A client of mine once said, “I probably wouldn’t be in counseling if it wasn’t for Dr. Phil.” His words echo the sentiments of a psychologically-savvy generation. Whether on popular talk shows, or commenting on traumatic news stories (like the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School), the seeming omnipresence of “the psychological perspective” in the media seems to have reduced the stigma of going to therapy. And while I believe much of the therapy that’s offered out there is often simplistic and lacks a biblical perspective on transformation, I’m also convinced the de-mythologization and de-stigmatization of clinical counseling is a good thing.
I’ve seen it up close. I’m not sure who isn’t in therapy or hasn’t been to therapy on our church staff at City Church San Francisco. And it’s not because we’re all suffering from a psychological disorder or need to process a significant grief. No, counseling has become one important conduit of spiritual and emotional maturity, and its impact on us has freed many others within the church to utilize it for their own transformative process. In fact, I’ve become convinced that counseling can be a very significant—even necessary—part of every person’s growth process. Let’s explore why.
Socrates once said, “A life unexamined is not worth living.” Scripture echoes this sentiment on almost every page. In his magisterial Foundations of Soul Care, Dr. Eric Johnson details the rich Christian history of self-examination, from the frequent biblical admonitions to search our hearts (Ps. 26:2; Ps. 139:23-24; Prov. 20:5; Prov. 20:27; Rom. 7-8; James 1:22-23; Heb. 4:12-13), to the piercing and transformative writings of St. Augustine (see esp. Confessions, XL), the desert fathers, Thomas a Kempis, St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, John Calvin, John Flavel, Richard Baxter, and many, many others.
For centuries, self-examination was crucial for spiritual transformation. But, as David Benner convincingly argues in his Care of Souls, a post-Enlightenment church became mired in intellectual debates, losing its focus on soul care and spiritual direction. It was during this time the church abdicated its transformative role, trusting psychologists with the care once entrusted to priests, pastors and spiritual directors. And for the past 100 years, while a debate has raged on about the proper relationship between secular psychology and the church, it’s clear the original motive—know thyself— stands behind it all and remains crucial for the church’s mission. For the person best able to love God and neighbor is the person who knows the motives of her heart and is freed to live self-sacrificially.
And knowing yourself remains, for me, the single most important aspect of therapy. Yes, people go to therapy when they’re stuck in a depression or mired by anxiety or struggling in their marriage. However, what we learn from the best therapists, I’d argue, is that knowing your blindspots, becoming aware of your stories, seeing the ways in which you sabotage relationships and much more is where real growth happens. And people in therapy consistently express one thing—surprise—surprise over seeing themselves in a way they had not. Surprise about their motives, their struggles, their brokenness and their beauty. Good therapy offers a mirror that reflects the depth of the soul. It is a way of standing in your own presence.
Fixed or Found?
Which raises the question: Don’t I go to therapy to get fixed? Believe it or not, I don’t advocate therapy because it fixes people. Now, while some forms of therapy help people get past difficulties that stifle them (e.g. panic attacks, major depression, bipolar symptoms), Christians should recognize there is always a deeper and more transformative purpose to counsel and care.
The 16th century Reformer, John Calvin, began his Institutes with his doctrine of double-knowledge—that knowing yourself and knowing God are intimately inter-connected. Calvin was convinced knowing God was contingent on knowing the depth of our need for God. And so, every profitable therapeutic experience must ask, “What is God up to in my unique situation?” In Scripture, it seems life’s struggles were not seen merely as obstacles to be overcome as much as opportunities to know God more intimately. Counseling, at its best, invites us not to be fixed, but to be found—found by a God who looks for us, for His people who are quite creative at avoiding and sabotaging relationship with Him and with others.
This was the ancient art called curam animarum—the care of souls. And the wisest therapists will foster this process. Now, the vast majority of clinicians practicing today have been trained in fix-it strategies—cognitive and behavioral solution-based processes which are aimed at quick, painless fixes. This is what sells. This is what insurance tends to pay for. But there is a profound difference here—fix-it strategies try to remove pain while deep soul care attempts to learn from it. Sometimes in the process we are afforded the mercy of pain relief. But it is not the goal. And so I counsel people to search carefully, to interview therapists, to ask many good questions.
But at the same time, I’m not convinced Christian therapists do this as well as secular therapists at times. Let me explain. Many settle for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” a quick fix approach which stands in stark contrast to the “costly grace” of searching and knowing ourselves, through exploring our stories and examining our motives. This kind of care is, indeed, much more rare. Christian counseling which is reduced to mere Bible memorization, or repentance or a behavioral regimen misses the point. It is all law, and no grace—particularly costly grace. It is all behavior with no real, deep examination of one’s self. And so we often find among secular therapists the kind of “depth psychology” which takes seriously how deep the rabbit hole of human brokenness and sin go.
Good therapy is challenging and costly, because it exposes both the depths of your woundedness and the extent of your sinful self-sabotage. Consider the words of Simon Parke, whose works on psychology and Christian mysticism are quite compelling. Of the effective psychologist, Parke writes
“A session with me is not all a bed of roses. If you seek someone who will say only nice things, then you’ve knocked on the wrong door. I can appear harsh for I weep at the inner contortions which destroy you daily. I will expose and name these contortions and refuse to collude with your redundant self-image.”
A Necessary Process of Transformation
When we go to therapy, we admit—at some level—that we don’t have life figured out, that blindspots erode our sense of vision for ourselves and others, that our motives are mixed. To say, “I’m in therapy” takes courage, because we’re admitting we don’t have it all together. And that is a rare admission these days.
In a Western culture that privileges the intellect, idolizes competence, feeds on competition and comparison, and makes little room for failure, the therapeutic process introduces a bit of honesty and reality. In my office, distinctions of socio-economic status and race break down. Depression does not discriminate. Marital problems are experienced by all. And the therapeutic process invites us on a journey of self-discovery.
I’ve had millionaires tell me the hour they spend in therapy each week is the hour when they feel most alive. I’ve heard men and women in addiction recovery groups say they’ve never experienced more honest, trustworthy and vital community. They are partakers in this costly grace, submitting to what I believe is a necessary process of growth and transformation God invites each of us into. Their experience speaks to an ancient reality: profound things happen when our true self stands before the true God.
We may spend years avoiding our pain, avoiding our stories, avoiding our subtle forms of self-sabotage and relational sabotage. But when they catch up to us, therapy is one way God uses to awaken us. God is just that gracious and the way of transformation may involve both a suffering and a redemption we’ve never known before.
I recommend therapy because this is a rare opportunity in a quick fix culture. And I invite you to explore its possibilities for your life more: starting with learning how to choose a counselor or these 5 frequently asked questions about the counseling process.
Life may never be the same after it.