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Biblical Counseling Journeys

Truth in Love 442

Jenn’s journey to biblical counseling

Nov 27, 2023

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I’m delighted to have with me a dear friend. Dr. Jenn Chen. She was licensed as a clinical psychologist in 2002 with a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a master’s in marriage and family therapy. She was formally trained in multiple evidence-based practices in Psychology, co-authoring a book on those practices, when she received biblical counseling in 2011. As a result, she completed her MABC and left psychology. She is an ACBC certified and has taught at conferences, universities, and a seminary in biblical counseling. She currently counsels at Lighthouse Community. She has been married to her husband Peter since 1996, and they cherish their teenage son, Garrett. Jenn is deeply grateful for how biblical counseling has transformed her faith, her life, and her counsel. Jenn, so grateful as always to be together, and grateful that you’re here today with us on the podcast.  

Jenn Chen: Oh such a privilege to be here.  

Dale Johnson: This is going to be fun as we talk about stories. It’s always fun for me to get to know people and a little bit about their life. I’ve had the privilege of hearing the story and I thought it would be such an encouragement to so many of our listeners to hear a little bit about you and your journey to biblical counseling. You have a unique story, Jen, and I want you to first introduce yourself. I know that’s always awkward to talk about yourself a little bit, but just some background and a little bit about Jenn Chen, who she is, your context in life, and by the providence of the Lord start us into your story.  

Jenn Chen: Yes. So my name is Jenn Chen. My name kind of belies me, but I’m actually a Japanese-American, fourth generation. My parents were not believers. Part of Japanese culture is a very deep moralism, so my parents would drop us off at Sunday school because they wanted us to have good morals and be around good people. So I grew up learning some Bible verses, and I actually have good memories of church. But I think I also walked away not really understanding the gospel and feeling like I just fell short, which was true, but I don’t think I got the good news that Jesus is the gospel and that it’s not about me in my works or my goodness but about Christ’s. I struggled in my teenage years and ended up in secular therapy, and during that time also walked away from the church because I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be a Christian. Interestingly enough in my undergraduate years, through struggle, ended up going back into Christianity, hearing the gospel again, and really wanting to make Christ my savior when I started to grasp this idea that he died for my sins —and by then I had a lot more of them than what I had as a teenager. I was also in therapy at the time so I just had this idea of “Oh, wow. It’s my faith and my therapy that have made me function so much better.”  

I grew up in Southern California. At the time there were multiple schools of integration and I had no thought that this would not be a good thing. So, I went and got my marriage and family degree. After that I still had no idea of: “What am I doing? How do I actually help people?” And I really wanted to help the least of these, not just to help families and relationships. But I was really interested in helping the hardcore cases. Part of my history, too, being Japanese-American and being aware of oppression, I had more of a social gospel at that point that told me “I need to save people from oppression and suffering.” So then I also went to a seminary to get my doctoral degree, and learned even more about Multicultural Counseling. but then I slipped into more of a “but I want to know what helps people best.” So then I went more of a scientific route. That’s when evidence-based practices were starting to develop, and I was also seeing how they were more applied to a middle-class, white worldview. But the kind of training I got was very postmodern. So in some ways I would rail against it, but I was still thinking, “Well, what can I take from this that will be helpful?”  

And then, boom, my own issues? I happened to be attending a church that provided biblical counseling. So honestly at first when I was receiving biblical counseling, he handed me a study Bible and I was like, “Wow. He’s really serious. This is biblical counseling.” and I still have this image that I’m handing you, and it was never like, “You are from psychology. You’re wrong. You need to think these things.” But my experience was, “Let me show you a better way.” At first, I thought, “Oh, this is Christian CBT.” And then when I started to see my heart and I started to see my triune Redeemer, I realized how vastly different it was and all the false gospels I’d been pointing to through my training. How would I give people true life?  

Dale Johnson: That’s so intriguing, and you’re an intriguing individual, in part because of your background and some of the places that the Lord has taken you. We recently did a panel together on the issue of trauma and it’s just very apparent that the Lord is even now using some of your training in the evidence-based practices. I want you to talk a little bit about, even before you came to biblical counseling, some of the primary things that you focused on relative to study. You studied at a very high level; you taught at a very high level. Give us a little bit of that background from before you discovered biblical counseling. 

Jenn Chen: It’s interesting because even in undergrad I took an Asian American psychology class, and that’s when I think I started to really become aware of the worldviews. How even psychology pathologized my culture and other cultures and said “this is what’s normal and this is what’s not” and then, I wouldn’t say they said it was scientific, but that these are authorities claiming what is normal. Then, I would take classes and see it from a Caucasian view and think from an Asian-American view. I think God developed me as a very curious person and so I got to do different worldviews every year. So I did one year in Humanistic. I did one year in CBT. I did several years in Neuropsychology. Eventually, the evidence-based practices are based around Cognitive Behavioral Therapies, And I think when I hit Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, that’s how, in my mind, I was able to synthesize all these different world views.

Yet, in doing these evidence-based practices and learning from the top people in the field, I was also seeing there were some successes, but there was never anything 100%, and then also how they described successes, as well as it wasn’t like every person that did this. So even Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which is supposedly this gold standard for a lot of things now, maybe had a 50% success rate, and then how they defined success. Also for me, I worked 20 years in the inner city, and when trying to apply these supposed evidence-based practices to my population, it was very clear that there was a disconnect between the worldviews of the people I was helping and theirs.

But when I started utilizing biblical counseling, it was universal; it wasn’t culturally based. Maybe how I talk about the Bible, I would consider their culture. But at the same time it was the Word. I think the other thing I noticed that I’d been reading about psychology since the early 80s and just watching these trends come and go and people saying, “No, this is why this is,” and “No, that’s wrong,” “No, this is this,” or even in the neurosciences where they’ve talked about “Oh, we have this Reptilian Brain” and that was actually debunked in the 90s and yet it still is around today. So all these things that come and go, but then they stick around. Seeing the self-esteem movement, seeing the codependent movement of the 80s, and now we’re in the biological sciences and all of that. Then also I had a supervisor who was in forensic psychology and working with him for a year wondering “how would this hold up in court?” and just seeing how the research, if I were to say this to a lay audience, how much it did not make sense, say, how the MMPI was developed. So, before biblical counseling, I saw a lot of holes in psychology already. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I love psychology, and now there’s biblical counseling.”  

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s really interesting. And I think you spent many years and were able to see some of those trends come and go, and that’s been a part of the history of psychology itself and psychiatry particularly as well. But I’m interested to hear a little bit more about the story of how you were exposed to biblical counseling. So that’s always a unique thing especially for somebody whose livelihood is rooted in teaching these types of methodologies, even practicing as you mentioned in the inner city. So just talk about how you were exposed to biblical counseling and a little bit about that journey.  

Jenn Chen: Yes. There was a period in my life where we were actually going through infertility, and that’s when I knew I had lost my faith, but I didn’t know how to find it. Then, probably six years after my son was born, we were looking for new churches because our church was too far away location-wise, we landed at Lighthouse Community Church. While we were there I started getting really sick. I had panic attacks, I lost 20 pounds in probably three months. I was using everything I knew from psychology, the best of the best, and talking to people, and it was barely treading water still. It did turn out that I had parasites, so some of this was a physiological response. Yet, at the same time, it really brought out my heart, my fears, my idolatries, my suffering, but being able to see all of that in light of our triune Redeemer. So it was really for me the biblical counseling of what is really the problem and what is my heart, but also the world around me. We have an evil one that wants to kill, steal, and destroy, and my heart tempted. But then also the suffering of living in a Genesis 3 world and the solution is the gospel. It can sound so simple and trite if you don’t grasp it; I think if I had never received biblical counseling, I would have thought it was so simplistic. And I’d also been told that biblical counseling was either simplistic or even harmful.  

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that makes sense and it’s just interesting to me as I hear a little bit more about that story, the depth of impact that it’s had on your life. Talk a little bit about, from those days moving forward, the genuine impact of not the method and technique of biblical counseling but the word and the God behind it and how you’ve been impacted by some of these concepts of biblical counseling.  

Jenn Chen: So one of my idols definitely was performance. And so some people think that I went to school because I was so smart and then I got all this training because I was so smart. But honestly, it was because I felt so insufficient to help people and that if I just got enough training and if I just knew the right things, I would be able to help people. And then come to find out it was because I was seeking the wrong solutions, but then mostly for my own heart of how I now am aware of my idolatries, but even more aware of the God who died to save me from myself and to save me from this world to save me from the evil one and that this whole idea of progressive sanctification this whole idea of Him transforming me like I have been able able to love people that in the past I would have just written off. Things that Jenn in her own flesh is never capable of.

Then the Word it was honestly in my training at school and Seminary, it just actually became more confusing to me I think because this postmodern and it did get to this point where I can’t know truth from the Bible because I am this Japanese-American here in this time and place and it was written by these people and they had their biases, I have my biases. We all have our biases. We can’t know truth! And when I began to understand how to understand the Bible and understand the God of the Bible. It’s like His Word became life and it really was. It is God-breathed. It is what He has given me to know Him and to point others to Him and to know what true hope is not in me performing perfectly not in me knowing their right technique to work with somebody and not even me having to quote save somebody threw my knowledge and my expertise in my anything else it is them knowing God and also being able to let go of. When I am faithful, the fruits are in God’s hands. You know, I water, I plant somebody else plants, but God gives the growth. So letting go and being able to not be enslaved to me.  

Dale Johnson: As you’re talking about that I’m thinking back to my own counseling experience and just what a brilliant thing it is when you sit down with someone and they begin to see the Scriptures the way that you just described and you see a person begin to cling to hope in a way that they never thought was possible before and you begin to see their life radically changed moving in a different direction the joy that they experience from something that had held them so bound and what a joy that is.

You’re very involved now Jenn in the biblical counseling world, the biblical counseling movement in general. Talk a little bit about what makes you so committed to biblical counseling and why you have given lots of time, effort and thought into our movement and you’re consistently contributing. So why are you so involved now?  

Jenn Chen: Because I see the huge difference of a false gospel and the true gospel and just seeing the difference in my own heart and then seeing that difference in those I counsel. But also seeing how sometimes certain things might creep up and how they if I didn’t have the training I had I wouldn’t necessarily be discerning of even some of the pseudo-science that’s presented and just trying to be faithful to God to steward the experiences I had because honestly at first I was so horrified, “I can’t believe I spent all that time there when I could have been learning God’s Word when I could have been learning theology.” But being able to be faithful with His purpose for me.  

Dale Johnson: It’s interesting to me as I think about your story and I remember the history of the biblical counseling movement. One of the great discussions is should we redeem psychology? Should we reclaim psychology? I think your story actually demonstrates the way the Lord redeems psychology is what you put now in effort into the biblical counseling world. You have a full understanding of as you describe it the false gospels that are proposed in that therapeutic culture and now you see the beauty of the one true gospel of Christ and how He redeems radically changes lives of people, offers them hope when there seems to be no hope and what a wonderful story.

Jenn, it’s always fun to hang out, so grateful for your time today, and I’m so glad that we’re getting to introduce your story to so many people.

Jenn Chen: Thank you. What a privilege to be with you again and to share God’s redemptive story. 

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