Gone are the days when counseling is just for “the mentally ill.” In spite of lame jokes and a dying, but lingering, stigma sometimes attached to counseling, many individuals and families are seeking professional help to deal with the trauma of life in a fallen world.
If you or someone you love are experiencing a particularly trying time, maybe it’s time to consider seeking help. As you analyze your situation it may be helpful to consider some important points.
People typically enter counseling because they are hurting, frustrated, or feeling overwhelmed by a problem. In most cases, difficult circumstances drive the felt need for counseling. In my experience, most of these circumstances are based in wounded relationships between husbands and wives and parents and children. And, of course, one or more persons in these relationships may be experiencing intrapersonal difficulties, including mood disorders like depression and anxiety, addictions, or situational stressors like work or school.
As we become more informed about integrative care for the body, mind, and spirit, and how each part of us affects our total health, I believe mental health counseling will only increase.
Each person who enters therapy has his or her own story. In my case, I was 20-years-old with a decade-long bout with panic disorder and depression. My private life was riddled with inner pain, but I worked hard publicly to make the right impressions. I can still recall my surrender. It took my physical body succumbing to a serious bout with mononucleosis before my resistance broke. At this point, I was no longer in denial; I was ready to receive help.
As I write this, I’ve lived another twenty-plus years beyond my bout with mental illness. I remain free of the mood disorders that once owned me. While I still experience stress and the occasional blue day, my mental health is far better than I ever dreamed possible.
A few years ago I learned from a family physician that most of his patients were in need of his care because their bodies were actually suffering from carrying the load of emotional and spiritual stress. He shared with me that medical science has effectively treated a variety of contagions and physical conditions, but that we are behind in our mental health efforts.
By the time we grow up, we know how to clean a physical wound, but we’re rarely equipped to clean an emotional or spiritual wound. Because we possess this tri-part design of body, mind, and spirit, counseling can help us learn how to care for these two less-understood parts as we journey towards becoming a whole person.
The goal of counseling will often vary, and experienced counselors will tailor their approaches to their clients’ needs. But, it’s important for us to understand that different schools of therapy have different end goals.
Secular counseling is grounded in humanism, and most often seeks to help a person adjust to difficult circumstances. The processes may include client education, behavioral techniques, and cognitive restructuring (changing one’s thoughts), just to name a few. But the end goal will most likely be some type of adaptation that provides symptom relief.
Christian counseling is grounded in the Bible, and most often seeks to help a person embrace the pain of his experience through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Many of the processes will be similar to those employed in secular counseling, but the motivation will be different. For example, a Christian counselor may also employ cognitive restructuring techniques, but the end goal for renewing the mind will be a greater knowledge and enjoyment of God not based on circumstances.
In secular counseling, the problem and/or the client often remains the focus. With Christian counseling, God remains the focus; one important goal is helping the person to grow a rich and accurate view of God1 specific to that person’s life.
Professional counselors – whether Christian or not – understand that clients have the right to choose their treatment goals.2 Both types of therapists, however, will most likely offer some assistance in clarifying and evaluating what the goal(s) should be.
Practically speaking, the most effective therapy gets underway when the therapist and client are in agreement on the focus of treatment. This understanding will include a list of “target” concerns, the frequency and durations of sessions, the modality of treatment (office, telephone, etc.), therapeutic assignments, and a clear understanding of knowing when therapy should be concluded.
In my experience, some clients are prone to wanting to accomplish too much in therapy with too little time. On the other hand, some therapists are prone to recommending care that exceeds their initial opinion. In any case, the therapist who continually points the client to the sufficiency of Christ – rather than pointing to himself or fostering an unhealthy dependency on himself – bears the hallmark of Christian counseling.
The sufficiency of Christ is where we find our serenity – in spite of difficult circumstances that obviously render us unhappy for a season. Finding our peace in Christ is not some “pie in the sky” mentality, but the life Christ has promised us. All too often, however, we make our sense of peace conditional. “I can’t be satisfied until …”
The Bible holds numerous examples for our consideration, such as Jesus’ willingness to provide rest for our souls,3 or the report of the Psalmist who cried out to the Lord and claimed he was set free of his anguish.4 In the book of Philippians we’re counseled to be anxious for nothing, and then told that “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”5
When nothing of life seems to make sense, we must ultimately reaffirm the righteous nature of God if we are to be at peace with Him and within ourselves. Paul suffered beatings, stonings, and shipwrecks, and yet held to the sufficiency of his savior.
He encouraged the Corinthian church with this truth:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5 NIV).
In counseling, both the client and therapist need to be willing to grapple with the pain of life’s unanswered questions. In the therapeutic process, Christians will want to embrace not only the reality of their experience, but the reality of God.
Each person will have his or her own opinion, but for me, the therapeutic goals come in three varieties: good, better, and best.
Good: Getting healthier is always a good goal. There is perhaps a problem or a condition that needs to be improved or overcome.
Better: Learning to help other people, including your family, by virtue of your own experience can be a worthy therapeutic goal. This type of altruism points not only to service, but also to one’s better mental outlook.
Best: The best goal for counseling – or any other pursuit – is clearly divine. The best goal is to know and enjoy God. It is here, in our intimacy with God, that Christ becomes the Wonderful Counselor and Great Physician who makes us whole.
In a world filled with both challenge and opportunity, counseling can be a logical choice for individuals, couples, and families who wish to grow to the next level of faith and well-being. The Bible speaks of the “safety” that exists among counselors.6 Perhaps it’s time to seek the safe harbor of counseling, and make a few repairs before continuing your life’s journey.
Copyright © 2004 Rob Jackson. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
1 To trust in God, we need a rich and accurate way of thinking and speaking about him to guide and support our life vision and our will. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, (San Francisco: Harper press, 1998), p. 65.
2 Ethical therapists provide inform clients of their rights to treatment, confidentiality, and is the mental health provider’s responsibility governed by state law. This information should be provided in writing at the initial appointment.
3 Matthew 11:28-30
4 Psalm 118:5-6
5 Philippians 4:6-7
6 Proverbs 11:14
Rob Jackson is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice who specializes in intimacy disorders, including sex addiction and codependency. He also speaks nationally on a variety of topics, including intimacy with God and family. www.ChristianCounsel.com.