Biblical Change vs. Cognitive Therapy

Normally my major Wednesday article address a different topic than my “One Minute Application” articles, posted Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. This week, however, I am continuing my current One Minute Application subject, biblical change, because the topic at hand requires more than the 299 words allotted to my One Minute Application column.

I have devoted several posts to describing foundational issues that support change: salvation resulting from a faith commitment, discipleship, and pursuing spiritual productivity. These brought me to the active ingredient for biblical change, which is mind renewal. Romans 12:2 instructs us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. The Greek word for “transformation” provides the source of our English term “metamorphosis.”

I noted that mind renewal includes two elements: our worldview and our thought-life, things that we know vs. things that we think about. Many times these elements do not correspond. Often a Christian’s knowledge is out of sync with his thought-life. All of us experience this dissidence all too frequently. Scripture teaches us not to be anxious. Yet, often our thoughts may be characterized by worry. Often our thoughts regarding material items can lack a spiritual perspective.

This distinction between our worldview and thought-life is significant because it is not what we know but what we think about that determines all of the most important issues in life: our attitudes, values, interests, and ultimately our actions. Thought patterns not aligned with a biblical worldview constitute the root cause of most of our emotional, behavioral, and relational problems. For example, anxiety, depression, marital conflict, and many other problems can be traced to thought patterns incompatible with Scripture.

Consequently, biblical change is achieved by intentional efforts to maintain a thought-life compatible with a biblical worldview. Doing so requires hard work and discipline, especially as we deal with entrenched unbiblical thought patterns. Nonetheless, as we persevere, we find that the problems created by unbiblical thoughts begin to dissipate.

This biblical approach to change may prompt some to inquire how biblical change differs from cognitive therapy, which in many ways takes a similar approach to change.

Cognitive therapy, formulated by Dr. Aaron T Beck, became a dominant force in the counseling world during the 1990s. Its core concept postulates that problems do not result primarily from the situations in which people find themselves but from their perception of those situations, that is, their thoughts related to them. Panic attacks might result from a pattern of worry related to health issues. A cognitive therapist may help this person by encouraging him to adopt realistic thoughts regarding his physical condition.

From this description one might conclude that cognitive therapy and a biblical approach to change are essentially the same. To some degree they are. One reason cognitive therapy became such a dominant force in counseling has been its effectiveness. In essence, Aaron Beck merely formulated an approach to change advanced by the Apostle Paul almost 2000 years earlier. It works because it reflects God’s design for transformation.

That said, however, a profound distinction exists between cognitive therapy and a biblical approach to change. A biblical approach requires the foundational steps listed above. Though cognitive therapy no doubt works at times even in the absence of that biblical foundation, without it the struggling individual is in jeopardy of failure. Let me suggest several reasons.

First, as already noted, controlling established thought patterns is difficult and therefore requires power. When we enter a relationship with the Lord, the Holy Spirit takes residence within us, empowering us to control our thought-life. This process still requires substantial work on our part, but the ministry of the Holy Spirit assures the presence of sufficient power to succeed.

A second benefit of a biblical foundation resides in the development of a biblical worldview through the discipleship process and beyond. Cognitive therapy postulates that wrong thinking causes problems and right-thinking fixes them. However, it provides no basis for identifying what thinking is right and wrong. If a husband believes that leaving his wife for another woman will produce happiness, cognitive therapy may seek to convince the individual that these thoughts are not practical, but it provides no basis for asserting that this thinking is wrong.

Beyond that, cognitive therapy provides no answer when right thinking leads to negative outcomes. What if the worry over the doctor’s report happens to be valid? A biblical worldview provides a solution for anxiety by including God’s sovereignty over the situation and an eternal perspective, but the cognitive therapist has nothing to offer.

The thought-life provides the key to change, but especially when applied within a biblical framework. Only in that context can we be assured of the promised metamorphosis emotionally, behaviorally, relationally, and spiritually into the person God designed us to be.

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