If you enjoy podcasts or books that dip into the therapy world, you’ve probably heard of this thing called “parts-work,” or IFS. Most people are specifically familiar with IFS, which stands for Internal Family Systems theory. In short, this approach understands people to have “parts” of self that altogether comprise their internal world. These parts can be functioning well and in sync with each other, or as happens frequently, they might be divided and causing internal tension and conflict, along with external conflict and tension as well.
A simple example often used to demonstrate how we all have parts is something like, I was invited to a gathering at my friend’s house this weekend, and part of me would really like to go, but another part of me is feeling really tired and would rather not go so that I can enjoy a restful evening at home instead. I think for most people, you’d read that and think, oh yeah, that makes complete sense…really, it’s common sense.
Well, if it’s common sense, then why are so many people writing books and recording podcasts about this model? Why are oodles of counselors integrating facets of this approach into their work with clients, when they already have great training and skill in their work? (To the point that thousands upon thousands of therapists are on a waiting lists for IFS training…!) Why are Christians in particular trying to get the word out and speak to how and why this is a helpful resource that can be congruent with our faith? I of course can’t give you objectively accurate answers to these questions, so I’ll just offer some thoughts here and you can let me know what you think about them.
In short, I think the world of “parts-work” and Christian faith create an interesting and potentially problematic intersection because of how a person’s internal world is viewed in each. IFS in particular strongly advocates for all parts of a person to be viewed with dignity and kindness as they are, even the “worst” most destructive parts of a person that engages in harmful behavior toward themselves or other people. On the other hand, much of Christian theology is influenced by what is often called total depravity, that the core our identity, our being apart from God and salvation, is bad — and really, not just flippantly bad, but through and through a sinner, wicked, and even evil.
So, there’s a tension here about how we see people, and how we see ourselves. Do we primarily see people as beings of dignity, beauty, and goodness, or as sinners who are bad and wicked? I see Christian authors and speakers integrating IFS trying to offer another way of looking at ourselves as people, whether that be holistically or when looking at a specific part of the self, and rather than labeling the self or others with this primary identity of bad-ness, instead starting with God’s image in them that shifts how we engage with all parts of a person.
This shift in identity and humanity offers us another way to consider what it means to be human. And our understanding of what it means to be human has massive implications for how we see the world around us, ourselves, and all the relationships in between, whether that be with us and another person, or us and our relationship with God. I appreciate the ways that Christians have used their voice to advocate for integrating IFS with Christian faith and that we don’t need to be scared to do this. I’ve seen bible verses, stories, and interpretations of these things used to try and create compelling cases for how and why IFS is not only congruent with Scripture, but can even be said to be intrinsically biblical itself, especially in how it reflects Christ’s heart.
Reading and listening to these conversations makes me curious about how we might wrestle in this tension a bit longer before placing a stamp of approval on approaches like IFS and running with it. I don’t say this because I don’t believe in parts work, I’m actually a little obsessed…! I say this because I really love to deeply wrestle with the intersections of trying to figure out what it means to be human and what it means to live out our faith, which could really be said to be the same multifaceted-ly messy thing at the end of the day. I imagine that chewing on the tension of how we understand ourselves theologically and through the lens of a practice like “parts-work” might cultivate a deeper formative practice for us that engages all of our parts, the depths of our soul. And if we’re wanting to press into deep spiritual formation, I think these are spaces worth wrestling in for a while.
I’ll be writing a series of posts to try and wrestle here a bit myself, and invite you to wrestle with me. Questions I’ll consider in future posts include things like:
- Do I compromise the gospel if I claim that neither myself nor other people have “bad” parts?
- What do I do with bible verses that make clear we are bad and even wicked?
- Am I heretical if I believe there are no bad parts of myself or other people, but instead wounded and hurting ones that end up doing unhelpful things despite their desire to be helpful?
- Where is the line that I set for myself theologically when wanting to hold to what I’ve always been told since I was a kid, that I’m a sinner, we’re all sinners, that’s our identity, apart from God’s saving grace?
If you have your own questions you’d like me to address, please drop them in the comments below!