By Phoebe Lim
Psychology, the young science, a largely controversial topic within the Christian community. Should we even bother discussing the science of human thinking and behaviour when we recognise every wrong and vile part of ourselves comes from sin and every righteous part of us comes from God? Why, pray tell, would this young science’s five perspectives even matter to Christianity, much less with Biblical principles? Do they not clash and contradict the Bible? These are all valid questions with subjective answers, but one fact matters the most: we cannot indignantly ignore the human mind because, after all, God shaped it even if sin tainted it.
Scarcely had scientists learned the processes the human brain when psychologists proposed that our behaviour stems from biological components, yet the Bible insists that we are not only influenced by the mind, but also the heart and soul. One of the commandments attests, “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” (Matthew 22:37). Scripture purposefully includes the heart and the soul to signify that we humans are not purely creatures driven by the firing of neurons or mixture of chemicals, but capable of acting from the heart as well as soul. Undeniably, the neuroscience approach elucidates on facts like lower levels of serotonin linked to depression or stress inhibiting production of melanin and it is imperative in understanding the brain God designed, but the heart and soul of a person also dictates behaviour. If we were only governed by our logical minds, a mother would not hold her rebellious child to her chest in heartfelt forgiveness when her mind tells her otherwise. Heart, soul, and mind are intertwined, acting together. Furthermore, Scripture confirms we act out of the heart, “guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23), and the presence of the soul, “my soul, find rest in God” (Psalms 62:5). Indeed, the neuroscience approach presents truths of how biological factors affect behaviour, but like motherly love, it cannot account for every response. The brain decides our actions, but so does the heart and the soul.
Psychology’s psychodynamic approach comes closest to agreement with Biblical principles, theorising we are motivated by unconscious forces within the mind which we possess little control over. In the classic story of the prodigal son, the elder brother expressed his frustration towards their father, claiming never once did his father celebrate with him despite the elder son’s obedience throughout the years. This son, despite his reasonings, acted most out of hurt and anger, and he had little awareness of this unresolved conflict motivating his actions. Biblical stories such as this hint at the underlying motives in the recesses of our mind, causing us to strike out with venomous words, reveal the biasness of our hearts, taint our lives. Inner forces within our consciousness also similarly reflect the nature of sin, elusive and often alluring, magnetic in a way we must constantly resist its temptations. Romans 7:15-16 explains the turmoil between us and our sin, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it,” delineating how the evasive force of sin slips its way into influencing our action. Immorality creeps into our thoughts, coiling around our necks and whispering in our ears, and though unconscious forces may not all be evil, they urge our heads to turn a different direction nonetheless. Just as a sexual assault survivor with a deep-seated, instinctive suspicion could reflexively avoid a certain people, unconscious forces influence behaviour. Essentially, the Bible affirms the peril of these underlying thoughts, urging us to seek after the Father who would unveil and guide us out of the shadows of our minds. The unconscious mind is like the surface of a reflective lake, mysterious in all it holds deep within, and if someone peered into its planes, they could only see the mirroring waves and ripples obscuring its murky depths.
Although the cognitive approach proposes thought as the primary determinant of behaviour, the sole power in our actions, the Bible illustrates and calls out people whose deeds contradict their innermost reasoning. Moses, in anger over the unjust treatment of the children of Israel, killed an Egyptian who abused a Hebrew, yet his intentions had only focused on defending his people even as he expressed his actions otherwise. He only sought to deliver the children of Israel from cruelty; his action of murder contradicts his thoughts to aid. Thoughts can stray, actions can differ and conflict with the mind. Therefore, the cognitive approach certainly holds truth to it, but does not apply in every situation such as the case of Moses. Another instance, Jesus himself calls out the Pharisees, “You are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean…you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28), challenging the hypocrisy of their actions versus their thoughts. Evidently, Jesus points out the dissonance in their behaviour and their ways of thinking about the world, exhibiting that even our perceptions of the world can contradict our deeds.
According to the behavioural approach, an external stimulus effects a reflexive action in people, but the Bible clearly describes man as capable of moral choices and individual thought rather than a response from the environment. God made mankind in his image, meaning that we are capable of complex thought and moral choices as such as the one Adam and Eve made to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden. Humans are not machines, offering an output when given an input, but creatures with the ability to ruminate and decide, resist and comply. Scripture even instructs believers to resist the immoral, worldly behaviour of our environment as Romans 12:2 advises, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” contrary to behaviourism which claims humans will simply act as in an instinctual answer. Clearly, the Bible disagrees with humanity responding and interacting with the faithless actions of a fallen world but encourages us to abandon conformity and follow the path of Jesus, contrasting with behaviourism. If mankind operated purely on reaction, then we are only boats without paddles, swaying to the motion of the waves, capable only of moving when the seas allow it.
Foundations of the humanistic approach introduce humans as inherently good, always striving for growth, but the Bible vehemently disagrees with this philosophy, naming sin as the fundamental flaw in humans which drives us to wickedness if we falter from God. No other verse states this more clearly than Romans 3:23-24, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace and through the redemption that came by Christ,” illustrating humanity as inherently corrupt rather than upright, requiring Jesus’ sacrifice to atone for our sins. No one teaches a child to lie, and yet they use every bit of their young wiles to do so. At a larger scale, criminals all over the world perpetrate countless atrocities—rape, murder, robbery, assault—and so the assumption that all humans strive for greatness and bettering the world logically and Biblically does not hold sound truth. Moreover, Scripture commands us, “whatever you do, do everything to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), not for our self-growth or the world with all its immorality, but for God who loves us unconditionally and Jesus who died for us resolutely. Ultimately, we gravitate towards sin as water rolls down a hill; it is inevitable, unchanging, quelled only by Jesus’ hand on us like a dam against the current.