“Christian” and “Counseling”

How do these fit together?

christian counseling

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I recently completed an interview for several of my graduate students about my perspectives on the integration of faith and counseling. I think my answer to one of the questions is something some of my readers might appreciate.

Question: How do you distinguish between secular counseling, Christian counseling, pastoral counseling, and biblical counseling?

Secular Counseling

For me there’s no such thing as secular counseling. I’m not capable of doing it because God is always in my perspective, even if I don’t share that with the client, and oftentimes I won’t, depending on where the client is coming from. I don’t feel any need to make this part of therapy if it doesn’t speak to the client.

Christian Counseling

The most important word in “Christian counseling” is “counseling,” not Christian. In other words, if a therapist is good, sensitive, caring, and intuitive, they can do enormously healing work (which I believe is the work of God). This is true whether or not the therapist acknowledges God in this work. So being a good counselor comes first. If that’s taken care of, the work can be incredible.

The “Christian” thing is a distant second.

Any client should seek a good therapist before seeking a Christian therapist. If they can find a therapist who is both good and Christian, that’s fine.

In my view God is in the act of healing all of creation at this very moment and every human being as part of that creation. Healing is on the way, in process, a given, something that will happen naturally, in God’s ordained order, if we learn how to get out of our own way and let it happen (which all good therapy helps us do, Christian or not).

Healing was a huge factor in the ministry of Jesus, who healed, but usually did not heal and preach at the same time. Healing was his ministry in those moments. He didn’t angle. He didn’t “integrate.” He just acted, in God, from a place of faith, confident that healing was inevitable from that place. I do my work from that place.

Biblical Counseling

When I think of “Biblical counseling” I think of the “nouthetic” counseling movement. NC insists that the Bible contains everything human beings need to know about psychology and uses it as their sole source book. I see this as fundamentalist, deeply flawed, and therefore dangerous.

Pastoral Counseling

I see pastoral counseling kind of like spiritual direction. I help people discern where God is moving/working in their lives, and how they may be getting in the way. I help them work through personal issues that may be affecting their spiritual life or vice versa. Anyone who has read the work of the Desert Fathers and Mothers knows they came up with many psychological insights out of their spiritual communities that were confirmed by studies in the 20th century.

The best spirituality is often psychological and the best psychology is often spiritual.

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  • ShalomAll

    Thank you for addressing this topic! I can relate so well. I was raised and taught in a family, a mountain Bible belt community, and a culture that was almost exclusively (hell fire and brimstone) “Christian”.

    After experiencing years of abuse and trauma I sought counseling. It was inconceivable to me or my family, that I would choose anything but those with the title of ‘Christian counselor’. Actually, I was discouraged from seeking counseling by several who considered it a ‘sin’. I did try several Christian counselors, but found that it only caused me more pain, anger and frustration. I finally realized that the trauma I had experienced had caused me to reject the Christian faith and beliefs I had been taught.

    I wanted nothing to do with Christian counseling, Church or God. So, I found, what I considered secular counseling. My greatest personal growth and healing came from the secular counselors and therapy groups I attended for the several subsequent years. After several sessions with one of my therapists, I suspected she had the heart of what I had always secretly thought Jesus must must have had. Her kindness, understanding and non judgmental approach in allowing me to express everything, even my disdain for what I had been taught about God, prompted me to ask, “Are you a believer In Jesus Christ?” She answered, “Yes, but my personal faith has nothing to do with your healing. This is your journey.” This was the gist of my experiences with many of the other counselors who may have been secular. I never again asked whether they were or not.

    I believe God knew exactly how I was to be drawn, not back to Him, but to Him. I had never experienced a true intimate relationship with God. I was taught, or spoon-fed the definition of who God was by my family and the culture. I have come to my own very intimate relationship with God, and much of what I believe now is quite different from what I was taught. I absolutely credit God with this, along with the amazing counselors and therapists I believe I was led to. And the therapy groups! Some of the people I encountered in therapy were what some might consider the most ragged, bottom of the barrel, no-hope characters (me being one), you can imagine. This is where I believe I met Jesus most intimately, and where I learned God’s unconditional love.

    I still attend counseling from time to time. But I have faith that I will be led to the person that I will connect with, and that God will be there with us.

    Again, thank you Pastor David. And thank you Anna for the wonderful insights you shared in your post!

    • This is a fantastic post! You gave a perfect example of exactly what I was talking about. So glad you received the healing you needed and that you were able to connect with those who were capable of helping you find it.

    • This is a fantastic post! You gave a perfect example of exactly what I was talking about. So glad you received the healing you needed and that you were able to connect with those who were capable of helping you find it.

  • Anna

    I too had the honor to participate in this interview with an intern/student. Would love to share one of my answers as well…

    • Practically speaking, how do you integrate religion and spirituality into the counseling sessions? Please give examples.

    During the induction process, I ask my clients if they wish to integrate spirituality or religion into their therapy. If they say yes, I ask them to describe their faith so I can be sure to demonstrate respect regarding their beliefs. I believe it is important to gather a full developmental history from my clients—including their spiritual/religious development. Jesus was a man of concern and compassion. He experienced sorrow and expressed sympathy when others grieved. “And being moved with pity and sympathy, Jesus reached out His hand and touched him, and said to him, I am willing; be made clean!” (Mark 1:41). As Jesus landed, He saw a great crowd waiting, and He was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). Following Jesus’ example, I hope to help others alleviate pain and suffering while meeting their needs. Jesus had a knack for seeing right to the core of individuals, quickly assessing their true needs—regardless of what they told Him. Jesus embraced and accepted anyone who was willing. In John 4, Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at the well. At this time, no Jew would consider talking to a Samaritan, a mixed race of Jew and other foreigners. This woman also was a known sinner, living in sin with a man. Nevertheless, Jesus takes this opportunity to minister to her personally. If Jesus had not accepted her and spoken with her, many people would have missed out on the glory of His salvation. I work to practice with the same spirit of acceptance and non-judgment; “if any person is overtaken in misconduct or sin of any sort, you who are spiritual [who are responsive to and controlled by the Spirit] should set him right and restore and reinstate him, without any sense of superiority and with all gentleness, keeping an attentive eye on yourself, lest you should be tempted also” (Galatians 6:1). Also, Jesus always showed individuals value as He gave them His personal attention and He listened empathetically. Again, He looked to their need rather than to rules and regulations the Pharisee’s had created. He crossed boundaries in order to minister directly to those who needed Him most.

    Jesus had impeccable communication skills. He knew when to speak and when to effectively use silence as seen when He drew in the sand (John 8:3-11). He understood the principle of timing (Proverbs 15:23) and the importance of keeping confidence (Proverbs 20:19) and establishing trust. Jesus gave hope, encouragement, and inspiration. Jesus’ method was a positive all-things-are-possible approach (Mark 10:27). Jesus also emphasized the peace of mind people could have. He expressed hope for a future and strength for their present situation. I want to inspire others; to motivate them to want to change and to receive blessings. Jesus challenged us to renew our minds and to redirect our thinking. Teaching is a huge part of His counseling ministry. He used a variety of teaching methods; direct statements, questioning, and parables. He taught with authority, “for He was teaching as One Who had [and was] authority, and not as [did] the scribes” (Matthew 7:29). He taught not only on thinking, but also on right behaviors (Luke 6:47-49).

    ​Jesus also used confrontation (Matthew 8:26, Matthew 18:15, John 8:3-9) as an effective tool. He was a master at when to confront and how to confront. Jesus knew the importance of people accepting responsibility. In John 5, He responded to the man at the pool of Bethesda asking, do you really want to be well? Do you want to be healed? Do you want to change your circumstances? By asking these questions, He was asking then man if He really willing to accept responsibility for what he wanted. With Jesus, confrontations were acts of grace. As a counselor, I use confrontation to challenge the undeveloped and misused potential that lies within my clients. The goal is to help my clients tap their own resources and skills and put them into action. I want to invite my clients to explore their defenses, those that keep them from exploring and from moving forward. My purpose in confronting clients is to help them to make better decisions, to be more productive (or less destructive), and to become more accepting of self and others. I want my clients to feel that they are encouraged in the sense that someone believes in them—believes in their ability and in their potential to follow through. It is with this sort of empathetic, caring confrontation that I work to offer personal reassurance and a challenge to make positive change.

    • Beautiful stuff, Anna. Thanks for adding meaningfully to my post.

    • Perfect. Thanks for adding meaningfully to my post, Anna. You’re top shelf.