Christianity, Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

I’m doing a very brief talk this evening exploring the relationship between Christianity, Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This essay ‘unpacks’ the ideas I’ll speed through this evening. 

As regular readers will know (and might be getting bored of me repeating)  I suffered from a period of depression, social anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in my late teens and early 20s. These were brought on by a couple of bad LSD trips, which shook the foundations of my identity. I was terrified my emotional problems were chemical-neurological in origin, and therefore there was nothing I could do about it – I’d be permanently damaged for the rest of my life. I was also very ashamed at having messed myself up, so I tried to hide my wounds, and became more and more socially avoidant and distrustful of others. It felt like a personal version of the Fall, except I was hiding from other people rather than God!

I was saved via a near-death experience when I was 21. I fell off a mountain when I was skiing, broke my leg and knocked myself out, and when I came to, I saw a bright white light and felt filled with love and insight. I took four things from this unusual experience;

  • We are deeply loved by God.
  • There is something in us which cannot be harmed or die.
  • My own thoughts were the cause of my suffering. In particular, I was overly-dependent on others’ approval.
  • We should trust in the eternal Kingdom within us rather than desperately needing others’ fleeting approval

This experience radically transformed and healed me. For several weeks, I felt restored to myself, like a child welcomed home after being lost in the darkness. However, the old bad habits of thinking and feeling came back. So I went and did a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), because I thought it would help me habituate these insights, and to some extent it did.

CBT and the importance of beliefs

CBT is a very successful therapy for emotional problems, which you can now get free on the NHS in IAPT centres. It’s based on the idea that what makes us suffer is often our own thoughts and beliefs. The founders of CBT took this idea from Stoic philosophy, although it’s also at the centre of Christianity (and Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and other wisdom traditions).

the-power-of-wordsBoth Stoicism and Christianity tell us that words, beliefs and ideas are extremely powerful – they can either kill us or heal us. We are not simply neuro-chemical machines. We have been given free will and the capacity for reason and wisdom. We construct our experience of the world through our beliefs. Our emotions are connected to our beliefs, and the importance and value we assign to things.

Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher of the first century AD, said: ‘Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinion about events.’ Martin Luther likewise said: ‘a thing has only such meaning and value for a man as he assigns to it in his thought’.

Mind-forged manacles

Thinking unwisely can make us suffer and even kill us. We often cause ourselves suffering by misreading the world, and putting too much emphasis on the wrong things. As the poet William Blake put it, we construct ‘mind-forged manacles’ for ourselves. Luckily we can also de-construct these manacles using God’s wisdom and love.

CBT has identified certain ways that people with depression or anxiety typically misread reality. There’s a longer list here, but some of these ‘cognitive biases’ include:

– The Mind-Reader’s Bias: ‘I just know that person hates me’

– The Fortune-Teller Bias: ‘I’m never going to get married’

– Catastrophizing / generalizing: ‘This party has been a complete disaster’

– Maximizing the blessings in others’ life / minimizing the blessings in yours: ‘Everyone else at church have such successful and organized lives, it’s only me who is really struggling’

– Labeling: ‘I’m terrible at relating to others’

What these biases have in common is they are examples of over-confident, over-dogmatic thinking. Our minds are jumping to conclusions, and insisting that these negative automatic thoughts are definitely and absolutely true. We need to accept the limit of our wisdom – is it possible we don’t know everything, that we can’t read minds or predict the future?

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

(Job 38, 4: 11)

Focus on what we can control and leave the rest to God / the Logos / the Cosmos

We should focus on what we can control, and trust in God regarding what is beyond our control. Our emotional problems often come from obsessing over external things – health, beauty, money, popularity, love – which are to some extent beyond our control. We also sometimes fail to take responsibility for what is in our control – our own thoughts and beliefs.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

(Serenity Prayer, from the theologian Roland Niebuhr)

This idea is very strong in both Christianity and Stoic philosophy. Epictetus said the key to resilience is knowing the difference between what you control and what you don’t. ‘Focus on what you control and leave the rest to God’, says Epicteus. We can’t expect to control the universe, to ‘give orders to the morning’, as God says to Job.

Only God / Wisdom is eternal. Everything else passes away.

Therefore, we shouldn’t tie our self-worth too strongly to anything external (approval, fame, money, beauty, power), and make a false idol of it, because everything external is subject to change.

A medieval image of the Wheel of Fortune – everything changes except God

‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal’(Matthew 6: 19). Wisdom ‘is a treasure unto men that never faileth’ (Book of Solomon 7:14). We should ‘seek her as silver and search for her as hidden treasure’ (Proverbs 2: 4).

Our problems often come about because we feel empty or broken within, so we look to externals for good feelings or for approval. We have forgotten who we are – we’re like kings and queens in exile, begging for money when we have a fortune within us.


We built this house on rock (and roll)

It’s unwise to rely too much on the conditional approval of other people (particularly strangers) compared to the unconditional love of God. Public approval is fickle and often wrong (look how many saints and prophets ended up sentenced to death). Fame is fleeting: ‘our name shall be forgotten in time, and no man shall have our works in remembrance’ (Book of Solomon 2: 4). We should be careful we’re not doing good just to look good to others (Matthew 6:2).

Build your house on rock, not on sand. Trust in the kingdom of heaven, within, rather than building your house on the ever-changing approval of other people.

Wisdom gets stronger through practice

We’re forgetful beings who tend to fall asleep, like the disciples in Gethsemane. That’s why we need to be watchful (gregorios in Greek). There’s a whole tradition of exercises to train ourselves in watchfulness in Orthodox Christianity.

Because we’re forgetful, it helps to repeat and go over certain ideas again and again, to train our minds to remember. Often, ancient wisdom is compacted into brief and easy to remember insights, proverbs, parables: ‘My son, keep my words…write them upon the tablet of thine heart’. (Proverbs 7: 3)

When we repeat an idea or a practice we turn it into a habit and a rule of life.  This idea is very important to the monastic life (they even wear habits!)

Monasticism is all about getting into good habits

We can arm ourselves against our old bad habits with good ideas, good proverbs, good arguments. ‘arm yourself with the same attitude as Christ’ (1 Peter 4: 1), ‘Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist’ (Ephesians 6: 14), Martin Luther: ‘Let us equip ourselves against the accusations of Satan with this and similar passages of Holy Scripture.’

Wisdom can’t just be theoretical, we need to practice in real-life situations: the Greeks called this askesis, which influenced the early Christian idea of asceticism. Thomas a Kempis: ‘For what would it profit us to know the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?’

We get stronger through askesis or training – that’s partly why we do things like Lent, to develop our strength at resisting bad habits. The best way to strengthen habits is to practice them together and encourage each other. The emphasis on community and communal practice is one way Christianity is much stronger than Stoicism.

Hopefully, then, we can use wisdom to ‘learn contentment’ (Philippians 4: 11), although bad habits may never entirely go away and everyone has bad days – we always have a ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12: 7). Finally,

Some things that CBT / Stoicism misses out, but which Christianity (and to some extent Platonism) gets

– The importance of imagination to our psyches – music, stories, art, ritual – and how these can transform our beliefs and our emotions. Many Christian spiritual exercises use the imagination, eg St Loyola’s visualization exercises. Narrative plays a much stronger role in Christian wisdom and in Christians’ identity – although this can be dangerous too (‘I was lost, now I’m saved…so I mustn’t be depressed’).

In Christianity, God is not an abstract intellectual principle but a loving Father (this painting is The Prodigal Son by Charlie Mackesy)

– CBT, being secular and evidence-based, lacks the transformative faith in a loving God or the Kingdom of Heaven within. Why are we valuable and loveable? We just are, according to CBT. It also lacks the idea of divine forgiveness. Guilt is simply ‘irrational’. In that sense, it can be less powerfully transformative than Christianity.

– Plato and the Stoics did believe in God (or the Logos), but their Logos is a cold and impersonal intellectual energy. In Christianity, God suffers too – Jesus is the Logos made flesh. God is not some distant principle – he is a Father who runs to meet us. There is more emphasis on God helping us rather than us helping ourselves.

– CBT encourages evidence-based rational thinking. But what about revelations, dreams, words of prophecy? Even Socrates had an ‘inner voice’ that he took to be God…When should we trust our intuition and when suspect it?

Wormwood: more of an annoying imp than an all-powerful Lord of Darkness

– Christianity suggests that the origin of many of our negative thoughts is the Devil. I’m not sure if this is always a helpful idea for people suffering from emotional disorders. Sometimes the best way to get a negative intrusive thought to go away is to accept it and recognize that it’s just a thought, with no substance or power to hurt you, if you don’t let it. The ‘Devil’ only has the power you give him – more of an annoying junior devil (let’s call him Wormwood) than an all-powerful evil angel. The less you listen to him, the less power he has.

– A big difference between Stoicism and Christianity, as Timothy Keller has explored (in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering) is that Stoicism is about conquering hope and fear. Christianity is much more about hope – hope that we can pray to God and he will answer our prayers; hope that in the afterlife we will go to heaven with all our loved ones for eternity. Stoics would say they do the right thing for the sake of it, not in expectation of any eternal reward.

– Finally, a major difference between Judeo-Christianity and Greek philosophy is the former’s emphasis on humility and dying to the self. Although there is a lot in Greek philosophy about not trusting in externals, I don’t think there is nearly as much about this idea of dying to the self to be re-born in God – although that idea was strong in the Greek mystery cult of Eleusis and in Sophocles’ tragedy. There is also much more of a contemplative tradition of emptying the mind of thought in Christianity (and Buddhism).

Those are some brief thoughts – what have I got wrong or left out?  Perhaps there is a risk of turning Christianity into ‘therapeutic deism‘, where it becomes all about me and my personal well-being. At the same time, there is a deep tradition in the Bible of respecting and venerating wisdom, and recognizing that wisdom brings healing. The Logos, the Word, heals and gives life. 

But why did we become mentally ill?  We can’t always know why mental illness happened to us – there is probably a genetic component, it’s something weaved into the story of our family, perhaps for generations. But we can learn from our struggles and others can benefit from our experience. That’s something we can try to leave behind to those who come after us. Archbishop Justin Welby said last week: ‘Dealing with mental illness is a heroic struggle, and that makes one of my eldest daughters one of my heroes’. Carl Jung and Henri Nouwen both talked about the ‘wounded healer’ – sometimes in the darkness we can find the treasure, the gift, which can help to heal others as well.

Suggested further reading (for me!): Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society.


  • Olly says:

    Re. the life-giving power of words: One of the most powerful descriptions of a personal description of coming to life through language, is Helen Keller’s account of learning language at the age of 6, after 5 long years of living in a blind/deaf darkness. She describes a sudden revelation and emergence into consciousness, time and symbolism that happens almost instantaneously as a teacher manages to convey the word ‘water’ to her. Her account conveys the idea to me that the sign-signified relationship is the foundation of conscious existence. Perhaps that is what is meant by ‘in the beginning was the word’. Described in this book:

  • Jules says:

    Awesome, thanks Olly, will check it out.

  • Sean Walker says:

    Hi Jules
    You have moved to Christianity and I believe the evangelical part of the church. The question I have is how do you reconcile what Albert Ellis said about taking Christianity out of REBT because it is so strong on blame and feelings of guilt. This is one of the main irrational beliefs he mentions?
    I can believe in Jesus it is the Jesus of the Jefferson Bible, but the old testament has no place in any society as it is full of some of the worst excesses and atrocities dreamed up by man. Thank you Sean

  • Jules Evans says:

    Well, firstly I wouldn’t say I was entirely in the evangelical part of the church – I’m just as interested in other parts, such as the contemplative traditions. And I’m very much a liberal / ecumenical Christian.

    I think Ellis’ position is too morally relativist. It ends up where you can’t say that someone has ever done something wrong.

    At the end of his career, Ellis was the victim of a coup at his own Institute in New York – the other board members kicked him off the board, stopped him teaching, refused to pay his medical bills (even though he’d put all his earnings into the Institute) and stole his Institute. They then appointed a new CEO, who turned out to be a fraud and stole millions.

    The point is, what they did was *wrong*. They *shouldn’t* have done that. Yet any talk of moral values, of ‘shoulds’ or ‘musts’, is a form of inflexible and dogmatic thinking in Ellis’ relativist view. It just disturbs you. Well, it turned out, Ellis was emotionally disturbed by how he’d been treated, and was very angry and hurt by it, understandably.

    Saying ‘they’re irrational people so what do you expect’ is not quite enough in those situations. They behaved *badly*. You can recognise that, name it, and then try to forgive them.

    I have recently started doing some work in prisons, and the whole question of guilt obviously comes up a lot. People in there sometimes feel very bad for what they’ve done (assault, murder, rape etc). You can say to them ‘guilt is unhealthy and a form of pathology’ – and sometimes it is, but that won’t really help them. What is more transformative, perhaps, is to say ‘if you genuinely change yourself, God forgives you, and gives you a second chance – in fact, God loves the lost and is desperate to find them.’ To be honest, I never talk about God in my classes there, but I do think that the love of God can be more transformative than a REBT session. It transforms at a much deeper level.

    So those are my thoughts. In general, I’d say that REBT takes Stoic ideas and then uses them for an Epicurean ethic – ‘the aim of life is to have a fucking ball’, as Ellis put it. I don’t agree that’s the aim of life, and have never really agreed with that (although it’s some of the answer!) But I still *hugely* admire Ellis for all the work he did to reduce suffering, and to bring back the ideas of the ancient Greeks.

  • Jules Evans says:

    As for the Old Testament, there was an argument in early Christianity about whether the Old Testament should be considered Christian, when it was often so violent and tribal. The Gnostics argued it shouldn’t be part of the Christian Bible. Others, like Bishop Ireneaus, argued it should, as long as it was understood as myth and metaphor pointing the way to Jesus and his message:

    there’s a lot of amazing stuff in there – the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Solomon, Proverbs, the prophets. A lot of amazing stories – and I think one of the weaknesses of ancient Greek philosophy is its lack of stories, poetry, imagery, myth. It’s only 20th century fundamentalism which thinks it should be taken literally.

  • Sean Walker says:

    Thanks for the reply Jules and blimey, looks like AE and his philosophy got treated like Jesus, but at least they until he died!

    Boom Boom, sorry couldn’t resist it

    Have fun

  • Mark Vernon says:

    Thanks again Jules. Really appreciate the openness and holding together. Two additional thoughts occurred to me.

    Last Sunday Rowan Williams preached a fantastic sermon at Southwark cathedral saying that like a musical performance – in which the musicians give their all body, heart and mind, and something akin to a miracle is returned – so the message of the incarnation is that God takes what we give with all our dedication and returns so much more. Williams says it much more powerfully than that. But I like the slightly different angle on dying to self. As he put it, if you give God an inch he gives a mile. Or, God is what happen when we let the light in through the cracks in our defences. It’s living for life outside of yourself that paradoxically leads to life in all its fulness for yourself. Or as a friend of mine well puts it, we are the creatures for whom our own life is too small for us. But that does mean dying to one’s smallness.

    The second thought has come from reading some of the stuff around Terry Eagleton’s new book, Culture and the Death of God, which roughly says so far as I can gather that the last 200 years of cultural/ideas history has been a series of attempts to find God substitutes, all of which have failed. And they have done so because, in one way or another, they assume that human beings can fix themselves (William James’ ‘mind cures’ come to mind), whereas true Christianity is the tragic image of the broken body, and without that brokenness there is no resurrection (James’ ‘twice born’). It’s the deep unpalatability of the brokenness that is so hard in a world where we proceed day by day as if we can purchase/work out/heal ourselves. And the trouble is we can temporarily, but only temporarily.

  • Peter says:

    Thank you – however, I couldn’t help thinking that the author has missed the point that all of these notions , ideas and belief systems are created *in our minds*. Whether it be religion, philosophy or psychology – the latter being the most prone to objective testing via the scientific method. What if I come up with a new religion tomorrow – don’t laugh there have been dozens created in the last 100 years alone. Or a new philosophy? Or a new psychology? Isn’t it better to realize that the human mind created and continues to create all of these new ideas. Surely our thoughts and feelings as well as our capacity to create and to reason are all a manifestation of neuroscience. Time will tell I guess.

  • Mark says:

    Peter, from the transcendentalist/theistic/religious/spiritual point of view, as I understand it, our notions of transcendence are not solely products of our own neuroscience–i.e., our neuroscience is resonating to a tune composed at the level of Being from which the cosmos arises. Our metaphysical ideas are in our minds, yes, but since our minds, like everything else, spring from God, they are not human constructs only. That’s the idea, anyway, as I understand it. Simply put, persons whose metaphysics are of the transcendent persuasion wouldn’t accept your first premise as stated, as you presumably wouldn’t accept theirs.

  • Nairn says:

    Hey Jules,

    I am intrigued by the first of your four mountain revelations – that ‘we are deeply loved by God’. I know its tired topic but I’d like to hear your thoughts on how one can feel loved by God in a world full of much suffering?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Jules Evans says:

      I don’t know. There are ways we can try and remove obstacles – bad ways we try to feel loved, lies we tell ourselves. We can try and fix our mind and heart on God, and have a clearer consciousness of all that He does for us. I’m a complete beginner in such matters, and often don’t feel particularly loved! But then I also barely practice and hardly ever turn my mind to God. I would love to feel what I felt then more often. Many people have felt such moments, and felt transformed by them. Some of them seem better than me at actualizing them into a way of life, so I guess beginners like me should try and learn from their advice. Im reading Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation at the moment, which is full of wise advice on how to be more conscious of how much God loves us.

  • Jim Houston says:

    Writing on Spinoza in his ‘History’, Bertrand Russell made a few remarks on the question of whether the philosophic calm appropriate in the face of personal misfortune was apt in response to cruelties visited upon those you love. One might think they point towards something stoicism misses out, but which Christianity can ‘get’:

    “If you follow Christ’s teaching, you will say ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ I have known Quakers who could have said this sincerely and profoundly, and whom I admired because they could. But before giving admiration one must be very sure that the misfortune is felt as deeply as it should be. One cannot accept the attitude of some among the Stoics, who said, ‘What does it matter to me if my family suffer? I can still be virtuous.’ The Christian principle, ‘Love your enemies,’ is good, but the Stoic principle, ‘Be indifferent to your friends,’ is bad. And the Christian principle does not inculcate calm, but an ardent love even towards the worst of men. There is nothing to be said against it except that it is too difficult for most of us to practise sincerely.”

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  • Peter says:

    To try and judge what is the “real”truth
    kept me in a never ending cycle,I’ve found not to look for “The”truth but to simply say truths are in everything. That everything matters.I love learning, life is so full of surprises,but the miracle is in the midst of all the craziness of everyday life, we just need to get out there.labels. Attaches to poor ideals.I rather leave the Ideals to God.If someone wants to learn from the real masters go to your local homeless shelter.!!!

  • I love reading a post that can make men and women think.
    Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!

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