The last two articles on this blog focused on my worldview as a Christian, and how that worldview informs my work as a counselor. In this third article, I look at why I prefer to work with clients who are Christian. Although I enjoy working with anyone, helping individuals from all walks of life work through any concerns they may have, working with someone who holds the same or a similar worldview is highly satisfying work.
A Christian client and I stand on common ground when it comes to major core beliefs about life. We have a common view regarding morality and what is right and wrong, or good and evil. We have a common foundation as to who God is and what our need for a Savior entails. We have a common experience of the fact that we cannot set our lives right via our own will and power. Indeed, apart from Christ, we lack any power to change in ways that we would otherwise prefer. A Christian client and I will speak a common language. We have a common source for our understanding of God and his Son, which is Biblical Scripture. We share the necessity we have for prayer. Different and antithetical worldviews collide and in some cases do not mesh at all. Working with believers in Christ proves to be work that can be highly gratifying because a common worldview provides us with an approach to life that gives meaning to the struggles we face.
What are some of the struggles that Christians might bring into the counseling room?
Problems That Christian Clients Encounter
So what can a Christian client expect when he or she enters my office? One of the first things that I hope Christian clients experience is that they are stepping onto ground that is safe. Their Christian beliefs are not only welcomed in my counseling office, but they should know my office as a place where their faith in Christ can become front and center for our work. Unfortunately, many people hold Christianity and therapy to be antithetical. In many cases, no doubt the counseling field has placed itself at odds with a Judeo-Christian worldview. In my office, one’s Christian worldview and faith will form the foundation for our work together.
Struggling with Their Faith
For whatever reasons, right or wrong, some believers in Christ find it difficult to voice their doubts and struggles with their faith to other believers who make up their local church. My counseling office is a place where they can bring the doubts they might hold and open them up for exploration. Perhaps they have encountered some difficult times that have led them to question what they believe about God. Such doubts and questioning is not something to squelch, but an experience to explore so that things can be cleared up. As believers in Christ, we are children of God, members of the household, who can approach God as Abba Father, and enter into his rest (Hebrews 4:1).
Typically the fears and doubts a believer in Christ experiences are based on wrong information and understanding about God. I have a jaded past. Has God really forgiven me? The work we do can be about getting a right understanding of God and on what and whom forgiveness is based. A person who doubts whether or not God has forgiven him commonly is looking to himself to garner God’s forgiveness rather than God’s forgiveness standing on whom one believes. Our forgiveness is not based on what we do to get at God’s grace. It is based on the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. 1 John 1:9 tells us that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. This passage indicates that if God doesn’t forgive those of us who confess their sins as believers in Christ, he would be unfaithful and unrighteous. This is a rock bottom foundational truth because forgiveness is not based on us but on Jesus Christ. Many believers have a difficult time embracing the richness of God’s love and grace that awaits those who have placed their faith in his Son. It is something we must step into and hold onto because it’s easy to want to earn something before God.
Hurtful acts toward others in the past prove to be a common weight that believers in Christ carry on their shoulders. Again the richness of God’s grace is something to which we cling in faith. There are also truths about life that God has built into existence. Although God readily forgives those who are in Christ, other people might not be so forgiving. We simply may have to live with the fact that our actions have an impact on others in ways that we may not ever in this lifetime experience their forgiveness. The question becomes whether or not we value God’s grace more than what others may think and feel about us. We can ask them to forgive us. Whether or not they do is up to them, not up to us. What we do know is that God has forgiven us.
The world today holds an antagonistic view toward our faith in Christ. Christianity and the world do not mix. We are told this in Scripture over and over. We are in the world, but we are not to be of the world (John 17). Sometimes Christians have to face how difficult and tough it is to live out their faith in a world that is an enemy of Christ. Some clients will enter the counseling room because they have found that they lack the courage at times to live as God would want them to live. The heaviest pressure that anyone faces, believer or otherwise, is the call to conform to other’s beliefs rather than our own. Simply put in many cases, we liked to be liked. We want people to accept us. Nothing feels worse than rejection from others. Christ knows what that rejection feels like. He came to his own and those who were his own did not receive him (John 1:11). There is neither a temptation nor a pain that we face that Jesus Christ did not face. We have God’s promise that he will give us the courage, and even the words to say, when we face the antagonisms of the world. When we do fall short in that battle, God’s forgiveness is still there. The battle is not easy at all; but we have the panoply (Ephesians 6:11) to carry it out.
Living Out Our Christian Faith
From my perspective, some of the most satisfying work as a counselor is helping clients tap into their local churches so as to jump start their sanctification. How does a believer grow in his or her faith? Although therapists and clients can touch on the beginnings of this process in the counseling room, sanctification must take shape via one’s relationship to God and the body of Christ. The counseling room can never replace the fellowship that believers need with other believers. Nor was it intended to do so. I inform my believing clients that if they are not plugged into a solid Bible-believing local church, their struggles will continue to weigh them down.
It is equally true that unless believers find time for prayer, their struggles will continue to come at them in ways they don’t understand. We have the right to approach God’s throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). We have the greatest gift of all in Christ to be considered children of God. That means we can talk to him, which is exactly what prayer is. Just as the counseling room is not meant to replace a local church, neither is it meant to replace one’s relationship to God as Father and the power of prayer that comes with that relationship. God gives us promises regarding prayers we place before him, promises that we need to understand on levels that come only in time of relating to him. It is easy to think of prayer as simply our wanting God to give us things to make us happy in the moment. I fall into that trap time and time again. Prayer, however, carries with it the power of knowing God on a deep level, which simply put, takes time. Although forgiveness is always there, and God is ready to take us places no matter what, we have to realize that if we’re not careful, we can waste the valuable resource of time that we can spend with God. Hours go by in flashes that turn into days that turn into years that turn into a lifetime. Don’t let the reality of being allowed to know God slip away.
The counseling office is not a replacement for fellowship with other believers within a local church. No form of therapy is a replacement for prayer and knowing God. Additionally, counseling though it can help us gain insight into our selves and struggles that we face, it is not a replacement for our study of the Word or God, or Scripture. In addition to prayer, one of the ways we come to know God and his will for our lives is through his Word. Just as I tell believing clients about the necessity of church as the Body of Christ and prayer, I also tell them that if they are not reading and studying the Word of God, their struggles will continue to kick them in the rear. It is interesting and fulfilling work in counseling to help a believer develop some understanding of how to read and study God’s word. However, such work only begins in the counseling room. It must be developed in a local church setting with other believers who are trained to teach others how to study God’s Word.
These three truths help ground our faith into an ever growing and strengthening foundation: the Body of Christ, prayer, and Scripture. They are the foundation to how we should live out our Christian faith. I firmly believe that many of the doubts and struggles that Christian clients bring into the counseling room stem from their lacking in or neglect of these three areas.
The Upper and Lower Stories
One of my favorite Christian authors to read is Francis Schaeffer. He penned several works that I like to review at different times. One in particular always hits home for me, How Should We Then Live? (In The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Vol. 5, Crossway Books, 1982) In this work and others, Schaeffer described some faulty Christian thinking that he calls living in two stories. What many Christians tend to do is think of their Christian lives in some kind of upper spiritual story, while other aspects of their lives, e.g. finances, work, family, etc., are experienced in some kind of earthy lower story. Such upper/lower story divisions lead Christians to separate their spiritual beliefs from what some might call real-world beliefs, as though the two have no connection whatsoever. The upper and lower story division is a false one, and it can lead Christians into some dynamics that weigh them down.
All Christians are gifted and called to do various forms of work and labor in this life. The upper/lower story division tends to place those who are in what is considered full time Christian work on a pedestal. Obviously, we think, pastors, evangelists, and other full-time Christian ministers are doing more important work than the rest of us. But think about for a second. Perhaps it’s easy to think that way about bankers, accountants, business owners, and those that do similar work of service. But would we think that way about doctors, surgeons, airplane pilots, and engineers who build things?
Many times Christians enter counseling because they think that what they’re interested and skilled in doing is not important to God. They truly, perhaps secretly, don’t have an iota of interest or desire to enter seminary, do full-time evangelism, or become a pastor. For various reasons, they may desire to talk to a counselor because they feel guilty about the kind of work they want to do. I enjoy working with Christian clients who need to explore these thoughts. I like having the upper/lower story conversation with them. God has gifted us all to do and enjoy certain types of work, whether that entails pursuing the pastorate, becoming a teacher, working in a medical field, or training for certain types of business endeavors. Would anyone truly believe that a local church doesn’t need an accountant? The body of Christ should not disparage any of these fields of endeavor. The important task for all of us is to make sure of our calling before God, and then pursue that calling. As a believer in Christ, you should feel no guilt because you do not want to work in some full time ministerial capacity. Simultaneously, regardless of how we make a living, all believers are priests, and we’re called to serve the body of Christ in some capacity. Serving God can take place through any type of work we do, regardless of what it is.
As believers in Christ, we are also to pursue what Scripture calls the spiritual gifts. We utilize these gifts to serve the body of Christ. It is important to remember that we are all members of the body of Christ. That doesn’t mean we all do the same thing and serve the same way. Analogous to the physical body, Paul claims that the eye cannot say to the hand I have no need of you (I Corinthians 12:21). Every member of the body of Christ has a place in the church. It is not the same place as all other believers. Other forms of work I enjoy doing with Christian clients is exploring how they might fit into the body of Christ. It is important, however, for them to do this work in relation to their local church as well.
There are a lot of traps that believers can fall into when trying to decide what God has called them to do. It is not the purpose of this particular blog article to delve into that topic. It is, however, an important topic that believers need to explore. Such work is fulfilling work for me when I can help other believers work through these concerns.
As believers in Christ, our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ are of the utmost importance. Although I’m not a pre-marital or marriage counselor, I can help individuals work through their concerns with various kinds of interpersonal relationships. I firmly believe that our understanding of how our relationships to others should work begins with our relationship with Triune God. If we are not developing our relationship with Christ who allows us to approach the throne of grace before the Father, then our interpersonal relationships can and will suffer.
As I stated above, forgiveness of and from others is one the main sources of personal pain we may suffer. Consequently, I work with believers to focus on what forgiveness means, and how it serves us. Others may withhold their forgiveness of us, but it is key to our wellbeing that we learn to forgive others, whether or not that leads to a restoration of friendships.
The ultimate foundation on which we all stand is grace. We must learn to develop and apply that notion to every area of our lives, including how we relate to others.
Sometimes believers can find it difficult to talk with others in their church about any concerns they are trying to navigate. The counseling room is a safe place where Christians can explore such navigations. My aim is not that counseling replace what they should find in the body of Christ. Instead I want to support what the body of Christ offers all its members. Working with other Christians who face the difficulties that life can and will throw at us is fulfilling work. I hope that any believer in Christ can enter my office and find the grace, safety, and encouragement to take on whatever challenges that life offers.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D, LPC-S/August 14th, 2020