Philippians 4: The Original Cognitive Therapy

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A good day

I discovered the book on the first Saturday in May several years ago. Derby Day for those of you familiar with horse racing. The giant of horse races runs on this spring day every year—the Kentucky Derby, AKA The Run For the Roses.

On this particular Derby Day the clouds had opened up and drenched our area with rain. With nothing in particular I had to do that afternoon, I decided to visit my local library before the big race. I began perusing the rows of wonderful books, finding myself in the self-help section of the nonfiction books.

That is where I found it—Feeling Good by Dr. David D. Burns. The title alone immediately drew me in. Who doesn’t want to feel good? Finding a cozy spot in the library I nestled in and began reading my new find.

I found the book so engaging that I checked it out from the library, later buying my own copy.

And that was my first real introduction to the basics of cognitive therapy.

 

Cognitive therapy? What’s that?

Merriam-Webster defines cognitive therapy as “psychotherapy especially for depression that emphasizes the substitution of desirable patterns of thinking for maladaptive or faulty ones.”

On its website, the Center for Cognitive Therapy describes the treatment in a way that’s easier to understand: “Cognitive Therapy is based on the premise that what we think affects our emotions, what we choose to do or avoid, and our physiological reactions…In fact, most situations remain neutral until we assign meaning based on how we interpret the situation.”

In a nutshell, Dr. Burns’ book describes how our feelings of depression are not actually rooted in reality, but rather in our perceptions of reality—false conclusions we make about ourselves and our circumstances.

 

OK—so how does it work?

Dr. Burns’ self-help approach to overcoming these feelings has several steps.

For example, if I’m feeling depressed and worthless because my boss passed me over for a promotion, the first step is to identify the Automatic Thought that is behind those feelings (Burns 29). In this case the thought might be something like, “I’ve missed out on another promotion. I’m worthless—I’ll never get ahead.”

Then I need to label the negative thought as one or more types of Cognitive Distortion—the illusion I have allowed myself to believe, which actually has no basis in reality. Dr. Burns lists 10 different Cognitive Distortions in his book (32). This thought of failure and worthlessness could be labeled as Overgeneralization. My mind took one setback and turned it into a pattern of lifetime defeat (Burns 33).

Once I have the identified and labeled the negative thought, I need to replace it with a Rational Response. I could say to myself something like, “That’s just one promotion. It’s not the end of the world. They’ll be other promotions to work for. Besides, I’m certainly not worthless.”

That’s how self-help cognitive therapy works. Dr. David Burns is a pretty smart guy for having figured all this out.

 

And God said, “Let there be cognitive therapy”

With all due respect to Dr. Burns, however, God is a whole lot smarter.

He drafted the blueprint for self-help cognitive therapy 2000 years ago in the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Here we will find God’s instructions to us—via the hand of Paul—for handling the depression, anxiety, and fear of everyday life.

Philippians 4:4 begins God’s plan for correcting our faulty thinking. The first bit of advice Paul writes is to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” If we cannot take joy in God—the Creator of the entire universe and the Savior of our souls—then nothing will help us.

In the following verse we’re told that God is near to us always (Phil. 4:5b); we’re to understand and take to heart that we’re not alone.

These two verses should form the bedrock of our self-help ritual.

 

Where the rubber meets the road

In Philippians 4:6 we find the beginning of the heart of cognitive therapy. “[D]o not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

God commands us to have no anxiety. None. Zilch. But how are we supposed to do this you might ask. After all, each of us is bombarded on a daily basis with the stresses and strains of life—there is no escaping it.

The first key is to trust God, letting Him know our requests through the triple weapons of prayer, supplication, and thanksgiving.

On her podcast, bible teacher Kay Arthur elaborates on the key differences between these three important concepts.

According to Ms. Arthur, the word translated as “prayer” in verse 6 means general prayer to God in the original Greek. She explains that we should first simply talk to God, focusing on who He is—the fact that He’s sovereign and omniscient, and that He’s the One who promises everything in our lives will work together for good if we’re a believer in Christ.

She continues by explaining that supplication means making a specific request for our present needs.  When we’re fearful or anxious about a situation, ask God for help with the situation—whatever it may be.

Finally, be thankful. Stop and realize that you have Jesus for this situation—therefore you have access to the Father and everything you need for this and all other stressful situations in life. Your life is in His hands.

Fear, worry, and anxiety are the result of wrong thinking contrary to God’s word. They are also key causes of depression. Just like Dr. Burns’ method to identify and label the Automatic Thought—prayer, supplication, and thanksgiving enable us to grab hold of our fears, worries, and anxieties and hand them over to God for Him to take care of.

 

Finish strong

Verse 8 of Philippians 4 is the lock-in (similar to a grind-in if you’ve been involved in Emotional Brain Training (EBT), a form of cognitive therapy), tying everything together by keeping us focused on the positive things in life. Paul tells us to keep our minds trained on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy.

God designed us, so He knows our minds cannot remain empty for long. It is imperative to put something in place of our worries, fears, and anxieties or else they will creep right back in.

That’s why we’re commanded to think about positive, uplifting things—the sunshine peeking out after a morning rain; a fresh blanket of new snow; a full moon on a cold, clear night; a baby’s innocent smile; or even lighter-than-normal traffic on your morning commute.

On a recent podcast concerning Philippians 4, Pastor J.P. Jones teaches that if we want the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, then we must be “peace makers, peace receivers, peace thinkers, and peace practicers.”

Philippians 4:8 represents a strong parallel to the final piece of Dr. Burns’ self-help cognitive therapy method. The only significant difference is the terminology. We’re labeling the negative Automatic Thought what it really is—fear, worry, and anxiety, and instead of substituting it with a Rational Response, we’re filling our minds with all the good, positive, uplifting things about the world we live in.

So we see that Dr. Burns was definitely onto something great when he wrote Feeling Good. Only God beat him to it by a couple thousand years.

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Work Cited

Burns, David D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Harper, 1999.

 

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