Tuesday, June 1, 2010

When in doubt . . .

By Maria Boccia, PhD
Professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology
Director of Graduate Programs in Counseling Charlotte campus

The name of the program of which I am the director is Graduate Programs in Counseling, and the degree my students obtain is called a Master of Arts in Christian Counseling. Christian counseling versus counseling: My students are very interested in the difference between these two. They ask about working with Christians versus people who do not claim Christ. How do they counsel these people? Sometimes they say they want to be in a church setting, and plan to work with Christians. In my experience, happily, if a counseling center has a reputation for helping people, they will come, even unbelievers, to the church. So, I tell my students that they need to be prepared to work with whomever God brings to them. It is a divine appointment.
I work with Christians. I work with non-Christians. I work with people who are questioning. I work with people who are settled in their beliefs. But they are all human beings, made in the image of God. They all human beings, subject to the Fall. Everyone who walks in my office is a unique creation, made by God in his own image, and fallen into sin. So Christians and non-Christians have many things in common. When someone comes to me for help, I have much from which to draw to help them. I can use what I have learned from the fields of psychology, biology, and medicine because God in his providence calls his Image Bearers to learn from his creation, and gives them the tools they need to do so. It is easy to see how I can apply secular psychology, under the authority of Scripture, to both Christians and non-Christians. But it is also true that I can apply the principles of Scripture to both non-Christians and Christians.
“When in doubt, follow the directions of the manufacturer.” When I buy a new article of clothing, I look at the tag to see how to best care for it to ensure a long life and good wear. This principle applies to human life as well. “When in doubt, follow the directions of the Maker.” God has given us his Word to reveal his salvific plan in history and to give us wisdom in how we should live the life which is his gift to us. The principles of how to live revealed to us in Scripture, as we seek to live them out, will lead us to become the people God intended us to be. It has been my assumption that this means if we follow these principles it will lead us into, among other things, healthier places. And these principles apply to the unbeliever as well as the believer.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8–9; ESV). One of the basic premises of cognitive behavioral therapy is that to change behavior one must change one’s thoughts which affect one’s emotions which motivates behavior. This applies to both believers and unbelievers.
So when my students ask me how I work with people who are not Christians I point this out. I always use the principles that God has provided us on how to live. With non-Christians I don’t couch them in Christianese or quote chapter and verse. But the principles apply to them as well as to the believers who come to see me. Sometimes, it takes a while for science to catch up with the principles of Scripture but eventually, if the researchers are honest, it does. For example God’s plan and pattern is for men and women to marry, then live together and have sex. It has become ubiquitous in our society for men and women to go in the opposite sequence: have sex, they move in together, and then (maybe) they get married. Science has caught up with God’s plan and found that cohabitation has lots of negative consequences for relationships (see my earlier blog on this topic at http://connect.gordonconwell.edu/members/blog_view.asp?id=190052&post=33380&hhSearchTerms=marriage#comment9604). So if I am providing premarital counseling for a couple and learn they are living together, I will challenge them in this area. If they are Christians I will use both science and Scripture to make my case, if they are not I still have much I can say to them about what is the best way to live to ensure a long and healthy marriage. When I think about counseling, whether Christians or non-Christians, I remember what CS Lewis said:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the all in the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.[1]

[1] C. S. Lewis (1949). The weight of glory.

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