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Pain of Heart

July 7, 2012

In Chapter 2 of my book I discuss the problem of pain in terms of cognitive therapy and the ascetic tradition.  While there may be some outward similarities, there are also some really important differences.  Here’s an excerpt to clarify both:

“In terms of a diagnosis of the human condition, cognitive therapy locates the sources of human psychological dysfunction in (1) egocentric biases leading to inappropriate anger, envy, cravings, etc., and false beliefs, (2)underlying self-defeating beliefs that reinforce biases, and (3) attaching negative meaning to events.  These dysfunctional cognitive habits and reactions are seen as stemming from unfortunate conditioning and learning experiences, symbolic misinterpretations during childhood, and the lack of fit between evolutionary-driven reactions that had survival value in prehistoric times and contemporary conditions for which they are inappropriate.

Despite the etiological differences we have already considered, the cognitive therapeutic observations about psychological dysfunction are not inconsistent with what Christians see in the results of the fall and a state of sin:  namely, prideful selfishness, a swollen imagination, and a fear of death and corruption that warps human judgment.  The language differs, but the concepts certainly converge.  Interestingly enough, this aspect of cognitive therapy rests firmly on clinical observation, empiricism, rationalism, and atomism, philosophical scientific approaches that Christianity can accept with certain reservations about their scope.

The model behind cognitive therapy usually frames the prescription for the human predicament in terms of empirically measured symptom reduction, which means a decrease in discomfort and pain.”

This is where cognitive therapy and Christian asceticism as models for therapeutic healing diverge or at the very least one could say that cognitive therapy doesn’t go far enough.  For the Christian “does not view all pain as pathological.  There are instances in which pain of heart has a transfigurational potential that should not be avoided by analgesic means.  In the Christian understanding, healing and symptom reduction are no more synonymous than cure of an ailment and a painkiller masking that condition.”

For the Christian, symptomatic pain reduction is not the goal. The ultimate goal is nothing less than theosis or union with God.  In order to achieve this goal by the grace of God, a process of purification, which is indeed painful, must be embraced and endured.  In this context, pain of heart, which the Scripture refers to as a humble and contrite heart, is a clear sign that God is alive and working within the human heart to make it an acceptable dwelling place for His Spirit.  This pain of heart is most manifest in the repentant Christian’s daily struggle with the passions that manifest themselves in egotistical behavior and thought processes.  The ascetical praxis of the Fathers is offered to the struggler and pain of heart is a sign of this struggle.

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