Christian, You Should Get Counseling

Harrowing of HellIt felt strange typing this title. If I didn’t have personal experience with Christians who believe that because they’re Christians they have no need for counseling I would have never thought to write such an article.

Many believers seem to view counseling as ‘church’ for unbelievers. Now, the possibility for Christians to have mental illnesses is conceivable, sure, but the remedy is to be sought wholly, absolutely from God Himself. “God created my mind,” the Christian opines, “and God will heal it – I don’t need no therapist!”

Of course the same could be said for one’s body, yet most Christians will still see a doctor when necessary. Some seem to envision the mind differently. Perhaps they have an idea that the mind is entirely distinct from the body. This of course is a philosophical throw-back to Descartes or ancient Gnosticism, but when confronted with therapy many Christians seem to move in this direction.

The truth is that the Christian is by no means exempt from the need for counseling. In fact, the historic Orthodox Church has often been referred to as a spiritual hospital. The sacrament of confession might perhaps be its most obvious therapeutic intervention, but all of the sacraments, the liturgy, the role of the clergy, etc., are means by which God imparts his counsel and healing to believers.

Good luck convincing a hard-nosed fundamentalist of his need for counseling. I don’t advise it. For the same reasons that a clinical narcissist will never go easily to counseling, neither will this type of believer.

That type aside, let me give what I think is the single most convincing reason why any Christian would be made better through counseling.

The best way to present this to the Christian mindset I believe is through the story of Christ’s decent into hell after his crucifixion. Scripture describes Christ’s descent as a mission to deliver imprisoned souls (1Pet 3:19-20). If one imagines the tomb as one’s own heart then this story takes on an extremely personal relevance.

Many saints have written on this theme but one particular saint, St. Makarios of Egypt, writing in the 4th century, gives a striking teaching which beautifully strings together both Christian theology and clinical psychology.

“The heart is a tomb,” he writes, “and there our thoughts and our intellect are buried, imprisoned in heavy darkness. And so Christ comes to the souls in hell that call upon Him, descending, that is to say, into the depths of the heart; and there He commands death to release the imprisoned souls that call upon Him, for He has the power to deliver us. Then, lifting up the heavy stone that oppresses the soul, and opening the tomb, He resurrects us – for we were truly dead – and releases our imprisoned soul from its lightless prison.”

Notice with what experiential and theological acuity St. Makarios writes.

He is keenly aware of the ability of the psyche to “bury” and “imprison” thoughts in the darkness of unconsciousness; thoughts and emotions, which, if left unattended, can turn out every possible mental ailment. If you’ve ever wondered why anxiety and depression can strike at seemingly irrational and unpredictable times, often without trigger or warning, this is a key reason – thoughts and emotions which get repressed or denied go unprocessed. And if unprocessed, these thoughts and emotions will find their way back into consciousness on their own accord with or without your consent. They will continue to trip you up and strike you when you are least able to deal with it, and they will keep it up until they are adequately processed.

St. Makarios is faithful to historic Christianity too when he describes this whole affair in terms which holds a man responsible to participate in the work of his own healing without at the same time crediting him with the power to heal himself. As any informed pastor or therapist knows, thoughts are often buried without conscious effort and remain imprisoned without conscious effort – even healed, believe it or not, without conscious effort. But this does not mean that believers have no role in their healing.

Their role is to become aware.

Once awareness is gained they are required to engage in concentrated and earnest effort to stay present with the thoughts and emotions while calling out to Christ for healing.

I can’t think of a quicker more powerful way to come to this awareness than with the help of a good therapist. A “good” therapist is first and foremost one who can accurately reflect yourself to yourself – yourself that is, not the self you think you are or want to be someday, but the one that is.

Change does not take place until one is able to see oneself honestly for all one is. King David was a master at this! Reading the Psalms one is often struck by the honesty and passion with which David speaks of his true condition. He knew his pains, he knew where they came from, he knew why they were there, and he knew to plead with God to heal him, and he did so with the utmost earnestness. A good therapist should be a short-cut to self-awareness, the likes of which David would have been proud of.

The Christians journey often ends here with therapy. They learn about their true self and take that self into prayer where they call on Christ to heal them.

And Christ heals them.

Others continue on because their particular illness requires more specialized attention, like a broken bone that needs to be reset. The physician resets it and lets the healing begin. Some people’s psyche needs to be “reset.” In those situations the Christian should not be against therapy but should use it for all its worth. Therapy should not be considered a hindrance to one’s faith any more than a doctor resetting a broken bone should be considered a hindrance to faith. The only true hindrance in this respect is one’s own thoughtlessness and dislocation from one’s true self.

 

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11 thoughts on “Christian, You Should Get Counseling

  1. This takes me back several years, to after having been divorced. I remember several conversations vividly. And it also reminds me of our discussions of dreams and Jung.

  2. I really love this, but I can also imagine an evangelical reading this and then deciding to go to their pastor for counseling, who isn’t actually trained to be a therapist. This is a topic that seriously needs to be addressed in the Body of Christ. Pastors and church leaders need to know when their members simply need some spiritual guidance, and when they need legitimate therapy by a trained therapist and refer them elsewhere. Trying to help someone you are not qualified to help can have some very bad results.

  3. PS, this was in no way a criticism of what you wrote or didn’t write. You made the point to find a good therapist, but I honestly don’t know if a lot of Christians know the difference between pastoral counseling and actual therapy.

  4. An individual’s highest and best internal resources are usually found within their highest values and beliefs and within their best judgement, which is within their faith. Most mainstream counselors and therapists tend to be averse to Christianity, tend not to tap into the individual’s faith, and so cannot assist the individual to bring their best to bear upon their presenting problem. As such the mainstream therapist is often of little help the the Christian. A Christian is often best served by a faithful counselor. But it depends on the counselor’s knowledge and skills, of course.

  5. This is a wonderful article Eric. As a born again Christian, I went through the whole gamut of “Guilt” issues about seeking help apart from God. The Scriptures teach to “Confess your faults to one another, pray for one another, that you may be healed”. However, can you imagine telling the paper people pretending to love everyone that you are struggling with Gambling, porno, etc.. Forget about it. You’d be ostracized by nearly (If not all) members in no time. The need for someone who is qualified to help unburden the hidden things we can’t seem to understand about ourselves is critical to moving forward, and a life of Peace. if you like Church, Go, but don’t rule out other forms of help. They all came from God, Right? Thanks for the much needed article for all Believers to consider, Norm Glaze Sr

  6. Crossbow, what you say is true in my experience and convictions as well, what I think your formula may be omitting is the necessity of one to be able to see oneself for who and what one really is. Now, the secular therapist may be partially or totally blind to the real self in the spirit, but this need not be consequential for the gaining of insight for the believing patient/client. The reason for this is because if the therapist – secular or Christian – is faithful to mirror the client back to himself that is the point at which a person can truly enter into communion with God in that “the Spirit of God is within you.” The therapist is not the healing agent, the person’s own self in communion with God is the healing agent. However, as explained in the article, unless one is aware of their illness how will they call upon God to heal them? The miracle of seeing ones own psychological illness is a work of the Spirit which is helped, not hampered, by the work of a “good” secular therapist, but is perhaps sped up by a “good” Christian therapist – all things being equal.

  7. Norm, I feel your pain. You give a wonderful argument for the sacrament of confession enjoyed in the high churches (Orthodoxy, Catholic, Anglican). Unfortunately, often those who have it neglect it and those who don’t have it don’t know what they’re missing. I grew up in independent evangelical churches and you are exactly right. Confessing your issues to pastoral staff is usually precarious: they may ostracize you and they are often inept clinically speaking to really help you on a psychological plain anyway, so its a lose lose.

  8. Yes, naturally, insight is required. One of the wonders of God’s love (Christ) is that it enables and assists with that. And does not just with insight but with outsight too. We see both our self and others more truly. Fully accepting God’s forgiveness enables us to see our self as we are, and to the extent that we radiate that same love outwards to others too, so we see others as they are too. God’s love to us, and passed through us to others open’s our eyes to who others are because it wants to forgive. But if we do not forgive what God’s love enables us to see, then our heart reduces the outflow of love and we see no more. When out love exceeds our capacity to see, our capacity to see is enhanced so as to enable us to release love. But love does not waste itself when it does not get used.

    I like your articles, Eric. I think you do good work.

  9. Counseling, this is and was frowned upon by the church, in my instance.
    Perhaps not having enough faith.
    I know in my life, I have faith in God.
    Plus, I truly feel He prepared my path to see my Christian Counselor. My faith is stronger in Him and even in myself.
    There is nothing wrong with counseling.

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