A Vision for Christian Counseling

ChristianCounseling640x360If you are looking for counseling, you might be wondering what is exactly meant by the term “Christian counseling.” There are some obvious implications, namely that the counselor herself is a Christian and secondarily that the counseling will involve some Christian themes and Christian ethics, but otherwise the phrase can be somewhat ambiguous. What type of counseling is implied by the phrase? What origins does this form of counseling claim? What are the goals of Christian counseling? What actually happens in the room with a “Christian counselor?” How is that different from what may happen in the counseling room with a professional counselor who doesn’t ascribe to the same belief system, or to someone who describes himself as a “biblical counselor?”

I’d like to devote this post to answering the first two questions, which are the more theoretical components to the larger question “What is Christian counseling?”

In its simplest form, Christian counseling applies the truths of Christian theology and the truths of psychology to people’s problems. Because our suffering and struggling often holds spiritual, emotional, behavioral, and biological origins, the solutions to our issues are derived from all of these disciplines. We would do clients a disservice to see problems in a singular way as purely spiritual or purely biological. Compartmentalizing aspects of our humanity as either sacred or secular is an unrealistic way of understanding the human condition. Instead, we are multi-faceted creatures and thus, a multi-faceted approach is required. This does not imply that God is left out of some areas while He is incorporated in others. Rather, if all things are from him, through him, and to him” (Romans 11:36), He is just as present in the application of psychological tools for healing as He is in the articulation of biblical truth. In Christian counseling, there is a belief that all truth is God’s truth, including the truths contained in Scripture and the truths present in the world God so sovereignly created. I am borrowing from David Entwistle’s Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity here when he comments

“If we understand that all of what God created was good, then we must avoid creating an artificial separation between that which is sacred and every facet of life” (p. 9-10).

So the key word for anyone who self-designates as a Christian counselor is “integration.” In Christian counseling, there is a conscious effort to integrate the insights of rigorous psychological science with the timeless truths of the Bible and basic tenets of Christian theology, both in how we understand people and how we understand problems and their solutions. According to Stanton L. Jones (2010) in Psychology and Christianity: Five Views,

“Integration means approaching the discipline and profession of psychology with a commitment to having one’s Christian convictions shape every aspect of one’s work. Because Scripture and the accumulated wisdom of the church in theology leave many areas of uncertainty in understanding and helping humanity, we approach psychology expecting that we can learn and grow through our engagement with it. Because all psychology is infused and shaped by metaphysical and moral presuppositions, we also expect that we may need to modify and reshape what we learn from psychology in light of our Christian beliefs” (p. 125-126).

In this way, Christian counseling derives its origins from God’s word as well as evidence-based practices that have been proven effective for those struggling with all manner of problematic behaviors, faulty thinking, out-of-control emotions, etc.

Now for the last question: Toward what ends? The goal of Christian counseling is to partner with God in His work of bringing restoration and healing to all areas of a client’s life as we move toward the new heaven and new earth waiting for us (Revelation 21). It is holistic and follows God’s vision of restoring every facet of creation: mind, body, soul. This is God’s Kingdom coming to bear on earth. Christian counseling is not merely interested in making a client feel better, although this is helpful and often happens. On the other hand, the profession is not focused only on helping a client grow in their Christian faith, although this is beautiful and often occurs alongside other forms of growth. Instead, the goal is to see authentic healing in the deepest areas of our being; to see broken responses, ways of thinking and relating, patterns, etc. restored to what God originally intended them to be. This is the vision of Christian counseling.

Good Reads: The Gift of Therapy

Gift of TherapyOne of the best books I suggest to people curious about therapy and young therapists alike is Irvin Yalom’s 2009 The gift of therapy: An open letter to a new generation of therapists and their patients. In it, Yalom offers words of guidance to the next generation of therapists in 85 compact, yet meaningful chapters. Topics vary widely, but Yalom’s central ideas include the importance of using the “here-and-now” as a major component of therapy and the subsequent importance of the therapist’s own personal journey and psychological health. Whether it is entertaining the possibility of conducting a home visit or the use of touch in session, Yalom insists that the intimacy and authenticity of the client-counselor relationship is essential to successful therapy. In sum, Yalom is vigilant in his insistence on the preservation of humanity in the client-counselor relationship; holding fast to the notion that counselors avoid the illusion that they can or should be blank slates or that clients can be conceptualized predominantly by their diagnosis and only secondarily as people.

Yalom gives attention to several unique aspects of therapy, such as how to leverage a client’s experience with death (either the death of a significant other or one’s own pending death) in order to help the client seek meaning in life. Yalom also suggests how to use dreams in session and how to approach a client who is resistant to making decisions. Yalom shares his thoughts on appropriate ways therapists can self-disclose and provide honest feedback to clients in session. Practical attention is allotted to the development of fundamental healthy habits, such as timely note-taking and scheduling clients with adequate note-taking and preparation time in between sessions. Overall, The Gift of Therapy may be a better resource for therapists-in-training than any textbook or counseling manual available today. Yalom’s forthright and frank tone is engaging while his insistence on leveraging the client-counselor relationship and the “here-and-now” of the moment with clients is compelling. Yalom is able to conceptualize therapy as an authentic, bold, and transformative reality, something that the budding therapist idealistically hopes it can be, but by the end of the book, also believes it can be.

Thin Places

cannonballNewsflash: Summer is almost over. Somehow, these months of relaxation and sunshine have flown by and summer is drawing to a close.

It is officially August. Is it just me or is this the month that has always felt like the leftovers in the fridge that you really should eat but for which you have no desire? They’ve just been sticking around a little too long and while you can’t justify throwing them away just yet, you also are lacking the wherewithal to turn them in to something edible, let alone delicious. Perhaps it’s something about it being the eighth month, just one past the perfect number seven and the gobs of fun jammed into every July. I don’t know what it is, but that’s August for ya- at least in my book. Who’s with me? [No offense if your birthday or anniversary falls in August- my condolences].

Instead of succumbing to the lackadaisical temptations of this month, perhaps this year we can take advantage of these last precious weeks at a more relaxed pace to linger with God.

One of my favorite authors, Shauna Niequist, writes about the old Celtic idea of “thin places,” a way to describe the spaces and places in your life where the boundary between the natural world and the supernatural one becomes a little more sheer, almost translucent.

One of my favorite Celtic ideas is the concept of thin places. A thin place, according to the Celtic mystics, is a place where the boundary between the natural world and the supernatural one is more permeable–thinner, if you will… places where the boundary between the divine world and the human world becomes almost nonexistent, and the two, divine and human, can for a moment, dance together uninterrupted. – Shauna Niequist, Bittersweet

These places can be literal, like the beloved little nook of an outlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway that became a favorite place for me and my husband back in our mountain days. It could be a season, like Advent, a particularly captivating piece of music, or even the briefest moment as you look at your child during a fleeting moment of sweetness. Really, it’s any place where the boundary between the eternal world we’ve tasted and the human world we know dissipates before us and we sense Jesus’ almost/not-yet kingdom.

So what if you spent these dog days of summer looking and praying for a “thin place” or two, a place where you can reach across the line from human to sacred and touch the goodness that God has for you? Thin places don’t always derive from joy or beauty alone, but can be initiated just as well by brokenness and heartbreak. Scripture makes clear that God meets his people in a variety of places and spaces, many of which are more surprising than not (ahem… can you say ‘burning bush’?!). Wherever you are this August, don’t discount God’s ability to create a thin place for you where you can experience him and his kingdom anew. Tear your eyes away from the TV and keep them peeled for a thin place or two. When you find it, take a deep breath, be present, and let it refresh you- mentally, spiritually, emotionally, because…

If we don’t, we miss some of the best moments that life with God has to offer us. – Shauna Niequist, Bittersweet

 

The Art and Science of Counseling

art-and-science1

It’s been said that counseling is both art and science. Indeed, walking with people through pain and suffering combines the finesse and intuition of a seasoned craftsman with the ardor and precision of a rigorous practitioner. I find that this aphorism resonates with many counselors, and my hunch is that it does so because of the way it speaks to how God is at work in our lives. He reveals Himself to us as the Potter, the Master Sculptor, the One who cultivates beauty from ashes. Yet at other times, our senses are heightened to the brilliance of his meticulous sovereignty at work. We stand amazed at his genius. His work is both art and science.

The fruitful counselor grasps this balance as she partners with God in his restorative work in clients’ lives. There is a particular quality to skillful counseling that can neither be described nor taught. It is art in its truest form- intuitive, creative, perceiving what is and what could be. Yet there is also the rigor of good science- the commitment to following what God has revealed to be empirically true about the way the human mind, soul, heart, and body interact, change, and flourish.

My prayer is that my work would reflect this delicate balance and its fruit would honor the One who artfully and brilliantly knit us together and loves us despite the ways we have fallen apart.