68. When Christianity met therapy

24th Aug 2018

I came across an online article from a Christian website today, decrying the way therapy doesn’t work spiritually, and how that means therapy isn’t a good thing for those who do counselling. Which set off a train of thoughts – not all good. Here’s a good summary of that article. The actual full article with points raised are at the end of that summary.

Granted, the original article was written in 2010. Much more is known about therapy in 8 years (I’d say the same about Christianity) and perhaps many Christians don’t subscribe to the same view anymore. Disturbingly though, I find that there are still Christian leaders who hold to this view of therapy – that it is secular, and takes away responsibility from the therapee (excuse the pun) for their actions. For example, the concept that the nature / nurture worldview means that we are not responsible for what happened to us. 

That could not be further from the truth, in what I’ve come to know of therapy.

Therapy is by nature, secular. That goes without saying because of the need to help all who require therapy, regardless of their religious backgrounds. To stick to one religious aspect would be to isolate the provision of services only to those who practise that religion. 

One form of therapy that takes from a religious concept is mindfulness therapy. In its simplest form, mindfulness simply champions the need to be in the here and now, rather than be focused on what is to come, or what is in the past. Beyond that, secular therapists take care not to incorporate the spiritual aspect of what is largely a Buddhist, oriental religious practice – which is where it came from. But the practice itself, of staying in the present, and not worrying about the future would sound familiar to anyone who has read the gospels.

Do Not Worry
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?


28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+6%3A25-34&version=NIV

Of course, the addendum to this would be for Christians to turn their thoughts to Christ and God (seek first the kingdom of God) instead, rather than to focus and worry about the future. But therapists would not discourage anyone from doing so. Mindfulness as a practice works by having us focus on our surroundings to ground our thoughts back to the present. Once that’s done, who’s to stop us from doing what’s godly?

Therapy is not an end by itself. People who go for therapy are looking for healing in a way that they go to doctors for – to seek some form of medicine that will ease the pain. Therapy alone cannot solve the emptiness of not knowing why we exist. Therapy cannot unshackle us from sinful behaviour, though it can help us not to indulge in actions that harm ourselves and others. Therapy can suggest meaning in life – but it has no direct answer to what meaning in life we should look for. That is just absent in all forms of therapy – you won’t find that answer prescribed in any psychology textbook. Therapists can only suggest – in the end, it’s up to the individual in therapy who decides which path to take.

In other words, therapy never set out to fulfill the spiritual side of things. Therefore it would never aim to do so – just as a psychiatrist who diagnoses mental health conditions would not engage in talk therapy extensively to aid a patient unless he was trained in psychology as well.

This means two things. To beat on therapy for being secular and not teaching people about anything other than self is to complain about medicine because it doesn’t heal a person from their spiritual condition. It was never meant to, and therapists should not be going around telling people that therapy is the be-all and end-all for life. Secondly, it means that therapy should not be asked to do something it was never meant to do.

Depression and mental health conditions provide yet another challenge into this area. In depression, the mind is stuck where it is. Sometimes, medicine helps, but if not, other methods need to be employed along with medicine. One of these methods is talk therapy.

Why is Christian counselling not sufficient, without employing therapy methods? It depends on this one point – if Christian counselling only focuses on the word of God, at the point of the mental health breakdown, then to be honest? Nothing really can go in. Stuck in the whirlpool of pain and destructive loops, any words of reassurance will bounce right off. As one very kind pastor asked me, “Would it help to know God loves you?” My answer at the time, tears falling down my cheeks, was a flat “No.” I believe God loves me. I know it. But I felt God was wrong, and my brain refused to allow me to think otherwise. I was on medicine which helped me to control my suicidal urges. But even if confronted with God’s love, I could not get over that mental hump, drawing that connection between being loved by God, and feeling loved by God.

But therapy gave me skills to calm myself down, to reframe my thoughts (CBT), to explore the validity of my assumptions and ideas. In this step, I was able to bring in the word of God as authority in what I was thinking, and how I should then view a situation. At the same time, mindfulness now gives me room to pray when before, I’d be too overwhelmed to bring my mind into play to pray to God. 

There are only two conclusions that can be reached from this. The first is that perhaps therapy can work hand in hand with Christianity.

The second is that I’m not really saved, since I need something else to help me to pray. 

I’m thankful that I’m assured that the second is false, much as in the dark pits of despair, the whispers from my inner critic try to reinforce the second conclusion. But from what I know, from the clarity that therapy has brought, I know that God has been watching over me this far, and has been keeping me safe in circumstances beyond my own control. I look at my wife and my church and my friends and I know God loves me. And I pray to be patient and wait for healing in His time.

Which also explains why I’ve been more overwhelmed lately, as my old therapist has gone on maternity leave. Because it’s like a medicine that has been helping so far has been removed, and the replacement medicine isn’t helping. Any amount of prayer won’t change that unless God intervenes directly to heal me. I hope He does, and I pray He does, but He hasn’t so far.

One further advantage of therapy is that it generally forces us to look at our negative emotions that we squash. It involves controlled trips back to the past, to revisit past hurts as well as past hurt we have inflicted. By doing this, we have to face up to what we have done in the past, and what has been done to us.

But in no way does this take responsibility away from us. I’m aware that there are certain schools of thought that blame all our ills and pains on nature / nurture. Christians should be careful not to work with therapists who insist that we are not responsible for our actions. Good therapy actually helps us to learn to take responsibility for our own healing. No matter how much pain we’re in, if we don’t take actions to learn to heal, no therapist would be able to force us to heal. If we don’t face up to what is painful, we will never be able to leave the demons behind. We can only wait for them to resurface again at some later date, in a more painful way.

In other words, the implication that therapy removes self responsibility is a false one.

In the same way that you can bring a cow to water, but can’t force it to drink, therapy can only guide a person towards healing. If the person chooses not to follow the path or paths suggested, then there can be no healing. Part of that healing involves facing up to the past, the painful emotions, and then letting them go. 

Where does God make His presence known? When in the midst of tears, there’s always a constancy to cling on to. When in the pain, He always brings some comfort. When struggling to breathe and wondering how to go on, somehow we still can carry on because of His provision. When brothers and sisters love, instead of judge, care, instead of accuse. And when He provides good therapists who know how to help the healing process without standing in the way of personal beliefs.

Another important element of Christian counselling that may differ from therapy – and perhaps may need some revision – is that therapy doesn’t seek to accuse, or look purely for what has been done wrong. The Christian life should look at our sinful nature and where we fall short before God, and rightly so. But sometimes what the sufferer needs isn’t an accuser, but simply a listener. Who does not make it his job to fix the problem, but to give a safe space for a sufferer to speak, and gently push someone in pain back into the embrace of God. Good therapists listen before they guide. Good therapists gauge carefully before they take a position of accusation. More Christians, counsellors or otherwise, should learn to do so. 

How do we reconcile therapy and Christianity then? I honestly believe there is no need to – therapy is simply another form of medicine and healing that helps the mental state. But conviction of truth remains the work of the Spirit, along with the love of the church and the love of the individual for God. Therapy does not answer emptiness – volunteering is one answer, but a much more complete answer that we Christians should be ready to give is to point people to the saving Christ. 

There is one more option – for churches to set up Christian therapy or counselling centers, with people trained in both psychology to help with the medical, therapeutically portion of things working alongside pastoral staff to help those in mental anguish to get to a state where they can be receptive to God’s word again, if that is necessary. But as long as this is not present, and with the caveat that probably only Christians would want to make use of such a service, therapy should remain secular, and Christians seeking therapy should do so with no shame – but keeping in fellowship with someone who can help to keep track of their spiritual walk with God.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Or shame Christians who go for therapy when they need it.

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