I can change...
When I was young, church was about “hatches, matches and dispatches” [christenings, weddings and funerals!]. Today, many churches seem to offer an answer to all of life’s ills and troubles. Its been good to see a personal dimension to people’s faith. But has the spiritual good news tried to reach too far?
SOME SLIDES TO ACCOMPANY THIS ARTICLE CAN BE DOWNLOADED HERE [12MB PDF].
Christians, by and large, are nice people, so it’s only natural that they would want to try and help people with more than heavenly matters. Also, they usually think they have some answers. The Bible may not be an A-Z of common issues, but there is much guidance within that has stood the test of time and epidemiological research. Christians live longer, have healthier marriages and volunteer more.
But what does our faith tell us about how people actually change? And does modern psychology contribute to that? What is our balanced contribution to the whole area of personal development? And – what do we do when change doesn’t seem to be occurring?
In the past, many church contributions to this area have either been quietest [that we ought to grin and bear it – because Christ suffered] or moralist [that we ought to “stop it” – whatever the sinful behaviour is]. However, more recently, we have seen helpful fusions of theology and psychology that draw on what we know about how humans change – and also, why we should change in the first place.
Why should we change?
One answer is that change is inevitable – it is the only think we can be certain of. The question is whether we grow and adapt as a result of it! But, theologically, we are in the stage of ‘sanctification’ – having been justified and not yet been glorified, we are being slowly ‘conformed into the image of Christ’ (Romans 8:29).
Change can be hard – especially if we feel trapped or are worried what it may look like. We can be tempted to say, ‘better the devil you know...’ But if our attitudes and behaviours are causing us problems, they will continue to cause us problems unless we... change! As Leo Tolstoy once said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but few think about changing themselves.”
We have a number of unique Christian perspectives on change that are not necessarily shared by the wider psychological community. This is because theology comes from revelation but psychology comes from measurement and statistics. We should be clear on our destination – which may not be happiness. It may look more like a crucified Christ or a communion of broken saints. We are also told to count the cost before going on this journey.
But, just because Christians have a unique perspective, it doesn’t mean that “all you need is Jesus”. This is as simplistic as the Beatles saying “all you need is love” and we need to be careful we are not trying to hit all of life’s problems with a Jesus-shaped hammer because that is all we have on our Spotify playlist...
There are a range of Christianised psychological approaches out there – some add in a bit of psychology or counselling here and there, others are more truly integrated. The best are complex and flexible, using different approaches at different times. Beware the person who says they have the answer that works for every question! You will find lots of articles on this website about a variety of different approaches. They have all helped somebody, but have not worked for everyone.
And now for something completely different
To finish with, let me introduce a few ideas that you may not find in your average theology textbook. I won’t describe them here, but they are easy to google and find out more.
Positive Psychology – the cousin of clinical psychology which deals with what makes use happy rather than makes us ill. Sharing cat videos is popular for a reason – go on, you know you want to find out more
SMART goals – rather than setting idealistic goals [to be like Jesus now!], we will do better to set goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and have a set time-frame. “Being like Jesus” is great as a goal but doesn’t say much about how you get there.
If you are stuck, or keep on making the same old mistakes, then Motivational Interviewing is a great way to get traction. It was developed for people who kept on drinking in their attempts to climb out of addition and works for many entrenched behaviours. Its a way of making hope when it seems like there isn’t any.
WE can change – why should we have to change by ourselves when that was never God’s plan. Romans 12-16 is all about the church community and how we change and support each other. We have over-individualised western Christianity - don’t do the journey alone.
To close, our faith may give us our goal and our hope, but sometimes we need the hope that others hold for us and the skills of a good mental health professional. In my work, I don’t aim to make people happy, but I do aim to make them free - able to change if they wish to. Able to change because they can...