This is a question that I know troubles many Christians. Some believe that secular counseling has no place, and that Bible-based pastoral care is all that is needed to bring about change in people, whatever their problems. Others believe that a Christian counsellor should be used, and that such a counselor should integrate both Biblical concerpts and theories from their secular training. Still others feel that if a person is seeing a therapist or counsellor, the pastoral team can wash their hands of that person and just leave them to the “experts.”
The first thing to say here is that I believe we should be careful to distinguish between biblical counseling and psychological counseling. The two may well overlap, but they come from fundamentally different perspectives. The Bible is focussed on our deepest problem: our broken relationship with our maker. It tells us that we are both more loved and more wretched than we could ever have believed, that our sin problem extends much deeper, and covers much more than we ever imagined. It tells us that our problems stem from self-worship, and the worship of other gods rather than the One True God. The Bible tells us our lostness goes beyond this world and has eternal consequences. It tells us that we are actually dead in our sins and helpless. It is a message that can destroy hope, before then rebuilding it in the form of trust in another to save us. Our love for Jesus and our gratitude for his death and resurrection transforms us. But the Bible is clear that such a transformation is not instant.
Secular counseling works at an altogether different level. Accepting our brokeness, it tries to help us find strategies to get by in this difficult world. Negative thought patterns are challenged. Behaviors that make things worse for us are identified and addressed. Patterns in how we relate to others are discussed. And sometimes, simply a safe place is created where we can be listened to as we speak about how difficult life has been for us.
It is easy to see, especially when you understand the bio-psycho-social-spiritual model that I am advocating that both Biblical help and psychological help can be very relevant to people. Actually, sometimes psychological help will get us in a better position to be able to process and understand what the Bible says about our problems.
Look, let me make myself even plainer. Whilst sin is ultimately at the root of all our problems, both physical and mental, it is not directly the cause of everything that goes wrong with us. So, most of the time Christians have no problem going to a doctor to help fix a broken leg. Why then do we not like going to a psychologist or psychiatrist if we have a broken mind and/or broken emotions? Such secular help is often invaluable. If someone is totally stuck in a hole of depression that they cannot climb out of, how can we really expect them to immediately receive joy in Christ? Oddly enough an antidepressant or some secular counseling may make a person more able to receive the gospel.
Much Christian counseling today assumes too much of people. It assumes that we have been well parented, when many have not. It assumes we basically know how to relate to others, when for many the rules are simply not intuitive. It assumes that we are able to resist thoughts that come into our minds, saying “replace them with good thoughts” without helping us understand how to do that, or accepting that some people simply can’t.
I do believe that we need more dual-trained counsellors. But, in the absence of that, what we need is pastors who are not afraid to refer on to an appropriate form of counseling (ideally time-limited) without abdicating their spiritual responsibility towards their flock. A secular counsellor will probably not be able to help someone learn how to forgive. They will probably not help a Christian struggling with guilt accept the grace of God’s forgiveness. They are unlikely to gently point out subtle idolatry or pride. They are probably not going to encourage gratitude and trust in a sovereign God as antidotes to bitterness an depression. But there is much that they can do that quite frankly most pastors are ill-equipped for.
But before you rush to the nearest counsellor, have a think about what you are looking for. Do you want someone who will just listen to you each week, for the most part offering no interpretation or advice? Perhaps consider a psychoanalyst, but prepare yourself for a long treatment period that may cost you a lot of money. Are you looking for more practical advice and strategies? Then Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) may be the answer. Are you struggling with patterns in your relationships, systemic or family therapy may help give you a framework of understanding. Do you believe that dramatic change is possible with just a few sessions: solution focussed therapy could be just the thing.
- Ask your potential therapist which model of counseling they plan to use. Then, look it up in the following list of different theories of counseling
- Ask yourself, and your spiritual advisor whether the theories you have read about are in agreement with your faith, neutral, or in some way antagonistic.
- Tell your therapist early on that you are a Christian, and ask them if that will affect their treatment of you. If they react negatively to your faith, find another!
- Ask your therapist and/or the doctor who is referring you why they feel their theory of counseling will help your specific case. Is there any evidence base, ideally of randomized controlled trials that support its use in the problems you are reporting with.
Finally in this post, I should say that one of the best evidence-based forms of therapy, that also really has no areas of concern for most Christians is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Many communities are woefully under-supplied with therapists who have been trained in such ideas. One ministry a church could consider would be to fund the training of people who can provide at least basic CBT to both Christians and unbelievers. Speak to somebody who is trained and qualified in CBT about this, and carefully consider how you would set up such a ministry. We live in a broken world, where many broken people are repeating the mistakes of their parents, and have no idea how to live. If you were fortunate enough to be brought up in a loving, “together” family, please don’t assume everybody in your community was. Even supportive counseling can be of great help to many.
Even if you don’t have a therapist, I would certainly urge you to think about who in your life you are able to turn to for advice and counsel. Many Pastors fulfill a wonderful role in this area, in some cases without much formal training. Love and respect for everybody goes a long way. But perhaps upskilling in the area of psychological and therapeutic understanding would do all of us a lot of good.