Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. (Proverbs 11:14)
Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed. (Proverbs 15:22)
Can professional counseling be helpful to a Christian, or is it unnecessary and even harmful at times? Do you see it as an excuse for not dealing with spiritual issues or a tool that, at times, may be beneficial for even the strongest of believers?
I imagine I would hear an array of answers to these questions, even within the Christian community.
Here’s an interesting excerpt from a New York Times article written a few years back:
A 2001 study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found that patients improved most dramatically between their seventh and tenth sessions. Another study, published in 2006 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, looked at nearly 2,000 people who underwent counseling for one to 12 sessions and found that while 88 percent improved after one session, the rate fell to 62 percent after 12. Yet, according to research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, therapists who practice more traditional psychotherapy treat patients for an average of 22 sessions before concluding that progress isn’t being made. Just 12 percent of those therapists choose to refer their stagnant patients to another practitioner. The bottom line: Even though extended therapy is not always beneficial, many therapists persist in leading patients on an open-ended, potentially endless, therapeutic course. (Jonathan Alpert, New York Psychotherapist)
What’s most interesting is that, according to studies that have been done, while counseling was certainly helpful for some, those who received the most help received it within the first seven to 10 sessions and many within the first. The improvement rate dropped drastically after 12 sessions.
Why do you think that is?
While there are many possible reasons for this (speaking mainly to Christians who seek counseling, although many of these will hold true for non-believers), I believe there is one key reason that is common among those who seek therapy: Counseling is a tool, not a cure.
Let me begin by saying that I am not referring to mental illness in this article. I am not saying that mental illness can be cured if someone simply has enough faith or seeks godly counsel. God is sovereign over mental illness and, while we need to be careful not to write it off as if there are never any spiritual aspects involved, we also need to be careful not to quickly judge other believers or non-believers who struggle with various forms of true mental illness.
Just as any other physical illness must be addressed uniquely, mental illness requires prayer and godly wisdom to seek professional help where necessary. God still reigns, even over what seems dysfunctional, hopeless, and broken. His glory can be shown through healing, but it also can be shown mightily through illness.
A Helpful Tool in the Healing Process
Aside from mental illness, I do believe Christian counseling can be a helpful tool to aid in the process of healing, as well as to provide guidance and perspective on difficult situations. For instance, when someone is overwhelmed by emotion, grief, pain, or a traumatic event, they can struggle to find words that describe what is going on inside of them.
A counselor might aid in helping someone navigate and process emotions that may be misunderstood or feel overwhelming to others, or they may help draw out the root issues of depression or anxiety (outside of mental illness). However, it’s important to remember that, while a counselor may be able to offer such tools, they should not be seen as the ultimate answer or solution to our problems.
Having said that, there are times when having a safe place to go to receive counsel from a gospel-centered counselor can be extremely helpful in a person’s healing from abuse, trauma, betrayal, and other overwhelming circumstances. A gospel-centered counselor can help our eyes be opened to the truth, see where sin may be at work in our life, and be an instrument of healing through the power of the Holy Spirit.
In any counseling, it’s important that every weakness, failure, grief, pain, sin, and the damaging effects of sin, must always be brought into the light of God’s Word. So while Christian counseling can certainly be a tool for a season, it must always be sought in tandem with our own personal time in the Word, prayer, and godly wisdom from those within the body of Christ. For only the blood of Christ can bring healing to our deepest wounds and failures, bring light into the darkness, and give hope to what is hopeless (Daniel 1:22).
Unless counseling points us to the truth and power of the gospel, it will simply leave us trapped in an endless cycle of introspection and seeking answers that will never be found in ourselves or the world’s solutions.
Six Considerations for Those Pursuing Counseling
So what are some things to consider if you are looking for a counselor?
Here are six thoughts about seeking professional counseling, to help you get the most value from your time, as well as to help you guard you against something that may be harmful.
1. If the opportunity is available, seek counsel first from a pastor or other godly men and women within the body of Christ who are willing and able to counsel you through many of life’s struggles.
Often, mature believers with more life experience, have learned how to bring the gospel to bear on even experiences they have not personally endured. It may be wise to start by seeking out someone whose life is marked by integrity and the sound doctrine of God’s word. God has given us the body of Christ to encourage, strengthen, challenge, and walk alongside of us. In many cases, we may find that this counsel is sufficient and even more helpful than a professional counselor.
2. Beware of the “victim mentality” trap.
There is great danger in this trap, especially when we are only looking for someone who will take our side and see the wrong that has been done to us. If this is the case, you will likely not find the freedom or healing you are seeking.
While the sin committed against us is very real and painful, the trap of victimization causes us to be blind to our own sin because, in our minds, it always pales in comparison to the sins committed against us. In essence, no matter what sin or wrong we see within ourselves, we can easily excuse or justify because of what’s been done to us. It’s impossible to find freedom, hope, joy, or peace in the lies of the enemy.
I believe that this trap can be one of the hardest to be freed from, even in counseling, because it can only be broken when we recognize and confess the truth of our own depravity and stance before God, apart from the work of Christ. Only then will we be able to begin the process of finding forgiveness, healing, and the freedom that is rooted in the gospel.
3. We must learn the difference between conviction from the Spirit and shame from the enemy.
One season of counseling that I’m grateful for helped me discern between what was my sin to own and what was the sin of others, whose weight I was unnecessarily carrying. What I began to realize through this process was that my shame was actually pride.
It was hurting my current relationships because people stirred up the shame that I was carrying from previous sins committed against me. It was pride because the root of my shame came from reasoning that sounded like this: “I am better than this. I should have known better than to put myself in the position of getting hurt. I caused this person to sin. How did I not see this coming?”
In this instance, I found it incredibly helpful to share my deep struggles in a safe place with someone who was completely removed from the situation. Through godly counsel, she was able to ask questions that helped me see the truth behind the sins of others, for which I needed the power of the Holy Spirit to let go. She also helped me discern what thoughts were true convictions from the Holy Spirit.
I’ll be honest, I was hoping that I would find freedom and healing from only addressing and forgiving the sins of those who hurt me. However, as Jerry Bridges wrote,
The cleansing of our consciences from the guilt of sin must precede our efforts to deal with the presence of sin in our daily lives. In the words of Hebrews 9:14, it is ‘the blood of Christ’ that will cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death [that is, from sinful acts], so that we may serve the living God! We cannot serve God or pursue holiness with any vigor at all if we are dealing with a guilty conscience. Therefore we need the gospel to remind us that our sins are forgiven in Christ, and that ‘the blood of Jesus’, His Son, purifies us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7). (The Discipline of Grace)
By God’s grace, he broke through to me and brought me to my knees in repentance. As we confess sin such as bitterness, pride, hatred, and unforgiveness and are reminded of the grace and forgiveness we have been given in Christ, the Spirit empowers us to break free from the grip of shame, equipping us to move forward in the process of healing and freedom. A godly counselor, therefore, should always lead you in the direction of the cross.
[tweet_box design=”default”]A godly counselor should always lead a person in the direction of the cross.[/tweet_box]
4. We need to seek God’s character as we seek counsel.
The truth is, man will always fail us at some point. We will get hurt. We will fail, fall, and, at times, feel so beaten down by life that we struggle to see what’s true. For this reason, if we do seek counseling, it’s crucial that we find someone who will point us to God’s character and the work of the gospel.
It is a wise counselor who keep these truths at the forefront because, as we work through the nuances and hurts of earthly relationships, our disappointments and tragedies, and anxieties that plague us, there is no greater balm than finding security, hope, trust, and love in the character and promises of God. He is our rock, our fortress, and our deliverer. If we are not grounded in his Word and the truth of who we are in Christ, we will be tossed by the waves of our emotions and unable to find the freedom and hope we long for.
5. We must be discerning about who we seek counsel from, remembering that we have an enemy who works to keep us in bondage.
As Christians, we are not exempt from the damaging effects of sin and evil in this world. The enemy will do everything he can to bring us down in discouragement, despair, hopelessness, distraction, and lies. He would love nothing more than to see us in a never-ending worthless pursuit of worldly solutions that he knows will distract and prevent us from finding freedom from sin and healing from wounds.
Hope and joy will only be found in the gospel. Therefore, because we are most vulnerable to be led astray when we are hurting, grieving, angry, or feeling unsure of what’s true, we need to be very careful about whom we seek for counsel. Seek references for godly counselors who will remain true to God’s Word and speak gospel-truth into your life.
6. Even while we seek counsel to navigate certain seasons of life, we need to face our troubles in light of eternity.
Because of the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, our earthly troubles are not the end. Some people experience incredibly painful, almost unbearable circumstances that leave them wondering if they will ever be free from the scars. While Christ is able to heal even the deepest of wounds, the scars often still remain.
While on earth, we groan over the effects of sin, memories we can’t erase, and injustices that are yet to be accounted for. And so, our eyes must be fixed on the hope of eternity when all wrongs will be made right, wounds and scars will be healed, and all groaning will cease. We look to the day when we, undeserving but forgiven and redeemed sinners, are at home in the glorious presence of our Savior. These promises can equip us to endure and press on as we grow in faith and confidence to view our temporary circumstances in light of our eternal hope.
The Centrality of the Word in Counseling
In closing, I do believe that there are circumstances when professional counseling with a gospel-centered focus can be beneficial. However, it is a slippery slope that can easily lead to wasted time and money at best, and deception and further bondage at worst.
So consider these thoughts if you or someone you love sees value in seeking professional counsel. Above all, God’s Word should always remain front-and-center in our lives, and all wisdom and guidance we receive should be measured by its truth.