Given the challenges so many of us experienced in the last year, it’s no surprise that mental-health concerns have been growing. Because of this, Christians are increasingly likely to consider counseling or therapy for support. But while pursuing counseling can be good, our commitment to Christ raises questions about the kind of counsel we should seek. If the counseling methods found in the helping professions are rooted in science, are they “neutral”? Does having a biblical worldview affect the form counseling should take?
As a licensed psychologist, I have wrestled with these questions. I’m familiar with a variety of well-established therapeutic approaches, and I have seen firsthand the healing effects clinical treatment can have on people suffering from anxiety, depression, and other emotional/behavioral disorders. I used to think the goals of secular psychology and Christianity were entirely complementary, and that as long as counselors weren’t actively antagonistic to Christianity then it wouldn’t really matter what their personal beliefs were.
But the more I have wrestled with the tensions between a biblical worldview and the goals in secular psychology, the more convinced I’ve become that the differences in perspective matter significantly. While fields like psychology offer many good tools for reducing symptoms of distress, the purposes of the profession are not always in line with God’s design for us. Decreasing mental-health problems is a good thing, but the emphasis in secular psychology on achieving greater autonomy, personal happiness, and self-fulfillment can deeply conflict with the biblical call to die to self, take up our cross, and live in obedience to him—even in suffering.
What, then, should Christians do? When we suffer mental-health problems, we may benefit from support by professional counselors. But how can we determine whether we are receiving counsel that honors God?
Three questions may help us assess whether counseling is in agreement with a biblical worldview.
1. What is the goal of counseling?
Both the counselor and client contribute to developing goals. Typical goals include decreasing symptoms of distress, improving daily life functioning, or developing coping skills for managing stress.
These are worthy goals, but none takes precedent in Scripture as God’s primary purpose for our lives. Sometimes pursuing the things that feel most helpful do not reflect biblical truth. It’s good to decrease symptoms of psychological distress, but this desire is misguided unless it falls under the greater goal of living a life pleasing to the Lord (2 Cor. 5:9).
Sometimes the things that feel most helpful are not reflective of biblical truth.
While God never takes pleasure in our suffering, we also know that his primary purpose for our lives is not based on relief from our trials. Romans 8:28–29 makes it clear that his design for us is to look more like Christ.
When we give the goals of counseling correct priority, we will become more Christlike and live a life that pleases him—while tools for decreasing distress will take their rightful place.
2. What does the counselor believe?
This question may be difficult to answer if we don’t know the counselor well, but it’s still important to consider. While our culture tends to emphasize training credentials, this may not be the most important characteristic to examine in a counselor.
If the counselor has not fully integrated her counsel with biblical truth, clients will have to invest themselves in the difficult task of reinterpretation. Wise guidance requires accurate self-understanding, and accurate self-understanding is contingent on knowing God and how he both relates to us and calls us to live.
Because counseling is designed to reorient our thoughts, emotions, and behavior, the counselor’s beliefs about God and his presence in our world matter. It’s not merely a question of whether the counselor identifies as a Christian.
It’s not merely a question of whether the counselor identifies as a Christian.
The counselor’s spiritual maturity—as shown by his personal relationship with God and the way he interacts with others—is a far better indication of the counsel he will give than his training credentials or even identification as a Christian alone. As Jesus said, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16).
3. Do other mature Christians agree with the counsel?
It can be difficult to see clearly when we’re in distress. As a result, it may be challenging for us to assess the wisdom of the counseling we have received. Is the guidance consistent with what the Bible says about who we are and how we are to live?
It can be difficult to see clearly when we’re in distress.
To answer this, we must broaden our circle of “counselors” and be open about our struggles and the counsel we’re receiving with a few mature Christians we know well: mentors, small-group leaders, pastors, friends. We should invite their advice and ask for help in discerning how the Bible applies to our situation. As Proverbs 11:14 says, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
Finally, we should approach any counsel we pursue and receive with prayer, asking God to give us insight and wisdom as we seek to know him better and see ourselves more clearly. As sinners seeking help from fellow sinners, our greatest source of security is our free access to all of the resources found in Christ. While counseling may be the means he uses to help us, it’s ultimately Christ who opens our eyes, gives us the clarity to see truth, and teaches us to apply his wisdom to our lives.