Short answer: No.
Longer answer to follow. But why am I even asking the question?
In my friend Bob Kellemen’s thoughtful and largely helpful response to my post about going to the doctor to discuss depression meds, he said that his most serious disagreement with me was about my recommendation of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).
If that surprised me, then I was even more surprised that Bob read my piece as recommending CBT as a comprehensive therapy to the exclusion of other means. A fair reading of what I wrote would recognize that I was clearly recommending CBT as only one part of a holistic approach that included the body, the mind, the soul, Christian friendship, pastoral counsel, Bible reading, prayer, and worship and fellowship in a local church.
However, it looks like Bob would object even to that – using CBT as any part of a package of comprehensive compassionate care. He sees it as non-Christian at best, anti-Christian at worst, and therefore to be shunned.
Are we talking about the same thing?
I must admit, this really baffles me and makes me wonder if we’re talking about the same thing. CBT’s basic point is that what we think affects what we feel and do. Therefore if we can change what we think, we can change how we feel and what we do.
It’s not exactly revolutionary. It’s actually one of the ways way the Bible describes and portrays how we work as well (Psalm 42; 73, 77; Proverbs 23:7; Romans 12:12; Philippians 4:8-9). If CBT is guilty of anything, it’s of unwittingly plagiarizing the Bible’s insights! But I’m just thankful that God has allowed and enabled even unbelievers to discover some insights into how He made us, and to devise ways of re-training our thoughts so that we are re-made into His image. They misuse it badly at times, of course, but I just wish more Christians would be as thoughtful and skillful in using these insights as unbelievers often are.
Firing and wiring
The behind-the-scenes science of it is that we create electrical and chemical pathways in our brains with our thoughts. As we think our way down these pathways, we strengthen the brain connections. As somebody put it, “cells that fire together, wire together.” The more we travel these mental paths, the faster and easier these paths become, so that eventually our thoughts and resultant action feels automatic. Think of learning to ride your bike.
But what happens if we think the wrong thoughts often enough? That’s right, we end up creating bad pathways that become our default thinking patterns, damaging the way we feel and our daily behavior. Not good! And not easy to get out of these deep and repetitive ruts.
If our thoughts are fixated on spiritual matters like God, sin, and guilt, paralyzing and debilitating us, then usually scriptural truth can transform us over time by renewing our minds.
But what if our thought habits are on everyday matters like being obsessed with cleaning door handles, or irrational fears about our health, or phobias about open spaces? What if we’ve got into any number of negative thought patterns about our children, our ability to cope, our work situation, etc? That’s where CBT can be so helpful. (Yes, with Scripture, prayer, fellowship, etc. too).
Any number of people can tell you, “Stop thinking that!” You can order yourself, “Stop thinking that!” You can try to memorize Scripture even. But the thought pattern is so deep, so habitual that you need extra help (e.g. CBT) to challenge it and change it.
Few people can eradicate irrational anxiety by reading Romans. Instead, we need help to figure out, “Why am I thinking, feeling, and acting like this?” And then we need the tools to challenge the lies and imbalance in these thoughts until we change the way we think, feel, and do.
There’s nothing spooky or even complicated about it. I’ve seen many depressed and anxious people crack deeply ingrained and damaging thought patterns just using this CBT book, I’m not supposed to feel like this (written by three Christians). Where I know there is a motivated Christian friend in the depressed person’s life, I usually recommend that they sit down every day or so with this book and work their way through the exercises. It’s usually not long before they start seeing a change in their thinking, and then their feeling and acting too.
Tomorrow, I’ll give an example of how CBT works in an individual case, and in the meantime have a look at this video.
Is CBT of the devil? The devil can misuse it, for sure. But I view CBT as a gift of God to suffering humanity. If more Christians would open their minds to learn from it and practice it skillfully, there would be far less depressed Christians running to ungodly counsel, and there would be far less depressed Christians continuing in their suffering.