The manner in which Biblical Counseling as a discipline should interact with the discipline of “psychology” is a matter of great interest to me. I use quotation marks because the word refers to a bewildering number of concepts and theories, all of which more-or-less concern what a human being is, how a human being knows, how human beings change, and what end they should change toward. Psychology is a science at times, a religion at times, and a moral theory in other places.
In a series of articles being published in the Journal of Biblical Soul Care (https://biblicalcounseling.com/jbsc/), I have been offering my thoughts on how we biblical counselors should interact with psychology. I do not think it best to either appropriate whatever “works,” nor to simply ignore it. In fact, I do not think it is possible to ignore it altogether. Therefore, developing a framework for understanding the results of research without ingesting ideas which undermine or contradict our theology is important.
The church has dealt with foreign theologies and psychologies, and philosophies. In our time, “psychology” is the theology/philosophy/science of the hour. So, let’s undertake that task, but let us do so with all the care one would use to pick up a porcupine. Carelessness on the part of the church has led to defective, even heretical, theology in the past.
My project will take years to complete. In the interim, I would like to offer this caution: it is one thing to read a study which reports on the stress effects of long-distance driving on truckers. It is another thing to import a therapy because “it works.” I would like to offer some cautions on why we should not simply import a therapeutic technique into biblical counseling.
1. It Exceeds Our Job Description.
The Church as the Church has been given only one mandate: to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). Biblical counseling provides direction in Christian discipleship. We help people put Christian theology into practice. In fact, perhaps it is best to conceive of theology as putting Christian doctrine into practice. “So, then theology is, in our opinion, nothing other than speech about God, about the divine worship, about the immortal blessedness of the immortal soul, and about the method of coming to God and living for him.”1Petrus Van Mastricht. Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volume 1: Prolegomena. Reformation Heritage Books. Kindle Edition.
There are any number of things, good and bad, which lie beyond the scope of our work. If you are an accountant and you are acting as a counselor, be an accountant. Even the good work of offering tax advice is something other than biblical counseling. Stick to your job description. The box boy might help me to my car, but it’s not his job to rotate the tires.
2. You Need a License to Conduct Therapy.
Psychotherapists constitute a licensed profession in the United States. They are governed by very specific standards and must pass certain requirements in each state. If you engage in “therapy” and you do not have a license, you very well may be violating the law. The laws may be ill-informed and not in the public good, but they are the laws. A biblical counselor does not need to be licensed, because we do not engage in therapy. We train in the Christian religion.
3. Not All “Help” Is Help.
A common argument is that we are called to “help hurting people.” Some therapy is said to help people. Therefore, we should use that therapy. The trouble here is with the word “help.” Therapy is an amoral procedure whose primary end is for the client/patient to feel better. If one feels happy, calm, well suited to one’s situation, everything is fine.
We do believe that as a general matter, living in accord with biblical principles will result in a better, more satisfying life. But as we look through the text of Scripture, we see instances where living as God calls us will not result in our immediate happiness. Does the unremitting pain of the psalmist in Psalm 88 need therapy? Jesus’ agony in the Garden and then the escalating pain and sorrow of the Cross show that God may call his most highly esteemed servants to suffer tremendous sorrow.
Sometimes sorrow and pain is good because it leads us to repentance. Psalm 32 describes the pain felt by one who is living with unrepentant sin. The pain of the unrepentance was meant to drive David to repent. Should David have merely learned some breathing techniques and used valium? If anti-anxiety CBT and medication had ended his depression, would that have been help for David?
Not all pain is something which should simply stop, and it is not always “help” to help someone avoid sorrow or pain.
4. A Therapy Is the Rite of a Foreign Religion.
All forms of beliefs and actions will have the effect of changing people. Even ineffective therapy will change a person, however slight the change. When you use a therapy, you are instructing in hope (this will help you feel better). By giving instruction in therapeutic technique, you are giving theological instruction.
A therapy is not a neutral procedure which has the moral content of a hydrogen bond in a chemistry experiment. A therapy comes out of a complex understanding of a human being and seeks to change a human being in the direction of and consistent with that understanding. When you import a therapy, you are importing rituals of a different religion.
James Smith made a comment respecting Christian worship which is applicable here, “The problem, of course, is that these ‘forms’ are not just neutral containers or discardable conduits for a message. As we’ve seen already, what are embraced as merely fresh forms are, in fact, practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life. Indeed, I’ve tried to show that these cultural practices are liturgies in their own right precisely because they are oriented to a telos and are bent on shaping my loves and longings. The forms themselves are pedagogies of desire that teach us to construe and relate to the world in a loaded way. So, when we distill the gospel message and embed it in the form of the mall, while we might think we are finding a fresh way for people to encounter Christ, in fact the very form of the practice is already loaded with a way of construing the world.”2James K. Smith A. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
This last point is a matter I hope to consider in a subsequent post.