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How Should Biblical Counselors Assess EMDR Therapy?

This week on the podcast, we turn our attention to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy—better known in our culture as EMDR. We want to turn our attention here, in part because during my time as Executive Director at ACBC we’ve had several questions relative to EMDR. We want to present at least some thoughts—I would say maybe even cautions—about this type of therapy. It’s gained a lot of attraction along with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the secular and integrated world, and even among the Christian community. We need to be cautious and careful when we were approaching EMDR, but I want you to know a little bit about it so that you can make wise decisions as you approach hopefully any type of counseling system.

The first thing that I want to say is this podcast will take a little bit of a different approach as we’re trying to consider a different counseling theory. First a couple of comments that I want to make sure that we make is we have to understand that every single counseling system is a philosophy. It’s trying to employ a way of thinking about life in order to understand people and then in order to help people.

I am not claiming at all that those who utilize EMDR have faulty motives. I think that’s the first mistake that people make anytime a counseling system is criticized, thinking that we’re criticizing the person as if they have evil motives. That is not the case. In fact, I would say most people who dive into counseling have a heart desire to help people. They want to see people change. They want to find a system that they believe will help someone change.

I don’t think CBT or EMDR is any different. I think people really have a desire to do what they can to help people to change. I think some of that desire can be very misguided. This is the point that I want to make today on the podcast as we consider EMDR and some of its tenants. In the short amount of time that we have together today, of course, we can’t go into extreme detail, which I wish we could. I’ve been rereading Francine Shapiro’s original work EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy in its Third Edition, talking about basic principles, protocols, and procedures. I’ve also read the Second Edition, which I think is quite interesting.

I think there are some things right off the cusp of that we need to consider. If you remember a couple of weeks ago, Dr. Sam Stephens and I worked through a definition of biblical counseling. There were some critical pieces of that puzzle that I want to utilize that definition to assess something like EMDR.

As we approach EMDR, I think it’s important that we pay attention to a couple of ideas. If all counseling approaches are truly employing a philosophy—the German word would be “weltanschauung,” a worldview, a way of seeing life, a way of seeing a person and what we believe to be helpful for a person—then I think it’s important that any Christian who attempts to utilize any type of system, those systems must be consistent with biblical truth, biblical philosophy, and biblical wisdom, if you will, which is what philosophy is. We must consider first of all, what does this particular system believe and think about God? Does this system believe that God is the one true God of the Bible? Do they articulate the idea that there is a sovereign God to whom we are all accountable? Do we think about God in proper terms in this system of EMDR?

The second question that’s often raised that I think is a very important way for us as biblical counselors to discern is, what are they saying about the nature of man? You have theology and anthropology. These are really the questions of philosophy in a broad sense. But what are they saying about God? That’s the pendulum upon which everything in a system swings. That’s why biblical counseling is so distinct. We have a distinct view of God which is unalterable and cannot be compromised. The second part is also true—the way we think about man. How man has problems, why we have problems—the Bible tells the narrative that it’s because of the curse of sin. Brokenness, not just from an immaterial soulish perspective, but also in the physical bodies that we have. We have to ask the question, What does this system say about man? Do they agree with the understanding that the Bible presents about man in general?

Even if they do have semblance of agreement, the way in which they approach not just the explanation of the problems of a person, but also how this is fixed is important. Is it consistent by implication with the way the Bible describes humanity has problems and the way humanity is repaired? This is an important thing to consider.

The third thing I would say that’s a part of the way we approach any type of counseling philosophy is what I call hamartiology. What I mean by that is the definition of sin: What is the problem of man? This is the question that philosophers asked. What is the problem of man? How is this system defining it? In order to put these realities in comparison with the truth of Scripture, we have to put these systems (like EMDR) in the same language as Scripture, because these are not scientific realities that supersede the truth of Scripture. I’m not denouncing “science.” I’ll flesh that out in just a minute.

But what I am saying is that we have to put this on the same playing field. EMDR is a philosophical approach to the way of seeing human beings. The question that is raised is: Is it consistent? How do we view the problems of man? That is EMDR’s system of hamartiology. That’s their belief about the problem of man. In order for us as biblical counselors to utilize that, it then has to be consistent with the way the Bible describes the problems of man.

The fourth thing that I would say is the issue of what is the fix for man? Or how do we repair man? “What is the solution?” is often the way it’s asked in philosophy. What is the solution to man’s problems? In the Bible, we have a doctrine that describes that. It’s not just delineated to salvation proper. I would call this the question of soteriology. Does EMDR approach the solution of man in the same way the Bible does? Soteriology is not just the idea of justification where we come to know Christ by faith alone and He changes our hearts and makes us new. Soteriology fleshed out is also sanctification and glorification—the process by which we deal with the brokenness of man, and we begin to be transformed and renewed in the spirit of our mind in the way that we behave, act, and live. All of this is encompassing.

When we take that grid to discern EMDR, several things really begin to pop out in our minds. I want to talk about this in relation to the definition that Dr. Stephens and I talked with you about a couple of weeks ago that I think is so crucial. The first question that I want us to consider today is, what about the science behind EMDR therapy? I think this is an important question. I want to say up front that biblical counselors should never deny legitimate scientific inquiry. This is a very important piece of the puzzle.

Here’s the problem that we have: Delineating the difference between what is science and scientism. Science is something that is driven historically by the scientific method, which is something that’s observable, repeatable, and that we see can be tested and retested. When we look at something like EMDR, people describe that neurology and neuroscience is behind it. They say there’s evidence that describes this. Yet, the scientific community is actually quite split on this idea—whether or not there are neurological changes that happen. We have to be cautious and careful when we’re listening and hearing and paying attention to “what the science says.” In fact, when you read Francine Shapiro’s work, she often describes the way that this system inaugurated was solely on her observations, solely on the way that she experienced some of these ideas of eye movements in one way or another and how that helped her to reprocess some of these ideas.

Now as the theory and the therapy has gained popularity, we’ve seen lots of people try to run to it. What we have to be cautious of when we’re talking about therapy, particularly psychotherapy as this is in the category of cognitive behavioral therapy, we have to be cautious in the way in which we understand science behind the probability of someone being changed or helped in some way, shape, or form. As Christians we have to ask what change is happening. We have to be cautious and careful when we hear the idea of “the science that’s behind it.” First of all, scientists disagree to a major degree on what effect EMDR truly has on a person. Is it the desensitization that occurs? Is it the bilateral stimulation that happens in and around EMDR? Is it the the aspect of eye movement that begins to calm a person and change their pathology to some degree?

I would be very cautious in describing EMDR as something that is scientific. I would lean more in the direction of describing the idea of EMDR and its observations being scientism—something that people suppose. The idea that Francine Shapiro promotes actually is she says that we see a variation in clinical utility depending upon the person who’s doing the type of therapy, their level of skill, and so on, and the client’s desire to work with this person. We have to be cautious and careful. I think sometimes language is used that sounds more scientific—like using neurological ideas or neuroscience as some sort of means of backing, but I would again remind you that we have to be cautious with this language because even as Dr. Allen Frances says, who’s a leading psychiatrist in our world today, “We know less about the human brain than we know about the universe.”

For us to blindly walk into some sort of statement that tries to solidify this therapy, we need to be very cautious. That’s the first thing—not a denial of science, but a recognition that when you understand the therapy and the way it approaches things is based on scientism, subjective views of the way we observe some sort of change that’s happening. Not something that’s directly linked to a verifiable adjustments in neurochemistry and so on and so forth. We must be cautious.

The second thing is even if we do find some sort of expression of neurochemistry adjustments, we have to ask the chicken or the egg question. Is this something that changes within the disposition of a person that then affects the biology of a person? Or are we saying that this is a physiological problem and if we can tap into this physiological issue, we then see the inner man start to change? That’s where I get very very cautious when it comes to a biblical view of this type of therapy.

Let me do this in a couple of ways. If you remember the discussion that we had relative to the definition of biblical counseling, the first question we asked was about the nature of biblical counseling. Part of what we’re trying to describe there is, what does it mean? We are talking about the use of the sufficient Word of God. We are talking about doing counseling under the oversight of the church. And we are talking about how this is ultimate goal of change is a work of the Holy Spirit.

If I put EMDR under that type of litmus test from the Scriptures, and just reading the Scriptures, would I come up with some sort of ideas from EMDR? Well, a desire to change patterns of thinking, a desire to measure ourselves over and against the experiences and the things that happen to us—we see some consistencies there. The problem is what we’re measuring that by. Second, I would say this is not a therapy that’s done under the oversight of a church. This is not a therapy that’s done with scriptural truths in mind, by which we measure our experiences. This becomes a problem.

Let me give you an example. Maybe this dates me to some degree, but you went to town fairs and at the town fair, sometimes you would walk into this building that had fun mirrors. Do you remember that? As you walk into this little arena that has all these different shaped mirrors, you see a semblance of yourself, but you don’t see an exact representation of who you really are. You see yourself maybe larger than you really are or may be skinnier (wouldn’t that be nice) than we really are. We see ourselves taller than we really are, or shorter than we really are. We see a semblance of ourselves, but we don’t actually see the true self. EMDR describes that it can help us do self-assessment to see our true self. That’s problematic from a biblical perspective because the Bible makes very clear in James 1:25 and following that the only thing that helps us to see us for who we really are is the Scriptures, this perfect law of liberty that God has told us to look into, to peer into, to pay attention to.

EMDR is trying to approach this perspective of helping the person to see their true self to make true and legitimate self-assessment. But by comparing themselves to cultural realities, by comparing themselves to the trauma that they experienced and whether that trauma was interpreted correctly or not. The reality is from a biblical perspective that the only way that we see ourselves for who we truly are is by measuring ourselves against the truth of Scripture. This fixed truth about who God is. In seeing Him rightly, we can now see ourselves for who we really are. We can understand why we may have perceived something falsely, why we think in denigrating terms about ourselves. EMDR is looking in a very different direction, trying to identify those things which are denigrating to the person. This does not fit under what I would consider to be the true nature of biblical counseling.

The second part of the definition that we talked about a few weeks ago was the goal. The goal of biblical counseling is we want to see change, but not just simply change in any term. We want to see change that’s effectual, that’s transforming to the heart of a person, that conforms them to the image of Christ. That’s the nature of biblical counseling. That’s the goal of biblical counseling.

Can we say the same for EMDR? I would venture to say that when you read Francine Shapiro’s book, she tells us exactly what the goal is for change. I want to reiterate this: People who try to employ EMDR are not wrong in their desire to see people change, they’re wrong in their understanding of how effectually that works—particularly Christians trying to employ this. Here’s why: On page 43 of her most recent edition, this is what she talks about relative to resolution or solution. Their goal is this: “Resolution of disturbance [talking about when a person is disturbed because of their trauma that they’ve experienced] is achieved through the stimulation of the client’s inherent self-healing process.” Now, I want you to pay attention to that because what she’s saying is the whole motive of EMDR, the whole philosophy behind it, is we want to try and tap into utilizing this desensitization bilateral stimulation processes. We want to do our best to try and tap into the client’s inherent self-healing process. I couldn’t think of a statement that’s more contrary to biblical truth. When the Bible tells us that the way to be saved, the way for salvation, the way for renewal and peace in our hearts is to die to self—not to become aware of the inherent self-healing process that we have.

She goes on to say, “As previously discussed, one of the primary principles of the AIP model [the AIP model is the way in which they think about information processing—it’s called the Adaptive Information Processing, which is employed by EMDR] is the notion of a dynamic drive toward mental health. The information-processing mechanism is physiologically designed to resolve psychological disturbances.” Do you see how she can makes a connection there to anthropology? She’s describing that the physiological has massive impact in dictating the psychological. This is more akin to the philosophy of someone like Ivan Pavlov or B.F. Skinner in a behavioristic sense that we must be cautious about. She goes on, “Just as the rest of the body is geared to heal a physical wound. According to our model [the EMDR model], psychological dysfunction, with all its complex elements of lack of self-esteem and self-efficacy, is caused by the information stored in the brain. By means of EMDR therapy this information is accessed, processed and adaptively resolved.”

Now, if that’s a part of the goal of EMDR therapy, and that’s the means by which we see resolution in EMDR therapy, that ought to raise some flags for a biblical counselor. That ought to raise some concern about biblical truth as it relates to who man is. In our definition of biblical counseling, we give the goal of wanting to see ourselves remade or conformed back into the design of God’s image in us.

EMDR therapy is not trying to accomplish that. They’re trying to promote self-efficacy. They’re trying to promote self-healing. They’re trying to promote the ideas of self-esteem, which I would argue all are problems from a biblical perspective. This is not presenting a biblical anthropology at which we see sin infected the inner part of man that now drives the way that we interpret the world around us and now influences the way that we think and process all the experiences that we have in life, that becomes guilt shame and detrimental to us, that impacts the way we behave on the outside in terms of fear, and expression, and so on in the way that we talk in the experiences that we have from that point on. This is working the opposite direction. This is a faulty anthropology. It is not achieving the same goal that we see from the Scriptures.

This is a problem because this therapy begins with a biological assumption that problems that we have—even in our experiences—are because of the brain. This is a faulty view, I think, of anthropology from a biblical perspective. Is the brain affected? Yes, but can we say that it’s the primary problem? The science doesn’t back that up. I would argue that the Bible describes a very different anthropology. Now, as you can tell we’re working through this somewhat fast and I hate this because there’s so much that we could say further, but I want to continue to describe this idea of method. What you see promoted in EMDR is self-efficacy, self-improvement, self-assessment, and self-healing. This is a huge problem to me. This ought to wait raise red flags for biblical counselors—especially if our desire is to use the sufficiency of God’s Word in order to help people.

The method we talked about in our definition is we want to see the sufficient Scriptures utilized to see the conforming to Christ—not this perspective of self-healing. I want you to listen to Shapiro as she describes this idea of how we’re looking for negative cognition in a person and what the method is—bilateral stimulation and so on. She says, “The client is next asked to identify a statement that expresses the underlying negative belief or maladaptive self-assessment that goes with the image. This statement is called the ‘negative cognition.’ While the term ‘cognition’ has often been used to define all of the conscious representations of the experience, in EMDR therapy we use it to signify a belief or assessment.” She goes on to say that this is a client’s “current interpretation” of the self. She’s trying to describe this negative cognition as the primary source of the problem that hinders or becomes a denigration or a detriment to the way in which we view the self or try to empower the self. She goes on to say this is how the client would describe it, “What are my negative, self-denigrating beliefs about myself in relation to the event [the particular trauma]? Negative cognitions include statements such as, ‘I am bad, worthless, unable to succeed.'” Am I denying the fact that that we think that as people? No, not at all. I think that’s very true to our experience. But isn’t that the problem? The way that we understand who we are relates to our interpretation of what’s going around us, the way we perceive what’s going on around us.

Paul says something very important in Colossians 3. He tells us not to think on things on the earth, but to think on things above. Why? Because when we get wrapped up in the here and now, our mind starts to perceive and believe things that are according to the ways of the world, according to the prince of the power of the air, and according to the philosophies of the world. It changes the way that we see life. It changes our perspective of reality. But we believe as biblical Christians that there is a true, legitimate reality. There’s a a fixed reality, and that’s all rooted in the sovereign God. It’s not based on self-assessment. If we make those assessments and perceptions based on our experiences, our culture, those sorts of things, then it becomes our authority and not the Bible.

We have to be cautious how we think about these things, and return any of our self assessment—when we feel like we’re worthless, when we feel like we’re unable to succeed—that the Bible actually talks about that. Our worth is not found in and of ourselves to empower us towards self-healing. Our worth is found in the wonderful sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, what He paid on our behalf, and now we wear His clothing of righteousness that’s not a righteous of our own. It is found securely in Him and in Him alone. Now, this changes the way that we see ourselves. I would argue that the method that’s being used here, trying to work from the physical to the immaterial, is a backward view of anthropology. It’s utilizing some sort of way to tap into the inner man. In my opinion, I would say that this is a replacement of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Because the work of the Holy Spirit is intended to be the revealer of the inner parts of man. He is to reveal truth to us, is to reveal the realities of who we really are. That’s why us seeing the Word of God and comparing ourselves to it, we are entrusting that work to the Holy Spirit to unveil our hearts and minds (2 Corinthians 3). Without that, we are blinded and darkened in even understanding our experiences appropriately or correctly. To assume that bilateral stimulation or anything like that unlocks some sort of key to the inner part of man, I think is faulty. It’s a hijacking of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Christians, can I just warn us, we need to be cautious. We need to be careful when we’re reading on these ideas and when we try to employ these ideas. We have to be careful to make sure that the things that we’re employing, the philosophies behind it, the goals that we’re aiming at, and the methods that we’re using—those methods are not neutral. They have baggage that comes with them. Those methods are not neutral. They are aiming at something as a goal of man. In that we must be cautious that in every step of the way, there are implications. To be a biblical counselor, we must be consistent with the implications of biblical truth in the process of the way we define problems, in the way we approach problems from methodological perspective, and then what we desire to have as an end goal in mind.

Let me just say this very clearly: Those who are Christians who employ EMDR, I’m not arguing that they don’t have the desirable end goal. But let me just remind you of this, the end does not justify the means to get there. God has a means and a way to accomplish His goal. Even when we have the right mindset and desire to see someone change, and our stated belief is that we want them to change in a Christ-conforming way, there is a means by which we get there.

I’ll give you one illustration and this will be the close of today. I’m reminded of when Jesus was confronted by the evil one. And you remember in Matthew 4, when Jesus is in the wilderness and Satan confronts Him. I remember thinking about the temptation of Jesus and the way in which He responded. He responds accurately with the Word of God, which I think is so important in the luring and enticing that that the evil one was doing with Jesus. As a secondary thought, we think about that third temptation. You remember when Satan brings Jesus up on this pinnacle, and He’s looking down and he asked Him a question. He says, “If you will bow and worship me, I will give you all the kingdoms of the earth.” I think that’s an interesting statement because what Satan is tempting Jesus with is actually the will of God. If you think about it, he’s tempting Jesus with the proper end. Will Jesus not be the ruler of all the kingdoms of the earth? Yes, Philippians 2 says very clearly that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. Psalm 2 is is foretelling that all of Jesus’s enemies will be a footstool to Him. So yes, Satan is actually tempting Jesus with the will of God.

How does Jesus respond? He’s not lured and enticed to do that by His own means, or by a different means. The end does not justify the means. Jesus knew that there was one way. It was the will of God—the way that God had provided to accomplish that end, that true end of which He would be the ruler of all the kingdoms of the earth.

That was the pathway through Gethsemane, to the cross, through the grave, now being resurrected to life. And this is the means. I would argue in the same way we have to be cautious, particularly in biblical counseling, when our heart desires to see hurting people helped, just pay attention that all the ways that we approach people—the means and the end need to be consistent with biblical doctrine.

I do pray this is helpful to you. I do pray it helps you to think through the process and to discern as you encounter ideas and thoughts and new theories that are appropriate in the culture of the age. Be cautious, be careful, be discerning, pay attention to Scripture. Make sure that these things are consistent with what a biblical counselor ought to be aiming at.

Recommended Resources

Register for our 2020 Digital Conference

Podcast series on the definition of Biblical Counseling:

The Nature of Biblical Counseling

The Goal of Biblical Counseling

The Method of Biblical Counseling

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