The following is the first part in a two-part installment. The second part can be found here.
Author Note: The authors of this article take the position that the Judeo-Christian heritage is dominated by the teachings of Jesus. Consequently, all Christian belief systems reflect similar ideas about the nature of reality. This Christian philosophy of life shapes attitudes that believers have about themselves, their relationship with others, and appropriate responses to crises and adversity. By analyzing the teachings of Jesus, seven main themes emerged. The authors are able to show that all of these themes are reflected in modern-day systemic therapies. The authors believe that these themes may be related to mental and physical health advantages that believers have over non-believers.
This article starts with the premise that that the contributions of Jesus, whom his followers call the “Christ”, to the quality of living have rarely been raised outside of organized religion. For two thousand years, Biblical scholars have borne witness to the transcendental nature of Jesus’ life and His significance for salvation and eternal life. Aside from the claims of Christian theology and teachings concerning the salvation of humankind, little else has written about his contribution of Jesus’ teachings to improving the quality of human relationships, self-improvement, or adjustments in day-to-day living.
This observation is noted at a time when researchers have demonstrated for the past three decades that numerous health advantages exist for persons with a strong religious faith. These researchers have included emotional and spiritual dimensions in their definition of health. This definition is based on the 1948 definition of health by the World Health Organizations (WHO).
In the past, the assumption was that health included the physical, mental, and social aspects and the absence of illnesses. Health is currently considered a dynamic process of acquiring high levels of wellness for each dimension of health, including physical, mental and social. A number of contemporary writers have suggested that the WHO definition of health should be altered to state that health is the ability to adapt to ever changing social, physical, and emotional circumstances. Some models of health have placed spirituality as an umbrella uniting other dimensions.
Historically, the major causes of morbidity and mortality resulted from infectious diseases. Today, for both adults and adolescents, a major shift has occurred in the causes of morbidity and mortality in that psychological factors, including social, environmental, and behavioral, have emerged as more influential. At the same time, researchers have found that religion provides a small but significant protective layer against illness and death.
Hundreds of research studies relating to physical health advantages of religious persons have been conducted in the past 30 years. The preponderance of this research occurred in the 1990s and early 2000s. For example, Oxman, Freeman, and Manheimer found that patients with strong religious faith undergoing open heart surgery had less risk of six-month mortality than less religious patients. In another 28-year study of mortality rates in California, researchers found that regular attendance at church service was correlated with lower levels of mortality. In a large national sample, frequent attendance at religious services was strongly related to reduce eight-year mortality risk.
In addition, Idler and Kasl found that community-dwelling seniors could delay their deaths until the conclusion of religious holidays. Koenig reviewed 19 studies on the relation between religion and spirituality and negative physical health and concluded that 12 of the studies found the expected inverse relation. Nine of the 13 studies with high quality methodology showed the expected relation. In an interesting finding related to race, a study showed that low incidences of hypertension were related to high involvement with religion and spirituality for white individuals, but not for black individuals.
Other serious physical health consideration, such as Alzheimer’s disease, the immune system, and cardiovascular disorders are less prevalent for individuals with religious and spiritual involvement. The preponderance of studies supports the view that religion and spirituality enhance cognitive functioning, which in turn strengthens a person’s immune system and acts as a buffer against stress-related illnesses. Research on diseases, such as cancer, have also found less occurrence and quicker recovery among persons with strong religious or spiritual involvement. These studies are significant since the researchers arrive at these positive dimensions of religion having controlled for social support, healthy lifestyle, and socio-demographic variables.
In the area of mental health, researchers have also found evidence that religious beliefs are associated with positive outcomes. According to Koenig, approximately 80% of the research on the relation between religion and spirituality and health is on the topic of mental health. Studies have concluded that Mexican-Americans who attend church frequently have lower rates of depression. Researchers have concluded that life satisfaction and happiness are linked to psychological well-being.
Researchers have shown that when persons have a strong belief in God, they tend to be in better health and recover from illness quicker. Rosmarin et al. studied 159 patients who were ill and also depressed. Using pre- and post-test evaluations, the researchers found that the greater their faith and belief in God, the better outcome in their illness. Although there were obvious implications for treatment based on these findings, the authors did not speculate about how to improve treatment through religious means.
Wink, Dillon, and Larsen conducted a longitudinal study to determine the long-term effects of religion on persons and their physical health. The study took place in San Francisco with subjects who were born in the 1960s and 70s. The investigators concluded that, over time, persons who are more religious tend to be less depressed regardless of their physical health. In other words, religion provided an alternate way to view their health issues that was more adaptive than persons without a religious belief system.
Levin reviewed research on mental health and religion and concluded that religion is a positive force in mental health. Religion tends to reduce depression and anxiety and increases a sense of well-being and life satisfaction. Levin postulated that religion is a preventative factor for mental illness by reducing the risk factors associated with poor coping and emotional problems. Overall, religion fosters a healthy response to negative or traumatic life events. Religious persons are better able to adjust to circumstances that are beyond their immediate control.
According to Behere, Das, Yadav, and Behere, religion is related to early life-styles because it prohibits, or discourages, engaging in behaviors that are known to increase probability of physical and psychological problems. For example, religion is highly correlated to increased social contact that tends to be supportive and helpful in times of physical and mental health. The benefits of religion go far beyond social support; when social support is controlled for in research, the correlation of religion to mental health is still found. In addition to social support, religion also reduces certain high-risk behaviors, such as sexual promiscuity, substance addiction, smoking, gambling and other behaviors that are linked to poor health outcomes.
In Koenig’s exhaustive review of the mental and physical health benefits of religion and spirituality, he concluded that the benefits are related to an increase in positive emotions and the reduction in anxiety and stress in coping with everyday circumstances. Koenig further proposed that the belief in transcendent forces increases one’s sense of control over negative events, in that one is not alone or abandoned in dealing with changing life events.
Thus, religion and spirituality provide a buffer against negative events. Religion and spirituality also provide for a system of rules and regulations that, when followed, act to reduce the risks of being overexposed to an assortment of negative risk factors. In addition, religion and spirituality tend to influence prosocial behavior in the form of social interactions that are altruistic and care-giving.
One of the strongest arguments for the scientific validation that religion is a positive force in one’s life is the application of brain imaging studies. Brain research has opened the door to study religion as a subject alongside other subjects, which sheds some of the reluctance to pursue religion as a scientific reality. Research on religion and neural activity has only scratched the surface to date, but the flood gates are primed to open based on interesting and provocative findings. The research has mainly focused on brain activity while a person is experiencing a religious activity, such as meditating.
While the religious practices studied so far regarding brain imaging have generally been limited to praying or meditation, it is still possible to clearly point to positive correlations to physical and mental health outcomes from engaging in religious practices. Newberg and d’Aquili were instrumental in initiating techniques for studying the relationship between brain imaging and religion, and found that specific cognitive systems are blocked during religious experiences giving way to a feeling of unity with others and a decrease in cognitive barriers.
Researchers have found a preponderance of evidence for the support of the association between religion and physical and psychological health; however, the nature of the relation has been mainly unexplored. Some researchers have speculated that the positive association between religion and wellness is due to certain bio-behavioral or psychological constructs that independently are recognized as promoting well-being.
The authors of this article propose a specific answer to the benefits of religion, and specifically Christianity. While there are pathways in all religions and spiritual expressions that have been found to share these benefits, this article is limited to how these benefits are transmitted within the Christian tradition. It assumes that the teachings of Jesus are basic to all Judeo-Christian belief systems and that all reflect similar ideas about the nature of life.
It is further assumed that these shared beliefs, based on the life and teachings of Jesus, form a basic philosophy of life for believers that shape their attitudes about themselves, their relationship with others, and appropriate responses to crises and adversity. In order to identify common beliefs implicit in sayings ascribe to Jesus in the Gospels, the authors have paid close attention to how the words of Jesus can be embedded messages about how to conduct one’s life. These sayings include parables ascribed to Jesus, His teachings to his disciples, and his interactions with religious leaders.
The method used to analyze the sayings of Jesus was adapted from the conceptual funnel model developed by Berthon, Nairn, and Money as a guide for conducting research on large and complex literature. The large end of the funnel represents the broad spectrum of knowledge and writings available about the teachings and life of Jesus. The small end of the funnel addresses the specific sayings that represent a number of themes that characterize Jesus’ message for daily living in response to life events.
The broad spectrum was accomplished by simply listing the red text verses depicting the sayings of Jesus in the New Testament. The sayings of Jesus in the New Testament were limited to the four gospels. A narrower focus was given in the next part of the process as specific sayings were grouped according in general themes. These groupings included Jesus’ view of the Kingdom of God, His identity as the Son of Man, His reinterpretation of scripture, His views on salvation, His death and resurrection, His second coming, the calling of the disciples, the ministry of healing and miracles, conflict with the Pharisees, friendship with sinners, and the commission to His followers to spread the gospel.
From this group of Jesus’ teachings and ministry, a final filter was added that ferreted out specific teachings that address emotional health. These teachings produced general psychological concepts that became the seven themes. While other themes emerge if one focuses on different sayings and teaching of Jesus, we believe that these seven themes form a basic philosophy of life for believers. Finally, these basic themes are addressed through the lens of psychological well-being.
The second part of this analysis required a similar funnel process for selecting psychotherapy models. The broad end of the funnel represented a wide range of accepted psychotherapy models. The funnel was narrowed by focusing on interpersonal relationship as a basic component of psychotherapy. Relationship models emerged at the core since Jesus’ ministry was about a relationship with God. The marriage and family therapy literature is predominately about repairing and improving intimate relationships.
The authors attempted to find connections between the seven themes and similar themes of psychological functioning in the marriage and family therapy literature. Our analysis of the marriage and family therapy literature was limited primarily to systemic theories, which for the past several decades, has been the dominant theory in marriage and family therapy. The authors limited their analysis of systemic therapies to the main founding theorists of strategic, symbolic-experiential, brief, and solution-focused therapies.
The dominant themes in Jesus’ teachings include: 1) how to influence systems and institutions; 2) maintaining a state of hope and taking a transcendent perspective about human worries; 3) using second-order thinking to solve problems; 4) developing social interest; 5) radical third-order change; 6) the blissful aspects of altruistic sacrifice; and 7) the courage to live. While other themes are present, those discussed here permeate the Synoptic Gospels. Below, the authors discuss the therapeutic significance of each of these themes.
A Lesson in How to Influence Systems and Individuals
German theologian Gerhard Lohfink maintains that Jesus had an extraordinary command of language and used language to challenge those in authority indirectly through parables. His words were meant to confront and challenge the very seat of societal power in ways that made it hard for reprisal. The parables had a double meaning in that they disturbed the powerful, but also spoke to the people in ways that they could reveal secrets to them.
Although there is acknowledgment of the significant role of religion in mental and psychological health, few writings in the marriage and family literature address the teachings of Jesus. The one exception was an essay by Jay Haley, the founder of strategic therapy. Haley observed that Jesus did not directly challenge the religious law of his day. Rather, he gave the law a new and different interpretation or revision. If Jesus had challenged the law directly, He would have been excluded from the religious/legal institutions of His contemporaries and would not have had the opportunity to influence the religious culture from within the system. He was able to influence more effectively by supporting the law, while challenging its interpretation.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; But whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 5:17-19).
According to Haley, Jesus called for conformity and change simultaneously. After stating that he came to fulfill rather than destroy the law, he proceeded to make major revisions of the law. He said in Matthew’s gospel:
You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘Whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council (Matt. 5:21-22).
Jesus defined anger as being criminal, emphasizing that humans are to be punished for their thoughts as well as for their deeds. This was a major revision of the law. In His continuing discourse, Jesus offered many other reinterpretations of the law dealing with: changes in the law of adultery to equate adulterous thoughts with the act of adultery; changes in the law of divorce; revision of the procedure for taking oaths; revision of the law of revenge; changes in the procedures for giving charity and the method of praying and fasting; attitudes toward wealth and passing judgment on other people (Matt. 5:23-7:29). In commenting on the above revisions, Haley observed that Jesus, after stating that He had not come to change the letter of the law, proceeded to reinterpret the law to the extent that His new revision bore little resemblance to the established law as it existed before he redesigned it.
Haley suggested that Jesus would have provoked extreme opposition if he had stated that He was doing away with the law. His statement that he did not want to do away with the law disarmed those who opposed Him while allowing Him to influence them through the interpretation process. Haley suggests that the reinterpretation process is a basic strategy for producing change. Because change is paradoxical, a therapist can influence the behavior of his or her clients more by reframing than by direct intervention. A strategic therapist, for example, takes the client’s personal “law” or “rule of life” as legitimate and proceeds to reframe or reinterpret it. This reinterpretation makes it impossible for the symptom to continue because it no longer makes sense.
Systemic therapies, including strategic, structural, brief therapy, solution-focused, the Milan group, and constructivism have espoused the importance of reframing symptoms for therapeutic value. For example, in strategic therapy, problems persist because they have no solutions. A redefining of the problem may be necessary in order to create solutions. For solution-focused therapy, a reframing of one’s behavior to identify exceptions to the problem rule is necessary for change. Reframing the problem in terms of other behaviors may exclude them from conscious awareness and be all that is necessary for significant change to occur.
We maintain that Christians in a Judeo-Christian heritage are constantly exposed to the concept of reframing through reading the Scriptures and participating in worship services. It can be further assumed that this exposure allows for thinking processes outside the expected ways to produce novelty and spontaneous responses. These responses could be related to making appropriate changes and adaptation to adversities and crises.
Thomas W. Roberts is a Professor Emeritus and former Chair of the Department of Child and Family Development, San Diego State University.
Delbert J. Hayden is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Counselor Education at Western Kentucky University.
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