Christianity and the Psychology of David Burns

Burns is another type of psychologist who differs greatly from Freud and others in the field.  Again given the space of a blog this will be a gross oversimplification of the man and his system. Burns can be categorized as a cognitive behaviorist. The cognitive refers to his (and others in this field) emphasis on the mind and correct thinking being at the center of a person’s psyche.  The behaviorist portion is a typical combination in our time, leading us to believe that you can change outward behavior and internal feelings through conditioning or learning. It’s a mind over life philosophy seeking immediate mood improvement.

A psychologist following in the footsteps of Burns would assert that you can basically fix yourself (self-help) if all you had were the right tools.  Through the use of self (or counselor led) assessments you would pin point where you have symptomatic bouts with anger, depression and the like. Once you discovered what triggers such feelings you work to positively reinforce thoughts that are more productive.  It is strictly a top down model that says what you believe/think will affect your will or actions, and thus result in good feelings.  So if we could all just believe X, our life, will and emotions will naturally come into alignment.  So you see how the system works; you have bad upbringing in life, you develop wrong thinking (automatic thoughts or silent assumptions), wrong thinking filters through into wrong living and thus depression, guilt, anxiety and so on result. Resolution comes in identifying just what triggers your wrong automatic thoughts and beginning to then reprogram those with positive/productive ones. 

This is drastically different from Freud who was pessimistic about life and people, and would only echo back to a patient the insights they talked about while lying on a couch for years. Burns gives you very immediate hands on things to do, think about and work on.  It is the turning your frown upside-down and your scars into stars thinking. Your past may have conditioned you to have automatic thoughts about people and how the world works, but if those are causing you pain and discomfort then they are distortions, that you can work on.  It is an action oriented counseling, rather than the Freudian insight oriented model. 

Now, don’t begin to think this is all good and healthy for Christians, because it’s not. Burns despised Freud for his pessimism, and yet lumps Christians into the same boat because teaching people they are sinners is just as bad and just as negative.  Burns has no concern for righteousness or holiness, or moral standards; because they set standards that result in holding people back from their potential to be happy. Many Christians have gone the way of Burns in their teaching. As of late there is the self proclaimed motivational speaker Joel Osteen who really wants you to feel good about yourself and God, and gives you a ton of mini 3 – 7 step things to work on so you can stay happy and motivated to have “your best life now.” Former pastor Robert Schuller sought to comfort people by redefining sin to be that which robs you of self-esteem.  It is dangerous to take the Burns model of psychology and just slap verses on it (which in my opinion is what these and other Christian integrationist are doing with Burns and others). For all the promoting of self-help it’s a wonder that there are more and more books available on it, and more and more people with low self-esteem. But this is the only possible result because one positive aphorism is only going to last so long, before you need another, or to reassess yourself again and again, until mental or spiritual burnout. 

Christians may believe that good theology affects good practices and thus good feelings, and yet scripture more broadly also tells us that feelings can impact thought and actions, and actions can impact what we believe.  So the top down model is only part of the picture, which Burns is comfortable excluding the rest. Christians can pull the assessments from Burns and still identify what triggers things like anger, guilt and such, yet the solution is not to lower our standards or tamper with our view of others just to avoid the symptom.  The real answer is to subordinate our triggers and life to God.  We should not post positive notes or even verses up on the mirror just because they lift us up, if we are using them for our own self interest (thinking of the prayer of Jabez mini movement). Self and our idols must go and God must be lifted up for who He is not just for what He can give us. Christian systematic theology has all the tools we need nicely outlined in the neat clean drawers of a tool chest, but we really need to break those tools out and see how they work, and be practical once again. 

I’ll outline Alfred Adler next, then host some eclectic psychologist like Larry Crab, and others, give what I believe is a Christian Counseling model. After each model is presented I want to get into some comparative cases taking someone with maybe depression and show how each model would approach the person and seek to help them. 

Christianity and the Psychology of David Burns.


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