What makes Christian counseling "Christian?" Is it Christian because the counselor is a Christian? Is it Christian if she/he prays with or for the patient? Is it Christian if he quotes a few Bible verses? Is it Christian if he encourages you to pray, or go to church, or read your Bible? Is it Christian if the counselor quotes, or recommends, or relies upon Dobson, Crabb, Minirth, or Meier?
St. Paul was thoroughly and radically convinced that Christ's incarnation ("Christ in you, the hope of glory." Col. 1:27) and His work on the cross were an exploding, eternal display of God's power and wisdom (I Cor. 1:18-2:5). He struggled and longed for his sheep to understand and know this "Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge ... so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments ... see to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human traditions ... rather than on Christ." (Col. 2:1-8) He was single-minded in his mission "to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power."
What does Christian counseling look to for the cure of souls? Does Christian counseling treasure the wisdom and power found in Christ and His cross, or does it depend upon hollow philosophy and human traditions? What is the power source in Christian counseling? Are God's Word and Spirit the engine or the caboose?
I am a Christian psychologist who is no longer enchanted by the wonders of secular psychotherapy or "Christian" counseling. I have seen how my attempts to "integrate" the plausible wonders of secular psychology with my Christian beliefs inevitably result in the cross of Christ being "emptied of its power." My attempts to borrow from Freud, Skinner, Ellis, Glasser, and Rogers, weaving their diagnoses ("Who is man and what is wrong with him?") and cures (therapeutic techniques/change strategies) into my "Christian control beliefs" and "Christian world view" have failed, even though some of my former patients might tell you I helped them feel better, cope more effectively, or stay out of trouble.
But the questions that haunt me are these. Are my former patients any closer to the Kingdom of the King? Did my assistance in alleviating their pain and suffering enable them to see their most pressing need, that they are sinners in need of mercy and grace? Worse, did it distract them from that truth? Do they better understand that their misery results from sin, usually their own and sometimes that of others against them? Do they realize that their suffering was intended or allowed by a sovereign, merciful, providential God to bring them to Him and make them good, whole, and useful in His sovereign plan?
Dr. David Powlison, pastoral theologian and biblical counselor observes, "The net effect in every integrationist's system is that secular error eats up biblical truth, so that false views of human nature and of the change/counseling process control the system." In other words, the cross of Christ is emptied of its power.
Does God's Word really get at what ails us and recommend a cure for souls in the practical, daily trenches of life as it is lived? Does it apply only to the "spiritual" matters, to faith and practice? Is it true and beneficial but applies only to our private little spirits?
Over the past 150 years, the church has relinquished much of its pastoral role to mental health professionals. God has been privatized, and mental health professionals have become secular priests who handle the hard problems of life. The church has defaulted and people are drinking from cisterns that purport to slake their thirst and meet their real need. Is the best way to help people with problems truly for them to go sit down in a private office, one-on-one with a professional at a cost of a $100 an hour? Doesn't the church have anything to offer to lost, hopeless, disordered, hurting, and wicked people? Couldn't it be that the old paradigm for helping people who hurt and suffer is better than the new one?
The pivotal issue is the Bible's sufficiency and relevance. In our post-modern, progressivist culture we tend to believe (sometimes rightly) that what is new is better than what is old. Surely my father's calculator of the '60s cannot compare to my '90s computer. But new ideas are not necessarily better than old. The issues - who are we really, why do we do what we do, what is wrong with us, and how do we fix it - are no different at the dawn of this millennium than at the dawn of the last. Furthermore, the diagnosis and cure of God's Word remains. It is never outdated or in need of improvement.
Diagnosis precedes and determines what treatment should be. Once a problem is rightly defined, the solution logically follows. If our primary problem is sin (rebelliousness, lusts, inordinate desires, idols), the world, or the devil, then we will look for God-centered solutions, techniques, and methods - such as evangelism and discipleship.
If, on the other hand, we define problems in modern psychological terms, we take a different road to change. If my basic problem is that I have an "empty love tank" or that my "search for significance" has been frustrated, or that my "legitimate needs" (security, approval, acceptance, validation, whatever) haven't been met by my spouse or my family-of-origin, then I will look for horizontal, psychological, man-centered solutions - solutions that reify my needs, focus me on my self, and make other people into gods who should satisfy my needs. How easily we fall into the hell of ourselves. Like my mother once told me, "Sam, you'll never, ever get enough of what you don't really need."
I cannot find one shred of evidence in the Bible that supports this sort of diagnosis. The cures for these diagnoses take us further away from God, rather than to the One who promised to give us what we need most and which lasts longest: freedom from the guilt I've earned, freedom from the present tyranny of my self and sins, and freedom to love God and my neighbor. God's Word does not define us and/or what ails us in psychological need categories. It defines us as divine image bearers created to know, choose, serve, love, and worship. We are active verbs not empty cups. We are irretrievably religious beings, born to worship, or fear, or love someone or something. Faith or idolatry, God, or gods - take your pick.
Dr. Powlison proclaims, "Scripture is about what counseling is about. ...The relevance and sufficiency of Scripture is not just a matter of rhetoric: 'The Bible, the Bible, the Bible.' ... Scripture goes into action and changes people. The Bible's relevance and sufficiency for the cure of souls is immediate and practical. This is more than abstract theory or the affirmation that counseling must proceed within the general boundaries of a Christian worldview. In the counseling discipline, Scripture gives much more than the contours of a worldview. The instructions Paul wrote in his epistles were designed to change lives in particular ways. Jesus taught His disciples with the intention of changing their motives, actions, words, attitudes, beliefs, and priorities. ... God didn't talk and act to fill up pages. He spoke in order to transform the way we live. ... Robust, biblical Christianity speaks a better and truer word to the problems of living ... because Scripture is about what counseling is about, it makes sense that the cure of souls will continue to be a major cultural and religious battlefield in the twenty-first century - a battlefield where God will greatly glorify Himself by changing lives."
When Jesus was asked what the bottom line of life was about, He said it was about being totally preoccupied, literally obsessed, with loving God and loving others (spouses, children, neighbors, even enemies) - this is how we have our true needs met, transcend our self-absorbed whining, and find salve for our self-inflicted wounds and even for those inflicted upon us by a world full of fellow sinners (See Matt. 10:39, Mark 8:35-36, Phil. 2:3 and Micah 6:8). It is in loving God and others that we are transformed and changed. It is in valuing God as most valuable, above all other competing goods and gods, that we are satisfied!
Ultimately, God and His grace are the only true change agents. The post-modern world has no idea how helpless it is. We have no idea how much wisdom and power come to us through Christ, by the Holy Spirit. Change that is worth anything is the result of a transaction between our dirty, deceptive, and broken hearts, and the God who created us and desires to redeem and sanctify us. If we define ourselves and our problems in biblical, spiritual, and moral terms, we turn to and depend upon the God who created us and wants to change us. We turn to His written Word as our counseling manual, toward His Christ as our most wonderful counselor and friend, relying upon His sanctifying Spirit as our advocate and comforter.
Christ and His cross are packed with power for change; His Word is full of wisdom and know-how. It is up to those dying of thirst to go to the Living Fountain and drink - and so live.
Dr. Sam R. Williams is the newly-appointed associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.