The way we are—psychology and Genesis
Psychology, like the physical sciences, has turned to any source other than the Bible for the explanation of its findings. But, through not acknowledging God as Creator and Saviour, psychology is very largely without the ability to bring about meaningful change in people’s lives. The Bible has much to say about man, his problems, and the solution to his problems.
To gain an understanding of these issues, and to be able to apply God’s truth in life-changing ways, we need to begin with the book of ‘beginnings’—Genesis. Genesis explains that there is an absolute God, that reality consists of spiritual as well as physical entities, that man was created with certain God-like characteristics, and that man’s problems are a direct result of sin, that is, his rebellion against God. Genesis also gives the background to our beliefs regarding the solution to man’s problems through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
The nature of man
Genesis 1:26 tells us that man was made ‘in the image of God’. It doesn’t elaborate on what this means, but, by getting to know God, we can begin to understand what it is to be made in His image. Our God-like characteristics have been marred by the effect of sin in the world. By disobeying God, man has degraded himself so that he no longer reflects the true image of God.
However, that image was not destroyed, and man still shares with God the characteristics with which he was created, regardless of how corruptly they are expressed. The fundamental God-like quality we have is an immortal spirit.1 God is spirit and so are we, although our spirits are housed in physical bodies and we are not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent as God is. Being spiritual creatures sets us apart from the animals and gives us the ability and desire to relate to God.
God has also given us personality,2 creativity, and the ability to communicate.3 Our personality, like our spirit, is bound to a physical body through which it expresses itself, and our creativity and communication skills are limited by the agility of our bodies and minds.
God is love4 and perfect in holiness5 and morality.2 Man was given the ability to love and came to know right from wrong although, until the Fall, he had no experience of evil or any concept of its effects. We were designed to glorify God and to be set apart totally for Him. Sin changed that until, through Christ, we are renewed in righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24).
Man was also given freedom in the sense that our actions and decisions are the product of our will, or inner processes, rather than only the product of external control or instinct.6 In some sense animals also possess the ability to communicate, create, show affection, express personality, and act freely, but only man can reason, express original thought, and love in an unconditional and unconditioned way.
A further aspect of man’s God-image is described in Genesis 1:28-29. Man was given authority over all living creatures and was to fill and subdue the earth. God has absolute control, and man, in His image, is to exercise delegated control over his environment.
After the Fall, however, man lost his authority and became subject to Satan, so that now we see people who appear to be at the mercy of their environment.7 They are compulsive eaters, drinkers, workers, worriers, and so on. Their behaviour is governed by their fears of such things as the unknown, creepy crawlies, germs, death, and other people. Their relationships are kept superficial and unsatisfying by their inability to express their thoughts and feelings, to give and receive love, and to deal with their guilt.
Since man’s Fall, it is not possible to be completely free of problems, even when our guilt has been dealt with at the Cross. Paul, one of the most godly of men, had an affliction that God did not heal (2 Corinthians 12:9). Another Bible hero, Moses, battled with feelings of inadequacy (Exodus chapters 3 and 4). Elijah suffered a bout of depression (1 Kings 19:3-4), and Peter’s impulsive personality got him into trouble on several occasions (Matthew 14:28-31; 26:33-35; Mark 8:27-33).
While we are living in a sinful world we are all subject to degeneration. The Bible gives principles, though, which enable us to avoid many preventable illnesses, to live wholesome lifestyles, and to be victorious in our problems because God has promised, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Attitudes and behaviour
Having given the account of creation and the entrance of sin into the world, Genesis goes on to trace the history of some of our earliest ancestors. Some of them give us examples of healthy spiritual, physical, and psychological principles; others illustrate the human problems which result from our sinful nature. For example, Adam and Eve immediately blamed someone else for the rebellious choice which they had each made (Genesis 3:12-13).
One of the first things we see is that, even though man’s face-to-face relationship with God was destroyed, our need for a relationship with Him was not lost. Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve, sought to approach God by bringing offerings of their produce to Him (Genesis 4:3-4). However, since the Fall, man has wanted to approach God on man’s terms rather than on God’s (if he approaches God at all). So Cain’s offering of some of ‘the fruit of the ground’ was judged to be unacceptable, while Abel’s was respected by God (Genesis 4:2-5). Hebrews 11:4 says that Abel’s offering was ‘by faith’. As “faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17), it is possible that God told Abel (and Cain) what sort of offering He wanted (although God could have told them indirectly through Adam). What happened was then a matter of obedience or disobedience.
Cain’s reaction to God’s non-acceptance of his offering was anger. God then challenged him about his anger. Knowing himself to be impotent before God, Cain attacked and murdered Abel, whose behaviour had made the inadequacy of his own obvious.
Cain’s behaviour, emotions, and attitudes appear to be all closely linked. His behaviour towards God was casual, disobedient, irreverent, and unrepentant, because his attitude towards God was careless and self-centred. Had his attitude been more appropriate and his offering simply given in ignorance, Cain probably would not have reacted with such anger when God reproached him. But because of his attitude, Cain was unable to feel repentant and his attitude led to angry emotions and aggressive behaviour.
God’s response to Cain’s anger did not focus on his attitude, however. Rather, God asked Cain to recognize his angry feelings and then do the right thing regardless of those feelings (Genesis 4:6-7). Feelings are not the powerful, controlling force we sometimes believe them to be. Our behaviour is only caused by our emotions when we choose to let it be. When we deliberately behave contrary to our feelings, we are often surprised, later, to find that our emotions have changed. So God suggested to Cain that, if he took control of his behaviour, repentance and a change of attitude would be possible.
Unfortunately, Cain gave in to his emotions, murdered his brother, and so ended up deeper in sin and cursed by God (Genesis 4:8-16).
In Cain we see the effects of a wrong attitude towards God. In Noah, however, we see the way in which a right attitude contributes to good emotional health. Noah was a godly man and even when asked to do something as strange as to build an ark he “did everything just as God commanded him” (Genesis 6:22).
Most mentally healthy people feel at least some desire to be liked and to fit in with others. We might like to be individualistic, but we don’t like to be considered too strange. Noah was told that an unprecedented event was going to occur—a flood to destroy all life on earth—and to build a huge ark in which only he, his family, and representatives of every kind of bird and land animal would be saved. Hardly a project he could hide in his garage!
Coping with trauma
Not only did Noah and his family have to cope with being thought very strange—and we can assume that their neighbours did think they were strange because these neighbours had no interest in God at all—but Noah and his family then had to cope with the trauma of the deaths of the rest of their relatives, their friends, and all the other animals. Only total faith in God, and an attitude of obedience, could have seen Noah and his family through such an experience without suffering serious emotional problems (Genesis 6:5—9:29).
Noah and Cain were created with personality, including needs, desires, and emotions. Through faith in God Noah found strength to cope and have peace with God. In contrast, Cain brought much suffering on himself, was alienated from his family, and rejected by God. Only through submission to the Creator can we control our emotions and be at peace with our personalities.
Good family relationships depend on honest, open communication and unconditional love and acceptance. Man was created both with communication skills and the ability to love in this way, but self-interest brings deceit and favouritism into family relationships, causing much sadness and hardship.
Isaac and Rebekah’s home was not an especially happy one. Their two sons were very different in nature. While Isaac favoured Esau, the elder, Rebekah favoured Jacob. Although they were twins, Esau was born first and therefore held a position of greater importance in the family than Jacob. Rebekah would not accept this situation, so she and Jacob tricked Isaac into giving Jacob the traditional blessing reserved for the older brother. Jacob’s nature easily led him into deceit, and Esau’s had already caused him to treat his position in the family as of no importance by selling his birthright to Jacob for a pot of stew.
All of this resulted in Jacob’s fleeing for his life from Esau. He never saw his mother again, as reconciliation with Esau was not achieved for 20 years. During this time, Jacob was himself deceived by his uncle (Genesis chapters 25-31).
By each favouring a different son, Isaac and Rebekah failed to foster good family relationships. However, after seeing the suffering caused by deceit and favouritism, Jacob, it might have been hoped, would have tried to change his pattern of communication when he married and had children of his own. Instead we see the first clear indication that the patterns learnt in childhood are perpetuated in subsequent generations.
Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel, was unable to have children for many years. Finally, she had Joseph and then Benjamin. Jacob had 10 other sons, but he favoured Joseph, with the result that the older 10 were extremely jealous, and Joseph was rather insensitive of his brothers’ feelings and needs. By the time Joseph was in his late teens, his brothers were angry enough to talk of killing him and then instead to sell him to some passing slave-traders. God was with Joseph, however, and He used this and many other frightening and difficult experiences to mould Joseph into a godly, humble, and forgiving man (Genesis chapters 29-37).
Guilt and forgiveness
Getting rid of Joseph was not the answer to his brothers’ problems. Real and lasting healing after hurtful experiences can only come when the situation is faced up to and the issues involved are dealt with. The brothers had never admitted their action. They led Jacob to believe that Joseph had been killed by wild animals. Jacob was inconsolable in his grief. He refused to be comforted by his other children, reinforcing that Joseph was the favourite and his disappearance was not going to alter that.
Twenty years later, Joseph was still a problem for his brothers. When things did not go right for them, their guilty consciences reminded them of their previous hateful action. By this time, Joseph had become governor of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, and was in charge of distributing food supplies when the whole nation suffered a severe, seven-year famine. Little food was available in Canaan, so Jacob sent his 10 older sons to buy food from Egypt.
Joseph recognized his brothers, and accused them of being spies. Perhaps to test their characters, and that of Jacob, Joseph demanded that Benjamin be brought to see him as proof of their innocence. As security, Simeon was kept in custody until the other brothers returned with Benjamin. Even though the brothers had not recognized Joseph, this calamity served to remind them of their guilt with respect to their treatment of Joseph. Reconciliation was still a long way off, but the process was able to begin once their guilt had been acknowledged.
When they arrived home, Jacob was deeply grieved. The situation was then ignored until hunger forced the family to consider another trip to Egypt. Of course that would be pointless without Benjamin and, finally, Jacob saw that events were out of his control. At last he was able to leave the situation in God’s control, and he declared, “If I am bereaved, I am bereaved” (Genesis 43:14).
Joseph’s shock revelation of his identity sparked fear in the guilt-ridden brothers. They deserved punishment, but Joseph was able to forgive because he knew that God had been guiding his life and that God had used all the circumstances to achieve His own purposes and the saving alive of many people (Genesis 45:5-8; 50:20).
On the other hand, the brothers found it difficult to accept Joseph’s forgiveness. Even after Jacob’s death they were still afraid of him. Once again they used deception to try to manipulate Joseph into forgiving them. The brothers told Joseph that Jacob had left instructions for Joseph to forgive his brothers. But their action was unnecessary. It had no effect on Joseph’s behaviour because he had forgiven them long before. Joseph was at peace with himself, his situation, and with God, and so he could forgive and accept his brothers unreservedly.
The brothers, however, were unwilling to see themselves as less honourable than Joseph even then. To accept his forgiveness as it was, freely given, would have been to see themselves as the sheaves of wheat and the stars bowing down to Joseph, the object of their hate, as he had foretold they would at some time do, while still living with his family in Canaan.
Physically they had bowed to Joseph when they came to buy food (Genesis 42:6). In spirit, however, they would bow only when they saw themselves as wrongdoers and Joseph, the wronged, as strong enough to forgive them without any deserving or manipulation on their part (Genesis 50:15-21).
It is apparent from this brief look at some of the major events recorded in Genesis that sin has wreaked havoc in every area of our lives. Our attitudes towards God, others, and ourselves are marred by self-interest so that our relationships with God, family and friends cannot be totally satisfactory or fulfilling. People are continually trying to improve and heal themselves by seeking the services of doctors, psychologists, gurus, and so on. Even though most people will not acknowledge it, they are trying to become what man was created to be—a reflection of God’s image.
There is only one way to find emotional health and satisfying relationships and only one way that deep, lasting change can occur in a person’s life.
When we receive Christ Jesus the Lord we become new creatures (Colossians 2:6; 3:10; 2 Corinthians 4:16; 5:17). The Holy Spirit then works in our lives to make us more and more like Christ (Romans 8:29), who is the image of God (Colossians 1:15). This process continues throughout our Christian life; one day it will be complete, and God’s plan will have been fulfilled (1 John 3:2).
References and notes
- Rendle-Short, J., Man: Ape or Image, Creation Science Publishing, 1981, p. 29. Return to text.
- Cosgrove, M.P., Psychology Gone Awry, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1982, p. 128. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, pp. 23–38. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 28. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 29. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, pp. 30–32. Return to text.
- Adams, J.E., Competent to Counsel, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., New Jersey, 1970, p. 128. Return to text.