Counseling and the Church

By Gwen Sellers

I'm in the last semester of my master's program in counseling, and I've been contemplating the field in general. One of my classes is focused on integrating the various theories of counseling and our Christian faith into how we perceive our professional identity. Throughout the program we've been asked about integration of faith and counseling theory as well as our theoretical perspective on counseling. So this is nothing new. Yet, for some reason, this semester I've found myself calling the whole concept of counseling into question. Please don't hear me wrong. I absolutely support professional counseling. The counselors I have been to, and the soon-to-be counselors with whom I've studied, selflessly delve into hard issues with clients in an attempt to help them heal. Both anecdotally and scientifically speaking, counseling is helpful for many. But why do we need professionals to help us handle life's hardships? Is society falling down on the job? Is the church falling down on the job? Or is it simply a sign of living in a broken world that beats us up?

In my more despondent moments I've described counseling in the crass terms of being a secret place where people pay someone to keep their shame confidential and help them cope with life. While this description may be somewhat accurate, it is not entirely true. Counseling does not hold the stigma it once did, nor are people always ashamed to share their innermost secrets. I recently read a blog about being inauthentic. The author talks about our society's current obsession with authenticity and argues that in some ways inauthenticity is actually the more virtuous. He raises issues such as common manners. But, more importantly, points out that Christians are called to act holy even though we are not yet completed. While I agree with some of the author's points, particularly about living out of our new nature in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) rather than from the sinful self that may come more naturally (Ephesians 4:20-32), I think the blog belies a deeper issue in our society and in our churches. While many of us may be proponents of authenticity and honesty, we're not really sure what to do with each other when we are honest. We don't know how to deal with pain or guilt. So, instead, we teach each other to act like everything is okay. And, if it's not, please go get some professional help.

Again, let me affirm that there is no shame in seeing a counselor. Counselors are trained to help people through emotional difficulties, personal traumas, family dysfunction, marital disruptions, psychological disorders, career development, and the list goes on. They offer a safe place in which clients are accepted and truth can be revealed. Our society needs counselors who know God and who are equipped to minister His healing touch. Not everyone has the time or the skill to listen and to walk with people through the messes of life.

And yet I do wonder if some of those messes are not caused because our society—sometimes churches included—have simply shunned pain and suffering. Have we been too inauthentic? Have we equated holiness or health with lack of "negative" emotion? Have we made pain something to overcome rather than something to journey through? Could it be that the church has a role to play in dispelling the myth that life is about happiness and that pain is abnormal? Could church resources be better used to really minister to the hurting? Could we better support our pastoral care departments, Stephen Ministers, and lay counselors? Could we better equip our small groups to be places of authentic living?

I don't really know the answers to these questions. I dislike pain just as much as anyone else. But I'm learning that to truly live, I need to embrace all of my emotions—the hard ones and the more pleasurable ones. Rather than run from emotion, I need to own my emotions. Shame has power only when it is kept hidden. Oddly enough, experiencing the very emotions we often try to ignore makes the emotion less daunting and much more easily managed. Many of us have been taught that we shouldn't let emotion rule our lives or allow ourselves to wallow in our emotions. I agree, as do most counselors. But I've wrongly interpreted that to mean I shouldn't have emotion, when the opposite is true. I wonder how many others have done the same. Our churches need to become places in which the truth of brokenness is accepted and people are supported in walking through it. We need to recognize and speak about the reality of suffering. The great thing is that we can do this with a sense of hope. The Body of Christ is a gift to support us in our hard times. The Bible has a lot to say about suffering and God's presence in the midst of it. The Psalmists demonstrate experiencing emotion in the context of God's sovereignty, love, and might. Galatians 6:2 tells us to "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." And Romans 12:15-16 says, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight." I want to learn to share my burdens in true, Christian fellowship—both in solitude with God and in community with other believers. I want not to be wise in my own sight or keep my struggles private out of pride. And I want to be a person with whom others can share their burdens. I pray that I would embrace all of whom God has created me to be, emotion included, to His glory and praise.

TagsChristian-Life  |  Church-Issues  |  Depression  |  Health-Wellness  |  Ministry-Church

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Published on 1-28-14