What is Christian counseling? Christian counseling could be defined as "the ministry of one individual seeking to help another person recognize, understand, and solve his or her own problems in accordance with the Word of God." The emphasis in the above definition is on only two individuals—the patient and the therapist. This emphasis is valid, yet Christian counseling has even further implications. The entire body of Christ in a local area has a responsibility to minister to the emotional needs of one of its members, and the counselor will do well to take advantage in therapy of the great rehabilitative resources available in the local church.
Whether one thinks of the entire local church or the one-to-one relationship when Christian counseling is mentioned, and whether the Christian counselor is a minister, psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker, certain principles make Christian counseling unique.
First, it accepts the Bible as the final standard of authority. As a result, Christians are not left to explore and dissect through the myriad of philosophies and their own logic and to hope by chance to hit upon a correct system of right and wrong.
Furthermore, Christians do not have to depend totally upon their own consciences to direct their behavior. They may rely on the Word of God. If one's conscience agrees with the Word of God, then the conscience is valid; if not, the conscience is invalid. For example, in some cultures a man might feel guilty for seeing his wife in the nude. Should such a man be told to live up to his conscience? His conscience is too strict and should be reeducated according to the Word of God. As mentioned above, in other cases an individual may have too little conscience because of poor identity figures. Thus, he may have developed the attitude that society and others are bad and whatever he does to them is all right. In contrast to the former example, this is a case of a too-weak conscience, which also needs reeducating according to the Word of God.
Thus, Christian counseling offers not only practical guidelines through the Bible, but also it points to one final standard of authority—the Bible. All schools of thought in psychiatry need a foundation and framework from which to build. The Bible is that foundation for Christian counselors.
The Bible is not primarily a book of rules on rights and wrongs. It is meant to give guidelines, spiritual nourishment, and life. The Lord Jesus Christ expressed this concept well when he stated, "The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63 KJV).
The Bible gives Christian counselors a foundation and a framework. It not only gives insights into human behavior; it puts everything into proper perspective. It tells who man is, where man came from, the purpose of man, and the nature of man. By joining this foundation with the scientific facts and observations of psychiatry, the Christian counselor has a good vantage point from which to help people solve problems.
Christian counseling is unique because it depends not only on man's willpower to be responsible but also on God's enabling, indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to conquer man's problems. We do not wish to imply that man has no responsibility for his actions, for he does; yet many Christians choose to act irresponsibly. However, our willingness and attempts to be responsible must be joined with God's power. Through God's power, man need no longer be a slave to a weak will, his past environment, or social situations. Problems do not disappear when a person accepts Christ, but there is a new power to deal with them.
Christian counseling is unique because, even though man does have a basic selfish component, he, if a Christian, has a much stronger godly component. In Romans 7:23, Paul gave the description of an internal battle in an individual. The description is that of a good law in the individual mind waging war against an evil law in its members. As a result, the will is overpowered by the evil law, and only through the Spirit of Christ is victory obtained. Also, only through the Spirit of Christ can real spiritual insights be obtained. The apostle Paul stated, "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14 KJV). In Greek the natural man means the psychological man.
Christian counseling is unique in that it offers an effective way to deal with the past as well as the present. Some of the older schools of thought deal almost exclusively with the past, while some of the newer schools of thought in psychiatry deal mostly with the present. Christian counselors can deal with both. The following two verses point to only a couple of ways that can be very effective in dealing with past guilt or worries: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9 NASB). "One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on" (Phil. 3:13-14 NASB). Of course, the counselor cannot always expect a client to get well by simply pointing out these verses; he must work with each person individually as he helps the person gain insight and victory over his problems.
Christian counseling is unique because it is based on God's love. The apostle John stated, "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10 NASB). Because God loved us, and His love flows through us, we love others and feel a responsibility toward them. Again the apostle John states, "Whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him" (1 John 5:1 NASB). The Christian counselor feels a spiritual relationship with other Christians and hopes to help them grow in Christ as they solve their problems. The Christian counselor hopes the non-Christian accepts the Lord. Christ died for this individual, and his first step to finding real inner peace is through knowing Christ.
Christian counseling is unique because it is universal. It can apply to all people regardless of genetic, social, educational, or cultural background. The psychoanalytic school, the transactional analysts, the reality therapists—all recognize that there are certain types of people they can help better than others. Christ claimed he could help all who would turn to him (see Matt. 11:28; John 6:37). Of course, this does not mean that Christian counselors can help all people but that Christ forms the foundation of their counseling, and he can help all who are willing to turn to him.
Christian counseling is unique because it seeks to deal with the whole person. The Christian counselor knows that the physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of man are all intricately related and that when one aspect is affected, the other two are also. For example, an ulcer may start on a physical level. Some individuals have a defect in their stomach lining and have a type of bacteria known as H. Pylori; they are predisposed to ulcers. Also, a person may be prone to being a serious personality, plagued by fears and worry, which worsens the ulcer. Finally, some spiritual crisis occurs that relates to an area of chosen sin or possibly an issue of deep doubt that drives a wedge between the individual and his relationship with his Creator. Physical, psychological, and spiritual factors have now all combined to form the problem facing the counselor.
Finally, Christian counseling is unique because of certain imperative, paramount, basic biblical principles. Without these basics a Christian counselor is no longer unique, no longer gifted, no longer any better than a secular counselor with an equal IQ. These principles are as follows:
1. Man without Christ is lost. If the counselor is to be of any practical help to his clients, he must begin with a thorough knowledge of the nature of man. Fundamental to understanding the nature of man is the realization that man without Christ is lost. To ignore a counselee's eternal destiny while helping him to solve his present problems is utterly illogical. Man without Christ is lost (John 14:6) and eternally doomed to a literal hell (Matt. 10:28; 2 Thess. 1:9). Knowledge of that fact must underlie the whole counseling process. Compelled by the love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:14), the Christian counselor desires to see the counselee come to salvation by simply trusting that Christ died for his sins (John 1:12; Rom. 6:23). Surely nothing has ever offered greater potential for solving problems and resolved more conflicts than freely accepting what Christ has done (John 6:37; Eph. 2:8-9). The Christian counselor earnestly hopes that each of his clients will one day be as open to receiving Christ as was Charlotte Elliott when she wrote the hymn "Just As I Am."
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd'st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings within and fears without,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
2. Man without Christ is incomplete. Not only is man lost without Christ; he is also incomplete. When left to himself, man faces many conflicts and an existential loneliness. He lacks the deepest comfort and most powerful resource in the universe for solving problems—Jesus Christ. When a person trusts Christ as his Savior, the Holy Spirit comes to indwell (2 Cor. 3:16-17), empower (Eph. 3:16), guide (Rom. 8:14), teach (John 14:26), and free from sin and death (Rom. 8:2). Upon receiving Christ as Savior, man literally has the resources of God himself available for living life (John 15:4-7) and coping with his problems (1 Pet. 5:7). The negative impact of conflicts will be greatly reduced as one learns to walk closely with God. Among biblical examples of people who benefited immeasurably from a close walk with God are Moses (Exod. 33), Hezekiah (2 Kings 18), Asaph (Ps. 73), and the apostle Paul (Phil. 3). Our overwhelming need for Christ to bring a sense of completion to our lives has been well expressed in an old hymn by Annie S. Hawks and Robert Lowry.
I need Thee every hour,
Most gracious Lord;
No tender voice like Thine
Can peace afford.
I need Thee every hour,
Stay Thou near by;
Temptations lose their power
When Thou art nigh.
I need Thee every hour,
In joy or pain;
Come quickly and abide,
Or life is vain.
I need Thee every hour,
Most Holy One;
O make me Thine indeed,
Thou blessed Son.
I need Thee, O I need Thee;
Every hour I need Thee!
O bless me now, my Savior;
I come to Thee!
Psychiatric research indicates that if a child is to be healthy he must feel that his parents will meet his dependency needs and never reject him. Certainly the same holds true for a child in the family of God. Understanding that man has certain dependency needs which only God can be expected to meet will have a large bearing on the counseling process.
Jane was a young woman thirty years of age who was experiencing depression as a result of marital conflicts. She did not know Christ and had no human resources to whom she could turn. She had become desperate and was considering suicide. During a course of therapy, she came to trust Christ. She began to receive support from the body of Christ. Many Situational problems continued. However, she could now withstand the stress from without because Christ was within. In her own words, "I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior after being hospitalized twice for depression and anxiety. In the past I had refused to look inward and acknowledge my self-centeredness. I made impossible demands on my loved ones in order that I might achieve happiness. But a person can love with a Christlike nature only from a secure position of accepting himself and others for what they are, as they are."
3. Man is depraved. Closely tied in with man's lostness and incompleteness without Christ is the fact that man is depraved. He is not basically good. Although he may have some consciousness of right and wrong (Rom. 2:14-15), may not be as sinful as he could be (2 Tim. 3:13), and may perform some good works (Isa. 64:6), he is still depraved. No human being is without sin (Rom. 3:9-20); man has an innate tendency to evil (Rom. 7:14-25) and, of course, can never satisfy God though he may attempt to establish his own righteousness (Rom. 10:3). Even after he accepts Christ, he is still depraved. Although he now has a new nature, he is still being pulled toward sin by the dangerous old nature (Rom. 7:20; Gal. 5:17; Eph. 4:22-24).
The counselor who recognizes that man is by nature depraved knows that attempts at "self-actualization" will ultimately fail. That is, man in himself has neither the capability nor the goodness necessary to solve his own problems and overcome the evil within him. The Christian counselor agrees with Jeremiah's assessment that "the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9 NASB). The mind is dishonest and tricky. Man employs various defense mechanisms in efforts to avoid taking an honest look at himself.
Rationalization is one of the more common defense mechanisms. For example, an individual may declare, "I simply don't love my mate anymore. Surely God doesn't want me to stay in a marriage with someone I don't love." Actually, the individual may be having an affair and trying to find a plausible excuse for his behavior. He is entangled in sin. The Christian counselor will always be aware that depravity is an integral part of the nature of man.
4. Man is under attack. Not only is man lost, incomplete, and depraved, but he is under constant attack by a most powerful enemy—Satan. Satan is more powerful, clever, and shrewd than most people realize. C. S. Lewis captured some of the craftiness of Satan most effectively in his best-selling Screwtape Letters.
Satan desires that nonbelievers stay in spiritual darkness (John 3:19-21). He also prowls about seeking to destroy the mental health of Christians (Eph. 6:11-16; 1 Pet. 5:8-9). There are various devices Satan uses to accomplish these purposes. He can deceive, enticing people to pay attention to false doctrines (1 Tim. 4:1-3). He can influence thinking, causing man to focus on his own interests rather than on God's (Matt. 16:21-23). Satan can hinder the spread of the gospel (1 Thess. 2:2, 14-16). He can tempt (1 Cor. 7:5). He can oppress people mentally, even to the point of driving them insane (Luke 8:26-39).
Although demonic possession is possible, Satan usually chooses to work in far more subtle ways. For example, he best accomplishes his purposes with Christians by tempting them over and over in the area of their greatest weakness, whether materialism, pride, lust, a tendency toward depression, or whatever. The great variety of Satan's schemes is another factor of which the Christian counselor should be constantly aware.
5. Man is sinful. Finally, not only is man lost, incomplete, depraved, and under attack, but he is also sinful. When was the last time you heard a sermon on sin? When was the last time you heard a sermon on hell? When was the last time you heard a sermon like Jonathan Edwards's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"? Has it been a while? I suspect it has. As a child, I recall hearing sermon after sermon on sin, but not so today. Without this concept there is no right or wrong, there is no moral compass, there is no Christian counseling. Without a foundation in the dangers and elusiveness of sin, the Christian counselor will be ineffective for Christ. Whatever happened to sin? I have studied the topic from several dimensions. I believe that at least eleven reasons account for the demise of the concept of sin.
People will want less and less to hear about sin as time progresses. The topics people want to hear are certainly not about sin. "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires" (2 Tim. 4:3 NASB). Whatever happened to sin? Is it that people do not want to hear it?
People have become more and more focused on individual money issues that affect them and less and less on moral and sin issues. I hate the popular slogan of today that has been said to characterize our society, "It's the economy, stupid." Polls reveal that a majority of people in our society say that it does not matter what a person does in his or her private life as long as the economy is doing well. Money takes precedence over morals. Whatever happened to sin? Did money buy it out?
People have bought psychology hook, line, and sinker. Around the turn of the century, Sigmund Freud emphasized some principles that may have been carried too far at times. Man's sinful behavior shifted from what he had done to why he had done it—issues with parents? Issues of subconscious drives? Issues of repressed memories? Issues of transference? The emphasis was carried too far. As a culture we moved away from individual responsibility, choice, and sin. Whatever happened to sin? Did psychology excuse it?
Is the age of the evangelists (Edwards, Finney, Moody, Sunday, and Graham) fading as a movement? What great young evangelist do you know today who is on the horizon and is preaching against sin like the evangelists of old? Times have been changing, and sin has been fading. Whatever happened to sin? Have the great adversaries of sin faded?
Television, movies, books, magazines, and the Internet have desensitized people to sin. Sins that were once shameful have become acceptable and promoted behaviors. If sins are seen enough, they become more acceptable, and individuals become desensitized to them. Whatever happened to sin? Is sin no longer considered sin?
New medical advances explained new dimensions that were hard to refute. What does one do with the almost irrefutable research on the genetic aspects of many irresponsible behaviors? I believe we have dichotomous thinking. The medical does not nullify the spiritual. Whatever happened to sin? Did we explain it away medically?
Personal and political advancement in both the secular and Christian world may, at times, be impeded by taking a stand against a particular sin. Power is an intimidating foe. How many would cross the line at the Alamo today? Whatever happened to sin? Did politics play an intimidating role?
Of the three big sins of "lust of the flesh," "lust of the eyes," and "the pride of life," which one may be the most difficult to recognize? Of the three big sins, on which one did Christ seem to focus with the religious leaders of his day? Of the three big sins, which one may have insidiously infiltrated Christianity today? Of the three big sins, which one may hold latent danger for most of us if God chooses to bless us?
Pride and humility are somewhat opposites. Apparently God likes humility. "Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth" (Num. 12:3 NKJV). How many Christian leaders do you know who are humble in their behavior, responses, and demeanor? How many Christian schools do you know that promote humility over academics? How many Christian boards do you know that are organized around humility? Certainly we all know some, but does a problem exist with the sin of pride? Whatever happened to sin? Is there one aspect that has gone under cover?
The draw of sin is great and has many pleasures—lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). I was talking recently to a once very godly friend—steeped in the Scriptures and the dangers of sin. We had often given talks together. Now he had left the wife of his youth and was living with a much younger woman. He said he had just fallen in love with her. The apostle Paul said, "For Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world" (2 Tim. 4:11 NKJV). Whatever happened to sin? Did we fall in love with it?
God is a very patient God. Do we as a culture no longer fear him? Fear is not as good a motivator as love, I learned in psychiatry; but it is a motivator. Do we no longer believe sin will have consequences? When was the last time you saw someone truly fearful of God because of what he had done? Do we too quickly brush aside such verses as Galatians 6:7-8, "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption" (NKJV)? Whatever happened to sin? Have we preached love until we have forgotten fear?
No discussion of the demise of the concept of sin would be complete without a reference to the mastermind behind the demise. Although I had known the concepts in general for years, in seminary three factors were summarized for me that I believe are major factors in the demise of the concept of sin. They are found in 1 John 2:14-16. That passage speaks of "the evil one" (Satan), "the world," and "the flesh." The "flesh" is that sinful part of our personality that combines with the "world system" headed by the "evil one" to lead us astray. Whatever happened to sin? Have we been outwitted by a mastermind?
Whatever happened to sin? It was certainly talked about when I was a child. Many may remember T. H. Fillmore's hymn:
I am resolved no longer to linger,
Charmed by the world's delights;
Things that are higher, things that are nobler,
These have allured my sight.
I am resolved to go to the Savior,
Leaving my sins and strife;
He is the true one, he is the just one,
He hath the words of life.
Man without Christ is lost, incomplete, depraved, under attack, and sinful. For the Christian counselor to be effective, he must be attuned to all of these principles in his approach.