Since the 1980s a form of psychotherapy know as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) has been used and promoted broadly, especially in and around Philadelphia where Aaron and Judith Beck have stimulated the growth of this therapy model. Central to the theory of CBT is that even healthy humans have negative “core beliefs” at work within their minds all the time. These beliefs usually go unnoticed, but they influence our feelings, thoughts and behaviors in significant ways. A CBT therapist would consider it their job to identify and dispel these negative core beliefs in psychotherapy.
For Christians who value their belief in Christ, the process of considering negative core beliefs about the self and others can be a daunting task. They have been told repeated by important people in their lives that God is love. But they may unwittingly struggle with negative core beliefs (i.e.‘I’m not good enough’).They may unconsciously and rigidly interpret other elements of the Gospel message to affirm this unconscious negative core belief. They have heard sermons about the depravity of humankind and our need for rescue from the anger of God which affirms a negative core belief like ‘I’m not good enough.’
While it is true that humans are rescued by Christ’s death and resurrection, it is not the intent of God that a core belief like this stay rooted in the unconscious of any believer. In the unconscious such thoughts remain powerful and unexamined, so intentional faith may not impact them. The challenge is in the paradox of faith itself. While we are loved and carry the Imago Dei, we are also broken and sinful. We do not see clearly (I Corinthians 13). In psychotherapy the work of the Holy Spirit is often to uproot our negative core beliefs that contradict the love of God.
But as soon as the freedom and abundant life Jesus promises breaks through and we see how we have been held in the grip of a misguided notion like ‘I’m not good enough’ we are also tempted to assess ourselves. ‘I am good enough’ we might be coached to repeat by a CBT therapist and we might do just that. But soon we may fall into despair again as our inability to relate to others as we wish we could surfaces and again we hear the whisper of this unconscious belief in our minds. The promises of love seem lost. We may get stuck in cycles of self and other-blame. We select scriptures to prove our unworthiness. “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect…” (Matthew 5:48) is often repeated to me by struggling clients in my therapy office.
Good therapy works to help clients identify their cycles of accommodation with the negative belief and we can contradict these consciously, but believers find new joy when the Holy Spirit sweeps into the depths of their minds and hearts and these tenacious beliefs are altered.