It was during my first senior year of college (The realities of being in college five years means that I must clarify my two senior years) that I was enrolled in an experimental psychology class. Even though I got an A in that course I wasn’t a particularly good student at that time, skipping probably 1/3 of the assigned class meetings. But late in the semester, we got design and do our own study, and I developed a questionnaire that assessed the relationship between the time people said they engaged in specific “religious behaviors,” such as reading the Bible, prayer, etc., and their own emotional and mental status, including coping behaviors. My purpose was to see if there was a correlation between religious behaviors and what the psychological literature I surveyed deemed healthy and unhealthy coping behaviors. It wasn’t the best designed survey of all time, but it certainly piqued my interest as there were correlations observed in the type of religious behaviors people reported they engaged in and their own mental health outcomes. While I have forgotten most of the results, behaviors such as Scripture reading and prayer were correlated with better mental health outcomes and coping.
Of course, anyone vaguely familiar will statistics will have this chant
Now, this would have sounded a bit dissonant with the prevailing wisdom in the psychology department at that time: they were busy telling students that religious behavior, no matter what type, was correlated to better health outcomes. And indeed, the statistics do bear this out. But as so often happens with the interpretation of statistics, we often treat certain statistical findings like the average/mean tell us a law about all people, rather than a general, aggregate reality that doesn’t play out as true in all circumstances for all people. My research did bear this out, as some religious behaviors were correlated with negative health outcomes and negative coping styles.
This provoked a question for me as a Christian: in what ways can Christian faith be used in adaptive and mal-adaptive fashions? Are their forms of Christian theology that exemplify and manifest these adaptive and mal-adaptive patterns? But in asking this question, it is important to make a couple quick clarifications in thinking about such a
Firstly, consequentialist outcomes do not themselves determine the truth value of various Christian beliefs; simply because a belief leads to an outcome we like or dislike does not mean that believe in true or false in terms of describing reality, or even necessarily our moral norms of right and wrong. For instance, one might point to the crucifixion of Jesus as a negative outcome from one perspective. But for Paul, negatives outcomes considered from one angle may be a source of God’s grace and power from another angle. So, it is important to not immediately jump to conclusions in saying “mal-adaptive religious beliefs are false or wrong.” Certainly, I can imagine this being the case more often than not, but one should not determine truth and rightness solely on the basis of a singular consideration such as mental health outcomes.
Secondly, because the Christian faith places value on the long-run/eternity, it would be fruitful to consider that what produces negative mental health outcomes in the short run may produce positive outcomes in the long run. For instance, if a person has developed a set of beliefs that allow them to feel that they are okay but has caused serious problems or harm to others. They experience some degree of negative self-esteem because of the way people treat them in response, but they maintain a sense of belief in their own satisfaction through judging themselves in a superior position to another, which is at the heart of narcissism. In such a case, the act and attitude of repentance may produce short-term negative outcomes as a person comes to deal with the feeling of grief that comes from repentance means that they no longer feel comfortable in their own skin, so to speak. But, as they change and adapt their way of relating to others in a more pro-social manner, they may experience increased self-esteem and satisfaction from better relations to others while also feeling
With this in mind, we are able to think through the basic question: what type of faith and religious behavior is conducive to mental health and what types are harmful?
A helpful framework is to consider one way of dividing coping styles: problem-focused coping (PFC) vs. emotion-focused coping (EFC). In PFC, we try to address problems that exist around us. We attempt to create some change. EFC, by contrast, focuses on alleviating our own emotional state. The two styles are not necessarily opposites, as our attempts to change our circumstances may be intertwined with our attempts to manage our own emotions. But, analyzing in terms of themselves, PFC engages our attempts to control the outcomes of the environment we are in, whereas EFC tries to control ourselves and our own experience. Both styles at the extreme can lead to two mal-adaptive styles of coping
When in our coping we are always geared towards trying to solve the problems, we are inclined to construe events in terms of how they are significant for us and then engage in actions to enforce this understanding onto others. For instance, one person whenever they feel slighted by someone else’s remarks may immediately jump to an attempt to guilt and shame someone for those remarks to get them to acquiesce to their own views. While there are some instances where a person might accommodate to such control, very often this will lead to offense, resistance, and distancing, thereby making the slighted person feel even more insulted. While there may be times to address a grievance, and there may even be times to exhibit strong action, inflexibly relying on a problem-focused style of coping can lead to negative outcomes.
Examples of this can include prominent religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell, who famously thought the purple
On the other hand, EFC presents its own challenges. EFC commonly entails attempts to soothe one’s own emotional feelings, such as reframe/reinterpreting events, distracting oneself, getting away from stress problems, externalizing problems so they don’t feel so close, immediate, and/or hard to manage, etc. Rather than try to directly control stressors and problems, however, EFC can lead to trying to avoid addressing such stressors and problems. Cognitive avoidance through distraction and fantasy and behavorial avoidance through procrastination and putting things off. The end result of such avoidance leaves such problems unattended to and can lead a person to deny the problems in the first place. Unfortunately, this style of coping when used unthinkingly often stands in a “complementary” relationship to abusive people employing extreme and harmful forms of problem-focused coping; emotional-focused coping that denies the problems leaders to them failing to stop being
In Christian circles, this style of coping is commonly reinforced by the idea of faith. But it isn’t just any sort of faith, such as a faith that God is working all things towards good, but a sort of faith that imagines the stresses and problems of the immediate moment are either not real,
However, even though both extreme forms of EFC along extreme forms of PFC look different in terms of action, they share one feature in common: they are built around imagination. Imagining how things are not bad or will be better or imagining how we can make things better or not so bad. Such imagination is not inherently false; in fact, it is through imagination that we often time discover what is true and good. However, when both EFC and PFC styles get to their extremes, they rely more so on imagination than direct perception and open engagement.
Hence, a useful tool in many counseling and therapeutic settings has been reality-testing. To pay attention and test reality to see if things match what one believes (that is, imagines) to be the case. While this doesn’t solve deep, pervasive problems in the short run and can even cause some emotional disturbances in the short run if one comes face to face with their own errors in thinking through disconfirmation, over the course of the long run, it grounds the way we think and imagine that helps to determine when and how we employ PFC and EFC.
Within the Christian setting, reality testing overlaps with one thing that is said to precede faith: perceiving and/or listening. As Christians, we don’t believe that we believe or obey first; rather, we believe that God acts and makes Himself known before we trust and obey. And people who do not believe, they do not must up faith and obedience to a God they do not believe or trust in; something beholds them, whether in the immediate moment or over
This goes back to the findings that I do remember from my survey: that Scripture reading and prayer were associated with better health outcomes. Now, to be clear, not all Scripture reading and prayer is going to be engaged in an open reception and an attentive listening; reading and praying can be primarily a practice of seeing and saying what we think. Nevertheless, from what I can remember, the religious behaviors that were associated with better outcomes would be
However, even this style can have one
While this is more anecdotal and more an exercise of imagination about coping and theology, I hope it sheds light on the complex way in which Christian life and coping styles can intermingle. While I don’t think it is helpful to reduce the Christian life to therapeutic terms, nor to simply treat therapy as a tool for Christian faith and ethics, seeing the complex interactions between then can be a fruitful way for us to read the Scriptures and assess our theological fruitfully and faithfully in relation to therapeutic and mental health concerns.