A friend and I are having on online discussion that is getting very interesting. I’m sure we are way late to this debate, but it’s just not something I’ve given this much thought to before, and so I am interested in opening this can of worms here to see what others think.
My friend posted a great piece on the growth of psychotherapy in churches and parachurch organizations. I agreed with almost everything she said (including the parallel she was making to the fields–plural!–of interior decorating and interior design). You can read her post, my (lengthy) comment–and her response–on her blog HERE.
After her response to my comment, the question for today is, is there no usefulness at all in studying (and sometimes applying) the findings of experts and writers in psychology and human behavior, if they aren’t starting with a biblical view of man?
I wholeheartedly agree that any solution to sinful behavior that does not go to the root (sin) is ultimately going to be worthless. Changing sinful behavior from the outside may help a little, for a little while, but the benefit will quickly disappear because the heart has not changed. So, for example, if a couple habitually lets their conflicts escalate into ugly ad hominem attacks, they need something more than re-training in communication (though I think that might be useful at some juncture too, a point on which some might disagree with me).
What’s at issue in our current debate is behaviorism. Is there any usefulness in, say, a B.F. Skinner-type method of behavior change? This question is important to me, having been raised by a dad with a D.Ed. in special education who used Skinner’s methods (and their corollaries) on me all the time, and having consciously used these methods in raising my own three boys. A “specify, praise, and ignore” plaque hung on my dad’s office wall, and I chanted these words many a time when the guys were pushing ALL my “scream!” buttons. (Don’t worry; old-fashioned punishment had its usefulness too…).
So, given that Skinner (as my friend reminded me) was certainly not a believer, and developed his theories based on animal behavior extrapolated to human behavior (a big leap), do we therefore discard his findings as useless? Do I need to completely rethink how I have always approached behavior management? Is behavior management perhaps even countermanded by scripture?
Here are my friend’s good questions:
1) Is behavior modification Biblical? Or is it simply a means by which we as humans come to believe we have the ability to move toward Christ (likeness)?
2) (based on some illustrations I had used) Is smoking or weight loss a behavior problem or a sin problem? Is anger? Does the Bible have anything to say about how children speak? You have separated certain behaviors from those of the heart, “where all our actions and words come from.” Does the Bible differentiate between actions of the flesh and actions of the heart?
Here then is my response:
I have been thinking a lot about this recently, partly because of the reading that’s been coming my way for various reasons. We looked at James 3, for example, in Sunday School this week, and a couple pages by Jay Adams (Christian Counselor’s Commentary) on that passage. (I love Adams’ approach, by the way, and find him trustworthy.) James states that it is impossible to tame the tongue (“…no one can tame the tongue” vs. 8), but of course the Bible commands that we have to do it, for all kinds of good reasons. Since it is humanly impossible, as the tongue expresses the evil that is in our hearts (Matt. 12:34)–and there will always be some evil in our hearts this side of heaven–then our only hope for real, lasting outward (behavior) change is dependence on God, who alone can make an inward (heart) change. All that, I think, we would agree on.
What I’m wondering, however, is why we’re so quick to discount the usefulness of behavior management.
Adams himself, in his counselor’s commentary on James, at one point says, “Don’t allow for ungodly speech to be used without reprimand during the counseling hour” (p. 191). So I’m wondering, what does the reprimand accomplish? Several things. One, it makes clear to the counselee what God’s standards for speech are, and that the counselor expects the standards to be upheld in his office. Two, it may very well diminish that unwanted behavior, at least while the counselee is in the office. Now, I know Adams does not believe that the diminishment of the ungodly talk has solved the counselee’s heart problems. But he has used a form of behavior modification nonetheless. Why?
I think it’s because we all realize that until a heart is perfected by the Spirit of God in us, we must find ways to mold our behavior–and the behavior of those for whom we are responsible–toward what it will look like naturally when our sinful natures have finally been completely renewed or transformed (Col. 3:10).
For example, I don’t think for one minute that my insistence that a child use appropriate tone and words when he needs something will solve the problem of his core selfishness and demandingness. God will (by grace) accomplish that over time. But I think it’s important that I insist he express his needs appropriately anyway, and help him to form that habit until it is inwardly motivated.
So, to answer your question #1: No, I don’t think behavior modification necessarily makes us believe we have the ability to move toward Christ, but I agree that there is a danger that we will think that. We must never trust in behavior change and miss the need for heart change. We cannot make ourselves Christlike merely by force of human will. And like you, I am wary of Christian self-help books that seem to suggest that we can.
As for #2, that’s a complicated question. I really don’t think that all the unwanted behaviors that we target come from sin. For example, a person may overeat or eat the wrong things for any number of reasons (emotional/spiritual, chemical, or simply bad eating habits learned from childhood). Not all overeaters are looking to food to fill an emotional need. Of course, if we discover that that is in fact what’s going on, we can and should attack that root as the sin problem it is: seeking to find comfort and security from the wrong place. (We might also suggest a structured diet, trusting that as the core problems are addressed in counseling, the learned behaviors of eating better will become less imposed and more inwardly motivated.)
Then again, someone might just need to have some blood tests done. And sometimes, if a person just stops bringing chips into the house and trains himself to reach for carrot sticks instead, the solution is just that easy. It happens. I used to chew on my hair when I was little, for some reason. My mom expressed her dismay and reminded me when I was doing it until I just stopped doing it.
But back to the parenting (“ask nicely”) example: a godly parent prays that God would transform the little sinner’s heart into a less blatantly selfish, childish one; in the meantime, this child MUST ask nicely, as he grows into his more mature self. And so, when he forgets and acts demanding and presumptuous (orders mom around rather than ask nicely and say “please”), he does not get the juice or a smile from mom. But when he does remember to ask nicely and say the “magic word,” voila: juice, and a smiling mom! This IS behavior modification. It may even be done unconsciously by mom, but she’s doing it.
Even when you turn these encounters into teachable moments of shepherding a child’s heart (as you should do, sometimes), and you sit the child down and explain why “please” is important, and that our hearts are demanding and selfish, and that asking something of others should be done humbly, which is what “please” means–that little talk itself just might be behavior modification as well, if the child would rather be playing with his truck during that time instead of listening to mom talk about our hearts. (I have to give credit to my son Andrew for that idea; we talked about this over the weekend.) In other words, the little instructive talk can itself feel like (and operate as) punishment (classic Punishment I, in Skinner’s terminology: an adverse stimulus that follows the targeted behavior).
All that to say that despite the truly heinous assumptions Skinner and others made about where man comes from and about man’s similarities to animals, and despite the great dangerous leaps they made about the usefulness and consequences of their methods, some of the human behavior phenomena they observed and described did help me understand what moms do perhaps naturally, and may even have helped me do it more effectively. By those simple methods (and others, of course), I helped shape my children’s behavior temporarily until such “training wheels” were no longer necessary, as they grew (by grace, by the Spirit) to be more inwardly motivated to be kind, respectful, gentle, etc. Once they desired to show these traits, they already knew the forms of them, having been in the habit for years.
As for the grown up me, knowing that my heart will always prompt me to say unkind things, I shall continue to attempt to bite my tongue (i.e. modify my own behavior from the outside, “put on” better behaviors, “keep my tongue from evil” even when it’s present in my heart) when my sinful nature would have me spew. I might even ask close friends to chastise me when they catch me speaking harshly, as a sort of correction for that behavior. Most importantly, I hope I will remember to talk to the Father about that poisonous well in my heart, and ask him to get rid of it.
I will also continue to keep the ice cream in the OUTside freezer, since walking out there through the heat and cobwebs of the garage makes getting to it just a little bit punishing, and might be enough (sometimes) to make the reward of the ice cream not quite as rewarding.
Maybe someday I will have a heart that always desires what is kind and beneficial and healthy and moderate. But since that heart, that better self, is still in process of “being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:10), some temporary outward behavior modification will sometimes be in order.