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Crabb’s Christian Psychology

I. Introduction

Does the Christian worldview provide an apt guide to human psychology? The late counselor Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr. (1944-2021) thought so—a claim that inspired his counseling text and Christian bestseller Effective Biblical Counseling[1] (first released in 1977), which sold over 200,000 copies.[2] The purpose of this essay is to canvass, then evaluate, Crabb’s Bible-based psychology.

II. Crabb’s Model

If the Judeo-Christian Bible is a reliable source of truth, then this would carry some intriguing consequences for human psychology. As a sample, consider the following verses:

  • Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
  • 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if any man [be] in Christ, [he is] a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
  • Ephesians 4:22-24: “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.”
  • Philippians 4:6-7: “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
  • Romans 7:22-23: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my member.”
  • John 8:34: “Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin.”

What model of mind could validate the above verses? What would the mind’s substance and function be? Crabb’s theory responds to these questions as follows:

1. Nonmaterialism: Unsurprisingly, Crabb’s Christian view of the mind includes a commitment to a nonphysical aspect of the mind’s functioning: “I am not what is called a physicalistic reductionist…. Emotion is more than glandular functioning. Thinking is more than neurobiological activity in the brain…. I do not believe that how we think, act, and feel as persons can be explained completely in terms of physical correlations” (p. 87). This gives rise to a number of predictable, timeworn philosophical questions—How does the mind’s nonphysical part cause changes in the brain’s physical parts? Is Crabb likewise a nonmaterialist concerning animal minds? etc. We’ll leave matters alone, focusing instead on Crabb’s portrait of human psychology.[3]

2. Anatomy of the Mind and Functional Model: Crabb’s model consists of five main parts, which interact to give rise to human thought, behavior, and emotion. This, in turn, can be used to give psychological content to some of the Bible verses above. Crabb offers a helpful diagram of these parts’ roles at pages 106-107. It’s noteworthy (and expected) that Crabb posits a functional difference between the minds of the Christian “believer” and “unbeliever”:

Fig. 1 (a): Diagram of Crabb's Functional Portrait of the Mind for the Non-Christian
Fig. 1 (a): Diagram of Crabb’s Functional Portrait of the Mind for the Non-Christian (p. 106)
Fig. 1 (b): Diagram of Crabb's Functional Portrait of the Mind for the Christian
Fig. 1 (b): Diagram of Crabb’s Functional Portrait of the Mind for the Christian (p. 107)

(a) The Conscious Mind: Crabb describes the activities of the conscious mind as involving “talk[ing] to ourselves in sentences,” including the making of “evaluations” of “external events” (pp. 88-89).[4] Notably, “evaluations” include moral judgments (p. 90).

This ability of the conscious mind to evaluate “external events” has emotional significance, since Crabb (similarly to, for instance, Albert Ellis[5]) claims that “events do not control my feelings. My mental evaluation of events (the sentences I tell myself) … affect how I feel” (p. 89).

One clarification: Though Crabb speaks of the “conscious mind,” this doesn’t entail that we’re always aware of the goings-on in the conscious mind: “I may not always notice the sentences I am telling myself, but I am responding in verbal form, nevertheless (p. 89); rather, events in the conscious mind are “conscious” in the subjunctive sense that, “if I paid attention to my mind, I could observe what sentences I am using to evaluate this event” (p. 89).

(b) The Unconscious Mind: Intriguingly, Crabb (“tentatively”) suggests that the unconscious mind can be modeled on a careful reading of the Greek word, phromena. On this understanding, the unconscious mind is described as “a part of personality which develops and holds on to deep, reflective assumptions” (p. 91), or, more specifically: “the unconscious part of mental functioning [is] the reservoir of basic assumptions which people firmly and emotionally hold about how to meet their needs of significance and security” (p. 91 [emphasis original]). These “basic assumptions,” Crabb avers, are best identified as “attitudes … [that] have affective (emotional) as well as cognitive components” (p. 95).

On Crabb’s view, these “basic assumptions” are not neutral in character: “Each of us,” he posits, “has been programmed [by the “unbelieving world”][6] to believe that happiness, worth, joy—all the good things of life—depend on something other than God … [and that] we can … achieve true personal worth and social harmony without kneeling first at the cross of Christ … [and that] something other than God offers personal reality and fulfillment” (pp. 91-92).

As noted before, Crabb’s model echoes Ellis’ “ABC model” in that Crabb locates a number of dysfunctional assumptions in the unconscious mind, for instance (p. 93):

  • “I must be a financial success in order to be significant.”
  • “I must not be criticized if I am to be secure.”
  • “Others must recognize my abilities if I am to be significant.”

Owing to such unhealthy assumptions, Crabb adds, “it is no wonder that many people are anxious, guilty, or resentful” (p. 93).

Yet while these implicit assumptions guide much of human behavior, they are “unconscious” in a striking sense: bringing these assumptions to conscious light requires supernatural intervention:

Scripture teaches that we are masters of self-deception and that we require supernatural help to see ourselves as we really are (Jeremiah 17:9-10)” (p. 95). Honest and accurate exploration of the inner chambers of one’s personal being is the special prerogative of God. Christian counseling at this point depends critically upon the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit. Without His assistance, no one will perceive or accept the truth about his self-centered and wrong approach to life (p. 95).

(c) Basic Direction (“Heart”): By “heart,” Crabb doesn’t seem to have in mind any particular part of human personality, but rather orientation of “the human personality as a whole” (p. 97). Specifically, Crabb’s idea of “heart” seems to be a kind of center of gravity of the human “rationality, moral judgment, emotions, [and] will” (p. 97).

The “heart,” under Crabb’s understanding, has one of two orientations: self-centered and God-centered; it “represents a person’s fundamental intentions: for whom or what do I choose to live?” Do I “live for self or live for God”? The former orientation, “which we all naturally do,” means that you “are left to yourself … in meeting your personal needs.” On the other hand, if “your basic intention is, by God’s grace, to put Christ first and serve Him…, then you can reject all of the world’s ideas on how to become worthwhile … and you can start filling your conscious mind with the truths of Scripture” (pp. 97-98). For an illustration of this difference, contrast the two pictures in Figure 1 above. Note, too, that this offers a psychological interpretation for the oft-quoted Bible verse 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if any man [be] in Christ, [he is] a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new,” and the imperative to “put on the new man” in Ephesians 4:22-24 above.

This, then, is Crabb’s view of the psychological difference between non-Christians and “saved” Christians. The Christian, on this view, is that the Christian has “two sources of input into the conscious mind: what Satan says through the world to our unconscious mind and what God says through the Bible to our conscious mind” (p. 97). As a result, the Christian is often conscious of two ways to make a moral decision: one self-serving (the result of world-inculcated selfish attitudes in the unconscious), the other God-serving (the result of conscious study of the Bible). Non-Christians, however, lack the latter, biblical, source of guidance; thus, the non-Christian, on Crabb’s view, lives only to serve himself and “[a]ll [his] components … work together … toward the sinful goal of self-exaltation” (p. 97). This suggests a psychological interpretation of non-Christians’ “slavery to sin,” as noted at John 8:34 above—to wit, unlike the “saved” Christian, only the “self-serving” path presents itself as an option when the unbeliever makes a moral decision.

(d) Will: Crabb’s understanding of the will is familiar: it is the “capacity for choosing how to behave” (p. 100). The behavior-options available to the will are, in turn, “restricted by the limits of his rational understanding” (p. 100)—i.e., the truths believed by the conscious mind, plus the attitude engendered by the unconscious mind. Of course, these two sources can often be expected to conflict in the (Bible-immersed) Christian, on Crabb’s model. Suppose, for instance, a Christian is gratuitously insulted by a passer-by. The Christian’s “selfish” unconscious can be expected to kick up a desire to retaliate for the insult. But, thanks to the Christian’s Bible-immersion, her conscious mind also calls up a biblical response to the situation: “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). Needless to say, the Christian, despite her biblical immersion, might find it difficult to overrule her unconscious selfish attitude, and forbear from retaliating: “It often involves teeth-gritting effort to choose to behave as we should” (p. 101).

(e) Emotions: People aren’t like the “purely logical” Vulcans found on Star Trek. We are creature with emotions and feelings, and no psychological model can be complete without accounting for them and their causal role in our psychological lives.

On Crabb’s model, emotions have two main functions. First, similar to Ellis’ ABC model, Crabb views emotions to be caused by (our conscious and unconscious evaluations of) events—recall §(a)-(b) above. The second function of emotions is that they motivate behavior—as when we act vengefully out of a feeling of resentment, or act charitably out of a feeling of compassion.

Crabb also hastens to clarify the roles of negative emotions in the Christian life. “Christianity was never intending to be one laugh after another,” Crabb declare, “[w]e all feel bad sometimes. And all ‘bad’ feelings are not morally bad” (p. 103). To the contrary: a feeling is sinful, on Crabb’s view, only if it is “mutually exclusive with compassion” (p. 103). Thus, the emotions of depression, crippling guilt, resentment and anxiety are “sinful,” since in their leading to self-absorption, they crowd out a feeling of compassion for others (pp. 104-105). On the other hand, anguish, “constructive sorrow,” anger, “motivated discontent,” and sorrow are not sinful—since they can motivate virtuous behavior such as (respectively) soul-searching, changing one’s behavior, rebuking sin (as when Jesus expelled the moneychangers from the Temple in Matthew 21:12-17), changing intolerable circumstances, or forward-planning (pp. 104-105).

III. Questions and Concluding Remarks

As we’ve seen, Crabb’s model is well-organized, elegant, and allows for psychological interpretations of various biblical statements involving human psychology. And yet, Crabb’s model suggests some questions. We turn to them now, followed by some concluding remarks.

1. Re: The Conscious Mind

(Q1) Crabb describes the contents of the conscious mind as “sentences” or “propositions.” But it appears there are ample nonlinguistic contents of our streams of consciousness. For instance, I might entertain an image of Charlie Chaplin’s slipping on a banana peel. Indeed, even Crabb points out that the “‘real you’ involves … an imagination capable of scheming hideous sins” (p. 55). Isn’t this an event in the conscious mind? Or is mental imagery handled by a different (and unnamed?) mental faculty? And what are we to say about pre-linguistic infants or nonlinguistic animals?

2. Re: The Unconscious Mind

(Q2) Crabb claims that Satan uses “the world” to inculcate self-centered “false programming” concerning our needs and how to meet them. But is the world’s “programming” so bleak? Children are routinely taught (at home and at school) the importance of helping others altruistically (see, for example, Shel Silverstein’s perennial bestselling The Giving Tree[7]). Why isn’t this “positive” programming accounted for in Crabb’s model?

(Q3) Many children are taught the importance of God—whether this deity is called “Jehovah,” “Allah,” or “HaShem.” Why doesn’t Crabb’s model acknowledge non-Christian faith systems that have theistic content?

(Q4) Crabb claims that, “Apart from God’s sovereign work, people ultimately are out for themselves” (p. 97). This view is well-known in the philosophical literature as psychological egoism. Moreover, there are abundant arguments that show that psychological egoism, while superficially plausible, is ultimately a false characterization of human motivations.[8]

(Q5) Crabb distinguishes the Christian from the nonbeliever as one who (i) “loses oneself in Christ” and (ii) avails oneself of “what God says through the Bible to our conscious mind” (p. 99). Couldn’t this process also be achieved by, for example, losing oneself in Allah and availing oneself of what Allah says through the Quran to the conscious mind? If not, why not? Moreover, why isn’t simply reading the Bible enough to avail oneself of biblical teachings?

(Q6) How is the conscience to be understood on Crabb’s model?

3. Re: The Will

(Q7) By Crabb’s model, an unbeliever’s rejection of Christianity isn’t a result of a “weak will”; rather, “the problem with an unsaved person is not his inability to choose God … but [rather] his darkened understanding [the conscious and unconscious mind?] will not allow his will to make that choice. He does not need a strengthened will, he needs and enlightened mind, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit” (pp. 100-101). But if the will is not “allowed” to choose Christianity by “the understanding” (save a supernatural intervention by the Holy Spirit), in what sense does a nonbeliever freely choose his nonbelief? In what sense is an atheist morally responsible for his belief, if he couldn’t have chosen otherwise (save a supernatural intervention by the Holy Spirit)? It seems unlikely that Crabb would intend to let the unbeliever off the moral hook for his sins.

4. Re: Emotions

(Q8) In what sense are depression and anxiety “sinful” emotions, as Crabb terms them? It would seem that something is “sinful” only if someone is morally responsible for that emotion. Yet medical science recognizes types of depression and anxiety that are not a “choices” by the sufferer, but rather symptoms of a neurological condition.[9] How does Crabb’s model account for advances in psychopharmacology, which shows that various emotions are products of neurophysiology/chemistry, rather than the volitional products of a person’s psychodynamics?

(Q9) Crabb suggests that the emotions are effects of evaluations by the conscious mind and/or attitudes of the unconscious mind. But isn’t it evident that emotions can cause events in the mind, as well? Is a person suffering from clinical depression because of their pessimistic thoughts? Isn’t it more plausible that a person’s pessimistic thoughts are caused by a depressed mood (which, in turn, is caused by an imbalance in neurochemicals?

5. Re: General Questions

(Q10) Obviously, nonbelievers have occasion to read the Bible. How does a nonbeliever’s exposure to the Bible differ from that of a believer’s, on Crabb’s model? Is this because of factors that are present in the believer’s mind, yet absent in the nonbeliever? Or vice versa? Or both? Would such differences be observable in a brain-imaging scan (e.g., an fMRI)?

(Q11) What differences between Crabb’s model and nontheistic models might be amenable to experimental tests (if any)?

(Q12) Many models of human moral development don’t distinguish between a person’s religious affiliations (consider, for example, Lawrence Kohlberg’s three levels of moral development). Yet Crabb seems to suggest that non-Christians’ moral development is “arrested” at an egocentric, self-centered stage. How would the defender of Crabb’s model respond to discrepancies between nonreligious theories of moral development and Crabb’s model?

Crabb’s model gives rise to a number of weighty questions. Some of these questions appear to cause no trouble for the Crabb model; a refurbishment or clarification might address them sufficiently. Other questions, though, seem to present significant challenges to Crabb’s model, most conspicuously, Crabb seems out of step with contemporary psychology concerning the topics of child development (Q1, Q2, & Q12 above), human altruism (Q4 above), and neurobiology and psychopharmacology (Q8 & Q9).

And yet, even if Crabb’s model is, as we’ve seen, sorely inconsistent with actual human psychology, it’s notable as an indication of the psychology that evangelical Christians project onto nonbelievers. Small wonder that such theists presume that unbelievers are capable of selflessness or principled moral behavior. It would be worthwhile to suggest a program for educating evangelicals about unbelievers’ actual moral psychology, but that is a topic for another time.


[1] Lawrence J. Crabb, Effective Biblical Counseling (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013).

[2] Daniel Silliman, “Died: Larry Crabb, Christian Counselor Who Kept Exploring.” Christianity Today, March 5, 2021. <https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/march/died-larry-crabb-christian-counseling-spiritual-direction.html>.

[3] For a helpful guide, see Robert Van Gulick, “Consciousness” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 edn.) ed. E. N. Zalta (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014). <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/consciousness/>

[4] Though Crabb emphasizes “external events” in the world, his model also seems able to account for evaluations of events “internal” to the mind—i.e., evaluations of my own thoughts and feelings. For instance, while I might not actually tell off my boss, I might mentally entertain (imagine) doing so, judge such a confrontational thought as “shameful,” and feel pangs of remorse.

[5] Albert Ellis, Mike Abrams, and Lidia D. Abrams, Personality Theories: Critical Perspectives (Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2009), pp. 479-526.

[6] Crabb doesn’t speak of any of these “basic assumptions” in the unconscious mind as inborn or innate; as far as he remarks, these “basic assumptions” are all the result of environmental inputs. In that’s right, I can’t help but wonder how this view (that seems so reminiscent of Skinnerian behaviorism) squares with contemporary learning theory. See Saul McLeod, “What is Operant Conditioning and How Does it Work?Simply Psychology (March 14, 2023). <https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html>.

[7] Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1964).

[8] For a primer on this issue, see Robert Shaver, “Egoism” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2023 edn.) ed. E. N. Zalta (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014). <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2023/entries/egoism/>

[9] Stephen M. Stahl, Depression and Bipolar Disorder: Stahl’s Essential Psychopharmacology, 3rd edition (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Copyright ©2023 Timothy Chambers. The electronic version is copyright ©2023 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Timothy Chambers. All rights reserved.