Christian Psychology and Suffering

QUESTION: Christian Psychology – The Problem of Suffering

ANSWER:

Most secular psychologies attempt to alleviate all suffering for the individual. Psychologists speak of methods of successful living that are supposed to eradicate most pain and anguish. Vitz says this “selfist” psychology “trivializes life by claiming that suffering (and by implication even death) is without intrinsic meaning. Suffering is seen as some sort of absurdity, usually a man-made mistake which could have been avoided by the use of knowledge to gain control of the environment.”1

In contrast, Christian psychology believes that God can use suffering to bring about positive changes. This difference between secular and Christian psychology has serious implications. For the non-Christian, suffering is a harsh reality that must be avoided at all costs; for the Christian, suffering may be used by God to discipline and lead us—indeed, Christians are sometimes called to plunge joyously into suffering in obedience to God (Hebrews 12:7–11; Acts 6:8–7:60).

Christian Psychology – Meaning in Suffering
Meaning in suffering is a feature unique to Christian psychology. Kilpatrick concludes, “The real test of a theory or way of life, however, is not whether it can relieve pain but what it says about the pain it cannot relieve. And this is where, I believe, psychology lets us down and Christianity supports us, for in psychology suffering has no meaning, while in Christianity it has great meaning.”2

Time magazine spoke to this matter of suffering with an edition titled “Special Mind & Body Issue.”3 One article in the series was entitled “The Power to Uplift: Religious people are less stressed and happier than nonbelievers. Research is beginning to explain why.” After describing the setbacks in the life of 41-year-old Karen Granger (husband laid off, a miscarriage, cousin’s breast cancer, two hurricanes, and best friend’s brain tumor), Time reports, “But Granger, a devout Christian who attends Presbyterian services weekly and prays daily, doesn’t allow circumstances to get her down. ‘We’re not in heaven yet,’ she says, ‘and these things happen on this earth.’ Granger credits religion with helping her cope and giving her a feeling of connection and purpose. ‘We’re putting our lives in God’s hands and trusting he has our best interests at heart,’ she says. ‘I’ve clung to my faith more than ever this year. As a consequence, I haven’t lost my joy.’”4

Time asks the question, “So, what has science learned about what makes the human heart sing?”5 The answer is that some things do not make the human heart sing—wealth, education, and weather. Marriage is a maybe. “Married people are generally happier than singles, but that may be because they were happier to begin with.” But religious faith is a positive yes. “On the positive side, religious faith seems to genuinely lift the spirit, though it’s tough to tell whether it’s the God part or the community aspect that does the heavy lifting. Friends? A giant yes... [along with] strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.”6

Christian Psychology – Suffering, Society, and the Individual
Christian psychology’s view of human nature grants each individual moral responsibility, works to reconcile him or her with God, and gives meaning to suffering. An offshoot of this perspective is that Christians view society as the result of individuals’ actions—that is, individuals are understood to be responsible for the evils in society. This view directly contradicts the Marxist and Humanist view that we are corrupted by evil societies.

As always, these views have logical consequences. For Marxists and Humanists, society must be changed, and then we can learn to do right. For the Christian, however, the individual must change for the better before society can. For the Christian, blaming individual sins on society is a cop-out. As Karl Menninger says, “If a group of people can be made to share the responsibility for what would be a sin if an individual did it, the load of guilt rapidly lifts from the shoulders of all concerned. Others may accuse, but the guilt shared by the many evaporates for the individual. Time passes. Memories fade. Perhaps there is a record, somewhere; but who reads it?”7

Notes:

Rendered with permission from the book, Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews (Rev. 2nd ed), David Noebel, Summit Press, 2006. Compliments of John Stonestreet, David Noebel, and the Christian Worldview Ministry at Summit Ministries. All rights reserved in the original.

1 Paul Vitz, Psychology as Religion (Grand Rapids MI,: Eerdmans, 1985), 103.
2 Kilpatrick, Psychological Seduction, 181.
3 Time, January 17, 2005.
4 Ibid., A4–6.
5 Ibid., A5.
6 Ibid., A5–6.
7 Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin?, 95.

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