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I’m doing a very brief talk this evening exploring the relationship between Christianity, Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This essay ‘unpacks’ the ideas I’ll speed through this evening. 

As regular readers will know (and might be getting bored of me repeating)  I suffered from a period of depression, social anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in my late teens and early 20s. These were brought on by a couple of bad LSD trips, which shook the foundations of my identity. I was terrified my emotional problems were chemical-neurological in origin, and therefore there was nothing I could do about it – I’d be permanently damaged for the rest of my life. I was also very ashamed at having messed myself up, so I tried to hide my wounds, and became more and more socially avoidant and distrustful of others. It felt like a personal version of the Fall, except I was hiding from other people rather than God!

I was saved via a near-death experience when I was 21. I fell off a mountain when I was skiing, broke my leg and knocked myself out, and when I came to, I saw a bright white light and felt filled with love and insight. I took four things from this unusual experience;

  • We are deeply loved by God.
  • There is something in us which cannot be harmed or die.
  • My own thoughts were the cause of my suffering. In particular, I was overly-dependent on others’ approval.
  • We should trust in the eternal Kingdom within us rather than desperately needing others’ fleeting approval

This experience radically transformed and healed me. For several weeks, I felt restored to myself, like a child welcomed home after being lost in the darkness. However, the old bad habits of thinking and feeling came back. So I went and did a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), because I thought it would help me habituate these insights, and to some extent it did.

CBT and the importance of beliefs

CBT is a very successful therapy for emotional problems, which you can now get free on the NHS in IAPT centres. It’s based on the idea that what makes us suffer is often our own thoughts and beliefs. The founders of CBT took this idea from Stoic philosophy, although it’s also at the centre of Christianity (and Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and other wisdom traditions).

the-power-of-wordsBoth Stoicism and Christianity tell us that words, beliefs and ideas are extremely powerful – they can either kill us or heal us. We are not simply neuro-chemical machines. We have been given free will and the capacity for reason and wisdom. We construct our experience of the world through our beliefs. Our emotions are connected to our beliefs, and the importance and value we assign to things.

Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher of the first century AD, said: ‘Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinion about events.’ Martin Luther likewise said: ‘a thing has only such meaning and value for a man as he assigns to it in his thought’.

Mind-forged manacles

Thinking unwisely can make us suffer and even kill us. We often cause ourselves suffering by misreading the world, and putting too much emphasis on the wrong things. As the poet William Blake put it, we construct ‘mind-forged manacles’ for ourselves. Luckily we can also de-construct these manacles using God’s wisdom and love.

CBT has identified certain ways that people with depression or anxiety typically misread reality. There’s a longer list here, but some of these ‘cognitive biases’ include:

– The Mind-Reader’s Bias: ‘I just know that person hates me’

– The Fortune-Teller Bias: ‘I’m never going to get married’

– Catastrophizing / generalizing: ‘This party has been a complete disaster’

– Maximizing the blessings in others’ life / minimizing the blessings in yours: ‘Everyone else at church have such successful and organized lives, it’s only me who is really struggling’

– Labeling: ‘I’m terrible at relating to others’

What these biases have in common is they are examples of over-confident, over-dogmatic thinking. Our minds are jumping to conclusions, and insisting that these negative automatic thoughts are definitely and absolutely true. We need to accept the limit of our wisdom – is it possible we don’t know everything, that we can’t read minds or predict the future?

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

(Job 38, 4: 11)

Focus on what we can control and leave the rest to God / the Logos / the Cosmos

We should focus on what we can control, and trust in God regarding what is beyond our control. Our emotional problems often come from obsessing over external things – health, beauty, money, popularity, love – which are to some extent beyond our control. We also sometimes fail to take responsibility for what is in our control – our own thoughts and beliefs.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

(Serenity Prayer, from the theologian Roland Niebuhr)

This idea is very strong in both Christianity and Stoic philosophy. Epictetus said the key to resilience is knowing the difference between what you control and what you don’t. ‘Focus on what you control and leave the rest to God’, says Epicteus. We can’t expect to control the universe, to ‘give orders to the morning’, as God says to Job.

Only God / Wisdom is eternal. Everything else passes away.

Therefore, we shouldn’t tie our self-worth too strongly to anything external (approval, fame, money, beauty, power), and make a false idol of it, because everything external is subject to change.

A medieval image of the Wheel of Fortune – everything changes except God

‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal’(Matthew 6: 19). Wisdom ‘is a treasure unto men that never faileth’ (Book of Solomon 7:14). We should ‘seek her as silver and search for her as hidden treasure’ (Proverbs 2: 4).

Our problems often come about because we feel empty or broken within, so we look to externals for good feelings or for approval. We have forgotten who we are – we’re like kings and queens in exile, begging for money when we have a fortune within us.

We built this house on rock (and roll)

It’s unwise to rely too much on the conditional approval of other people (particularly strangers) compared to the unconditional love of God. Public approval is fickle and often wrong (look how many saints and prophets ended up sentenced to death). Fame is fleeting: ‘our name shall be forgotten in time, and no man shall have our works in remembrance’ (Book of Solomon 2: 4). We should be careful we’re not doing good just to look good to others (Matthew 6:2).

Build your house on rock, not on sand. Trust in the kingdom of heaven, within, rather than building your house on the ever-changing approval of other people.

Wisdom gets stronger through practice

We’re forgetful beings who tend to fall asleep, like the disciples in Gethsemane. That’s why we need to be watchful (gregorios in Greek). There’s a whole tradition of exercises to train ourselves in watchfulness in Orthodox Christianity.

Because we’re forgetful, it helps to repeat and go over certain ideas again and again, to train our minds to remember. Often, ancient wisdom is compacted into brief and easy to remember insights, proverbs, parables: ‘My son, keep my words…write them upon the tablet of thine heart’. (Proverbs 7: 3)

When we repeat an idea or a practice we turn it into a habit and a rule of life.  This idea is very important to the monastic life (they even wear habits!)

Monasticism is all about getting into good habits

We can arm ourselves against our old bad habits with good ideas, good proverbs, good arguments. ‘arm yourself with the same attitude as Christ’ (1 Peter 4: 1), ‘Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist’ (Ephesians 6: 14), Martin Luther: ‘Let us equip ourselves against the accusations of Satan with this and similar passages of Holy Scripture.’

Wisdom can’t just be theoretical, we need to practice in real-life situations: the Greeks called this askesis, which influenced the early Christian idea of asceticism. Thomas a Kempis: ‘For what would it profit us to know the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?’

We get stronger through askesis or training – that’s partly why we do things like Lent, to develop our strength at resisting bad habits. The best way to strengthen habits is to practice them together and encourage each other. The emphasis on community and communal practice is one way Christianity is much stronger than Stoicism.

Hopefully, then, we can use wisdom to ‘learn contentment’ (Philippians 4: 11), although bad habits may never entirely go away and everyone has bad days – we always have a ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12: 7). Finally,

Some things that CBT / Stoicism misses out, but which Christianity (and to some extent Platonism) gets

– The importance of imagination to our psyches – music, stories, art, ritual – and how these can transform our beliefs and our emotions. Many Christian spiritual exercises use the imagination, eg St Loyola’s visualization exercises. Narrative plays a much stronger role in Christian wisdom and in Christians’ identity – although this can be dangerous too (‘I was lost, now I’m saved…so I mustn’t be depressed’).

In Christianity, God is not an abstract intellectual principle but a loving Father (this painting is The Prodigal Son by Charlie Mackesy)

– CBT, being secular and evidence-based, lacks the transformative faith in a loving God or the Kingdom of Heaven within. Why are we valuable and loveable? We just are, according to CBT. It also lacks the idea of divine forgiveness. Guilt is simply ‘irrational’. In that sense, it can be less powerfully transformative than Christianity.

– Plato and the Stoics did believe in God (or the Logos), but their Logos is a cold and impersonal intellectual energy. In Christianity, God suffers too – Jesus is the Logos made flesh. God is not some distant principle – he is a Father who runs to meet us. There is more emphasis on God helping us rather than us helping ourselves.

– CBT encourages evidence-based rational thinking. But what about revelations, dreams, words of prophecy? Even Socrates had an ‘inner voice’ that he took to be God…When should we trust our intuition and when suspect it?

Wormwood: more of an annoying imp than an all-powerful Lord of Darkness

– Christianity suggests that the origin of many of our negative thoughts is the Devil. I’m not sure if this is always a helpful idea for people suffering from emotional disorders. Sometimes the best way to get a negative intrusive thought to go away is to accept it and recognize that it’s just a thought, with no substance or power to hurt you, if you don’t let it. The ‘Devil’ only has the power you give him – more of an annoying junior devil (let’s call him Wormwood) than an all-powerful evil angel. The less you listen to him, the less power he has.

– A big difference between Stoicism and Christianity, as Timothy Keller has explored (in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering) is that Stoicism is about conquering hope and fear. Christianity is much more about hope – hope that we can pray to God and he will answer our prayers; hope that in the afterlife we will go to heaven with all our loved ones for eternity. Stoics would say they do the right thing for the sake of it, not in expectation of any eternal reward.

– Finally, a major difference between Judeo-Christianity and Greek philosophy is the former’s emphasis on humility and dying to the self. Although there is a lot in Greek philosophy about not trusting in externals, I don’t think there is nearly as much about this idea of dying to the self to be re-born in God – although that idea was strong in the Greek mystery cult of Eleusis and in Sophocles’ tragedy. There is also much more of a contemplative tradition of emptying the mind of thought in Christianity (and Buddhism).

Those are some brief thoughts – what have I got wrong or left out?  Perhaps there is a risk of turning Christianity into ‘therapeutic deism‘, where it becomes all about me and my personal well-being. At the same time, there is a deep tradition in the Bible of respecting and venerating wisdom, and recognizing that wisdom brings healing. The Logos, the Word, heals and gives life. 

But why did we become mentally ill?  We can’t always know why mental illness happened to us – there is probably a genetic component, it’s something weaved into the story of our family, perhaps for generations. But we can learn from our struggles and others can benefit from our experience. That’s something we can try to leave behind to those who come after us. Archbishop Justin Welby said last week: ‘Dealing with mental illness is a heroic struggle, and that makes one of my eldest daughters one of my heroes’. Carl Jung and Henri Nouwen both talked about the ‘wounded healer’ – sometimes in the darkness we can find the treasure, the gift, which can help to heal others as well.

Suggested further reading (for me!): Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society.