do all Christians think of themselves exclusively as sinners? Does this tone of interaction best advance the conversations that need to be had in our day? How would Bonhoeffer have responded differently if his personal and family history were not so strongly divided on this subject?
I would say that answers to these questions are: no, no, no, and we can’t know.
However, I think we can look at that quote and see a common pattern that remains true in our day when the church speaks with / about psychology or psychiatry – each side describes human struggles from the vantage point of their expertise. For those who have studied theology, they predominantly view people as sinners. For those who have studied psychology or psychiatry (often even if studies from a Christian perspective), they predominantly view people as sufferers.
The problem is both sides are right, so both sides can find ample evidence (empirical and biblical) to support their position. People are both sinners and sufferers. People do not have to be taught to sin and have instincts towards our own demise. People also have bodies that malfunction in ways that affect their emotions and live in relational systems with other sinners which make is difficult to live wholesome lives.
So what is the harm in this approach? In this post, I will briefly mention two.
First, we only minister to part of people. To whatever degree we neglect meaningfully engaging in conversation with those who specialize in caring for human suffering, we truncate our ability to care for those who are ravaged by the effects of sin and not the consequences of their own sin.
We lose influence because we engage in unnecessary arguments. With professionals, this can cost us the opportunity to share the gospel because the gospel is cast as being in opposition to their career (as if they were emotional pimps). For those in our churches, it means we often lose the opportunity to influence them as they seek help from a psychiatrist because they feel condemned for this action.
The solution must be that we become more skilled at differentiating struggles rooted in sin from struggles rooted in suffering; recognizing the line will not always be clear. As we do this, we will become more skilled at applying the gospel to sin (repentance and faith) and suffering (comfort and aid).
If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Counseling Theory” post which address other facets of this subject.