On the one hand, it is difficult to comment on a sort of grand, theoretical scheme of the human person from the perspective of a practitioner of cognitive-behavioral therapy since there is no monolithic cognitive-behavioral view of the human person. Instead, such practitioners tend to focus on micro-theories that center in on specific problems rather than theories of everything. In any case, Christians can certainly appreciate certain elements of the cognitive-behavioral approach to therapy insofar as both models assume, to a large degree, the rationality of the human person.
Belief has to do a great deal with how we feel and behave. Paul certainly reflects this fact in Phil. 4:8-9, and it is one that cognitive-behavioral therapists have emphasized. Indeed, thoughts themselves as actions, as Stanton Jones points out, and both Christians and CBT practitioners can agree that faulty thoughts can lead to pathological feelings and behaviors. Paul writes in Rom. 8:5 that “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on the flesh; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” This is quite in keeping with the general gist of cognitive-behavioral therapy. As Jones points out, however, CBT practitioners and Christian therapists might differ concerning which kinds of thoughts are good and bad.
For the Christian, Jones says, we experience misery when we focus on worldly prosperity and success and lack an eternal perspective. Things can go horribly wrong in this life, and we will be miserable if we view existence as having primarily to do with this life, but we will be happy if we understand that all things, good and bad, happen for the glory of God, and this will cause us to view our suffering as a testimony to the steadfastness and faithfulness of God. We can use suffering as a means to show how peaceful we can be, and the hope that we can enjoy, as Christians, even in trying circumstances. As Jones points out:
“…the scriptures generally encourage the same sort of self-awareness of cognitions as cognitive-behavioral therapy (“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts…And lead me in the way everlasting,” (Ps 139:23-24). We are to forsake unrighteous thoughts (Is 55:7) and seek a renewing o the mind (Eph. 422-24; Rom. 12:1-2) by replacing unrighteous with righteous thinking that is based on biblical standards. thus cognitive change is believed to lead to growth.”
Nevertheless, it is God’s active participation, Jones points out, in the sanctification process, that distinguishes Christian therapy from a strictly secular cognitive-behavioral approach. While the CBT emphasis on human rationality is a good thing, humans are only rationality insofar as we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, we are prone to sinful and self-destructive behavior. Ultimately, our worldview determines our standards of mental health and righteousness, and it is importance for us to build our therapy on a Christian and biblical worldview rather than accept the possibility of going to a psychotherapist with a different set of moral values, perspectives on reality, or perhaps a simply amoral or relativistic approach to therapy and reality in general:
“Perhaps the greatest danger in cognitive therapy is…that of using a distorted standard of rationality. Since the goal of therapy is the eradication of pathological emotional reactions, the beliefs or cognitions of the client tend to be judged by their utility rather than by their truthfulness (We called this the pragmatic criterion for rationality int he last chapter.) For example, suppose that the continual recurrence of the thought “I am a sinner whose righteousness is as filthy rags before the Lord; I am wholly without merit beore him” brought substantial distress to its thiner, including loss of sleep and loss of enjoyment of worldly success. With only a pragmatic standard to guide the therapist, the most expeditious course would be to attempt to undermine the belief by whatever means available with the goal of either eradicating or modifying the client’s thought. Questions such as “What evidence is there that God exists or that God cares about your behavior at all?” might be pursued. The goal would be to eradicate the thought because it bothers the client. The religious counselor, on the other hand, might judge the negative emotional reaction appropriate because of the validity of the thoughts themselves. A time of true repentance and grieving over our sinfulness is a healthy part of the Christian life.
But it is also true that it does not seem to be God’s wish that we all be paralyzed by our grief over our sin, and there should come a time where believers come to see their sinfulness int he context of the marvelous provision of salvation from God, and where our remorse becomes secondary to our love for this marvelous redeeming God who desires us to worship him and serve him. So in the case of a protrated and overly severe reoccupation with one’s own sinfulness, the Christian cognitive-behavioral therapist would regard the thoughts as true but perhaps not in their proper context among other christian beliefs and hence might see the emotional response as problematic. Thus the Christian counselor would not be using the pragmatic standard for judging beliefs. The therapist’s method would not be to undermine the beliefs, but to put it in proper perspective among other beliefs.”