Christian Living

Spiritual CBT

We’re often encouraged in our culture to speak ‘your truth’. Apparently, it’s no longer enough to just speak the truth – the truth is now highly personal! And as well as being personal, your truth can even change or develop over time… in fact it can be as changeable as you like and no one is allowed to argue with it. Allegedly. This idea (rightly) sits uneasily with Christians because we know there are truths about God, and the world, and ourselves, and Jesus, and eternity, that are true in the traditional sense, no matter who is telling it.

As Christians, then, the truth orients our truth. So what’s your truth?

I’m asking because there’s something else that our culture is becoming more familiar with: accessing therapy. There is, thankfully, much less stigma than there used to be around mental ill-health, and it is now more normal for a person admit to having a therapist of some sort at some stage of their life. I myself am no health professional, but I have learnt to use cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) as someone who has experienced post-natal anxiety.

CBT is a powerful tool, and highly effective for many mental conditions, because it helps you to change your thinking. Very basically, as I understand it, it is that in the tiny, tiny, tiny space between an event and our emotion that follows it, there is a thought. It will be driven by some kind of belief about yourself, or about how the world works, or about other people… and if that thought, based on that belief, is a bit out of step with reality, a bit wonky, a bit based on fallacy, a bit of a misunderstanding about what’s true, then this is what gives rise to the emotion that follows. As I said, I’m no therapist, so if you’d like some professional CBT resources, have a look at this or this.

So while we can recognise the importance of aligning our beliefs with reality (or we could say, recognising our, or the, truth) for the sake of our mental health, how good are we at challenging our beliefs with spiritual reality for the sake of our spiritual health? That is, what am I feeling as a Christian? Is it just possible that what I might be believing today is out of step with my spiritual reality?

We know not to base our Christian life on our feelings – that way lies only despair and doubt and madness. We also know that as we follow Jesus our Good Shepherd, we are good at forgetting, good at wandering off, good at listening to the devil’s lies. However, Jesus has not left us alone – he has given us his own Spirit who transforms us by the renewing of our minds as we learn from his word about his mercy to us (John 14:15-27; 1 Cor 2:16; Rom 12:1-2), and that should also be reflected, however imperfectly, in our feelings.

Maybe you’d like to stop with me for a bit and ask, What am I feeling? What might I be believing today about myself that is giving rise to this feeling? And what does the Bible say about this?

We have an example of this kind of exercise in the Psalms, where the psalmist is expressing an emotion but then calling to mind truths about God and his character, and this is what calms the writer, even in the face of ongoing difficulty (see for example Pss 10, 13, 73…and many more).

Here are a few examples (from my own experience) to get started:

What I’m feeling What I’m thinking/believing What the Bible tells me
Hopeless because my quiet time/Bible reading and prayer life is a mess   God must be disappointed/hurt/angry/maybe withholding good from me God knows my frame; he remembers that I am dust and he gives me what I need – forgiveness. As I depend on him in my weakness, he is glorified – Psa 103 God’s hand is always on me; he hems me in (in a good way!). He is familiar with all my ways, yet he still loves me – Psa 139
Pleased with myself because I trusted in Jesus so I’ve done what’s needed to get to heaven Luckily, I’m great (note my irony here of course!) You were dead in your sins, but God made you alive in Christ – Eph 2:1-10
I feel like God doesn’t care about me God is inconvenienced with my small concerns – he only cares about the cosmic, eternal, salvation stuff, not how I’m feeling right now Has God given me what I need for today? Yes. Has he given me what I need to trust him for today? Yes! See Matt 6:25-34

It can be tough to do this – at first, it can take a bit of time. But be encouraged! God has promised that he will bring his work in you to completion by his Spirit  (Phil 1:6). If you want to try a more formal diagnostic exercise for your spiritual health, this little book is so helpful.