I spent a lot of time last year in the world of Counseling & Psychology. My own mental struggles drove me to books, journals, a degree program—even to a Christian counselor’s office—in search of information that would help make sense of the complexities in my thinking.
Some Christians warn others not do dip their toes into the dangerous waters of Psychology. Though I sympathize with these folks’ perspective (I’ll get to that in a minute), I don’t completely agree with it. Psychology is not “the devil’s religion.” It’s simply the study of the human mind and behavior. There are a vast amount of documented observations of abnormal thought & behavioral patterns that have been collected over the years. This information can be an excellent resource for people who want to better understand and overcome their own mental struggles. It was for me.
But there’s one prominent idea I keep coming across in Christian Integrationist circles (those who seek to integrate psychology and Christian theology) that I violently disagree with. The idea is this: In order to receive and enjoy God’s love, I must first believe I am worthy of his love.
The Christian Counseling professionals with whom I’ve come into contact or whose material I’ve read argue that many mental issues are rooted in false beliefs that an individual has about God and/or themselves. Amen. I agree. We think wrongly because we don’t see rightly. We desperately need for our core beliefs about God, ourselves, and reality to align with what is real and true. But to say that one of these core beliefs must be “I’m worthy of God’s love”—this is where my amens end.
This is also where I sympathize with Christians who avoid Psychology like the plague. The science itself isn’t bad. But some of the humanistic beliefs within it are so blatantly opposed to Christian doctrine and so dangerous to a weak, unsteady soul that it’s almost worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Demonic is the counsel that tells someone he must see himself as worthy or deserving of God’s love. It flies in the face of God’s Word and steers the struggling person far away from a right view of reality and therefore far away from real, lasting happiness.
Modern psychology may portray man as lovable and good, but the Bible paints a completely different picture.
Sinful mankind is not worthy of God’s love. Period.
BUT . . . does mankind’s unworthiness of God’s love mean He doesn’t love mankind? Praise his name that the answer is NO!
I think the end that some integrationist counselors have in mind is good and right—that people would come to a place where they fully believe the love God has for them. It’s their means to that end which is bad. They say that a person’s joyful receiving of God’s love is dependent upon that person first viewing himself as worthy of God’s love. But this dependency is one conjured up completely by human imagination, not drawn from Scripture. In fact, Scripture goes the extra mile to keep us from drawing the false conclusion that there’s something good in us or about us that provokes God to be loving toward us. Take a close look at these two texts in Deuteronomy:
“It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face.” – Deuteronomy 7:7-10.
“Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 9:5
Notice two things.
One: “it is not because you were more in number . . . not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart”—in other words, God’s goodness toward Israel wasn’t based upon upon anything they brought to the table.
Two: “but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers . . .”—in other words, God’s love for Israel was based completely on his free, sovereign choice to direct his love toward them, in accordance with his covenant.
Another massive derailing from Christian doctrine I’ve seen in Integrationist circles—and one tightly intertwined with the one I’ve been writing about thus far—is the failure to distinguish between God’s common grace and his special (or covenant) grace. They talk about God’s love as if every single person to ever exist is automatically, by virtue of their existence, a recipient of God’s fatherly, covenantal love. But this isn’t true. God does not relate to all people in the same way. While He does have a common love and care that is extended toward all his creation (Jn. 3:16 and elsewhere), he also has a special, fatherly, covenant love that is extended only toward his chosen people.
You can see this in the two texts I pasted from Deuteronomy. God is dealing graciously with rebellious Israel, yet he talks about destroying other rebels. He’s being kind toward some wicked people (Israel) and wrathful toward other wicked people (the inhabitants of the land). What was the difference between these two groups of people? Nothing! At least, not when it came to their character or moral condition. Both groups of sinful people deserved God’s justice. Yet to some he was gracious, according to nothing more and nothing less than his free, sovereign choice to be gracious to whom he desired.
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” – Romans 9:14-18
Someone may ask, “But how do I know if God has chosen to love me with his special, covenant love?” The doctrine of election has often been another trampoline off of which people bounce into morbid introspection, looking frantically for some indicator of their election within themselves. There is a place for self-examination; God’s covenant love always brings forth new desires and affections in every heart into which it falls. It’s good to ask ourselves, “Do I love God? Do I see any evidence of that love in the way I live?” It’s right to draw confidence of our election from Christlike qualities in our lives. But even the most mature Christians will be frightened to death of what else they see when they look in on themselves: selfishness, deceit, lust, doubt, etc.
Scottish pastor Robert Murray McCheyne said, “For every glance at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” If you want to grow in confidence of your election and God’s great love for you, look away from yourself to Christ. When you see him in your mind’s eye, what do you see? Some Jewish man who you were told to “ask into your heart” when you were six but who you really couldn’t care less about today? Or do you see a God who left his heavenly glory to suffer and die for rebels like you? Is your heart moved—even if not as fully as you wish—by the sight of the crucified Savior? Do you believe in this One you see? Do you believe in the name of only Son of God?
If you believe, it’s because God loves you and has enabled you to believe. Yes, even your belief is a gift of his love! He doesn’t ground his love for you in anything that you bring to the table. Not your works, not your faith—not even your being one of his image-bearers. There are billions of image bearers in Hell! God’s love for you is based on the most concrete, stable things in the Universe: his decisive will and eternal purpose. This means that there is nothing you can do to make him love you more, and nothing you can do to make him love you less. Because his love for you is not primarily about you, and who you are. It’s about Him, and who He is.