Monday, November 14, 2011

The High Price of Integration in Psychology and Christian Counseling: Personal Discipline and Obedience

Learning in the area of psychology is fairly similar to learning in any other academic area. However, integrating psychology and the Scriptures seem to elude many who desire to integrate their practice of counseling and the truth of the Scriptures. Two common themes in the recent writings about integration are the importance of the Bible as authority and the character of the counselor.  Jones, Johnson, Powlison, McMinn & Campbell, and Beck & Demarest (just to name a few) all discuss different frameworks to utilize when thinking about counseling, or when counseling from an integrative perspective. There seems to be two parallel tracks concerning biblical teachings emphasized: the explicit teachings from the Bible about counseling, and the specific words of direction concerning how to resolve life’s problems.  Nevertheless, many Christian counselors, and educators for counseling programs still struggle with finding a balance between using or teaching biblical concepts, and how they “fit” with psychological concepts.  In the counselor education program where I teach, the majority of the students are highly motivated to learn the academic concepts of psychological principles, but the high price to learn just as thoroughly important biblical principles and concepts seems beyond the motivation of many.

Perhaps this struggle continues for many because the price for being able to think “truth” includes allowing God’s truth to “renew our minds.”  (Romans 12:2 “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this word, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will." ) Integrating biblical truth with principles from psychology requires not only an “academic” knowledge of the psychology and the Bible, but also experiencing first hand the transformational work of God and His Word in the counselor’s personal life. Many Christians have spent years attending worship services in a church, and/or attending some type of regular Bible study in their church. Unfortunately, those experiences do not guarantee the “renewal” of the mind of the individual. I would challenge Christian counselors to explore the need to spend personal time in the Bible reading, studying, memorizing, and mediating on God’s Word, and obeying God’s Word.  Paying that “price” prepares the counselor to be able to recognize God’s truth, whether in specific revelation (the Bible) or in general revelation (psychological or scientific data), and to help clients recognize those truths.

One of the memorable stories of the Old Testament comes from II Kings 5, the story about
the prophet Elisha and the commander of the army of Aram, Naaman who was suffering with leprosy.  This rich story illustrates how God works even in through simple actions. In recent years what has really struck me about this story is how often we are just like Naaman. God gave Naaman, through Elisha, the simple direction to go to the river Jordan and wash himself seven times, with the promise of his flesh being restored and that he would be cleansed. The Scripture tells us Naaman went away angry because he thought Elisha’s instructions were too simple. Fortunately, his servants were able to reason with him, and he decided to follow Elisha’s instructions, and as a result, he experienced healing and cleansing.

As Christians living in a complex, multi-faceted world, we have this same tendency to think God’s simple, clear instructions are just not enough, or perhaps somehow not worthy of our time and obedience.  For example, in Joshua 1:8, God says “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.”  Apparently most of us don’t really believe this verse because we do not practice it. In the same breath we are crying out to God about how hard it is to trust in Him, to believe in Him (in an every-day-practical way), and how we can’t do what He calls us to do.

What has to happen for us to be able to think “truth” and allow God’s truth to “renew our minds?”   I believe that if we do not allow God’s truth to “renew our minds” we can still know about God and about God’s Word, but we will become like the Pharasees and Saducees, with just an outward “exterior” form of religion rather than the inward transformation that God desires. God desires to build His very character and nature into our lives, so that we think like Him and we allow Him (through the surrender of our will and desires) to live through us. Paul often referred to this concept: Colossians 1:17 to them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  It is important that we meditate on what it means that Christ is in us, indwelling in us. If Christ is in me, and I allow Him to live through me in my response to others, that means His love can flow through me when I don’t feel like behaving in a loving manner. His indwelling Spirit within us is our hope.  Without Him living within us, we are not able to obey His commands and desires.

Ephesians 3:16 allows us to hear Paul’s prayer for the people of Ephesus: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being. 17. So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”  Can you imagine being filled to the measure of all the fullness of God? I envision being “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” as becoming a person that when others see me, they would see Christ. That can only be accomplished by His empowering us from within. Numerous times as I’ve challenged Christian clients to act in loving ways, they’ve responded that they cannot do it, they aren’t strong enough.

If I have never experienced God’s empowering love in my own life, how will I be able to help the client?

Paul described this transformation as being an ongoing process that happens across a period of time. He stated in Ephesians 4:13 “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” “Becoming mature” indicates that “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” is not a one-time experience, but an ongoing process. What a great life goal! Additionally, Paul’s prayer for the people of Ephesus is a great prayer for the Christian counselor to pray for his or herself, as well as for the client. Many of the serious relational problems based on selfishness or a lack of agape love would be resolved if the client could “attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Perhaps one of the reasons Christian counselors often are not working out of a biblically sound base is that we are unwilling to pay the high price of personal discipline and obedience to know God’s Word, to be able to understand how to apply God’s Word to every day life situations, and to obey God’s Word in our own life daily.
What would it look like if I were to pay the high price of discipline and obedience to know God’s word? Next week I will write more about that.  

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