I recently came across a message by a very well-known pastor who preached on why Christians should never see a counselor. The pastor shall remain nameless as I believe he is well intentioned; his message conveys genuine care and concern for his flock. However, as well intentioned as he may be, he is wrong; surprisingly, shamefully, wrong.
Of course this is not the first time I’ve heard someone discourage Christians from seeing a counselor; I personally know several individuals who would advocate for this position. I have also counseled clients who expressed serious reservation because, as Christians, they had been advised against therapy.
I am disappointed this outlook persists. But I have to believe it is not out of malice that some pastors and Christians advise against counseling, but rather ignorance. It appears many sincere and faithful people are confused and uninformed concerning counseling, and as a result, cause a perpetuation of mental health problems.
In my experience, I have met two types of uninformed persons, maybe you too have met these people: the clinically uninformed and the theologically uninformed.
There are people who believe every illness in the body is a demon; these people are comparatively rare. There are also people who believe every illness of the mind is a demon; these people are astonishingly common. For whatever reason, Christians often believe the brain is an organ particularly susceptible to spiritual attack. Heart disease is the result of smoking, brain disease is the devil.
These people tend to be uninformed clinically; they simply do not know how the brain works; they don’t know the research, and they are ignorant of how trauma or maladaptive thoughts, feelings and behaviors can affect both the functioning of the brain and its physiological structure
The brain is an extraordinary organ; but it is just that, an organ. And it is susceptible to illness and disorder just as every other organ is. Patient education may bring understanding to the clinically uninformed. But there also exists another uninformed class of people for whom it is much more difficult to bring understanding: the theologically uninformed.
One of my Grad School professors once told me his most difficult cases didn’t have to do with mental illness, but rather bad theology. I too have found this to be true.
It’s because theology and identity are so intimately intertwined. To challenge someone’s theology is to challenge the core of who that person is. Perhaps more than anything, a person’s faith is their primary self-understanding; to challenge that faith is to question everything that person has ever believed about themselves or known about the universe and God. Approaching these kinds of theological questions is at times traumatic and for many people, very scary.
The problem is many people have very mistaken, wrong and unhelpful views of God and his interaction with creation. Throw in those people who have mistaken views of Satan and now you have a real problem. These individuals need help to sort through questions of faith and theology in a way which contributes to their spiritual growth and decreases guilt, shame and condemnation brought on by bad theology.
So we have two kinds of people who may avoid counseling due to either clinical or theological ignorance. This is a real problem, because individuals who are suffering need help. I recently read of a family in Alberta, Canada who withheld cancer treatment for a young boy because they believed God would heal him. The boy died, and the parents have been charged.
The parents suffered from theological ignorance and are tragically responsible for the boy’s death. In the same way, a pastor who advises a Christian, who suffers from mental health disturbance, to not seek professional help, will be responsible for tragic outcomes.
So in the interest of providing education to ward off ignorance, I propose some guidelines for Christians who need clinically and theologically sound counseling.
Choose a Christian Counselor
Although I have many non-Christian colleagues who are wonderful counselors and care deeply about their clients, I recommend Christian clients go to Christian counselors if possible. There exists a shorthand in language, experience and practice between Christian client and Christian therapist which may be difficult for non-Christian counselors to achieve.
For Christian clients, spirituality is the most important consideration. And for this reason, the choice of therapist should reflect someone who will contribute to spiritual growth and maturity as well as theological education to combat ignorance.
Choose a Licensed Counselor
This is important. Nearly everyone is ready to offer “counsel”, not everyone is qualified to do so. There are licensing bodies which aim to ensure competence and ethical practice. Be sure the counselor you see is licensed to practice as a counselor. If your “counselor” is not licensed, run.
Now a word concerning pastoral counseling. There is a time and place for spiritual guidance and discipleship; both are extremely important. There is also a time and place for mental health treatment. It is the duty of every pastor who provides counseling to use wisdom and understanding in recognizing the difference between a problem which requires spiritual guidance, and a problem which requires clinical treatment.
Counseling pastors who are unwilling to refer for diagnosable mental illnesses should not be providing counseling services. This would be the equivalent of a pastor unwilling to refer a parishioner who suffers from cancer, to a doctor. It would be both clinically and theologically ignorant.
An easy test to determine if your pastor is using wisdom in his pastoral counseling is to simply ask him if he believes Christians should ever go to counseling. If he says yes, and affirms he would refer a mentally ill person, you’re safe. If he says no, well . . . you know what that means.
Choose a Trusted Counselor
There are avenues by which you may research a counselor’s reputation in your community. If you have a wise and informed pastor, he will be able to provide you with referrals for respected and professional help.
You may also talk to friends who have had positive experiences with particular counselors. You may read reviews online or research if there have been complaints or actions taken against any counselors in your area. You may also check with the professional licensing bodies to ensure your counselor is in good standing and is not the subject of any ethical impropriety.
There are good counselors, and there are bad counselors. As the client, you must ultimately decide who you trust, who is capable of helping you and simply who you “click” with. Research shows the most important factor in therapeutic success is the relationship between the therapist and client. If the relationship is not good, I advise you find another therapist.
If you don’t follow me regularly, and if you haven’t caught on by now – I am a counselor. My bias is evident. I speak as a professional who spends every day attempting to help people overcome the challenges brought on by life. Counselors are not perfect people, far from it. But they are people who choose to give a piece of themselves to people in need, whether through education, a listening ear, guidance, simple presence or prayer.
So in time, it is my hope that the persistent ignorance which keeps hurting people from the help they need will subside, and in its place, Christians will come to recognize counseling as a vital and much-needed ministry.
So should Christians go to counseling? I can’t possibly see why not.