Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Wisdom from James

Abstract: This article seeks to demonstrate how the substantive truth of the Christian faith meets the needs of sufferers and sinners. Through analyzing a more recently developed therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, it gives a defence for the Gospel’s ability to provide what secular therapeutic methods are unable to while they remain blind to the truths of Scripture. It is not a denial of the usefulness of secular therapy, rather a commendation that where these therapies inevitably weaken and fail, the Gospel triumphs.

Keywords: psychology, therapy, Gospel, James, suffering


     I have always been interested in the care of souls. This is what drew me initially into youth ministry and most recently into seminary education for a Masters in Counselling. A while ago, I sat with a friend who was desperate for relief from her inner turmoil. She told me she was holding on to God by a thread and was tempted to give up on the faith altogether. My initial reaction was to offer her biblical words of comfort, and yet her desire to seek salvation elsewhere forced me to ask the following question: can Christianity really hold up under the weight of her mental distress and hopelessness?

     As I have been navigating my studies with experiences like these in the back of my mind, what has become compelling for me is a growing understanding of psychology as an apologetic. In its basic form, psychology seeks to understand humans and why they do what they do, and psychotherapies use this understanding to provide methods of care. Sigmund Freud was one of the first to champion talk therapy as a kind of “secular pastoral work.”1 Since then, people have turned more and more to therapy for help with their struggles of various kinds. And more and more, psychotherapies have developed to meet the challenge that the problems of the human condition present in the counselling office. 

     If Christianity is true, then both the study of psychology and the development of therapies exist in God’s reality whether they acknowledge it or not. Their observations and conclusions about the human condition are taking place in a world where God created, humans rebelled, and the work of Christ has provided the only way of salvation. An unbelieving psychologist or therapist is able to bring an abundance of both insight and care into the realm of human problems and suffering. And yet, blind to the truths of Scripture, does what they bring go deep enough to address the real complexity of human brokenness? 

     If Christianity is true, then it should be able to withstand the pressure of the human condition of suffering and sin in a far more robust way than all other attempts to understand and care for strugglers. In fact, it should be able to provide an interpretive lens that can bring what psychologies understand best and care about most to a richer, fuller meaning in the context of God’s reality.2 To engage with this notion, I will take a preliminary look at a more recently developed therapy: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). After briefly highlighting what this therapy observes and the care it provides, I will reinterpret both the data and method through a biblical lens, specifically through the first chapter of James. In doing so, I aim to present a defence for the Christian faith as being able to hold up under the burden of human brokenness.

Understanding ACT

     Dr. Stephen Hayes is one of the key names associated with the development of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, known as ACT. In a blog post where he reflects on his own experience with a panic disorder, he remarks how he was initially crippled by the fear that this disorder meant that within himself “there was something deeply, deeply wrong.”3 He began to realize the psychological distress he was causing himself by reducing his human experience to a problem to be solved.4 Seeing this as a common response of modern people to their negative thoughts or emotions, Dr. Hayes developed ACT.5 This therapy recognizes that rather than trying to simply eliminate unwanted realities of one’s inner world, a better process is to accept and understand those realities, and then make a choice about how one wants to respond. The methods involved seek to offer a way to “build a life that is rich, full and meaningful” and consistent with personal values.6 

     ACT identifies barriers in one’s internal environment that prevent strugglers from moving forward and cause them to miss out on the life they want to live. These include habits like making decisions based on avoiding feeling bad, letting your own thoughts overwhelm you, dwelling too much on the past or future, and failing to recognize what you value most and live according to those values.7 The therapy uses the following six key techniques to deconstruct these barriers: acceptance of negative or painful thoughts, creating distance between oneself and one’s thoughts so as to analyze them, focusing on the present, seeing oneself in context as more than their thoughts or feelings, making a personal decision about the values they want to guide their life, and taking action to live a life consistent with those values.8 The role of the therapist is to walk with the client through these processes in any order that seems to fit the person and their current needs. When individuals are able to understand and embrace their personal values, as well as gain skills to navigate thoughts or feelings that would drag them away from these values, they will be able to experience the kind of life they have always desired. ACT has been beneficial in helping clients with issues such as depression, anxiety, stress, substance abuse, and psychotic symptoms.9

Interpretive Observations

     As mentioned above, this therapeutic model has been developed in God’s world and, according to the common grace of God, we can recognize that it observes true facts about humanity and actually provides help for many strugglers. For instance, ACT is honest about a world that is full of real suffering, disappointment, and tragedy. Whether it is disenchantment because the good times never last, or the ongoing drudgery of depression, ACT points to the reality that all is not well in the world. This therapy understands that the goal of life cannot be to eliminate suffering, since suffering is inevitable. In turn, this prevents one from seeking quick fix solutions to complex problems or simply medicating everyday challenges. ACT humanizes strugglers by recognizing that they have been wired for meaning and purpose rather than reducing their lives to problems to be solved. People are relieved of feeling abnormal when they suffer because they are reminded that a continual state of happiness is not natural or realistic. Strugglers are met with a process that acknowledges their pain and provides a tangible way forward. Rather than viewing trials as an excuse to give up or give in, ACT is a call to keep going. 

     While there is a lot to appreciate about the theory and practice of ACT, when examined carefully several problems arise. ACT is quick to recognize sin and suffering, but there is little or no personal culpability for them. This paradigm makes everyone into a good person who is simply a victim of bad experiences in a bad world. Yet, God’s Word provides a more accurate diagnosis for why there is something deeply, deeply wrong with humanity, and describes how the real problem is not in the evolution of human psychology, but the deceitfulness that rules every person’s heart.10 Humans are not merely victims of sin (although they truly are at times), they are active contributors to the sin and suffering in and around them. Without a place for personal responsibility in ACT, there is no repentance or forgiveness before a Holy God.

     Furthermore, the evaluations of what constitutes the good or bad values that shape a person’s meaning and purpose are entirely subjective. These “chosen values” are selected by the client, and it is the therapist’s role to advocate for movement towards them, regardless of what the therapist thinks. A person’s chosen values could be entirely selfish or shallow, but the theory itself provides no moral foundation to evaluate or judge their choices. Even if the values a client chooses to shape their life around are altruistic, the way of “salvation” lies entirely on their shoulders. The therapy relies on the person’s ability, capacity, and willpower to continually act according to their values. They are their own saviours.

     Finally, while the notion of flourishing through a rich and meaningful life sounds great, even if the attainment of such a life is possible, it is only ever temporary. Therefore, the best hope ACT provides is to learn to embrace life with all its highs and lows and then face an inevitable death. It fails to satisfy the restless longing for eternity which is in every human heart.

Reinterpretation: ACT and the Wisdom of James

     There are many places one could go in the Bible in search of a message for strugglers, yet the first chapter of James provides a unique dynamic that speaks wisdom into the ACT paradigm. The themes of this chapter provide rich soil for a reinterpretation which can bring a better version of ACT to life in God’s good system of reality. I will specifically examine how James offers a better motivation to persevere, a better salvation, and a better call to action. 

     James is writing to a group of struggling believers as a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. He is not bringing his own message or ideas drawn from experience, rather he is bringing the authoritative application of the Gospel. In the opening of his letter he steps into his reader’s painful reality of “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2).11 ACT speaks to this reality as an unhappy product of evolutionary processes, yet for James these are attributed to the purposeful hand of Providence. These trials are designed to test the faith of believers, and the result of such testing is to bring about a state of wholeness and abundant provision from God (1:4); so much so that when the testing is over—and it will one day be over—even the possibility of being deficient or lacking in anything will be entirely gone (1:4). The best ACT has to offer is a self-defined value system that may or may not deliver in the end. James provides a better reason for the weak and discouraged to keep going.

     In addition to this, James unpacks a more in depth explanation for the human struggle and a better way to be delivered from it. ACT truly observes the fleeting vanity of life and James provides vivid imagery for it: humans are like flowers that are beautiful for a moment, but wither away in the next moment leaving no memory behind (1:10). To fill this void, ACT suggests the pursuit of a good value system. However, part of the problem is a person’s lack of ability to determine what is truly good as well as the constant temptation to be drawn away from even what they know to be beneficial. James identifies the source of this tension as sin and its alluring power (1:14-15). Sin is the natural disposition of the human heart. It enslaves people’s very desires to the point that they are perpetually moving away from God, with the ultimate result being death in all kinds of ways (1:15). Therefore, the root of the human struggle is not merely that we experience challenging circumstances or negative thoughts, but that death has wreaked havoc on the entire being of every person.

     A person in bondage is unable to be their own source of freedom, they need something outside themselves. So rather than each person depending on the power of their own will to be delivered from the devastation of sin and suffering, James describes the generosity of God. He has offered the gift of new life through the “word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (1:18). In other words, James is identifying that people do not simply need to be guided toward a more meaningful life, but that they are dead in their sins and need to be made alive in Christ. 

     Finally, one of the most compelling invitations of ACT is that people cannot simply think or feel rightly, they must take active steps in the direction they want to go. James echoes this call to action, and yet rather than the direction being self-determined, he points his readers to the “perfect law, the law of liberty” (1:25). The law of God is the revelation of God’s will for His people through His Word, and it instructs them how to live as He has designed them to. In Psalm 19, the law is celebrated as “more to be desired than gold” and “sweeter than honey.” Meditating on God’s Word gives people a proper vision of themselves so that they may become truly self-aware. Rather than this leading to self absorption, it compels them to intelligently love God and others. According to James, the law is not a ladder they must climb in order to achieve perfection, rather it is something that  has been implanted in them to produce the salvation of their souls (James 1:21). Therefore, his call to action is a call to live out of what God has already done in them. 

     So can the Christian faith stand up under the complex human condition and our “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2)? Can I offer my friend true Gospel comfort and hope that can bear her suffering? James seems to think so. While James penned this letter long before ACT was developed, his message for strugglers is not an outdated alternative. Far more than a method to make it through life with hopefully more good days than bad days, James shows the way forward for weak sufferers that will lead them to receive the “crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (1:12). The crown of life is not a temporary blessing for this life, it is an eternal reward of life achieved by Christ on our behalf. Therefore, for the time in between, believers are able to accept suffering, inconveniences, temptations, and trials and consider them joy because of the promise of a rich and meaningful life in Christ

Conclusion and Clarification

     This article has been primarily apologetic in nature, defending the Christian faith as able to withstand the burden of humanity’s sins and sorrows. I have provided a thoughtful engagement with just one of the psychotherapies that is seeking to meet the needs of a fractured humanity. Being careful not to discredit the work of secular psychology or the benefits of therapy, I have highlighted how, by God’s grace, they provide substantial and genuine care for strugglers among us. However, as has been made evident, where these therapies inevitably weaken and fail, the Gospel triumphs.


1 Signmund Freud, The Question of Lay Analysis (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), 93.

2 I was first introduced to this idea by Dr. David Powilson.

3 Stephen Hayes, “A Human Life Is Not a Problem to Be Solved,” Psychology Today,January1,2009,

4 Ibid.

5 “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,” Psychology Today, accessed May 19,

6 Russ Harris, ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, 2nd ed. (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2019), 2.

7 Ray Owen, “A brief overview of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy,” accessed May 13,

8 “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,” Psychology Today, accessed May 19, commitment-therapy.

9 Steven Hayes, “Psychological Inflexibility: An ACT View of Suffering and Failure to Thrive,” Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, accessed June 16,

10 Russ Harris, ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, 2nd ed. (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2019), 2.

11 Unless otherwise stated, all scriptural passages are from the ESV translation.

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