When I get a call from someone who’s looking for counseling, one of the first questions they ask me is, “Are you a Christian counselor?” I do receive many referrals from churches and pastors, and my approach is definitely influenced by my personal faith. I am attracted to the work of therapy because I believe in the power of redemption and reconciliation. I’ve seen how forgiveness and grace can transform individuals and their relationships.
While I work with people of different faiths, my training and experience with Christian clients gives me a unique understanding of the common issues and concerns that Christians struggle with psychologically. At Wheaton College, I focused on spiritual formation, soul care, and the integration of Christian faith and psychology. Wheaton was a unique place to learn because of its connection to the Evangelical Christian tradition and its high commitment to the teachings of the Bible.
Steve Bouma-Prediger of Hope College described four different ways that counselors and therapists use their faith in their approach to therapy. First, there is interdisciplinary integration, where the therapist brings together different theories or views of human nature in psychology and theology. Second, there is intradisciplinary integration, where the Christian counselor uses Christian theology as a way to understand the how-to of therapy. Third, there is faith-praxis integration, where the therapist sees his work as a form of spiritual service and lives in a way that his life reflects a commitment to following Christ’s example. Finally, there is experiential integration, where the therapist experiences his work as an extension of the healing power of God. There are strengths and risks involved any time that a therapist integrates his personal religious faith in his professional counseling work, so I want to be clear about my approach.
So, first, how do I see the “interdisciplinary” connections between psychology and Christian theology? To put it simply, the way I view human nature is affected by my basic faith in people. I think we’re all “sinful” or “messed up” in ways that we cannot even identify. Each of us has blind spots that keep us from seeing what’s wrong. But we are all capable of being healed and made whole if we are willing to admit our need for help. There are plenty of other theological arguments we could have about heaven and hell, faith and doubt, freedom and control. I have found that there are lessons from scientific research that can teach us about human nature and what motivates our behavior.
I try not to use spiritual explanations to understand behaviors or situations that can be explained by natural causes. So, for example, instead of saying, “The devil made me do it,” I’d rather take a closer look at the biological and psychological motivations that drive my behavior. That’s because the more you understand yourself, the more you can choose a better life. In a way, the insight that helps us get unstuck can feel like “casting out demons.” The freedom, hope, and healing of therapy can be a powerful experience that changes how clients understand their spiritual lives.
Frequently, clients will come into therapy looking for me to address “sin issues” in their life or relationships. It’s important for clients to understand that my role is not to be a pastor or theologian, but rather to serve as a mental health service provider. Sometimes there is a difference between what’s “healthy” and what’s “holy”. So, while I am very familiar with Christian theology, I am not focused on eliminating sin so much as I am focused on how your faith influences your sense of who you are and how you live in relationships with others. Sometimes, we have core beliefs about God and the universe that come from what churches, pastors, or parents have told us. But when those core beliefs don’t match up with our real-life experience, we need to figure out how to reconcile our faith and our experience. When I work with Christian clients, I encourage them not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” when it comes to their faith.
Very often, couples will have disagreements and arguments because they come from different faith backgrounds. Arguments tend to be more about who’s right and who’s wrong than about understanding each other’s perspective. My role as a therapist is not to resolve theological disagreements or take sides, but rather to help each partner move toward greater respect for the other point of view.
So, my experience and role as a therapist has influenced my Christian faith. I understand that reasonable people can have serious disagreements, but still share a commitment to a common faith. Understanding the biological, psychological, and cultural bases of mental illness has changed my understanding of human nature.