Should Christians be wary of counselling?

Christianity and counselling – two things I’m very interested in, being a Christian and a person who’s received a lot of counselling – and indeed as a person who hopes to be a counsellor one day!

In fact we’ve been discussing this topic in our home groups recently. Personally, I’m a huge advocate of person-centred counselling, which is secular; an individual of any faith (or no faith) could receive it, and benefit from it. But there are some tensions around this approach. I’ve had a lot of valid questions levelled at me: Will it draw me away from Christ? Does it teach that I should rely on my own strength rather than God’s? Will it instil ‘un-Christian’ values in me?

I believe the answer to all these questions is ‘no,’ given that I’ve received a large amount of person-centred counselling over the years (six batches, to date) and my mental health has improved considerably. And I’m still as much of a Jesus-follower as I was before! So I’m either stumbling along the thin edge of a precipice, in imminent danger of plunging into a life of sin and eternal separation from the Lord… Or there’s something else going on.

Let’s be positive – I think it’s the latter 😉 Now obviously I’m not an expert on this matter, but I do want to offer a few reflections on my experience of receiving and giving person-centred counselling, and why I don’t think it compromises my faith. See what you think!

“Just believe in yourself!”

Somebody once did a class experiment with a carton of milk. In the first round, the participant had to lift the carton whilst telling themselves that they were weak. In the second round, the participant had to do the same thing whilst telling themselves that they were strong. Both were timed to see how long they could hold the milk carton for. Remarkably, the person who told themselves that they were strong managed to hold out the milk carton for the longest time.

I forget who conducted that experiment, but it makes an important point: what we think is what we feel. (Okay, this concept is more cognitive behaviour therapy than person-centred counselling, but I’m sure there’s a Venn diagram somewhere 😉 ) Now I’m sure most of us would agree that the latter approach is a far healthier and more fruitful way to live; I’m not sure how good a Christian witness I would be if I entered into every life situation telling myself how weak, useless and incapable I was! In fact, I’m not sure I’d be that good at anything – evangelism or nay. But on the surface, the idea that a Christian should tell themselves “I am strong” or “I am capable” can sail far too close to the wind. Isn’t it tantamount to self-reliance? Pride? Arrogance?? Shouldn’t we depend on the Lord for all our strength…?

Yes of course. We see this throughout scripture. The Psalms are riddled with examples of how (and why) we should cry out to the Lord, and trust him as our saviour, and rock, and rod and staff; he’s an ever-present help in trouble. Jesus himself said that he is the way and the truth and life.

That’s not to say, though, that one is rejecting these truths if they recognise the capabilities that God has given them. A Christian can proclaim that God is sovereign and almighty whilst trusting that they have it within themselves to lift up that carton of milk, or strike up a conversation with a stranger, or go sky-diving, or whatever. I guess it depends who they give the credit to. For a Christian, the danger comes when healthy self-assurance evolves into a kind of swollen “I can do anything I like because I’m awesome and I don’t need anyone” kind of thinking which – even in the secular world – is not a good look. And I defy you to find me a certified person-centred counsellor who would try to lead a client down this path.

In fact, the whole idea of person-centred counselling is that it shouldn’t “lead” anyone anywhere. Person-centred counselling is a reflective process, allowing the client to “hear themselves back” and understand what’s going on in their own heads. Opinions and advice are big no-nos (with exceptions.) The counsellor’s role is to become a blank canvas onto which the client can sketch the contents of their minds.

In my case, this was absolutely essential, and I wouldn’t have made a recovery without it (unless God had decided to rewire my brain in a day.) Mental illness – like any kind of illness – needs to be treated. And whilst Christians know that God is more than capable of curing any ailment at the snap of his fingers, our lived experience teaches us that, often, he works in other ways: through doctors, surgeons, drug treatments, and so on. Why does he do this? We don’t quite know. It’s my personal conviction that God gave the gift of life, not existence, and that he delights in using other people to display his glory. And I’ve certainly seen his glory shine through a fair number of counsellors over the years.

“You have a lack of faith…”

This is where we hit a bit of a stumbling block. I don’t know many Christians who would recommend prayer as the sole form of treatment for, say, cancer. Oh sure – we must pray. And pray earnestly and continually. God answers prayer. But it would be reckless to advise someone to forego chemotherapy or radiotherapy on the basis that it displays a lack of faith in God’s power. God gave us chemotherapy and radiotherapy for a reason.

And yet for some reason, when it comes to mental health, there’s a bit of a pervasive belief that we can pray our way out of mental health problems, as if re-reading a good Psalm or feeling suitably convicted after a passionate sermon can instantly heal us. Of course, Psalms and sermons are great things, and as I say we know that God can deliver us from anything in an instant, if he so chooses. But at the same time there will be some people who are reticent to seek talking therapies out of fear that they are somehow acting sinfully. And I struggle to see the difference here. Why should we reject person-centred counselling, but embrace chemotherapy, or antibiotics, or Lemsip Max (other cold and flu drinks are available 😉 )

In fact, I’d even go so far to say that we do our neighbours a disservice if the only solutions we present to mental health problems are prayer, and a reminder to “seek first the kingdom of God.” I actually think this borders on recklessness, depending on how vulnerable the individual is. That’s not to say that we should all go off and train in counselling skills, but I do think we have a duty to be mindful of the complexity of mental health issues, and be open to the idea of recommending treatments. It doesn’t have to be Christian Counselling (capital C, capital C) although it might be, depending on the needs of the individual. What I’m saying is, it no more needs to be “Christian Counselling” anymore than it needs to be “Christian Chemotherapy” or “Christian Lemsip Max.” Because in my opinion person-centred counselling is no more of a danger to a person’s faith than their favourite citrus-infused-cold-and-flu beverage. If a person receives those treatments and comes away with an inflated ego or a sudden aversion to the gospel, then I’d argue that’s a deeper heart issue, rather than a consequence of the treatments themselves.

I say all this because of the sheer number of treatments I’ve received: hypnotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, transactional analysis, person-centred counselling… God has used all of them to heal me. I’m healthier, I’m coping, I’m growing. I’m still a Christian. I have not compromised one iota of my faith. If these treatments are in any way anti-Christ or immoral, I really don’t see it.

But by all means, tell me what you think. I’ve written quite passionately here (I feel very strongly about this topic 😉 ) but I’m still learning, and I’m still in the early days of counselling training. How do you feel about person-centred counselling? Has it worked for you? Do you have reservations? Are you considering some form of treatment for yourself but don’t know where to start? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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