What is Christian Counseling?
The concept of ‘professional counseling’, even ‘professional Christian counseling’, is challenging to many Christians. I can appreciate any hesitancy to step into an unknown realm where you open your feelings—even your heart—to trust someone whom you do not know personally; someone who claims to be a Christian. Sharing your thoughts and feelings is often an intimidating experience even with people who know and love you. It is important to establish enough trust in the counselor, or in the counseling organization, so that you can trust the process of counseling. Otherwise, you may withhold expression of your concerns to render the process unfruitful. It takes faith, really, to step forward into counseling. Faith that you have found a trustworthy source of help, and faith that God will lead the whole process. How the counselor and organization speak to this gives you the confidence (or not!) to move forward into this process. It is important to ask questions that you need answers to, so that you feel at peace with your choice in the counselor who will work with you.
There is a belief among some Christians, however, that counseling is secular, that all answers to life’s struggles can be found, literally, only in scripture, without the use of tools from psychology or psychiatry. This approach, which holds the premise that all our issues come from our sinful state, is called ‘Nouthetic’ counseling. I am not going to argue with the concept that scripture speaks to all our needs. I won’t even argue with the concept that at the base of all our problems is our sinfulness, and that the way to healing is through our repentance and adherence to God’s truth! Absolutely, I agree. But to assume that all of us share a capacity to look at our pain and suffering in accurate and helpful ways, is to assume that we surpass our sinful state in ability to perceive correctly, and to assume we know what to do to make changes in our lives. You could argue that reliance on the Holy Spirit takes the place of any counselor who might assist with the steps to healing. And I would agree. It isn’t the counselor who does the growing, but only God, as Paul said in I Corinthians, 3:7:
So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
As a Christian counselor, I believe the above verse says it all. It is a given. God does the growing—and that growing happens when our hearts are open to change. A counselor can help someone in this growth process with helpful tools, and direction to use those tools. Much like a physical therapist can show you some exercise bands—and how to use them—to strengthen an injured muscle, so can the counselor teach you new ways of approaching an emotional or family concern, and how to practice them.
I see counseling as a form of discipling. In Christian counseling, a therapist seeks the Holy Spirit’s guidance (with use of scripture and prayer) to walk alongside someone who is suffering or struggling in some way, to help comfort (2 Cor. 1:3,4) and help renew the mind (Romans 8:12). Much of counseling is learning right thinking, correcting what Pastor Rock Dillaman (at Allegheny Center Alliance Church, www.acac.net) refers to as ‘stinkin’ thinkin’’. We often believe lies (without realizing it) about ourselves, about life, about God, which we learn from our environment, even in some cases, from people who love us. And we know who the source of all lies is. We hear all kinds of distorted ‘scripts’ about life, own them, and then find ourselves in opposition to what God intended for us to feel and believe. Counseling offers a way to learn truth, and to be accountable to that truth.
Some Christians think that going to counseling means you are lacking spiritual fortitude, faithfulness, or closeness to God. There is a long-standing myth among Christians that Christians are not supposed to have pain, anguish, problems, or disobedient children. We have responsibility, yes, in going to God with our issues, in being accountable, for example, in raising our kids. But none of us has all the answers, and none of us is immune to needing help! That unfortunate (and prideful) mindset prevents many from getting their needs met—whether it’s asking for directions when driving, or asking for guidance in dealing with a struggle. Going to counseling, from my ‘biased’ perspective, means you are willing to receive what He has for you—new understanding, and new ways to live—a more full and free life! That takes acknowledging a need. It takes vulnerability. It may not be comfortable, but it is worth the risk! If you seek counseling with a heart willing to learn from Him, then God will not disappoint you. I have seen it over and over in my 30 plus years of counseling others. I have also seen it in my own personal experience receiving counseling.
I hope this discussion will be encouraging to anyone who is hurting, and who might consider seeking counseling help. I welcome feedback, opinions, and experiences with Christian counseling (both good and bad).