One of my seminary professors used to say, “All good theology is practical theology.” No where is this truer than in the discipline of counseling. Our theology answers the ultimate questions of life. It guides us to live our lives in the light of those answers. Thus, our theology will also influence how we help others live in that same light. But, what happens when the light in which we live becomes filled with shadows? What happens when we emphasize one ultimate question at the expense of the others? In this post I will explore how theological imbalances affect our counseling. I will also offer a solution to the problem.
Counseling as Worldview Persuasion
First, Christian counseling is a form of worldview persuasion. As I said before, people in counseling ask the questions that matter. They want answers to questions like “Who am I?” “What is wrong with me (or you)?” And, “How do I fix what is wrong with me (or you)?” These questions are theological. They are important. They need answering. Christianity offers coherent answers in the form of the Redemptive Story. This narrative is like a three act play. Each act is a theological doctrine that answers one of these ultimate questions. The doctrine of Creation answers the “Who am I?” question. The doctrine of the Fall answers the “What is wrong with me (or you)?” question. And the doctrine of Redemption answers the “How do I fix what is wrong with me (or you)?” question. It is unfortunate, but many Christian counselors become experts on one of these questions. As a result, they become tunnel-visioned in their theology. And this tunnel-vision hinders their counseling. Why? Because our counseling flows from our theology. Bad theology brings forth bad counseling. Lets examine how an imbalanced theology might work itself out in counseling.
Counselors Who Overemphasize Creation
Counselors who overemphasize creation tend to root everything in the material world. Most are trained in public universities. As such, biology, secular psychology, and secular humanism serve as frames of reference for these counselors. While being fluent in psychiatric labels and language, they often struggle with basic theological concepts such as the meaning of the Imago Dei. They want to be biblical, but their orientation hinders it. When under pressure, they inevitably revert back to their training. As such, it can be difficult to distinguish them from their secular counterparts.
Do not be mistaken. These counselors love Jesus. The problem is their education leads them to see only the natural world. It is a truncated view of reality. They are much like the materialist mentioned in Schaeffer’s illustration of the Universe and Two Chairs. Their overreliance on the spectacles of scientific inquiry blinds them to spiritual realities. As Christians, they know there is more to bring into their work. But their education and professional commitments won’t allow it. They hold doctoral degrees in secular psychology. But, it is rare that their theological training extends beyond their Sunday School classes. Most work in the mental health care system. By necessity, they have signed an oath of allegiance to their state’s counseling code of ethics. But as Christians, they know that God calls them to submit to a higher law. They are caught in a dilemma. They struggle with divided loyalties. They long to bring the gospel into their work. But, they have no idea how to accomplish this in their professional lives. As a result, when under pressure they take refuge in the familiar. Hiding behind the shield of professionalism, their counseling remains stuck in the material world.
Counselors Who Overemphasize Sin
While counselors who overemphasize creation have one set of problems, counselors who overemphasize sin have another set. Those who overemphasize sin are prone to denigrate those under their care. In their zeal to expose sin, they often neglect to respect their counselees as human beings. They will deny this, but their interactions can be curt and condescending. They deride the psychiatric labels used by those counselors who overemphasize creation. But in a sense, they are guilty of a similar offense. They often discard a term like psychiatric disorder for the theological label of sinner. Is it true that their counselees are sinners? Of course. But, they are also image bearers. And this means that they are deserving of respect. Sadly, these counselors can struggle in seeing this. Unwittingly, they have reduced their counselees to nothing more than sinners. They are no longer image bearers. Without realizing it, they have dehumanized those to whom God calls them to minister.
What do we make of this? Well, while our sin is the problem, we have to remember that we live in a secularized culture. Christian counselors are to be salt and light to a lost and dying world. It is a world composed of those coming to them for help. Without explaining creation, many people, including those in our churches, don’t understand sin. And if they don’t understand sin, then redemption remains confusing as well. This counseling approach does not provide the proper context before it makes its accusations. Here is how confused counselees hear this message: “The world is a bad place. You are a bad person. You need to get right with Jesus. You need to separate from all worldly pursuits. If you do, you will get better. If you don’t, there will be hell to pay.”
Where do these Christian counselors come from? Counselors of this persuasion often hail from fundamentalist circles. A bunker mentality tends to permeate their thinking. Their seige mind-set prohibits them from engaging the larger world of counseling. As a result, they often become marginalized in the bigger picture. They have shut themselves off from the larger evangelical community. They have separated themselves from those who are lost. Thus, they tend to offer pastoral care only to members of their own churches. Some will even goes as far to say that it is impossible to truly counsel unbelievers. This inhibits their influence in the Christian counseling community. It also impairs their evangelistic efforts because it prevents them from speaking into the lives of non-Christian counselees.
Counselors Who Overemphasize Redemption
A third type of counselor can be just as dangerous as the first two. This third group overemphasizes the role of redemption in counseling. Those who do this tend to overburden those to whom they minister. These pietistic individuals teach that a counselee can achieve complete sanctification in this life. This can have devestating effects for counselees because it burdens them with a performancism that can never be achieved. A misguided Keswickian theology typically fuels these counselors. It leads them to impose impossible burdens on those under their care. Their counseling promises freedom. But, it usually delivers bondage in the form of performancism. Consequently, counselees become marred in discouragement because can never be good enough. Sadly, they lose hope. Along with hope, this approach also deprives them of grace. This deprivation of grace then leads to disengagement. Convinced they will never measure up, counselees sink back into the darkness. They go without the help they crave.
Humility as a Corrective Action
How should Christian counselors combat these imbalances in their work? First, humility must be a constant companion on our journey. We must remember that different theological systems emphasize different things. Since good theology is practical theology, our system should balance everything. If we aren’t balanced, then our theology is not practical. If our theology is not practical, then it is not good. And if our theology is not good, then we need to adjust it. Second, we must demonstrate our humility to other counselors. Some of our counseling colleagues are not yet aware of their theological imbalances. Some haven’t traveled as far down the path as we have yet. We must remember that. Finally, we must express our humility to those we minister to. We must challenge those who need challenging. We must comfort those who need comforting. But we must be patient with them all (1 Thess 5:14).
Join the Conversation
How balanced is your theology? Are you favoring one element from the Story of Redemption in favor of the others? How do you need to bring your theology, and ultimately your counseling, back into balance?