3 Pitfalls of "Christian" Counseling
Over the past several years, local churches have increasingly recognized the need for faith-based counseling to help Christians process traumatic events, crippling anxiety, overwhelming depression, and other psychological and neurological issues. As the American church seeks to rectify past sins—particularly in the way churches have handled cases of abuse—local churches have increasingly preached the importance of Christian counseling. This rise in Christian counseling parallels the rise of psychological language and the normalization of therapy in the broader culture.
Throughout Christianity Today’s mega-hit podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, the host, Mike Cosper, and numerous guests reference “spiritual trauma” inflicted at Mars Hill (with the strong implication that numerous other unhealthy churches have inflicted spiritual trauma upon their former members). In the latest bonus episode of the podcast, titled “Healing and Resurrection After Spiritual Trauma,” Cosper invites therapist and author Aundi Kolber to discuss the process of helping an individual heal from spiritual trauma. As a pastor, I know people will walk through the doors of the church I serve in need of healing from trauma, anxiety, depression, or any number of issues for which Christian counseling could serve as an invaluable tool. However, Christian counseling is not without its dangers, and this interview highlighted several of the pitfalls that threaten to undermine the biblical nature of “Christian” counseling.
This post is not necessarily a response to that interview. Kolber and Cosper provide numerous valuable insights and excellent snippets of advice throughout the episode, and I have not studied Kolber’s work well enough to declare whether she has fallen into any of these errors. Instead, I want to underscore three pitfalls into which Christian counseling can fall, thereby producing more harm than good.
A quick disclaimer for clarity: I am a firm proponent of Christian counseling—done right. Biblical counseling through therapy and, perhaps, medication can serve as a vehicle through which God provides healing and growth to believers. These potential pitfalls do not negate the importance of Christian counseling; rather, I am highlighting them because they threaten to undermine and mar a work that is beautiful and God-honoring.
Pitfall #1: Overemphasizing the Individual
Americans hardly need more instruction to focus on themselves. We live in a society obsessed with the notion of self. Individuals are taught to be the truest expression of themselves. Identify as you want. Do what makes you happy. Fight those who want to oppress the expression of your authentic self.
Christian counselors can fall into the same trap. Throughout the interview with Cosper, Kolber encourages listeners to “listen to your body.” While her instructions stem from a biblical recognition that we are embodied creatures whose physical structures react to the traumas we encounter, the voice Kolber most prioritizes in discussions of trauma and healing is one’s own. This advice sounds remarkably similar to the advice propagated by secular society.
Listening to one’s body is critical. Allowing one’s mind to process traumatic events is imperative. But doing so in isolation is horrible advice. God did not just create us as embodied creatures; he created us as embodied creatures who live in community with others. God created Eve because he did not want Adam to be alone—in fact, it was not good for Adam to exist as a solitary image-bearer. God placed Adam in community from the very beginning—in community with other humans and in community with the Creator.
While those suffering from trauma, anxiety, depression, etc. certainly should listen to their bodies and their minds, they should also seek godly counsel. How often do we misinterpret what our bodies and our minds are saying? How often does the enemy use our bodies and minds to turn us away from the life God has called us to live? Individuals need to immerse themselves in the context of genuine Christian community. They need a close group of believers to help them interpret their mind, body, and circumstances accurately. When a Christian counselor mentions the option of withdrawing from church entirely—even for a limited time—to process the trauma, that counselor is unhelpfully propping up the individual at the expense of the community. What that individual needs is not isolation—it’s godly community to help them process.
Christians are called to grieve with those who grieve and mourn with those who mourn—not to let them mourn on their own and figure things out while we just keep doing what we’re doing until they’re ready to join back in. Thus, Christian counselors should not overemphasize the individual in a counseling session. Biblical therapy is not the time and place for rugged American individualism because it’s not what the Bible teaches.
Which brings me to the next pitfall…
Pitfall #2: Underemphasizing Scripture
When I listen to many Christian counselors, their conversations seem to be filled mostly with psychological jargon. I don’t recognize the words of the prophets and apostles in their lingo. No Scripture references spring to mind in their advice.
I’m not suggesting that psychological research has no place in the church. In fact, a greater understanding of human psychology and physiology can improve the effectiveness of our ministry as we continually align with God’s design. However, we must first filter psychological research through the lens of Scripture. Too many Christian counselors uncritically adopt pseudo-scientific psychological research as fact—and base their entire ministry upon the principles and lessons they learn—with only passing references to the word of God.
For example, Kolber’s interview is filled with psychological jargon—never-ending sentences utilizing numerous words that ultimately mean little. The majority of her biblical references stem from her interpretation of being made “in the image of God.” Not only is additional Scripture lacking from the conversation, but her understanding of being made in God’s image is one of several possible interpretations for that phrase. Thus, it seems as though she has grabbed biblical language and added it to the psychological principles she has adopted. She is not alone in this practice.
As a pastor, when I send a church member to Christian counseling, I want them to leave with a greater grasp of what God has said regarding their circumstances. The counselor should feel free to utilize psychological principles as they illuminate and illustrate the principles outlines in Scripture, but Scripture should inform the psychological ideas—not the other way around. The Creator of all things has given us a word that is sufficient for us; we should not abandon it when dealing with trauma, anxiety, depression, or any other psychological and physiological issues.
Pitfall #3: Underemphasizing the Gospel
This is the gravest mistake a Christian counselor could make. In fact, this is the mistake that removes the “Christian” label from the counseling. If counseling does not illuminate the gospel—if it does not expose an individual to the glory of God and the beauty of the grace offered through Jesus Christ—then it is dealing merely with psychological symptoms and ignoring the cure.
God is working for the redemption of all things through Jesus. He has brought about the means of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection, and he will one day send Christ to judge the world and eliminate all evil once and for all. Thus, the notion that God sees us in our pain, he’s going to make all things right, and he offers healing today through a personal relationship with Jesus, must be the central theme of Christian counseling. Are you suffering from anxiety? We serve a God who is ultimately in control of all things—on an eternal and infinite scale. Are you suffering from depression? The God who created all things has provided an overwhelming amount of evidence that he loves you more than you could possibly imagine. Are you dealing with trauma? God knows, and he hasn’t forgotten you. These sentiments on their own are powerful, but when they’re coupled with a Christian counselor who utilizes godly community and Scripture—including biblical psychological principles—to help walk you through this season of life, you can realize true healing.
Christians, do not endure counseling that preaches the importance of self while minimizing Scripture and failing to proclaim the gospel. Pastors, do not endorse counseling that may help church members cope with trauma but will leave them with an inaccurate understanding of what God teaches about ourselves and our circumstances. We must all recognize the importance of biblical counseling for Christians struggling with a host of problems, but we must strive to promote Christian counseling that grows believers in their understanding of the gospel and molds them into the image of Jesus through Scripture.