There are many in the field of counseling and psychology routinely referring to themselves as Christian Counselors. The definitions of Christian counseling are as varied and diverse as the people who provide these services. All of this diversity begs the question what is “true” and effective Christian counseling. All Christian Counselors would generally agree that the power of the Holy Spirit can and will create change in people's lives. The differences are primarily involved in secular theories of psychology and the application of these techniques in Christian Counseling interventions.
Secular counseling is rooted in the support and strengthening of the individual ego or self-identity. The concept of self-esteem has become such an accepted idea in our culture that few would question the premise that this is a positive outcome in counseling. In our popular western culture, the self or identity is strengthened in television ads related to the perfect body, the perfect date, the perfect children, the best schools, the best teams, the most possessions, the notion of pride, etc. In every direction we are bombarded by popular western culture, which appeals to our vanity, possessiveness, lust, and desire to be accepted and “fit in” to our social surroundings. Secular counseling serves to help the individual “self” cope with the social environment in a more productive manner. Values held, unless socially or personally destructive, are viewed as neutral in terms of their psychological impact on our mental health. The secular counselor's job is to help individuals cope more productively and more effectively with their personally held values and beliefs. The personal values of the counselor, is generally considered irrelevant to a positive outcome for the counselee. The emphasis is on helping the counselee discover that which will strengthen their personal self-esteem and cope more effectively as an individual. Religion may be used as a coping mechanism in these approaches, but is used as a means to an end not an end in itself. Generally, religion is discouraged because of the secular counselor's belief that religion is an escapist method with limited usefulness for lasting change. The real power is in the power of the self and the need to boost the self-esteem, which is the fuel of positive change.
In Sigmund Freud's book, Civilization and Its Discontent, Freud explains, “The common man cannot imagine this providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse. The whole thing is so patently infantile, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.” Religion in Freud's view is a poor attempt by the masses to escape their unacceptable instinctual impulses (Id) and to appease the overly harsh internalized societal demands (Superego). The forces of the Id and Superego according to Freud are balanced in the ego or self- identity. In Freud's opinion, any view of the human condition, which includes any spiritual force beyond the ego, would be considered self-delusional. Freud believed we are motivated by the pleasure principle, which is a need to fulfill selfish and self-seeking desires. As we can see from a brief sampling of Sigmund Freud's writings, he was a zealous atheist with little tolerance for Christian ideals.
In Freud's view, mental health is found through the pain-staking work of the analyst in uprooting the subconscious fears and neurosis of the patient in order for them to become a more “aware” and fully functioning human being. The change process occurs through the work of the analyst, much as a patient would be treated and healed by the doctor for a physical ailment. With such a strongly held set of beliefs about religion and what constitutes mental health, the patient is clearly influenced and conditioned towards the analyst view of mental health and away from beliefs they may hold about religion or any other deeply held values. We have the same difficulty with any counselor having a set of strongly held beliefs, whether they are a secular counselor or a Christian counselor. Our values and beliefs influence the questions we ask or do not ask, how we ask these questions, and what would be considered a positive outcome with a given client. In my opinion, it is impossible to be “neutral” in a counseling session, and we regularly impose our set of values and beliefs on our clients.
Another influence in secular psychology is behaviorism. Behaviorism began with the influences of Charles Darwin and the beliefs he proposed in evolution theory. According to the early behaviorist, we are constantly adapting to the stimulus of pleasure and pain, which creates over time the sum total of our identity. According to Edward Thorndike's law of effect, an association followed by a positive experience will be strengthened, whereas an association followed by a negative experience would be weakened. The early behaviorist and subsequent behavior theorist did not believe in a power beyond the seen as influencing human behavior in any way. God through the Holy Spirit is completely excluded from being given any serious consideration in the role of change. The self, according to the behaviorist, is the sum total of learned behavior.
More modern theorists, such as the cognitive behaviorist Albert Ellis in Rational Emotive Therapy, believe in a cognitive process that develops identity and mental health through the elimination of all dogma, musts, shoulds, and strongly-held ideologies. These include any strongly held religious beliefs and associated values and the role of a higher power in identity or change. According to Ellis “shoulds” and “oughts” and morally-rigid codes of conduct have no place in a healthy person and lead to neurotic guilt and unnecessary anxiety. Ellis also believes that strongly held beliefs should be challenged and, when necessary, changed to preferences.
The third force in psychology is the humanistic theorist. The goal of the early humanist is towards self-actualization (Maslow) and becoming fully actualized (Rogers). According to Carl Rogers we should avoid imposing values or conditions of worth on others and offer them unconditional positive regard. Positive self-regard is found by developing an independent set of values related to our own experiences and unique interpretation of those experiences. According to the humanist, right and wrong are relative terms and should be established and developed by the individual. The counselor is not to offer an opinion about the worth of held values, as long as they are not destructive to society or self-destructive such as in suicidal thoughts or ideations. According to the humanist, we strive towards living an “authentic life,” which is related to being “true” to ourselves, not the imposed values of a society, religion, parental influences or a moral force.
In historical and modern influences in secular psychology, there is virtually no serious consideration given to the possibility of Christianity and Christian Counseling as being a source of emotional and mental health. In fact, just the opposite is true. Religion is seen as the source or condition of neurotic and dysfunctional behavior. The self-identity rooted in individual effort and experience is accepted without question, and considered to be healthy, primarily in relation to consideration and perpetuation of self-centered and selfish interests.
Secular Christian counselors build upon the historical secular theorist by accepting their assumptions as true. For example, a secular Christian counselor will try to “help” a client by offering unconditional positive regard. They refuse to make a judgment about the client's behavior, and they believe this unconditional acceptance will help the client increase positive self-acceptance and, therefore, boost positive self-esteem. The client may be involved in behavior, which the Bible considers to be destructive and sinful and against which the Bible strongly teaches, yet the secular Christian counselor will continue to accept these behaviors unconditionally. By ignoring and “accepting” this behavior, the counselor is in fact helping the person to increase self-acceptance and their subsequent separation from the teachings of Christ. The Christian premise that true happiness can never be found outside of the teachings of Christ is rejected, and the secular theorist and their theoretical views is embraced.
The secular counselor's fear of imposing values on others offers no real help for the client. The secular Christian will rarely discuss God, unless brought up by the client and in the context of the client's need to discuss these issues. No corrections of doctrine or direction of information will be offered out of fear of polluting the therapeutic relationship. The Secular Christian counselor will be influential in helping the client develop a strong sense of self and personal coping skills. This belief in the importance of self-esteem rooted in individual effort has been so ingrained in us by modern psychology and popularized by pop culture that it seems like common sense to many. Low self-esteem is blamed for many of our children's school and family problems, criminal behavior, neurotic behavior, anxiety and depression and many other social and personal ills.
The truth in my opinion is just the opposite. The cause of much of our social and psychological problems is related to the development, within our selves and our children, of a strong self-esteem and identity rooted in the pride of self-effort, not in our faith in God. In my opinion, many of our mental health problems are developed because of our sinful and prideful separation from God. The fallen state is a condition of being rooted in the selfish and self-centered ego or personal 'I,' following a personal agenda fueled by self-effort, rather than following the teachings of Christ through the Holy Scriptures. All secular psychology strives to reinforce this personal 'I,' or personal self. The personal self is concerned with the sinful state separated from God and consists of the elements of pride, greed, anger, fear, guilt, envy, jealousy, selfishness, self-centeredness, etc. We are all involved, to some degree, with selfish and self-focused behavior. The extent that one has repented of sin and lives within the laws of Christ, determines the level of one's personal mental health. The fallen state is the source of all unhappiness. For example, greed causes unrest and strife, anger causes social upheaval, and selfishness causes feelings of dissatisfaction and fear.
When we live a moral and godly life, and are reborn into the image of Christ, all old things are put away and we become a new creature in Christ. We begin to live in a state of love for God and others rather than simply a love for self. We love others not with the love found within our own ability, but with the love of Christ that lives within us. Our own ability to love is always limited to the self and its selfish interests. God's ability to love through us is limitless. Our focus and concern is on transcending the “me-self” and finding our self-esteem and identity through our love for Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit working within us. The Christian counselor's task is to help the client, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to become more Christ-like, to transcend the fallen state and to become truly a new creature, dying to self and allowing God to live through them. The client is led to realize that they are the temple of God and have inherent worth, not in self, but in Christ who lives within them. The Christian counselor is to act as a guide to help the client discover how their current life-style is causing them to be separated from God and to offer biblical solutions for positive change. The client is, in effect, led to a transcendent state in which they forsake the “me-self” and allow God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to live through them. This conversion experience, in effect, replaces the false self-esteem with a true esteem for Christ, which translates to feelings of inherent worth, not for their actions, but for the actions of the Holy Spirit who lives within them.
This approach can be applied to any problem presented to the counselor. For example, if a couple presents with a marital problem the Christian counselor is to analyze what selfish and sinful behaviors are involved in the marital strife. The questions might center on domestic violence, self-centered behavior, prayer life, poor understanding or disagreement of the marital roles, etc. The Scriptures should be consulted and a Biblical solution offered in a loving and Christ-like manner. No judgment need be imposed in terms of a harsh rejection or condemnation of the couple. The Biblical Scriptures can be offered, and homework assignments can begin, for positive change. The core of most marital problems, in my opinion, is involved in selfish and self-centered behavior and a poor understanding of and/or ignoring of scriptural teachings. The Christian counselor is a highly moral person with a deep conviction of the power of the Holy Spirit in bringing about change. The Christian counselor does not change the client, he only acts as an instrument for the change process to occur. The Christian counselor helps the client to remove the self-seeking and self-striving behaviors, and replace these actions with the power of the Holy Spirit and with Biblical change. The truly converted can no longer feel pride in his accomplishments, but only stand in awe at the power of God working through him. The transcendent Christian becomes empty, so that God can fill him with his presence.
In our society selfishness and “I do my thing-you do your thing” is rampant. I will be the first to advocate for a free society. I believe that God advocates for a free and open society and free will is a core belief of the Christian teachings. However, our society perpetuates our fallen and sinful state at every turn and makes it easy for us to lose our focus and to turn to a separated condition from God. Our fallen and separated self-identity is fragile and leads to much consternation in our private and public lives. When our self is rooted in Christ, we become strong with his strength, loving with his love, holy with his holiness. Although imperfect, we find joy in our lives, peace beyond understanding, faith that can move mountains, and strength that we never had when relying on our own resources and self-efforts.
by Randy Rich, Ph.D.
[ Dr. Rich has worked in the field of counseling for the past 20 years. He holds a Masters degree in counseling psychology and a Ph.D. in Christian Counseling. He has a private practice where he specializes in Christian Counseling methods. ]