Thursday, March 22, 2012

Godly Counseling

Somehow in the development of the Christian counseling field a spectrum formed, with counselors using only the Bible on one end and counselors using only principles of psychology on the other end. The primary focus seems to be on the content of what the counselor uses in the counseling session.  Some believe that if you use any “content” containing ideas or practices not found  in the Bible that it is not “Christian Counseling.”  Others believed that if you are a Christian, it is ok to use primarily psychological principles, and that ethically the counselor has a responsibility to not mix “religious” beliefs with the work of counseling. 

 My husband works in the field of worship leadership, and I have often heard him (and others in his field) refer to the “worship wars.”  In past years I think the Christian counseling spectrum could be referred to as the “Christian counseling wars.”  It was almost as if parties at each end of the spectrum considered those who thought and practiced differently than them as enemies. It is easy to begin to describe others who are different than we are, or who think differently than we do, as our enemies.  Yet, it is obvious in the Scriptures that God values “variation” or “difference.”  I do think it is only fair for me to identify that I see myself in the middle of this spectrum, seeking to use both biblical principles (always the ultimate authority), as well as psychological principles that are consistent with the biblical principles. 

When I look at creation, I am amazed at how God created such variety—whether in the incredible assortment  of the color green one sees in the grasses and trees, or in the curious differences in the length, circumference, design of the necks of all the animals of creation.  When I consider how each human God has created is uniquely formed and developed, it is beyond my capacity to comprehend how much God truly loves variety!  Yet, in our fallen nature, it seems that we tend to desire the opposite. We think everyone should be like us, have the same preferences we have, and think like us.  

I am thankful in recent years the “Counseling wars” seem to be dying out and there is more receptivity to understanding the value of counselors from all places on the spectrum of differences.  My purpose today is not to analyze the differences between Christian counselors of all stripes. There have been many books written already analyzing this topic, so other than a few comments, I will not write a lot about this topic.  
I do believe there are actually a variety of “spectrums” that could be identified in the field of Christian counseling.  It is not just all about “content.”  I would like to suggest at least three different “continuums” in the field of Christian counseling.  All three continuums are interrelated and have an impact on each other. These are not exhaustive, but three continuums that I have noted include: 

Content of Counseling:
Counselors using only Scripture     VS           Counselors using psychological principles
Area of Calling:
Discipleship Counseling                 VS           Clinical Work

Character of Counselor 
Not exhibiting the character of Christ  VS   Exhibiting the Character of Christ

Content of Counseling:
This is the area that has probably received the most attention in the “counseling wars.”  The differences in this continuum primarily center around whether the use of principles of psychology is biblical or not.  At one end of this continuum are those who believe only direct content from the Bible should be used in Christian counseling, with the belief that counseling rarely has anything to do with biological changes within a person, and more to do with the choices the person makes(sin).  At the other end of the continuum are those who primarily use principles of human behavior, whether developed as theoretical models of behavior coming from observed conduct, or behavior that is the result of brain activity inferred from neurological science.  Theoretical models would include a long list of theorists such as Freud, Beck, or deSchazer.  Neurological science has increasingly produced  more and more data about the brain and how it functions .  Current theorists in this area (Daniel Siegel, J. Schwartz, Cozolino, etc.) are weaving neurological data into theories concerning human responses, attitudes, and mental/ emotional health and diseases. 

There have been multitudes of books written about the “counseling wars,” often called the “integration of psychology and theology.”   It is not my intention to rehash all writers have written on this subject.  (A few examples would include Narramore, McMinn, Coe, Jones, and Johnson).   In recent years it seems there has been a reduction in the “war” part of integration, and the two extremes are attempting to understand each other a little more, and to accept that it is acceptable to have differences in opinion.  Acceptance of the need to respond to clients in a holistic manner appears to be increasing on the part of individuals from each end of the continuum.  God created humankind with both a body and a spirit, and a truly biblical approach will never separate the two. Learning all that can be learned about the brain and how it functions, and the impact of both the genetic inheritance and environmental influence on patterns of behavior and emotional response is important, just as learning how God and His Holy Spirit transforms the mind and spirit of a man is important.  (For more on this topic see the posts titled “Brain Research and Scripture” ,Parts 1, 2, and 3)

There is so much to study and learn both in the Bible and in the sciences if I want to truly glorify God and have my “tools” sharpened to allow God to work through me in helping hurting people.  For this reason,  I have come to the conclusion I don’t really have time to focus on the differences in what I do and practice and what someone else does and practices who resides at a different place on this continuum.  I do not say this to disparage or diminish in any way those who have written about this topic. There have been some thorough and very thoughtful works written about these differences, and I am thankful for the time and effort various authors have expended. But I believe it is time we broaden our understanding of our differences, and the validity of those differences. It is not just “content” that is important in what we do as godly counselors. 

In the next post we will think more about how the content of Christian counseling is related to godly counseling.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Nurturing relationships with others

Nurturing relationships with others        March 4, 2012

Luke 2:52 "And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men."

You might ask, what does “growing in favor with men” really mean? Other passages in the scriptures encourage us to not be worried about what others think about us and their opinions of us. A close look at the life of Jesus reveals that he lived in relation to others with healthy boundaries, loving them, but not looking for his sense of value and worth from them. This is a great model for us to follow.

Most Christians, when first asked where their value and worth come from, will immediately answer “God.” We all know the “right” answer. But our inner most thoughts and emotions often indicate that we have a deeper belief that we need the approval of men. If you doubt this, just watch how your respond internally when someone criticizes you or responds negatively to you. Do you feel that little “sting” of rejection, or resentment that they don’t like you, or that you can’t quite “please” them? You might have the thought “They really don’t like me, and I don’t know why.” Another typical thought is “What did I do wrong for you to be so upset with me?”  The internal dialogue begins and there is a rehearsing of “I said,” “ or ” he/she said,” followed by trying to rationalize what has happened and why they responded that way. Depending on  personality and life experiences, a person usually either gets angry or irritated (at least internally, and sometimes externally), then feels hurt. That results in either avoiding the offending person (if possible) or expressing your anger to them. 

When I entered my 30s, I discovered in my own life that I looked to people for approval and value.  Up until that time, I had been fairly successful at gaining the approval of others–at least those who matter the most to me. But I began to encounter people that I could not “win over.” It was stressful as I struggled with being hurt by their responses, forgiving them, and then being hurt all over again.  Across time God began to reveal to me that it was impossible to please all people, and not even really necessary, because my real worth and value come from Him. Many times people respond negatively to us simply because of issues they are struggling with. They are not able to respond positively because they had a fight with their spouse that morning, or their teen is in trouble, or they just don’t feel good.  If my value and worth is dependent on someone else giving me approval – which usually is dependent on how their day is going– I am going to have many days that I don’t have much value or worth.

God tells us He values us so much that He sacrificed His only Son so we could have a relationship with Him. He wants a relationship with us. The greatest measure of value and worth for us is that someone wants to know us–know our thoughts, desires, hurts and pains, and understand what is going on with us–good or bad. God is like that. He wants to know what we think and how we feel and what we desire. And, of course, He wants that to be mutual. He wants us to want to know what He thinks, and what His desires are. He is so interested in us that He even knows things about us that we don’t know–like how many hairs are on our head. He knows when we get up, when we lie down, and where we are going. He knows what we are going to say before we do. He knows what is in my heart that even I am blind to at times. Even though He knows us better than any one else that ever lived, He still loves us perfectly. Wow! He values us!

So, when I feel that little “sting” because a person seems to be upset with me (and I haven’t done the wrong thing or responded the wrong way and need to confess and ask forgiveness), the first truth I need to focus on is “It is ok if he/she is upset with me. My true value and worth comes from God.”

Why would this make your relationships with others healthier? If I don’t have to have the approval of others, it frees me to love them no matter how they respond to me. I think this is why Jesus was able to love others so completely–even his enemies. He was very secure in His Father’s love. Twice in the New Testament God spoke out loud about Jesus, and each time He affirmed that “This is my Son with Whom I am very pleased.”  Jesus knew the only One he had to please was God, His Father.

Learn to be content with the Father’s pleasure, and you will be set free! Even if someone treats you in an unkind or unloving way, you will be set free to respond in love because you don’t have to have their approval. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Growing Toward Glorifying God Physically

#3 Jesus grew in stature  --Goals for the New  Year                                        

Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength? (Mark 12:30)

Luke 2:52 "And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men."
In God’s Word, we encounter numerous passages that refer to our physical body and the importance of taking care of our body. Probably the best known verse is I Corinthians 6:19-20  “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”

Jesus was fully human, and had a physical body. It was important for him to grow and be healthy physically if he were going to fulfill God’s plan for his life. It is important for us, also, to recognize that we honor God through our body.

It is one thing to say those words—believe those words—but it is another thing to follow through on what God tells us in this passage.  Gary Thomas, in his book Every Body Matters, reminds us “all the proper doctrine in the world can’t save us from eating away our sensitivity to God’s presence or throwing away years of potential ministry if we wreck our heart’s physical home. We want to pursue God, to serve God, to know God, but we live in a body that often seems at war with our soul.” (location 44 of 2881, Kindle edition).   

For most of my adult life I have struggled with my weight. There have been seasons of time that I have exercised and eaten as I should, but unfortunately, there have been more and longer seasons of time that I did not discipline myself to exercise and eat as I should. God has relentlessly convicted me across the years about the importance of this ongoing battle, yet I have not made regular exercise a priority.

My desire to discipline myself should not be motivated by a desire to “look better” (everyone still ages, overweight or slim) or to “enjoy better health”  (many fit people die of cancer or heart disease).  No, my desire should be to be more holy.
“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Titus 2:11-13. 

My struggle with the discipline of what I eat and the effort I expend in exercise is actually part of learning to say “no” to worldly passions and “yes” to living a self-controlled life. 

So, my goal for this year is to exercise consistently--4 days a week, and to loose weight to be healthier. You can see that I have quantified how many days I will exercise, but not how much weight I want to loose. I have set that specific number [Just not making it public. :-) ]  All goals need to be measurable, possible to complete, and beneficial.

What goal do you need to set for this year concerning better health? If you can not think of ways you could be healthier, consider doing some reading about brain health (many lifestyle changes and foods that can impact brain health).
Ask God to give you direction about what He would see as a good goal for you in this area.   A couple of great books to help you would include Gary Thomas' book, Every Body Matters, and Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, by Daniel Amen.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

New Year's Goal #2 Living each moment as if God is enough for all my needs..

Using Luke 2:52 as a model for setting goals each year, let's break it down into more practical thinking.

Luke 2:52 "And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men."
That first goal would have to do with growing in wisdom. Wisdom is a word we hear used with some frequency, but seldom defined. It is sort of one of the "ethereal" concepts that we could probably recognize a person that is wise, but we might not be able to define exactly what wisdom is. 

For a long time I have been impacted by this definition of wisdom: "Wisdom is the ability to see things from God's perspective."  For me, that is a "WOW!" We are so prone to see things from only our narrow, limited perspective. It doesn't seem to matter whether we are thinking about our circumstances or our relationships and how someone responds to us.  But that is one of the tremendous advantages of being a Christian--we are no longer limited to our small, restricted, limited perspective!

And, we have a God, who in His great foresight, has provided us with a lot of information about who He is and how he thinks. In fact, in the New Testament, Paul stated that we should be able to have the mind of Christ. 1 Corinthians 2:16 "For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ."

This does not mean that we are able to know everything God knows or even be like him. But, since He lives within us, I believe that He desires to develop His own character and nature (and ways of thinking) into us. Romans 12:2 says "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, 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."

God does desire to transform the way we think, and He desires for us to learn to think like He does--to understand and know what He would think.  In the Scriptures we have a tremendous account of how God responds, what He thinks and what He desires.

In many circumstances I will not be able to know exactly what God is "up to" or "doing." Job certainly did not know what God was doing! But there is much I can already know about what He is thinking about the situation. For example,
Ø  I know His love is eternal (will never end), so whatever my circumstances, I know He loves me and has a purpose in what He allows to come into my life. (Romans 8:28).
Ø  I know He knows and cares about what is happening--even more than I can ever comprehend.
Ø  I know He promises to carry me through and provide whatever I need to get through that circumstance.
Ø  I know He made me for fellowship with Himself, and that can never be taken away once that relationship with Him has been established.

Applying these types of thoughts toward whatever circumstances I find myself becomes one of the ways to "see my circumstances from God's perspective" or of developing wisdom. Another word we might use to describe this is "faith."

Hebrews 11:6 tells us that "without faith we cannot please God." Then the writer goes on to say "anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him."  How often do we find ourselves in some difficult situation and begin to doubt if God really is there, or if He cares?  We catch ourselves thinking thoughts like "God, where are you?" "Why are you letting this happen to me if you love me?"  (WHY always seem to be the big word we get hung up on, just as Job did.) These are times when our faith (belief) in His existence is truly tested, because it doesn't make sense to us that if He is there, and if He loves us, he would not allow us to experience this pain or difficulty.  Maybe we realize that our idea of "rewards  those who seek Him" may not be the same as His idea of rewards!

At this point our faith is truly tested, and we may begin to wrestle with one of the greatest questions of men and women, "Where is God when I hurt?" (or someone I love hurts).

Whether in great or small difficulties, I believe God's heart desire for us to have wisdom (seeing life circumstances from His perspective) is directly connected to His desire that we will truly believe He loves us.  Brennan Manning spoke to this in a video clip I watched the other day--calling this question "Did you believe that I love you?" the most important question God will ask us when we meet Him face to face.

All of this is to say that my #1 goal for this year is to believe daily--moment by moment--that God is enough--knowing that His love is enough, no matter what else is going on around me, no matter what I experience, no matter how much pain or frustration or irritation I encounter, it is ok because His presence and His love are enough.

In practical ways, that means when someone treats me disrespectfully, I can respond assertively--without overreacting--because I know what really matters is "He loves me" (I don't have to have the respect of others to have value). It means when someone doesn't provide the emotional support or kindness or love that I think they should, it is ok because "God is enough." (I don't have to be loved by family or friends, and I can release them from my expectations).  It means when I fail, I can get up and go again because "God is enough." (I don't have to have success in my life to have value).  These are all goals that would be helpful to clients that come into our offices also.

What's your goal related to growing in wisdom this year?  Give it some thought and let me hear from you!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Did you do New Year's Resolutions?

January 15, 2012

Last night I just returned from a teaching trip in Cuba, so this post is a little later than I intended.

Although I am very goal oriented and love planning, I do not always set New Year's resolutions. Since I teach, my year tends to revolve more around the school calendar, with the thoughts of "newness" coming in the fall at the beginning of the new semester, and in the spring with the beginning of a fresh semester.

As I was thinking about New Year's resolutions, however, I began to think about what would I consider important resolutions for the Christian counselor to set as goals for this year of 2012.  The goals I thought about are really goals that each of us should have in our own lives, as well as encourage our clients to work on.  For the next few weeks we will consider these goals--why they are important and how we might go about being consistent in allowing God to transform us (and our clients) in these areas.

For many years when I have set specific goals (whether at the beginning of the new year or at the beginning of the school year), I typically follow the outline found in Luke 2:52 "And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men."  I've always thought if it were important for Jesus to grow in these areas of wisdom, physically, in relationship with God and in relationship with men, it is important for me to grow in these areas also! Of course, these are broad areas, and there are many specific goals that can be set in each area.

With those areas in mind, the broad goals I have chosen to focus on for 2012 include 1. Living each  moment as if God is enough for all my needs; 2. Disciplining my thoughts; 3. Nurturing my relationship with God; 4. Nurturing my body; and 5. Nurturing relationships with others.  Each week we will look at one of these areas, at possible specific goals or objectives in that area both for ourselves and our clients.

Some of you might be thinking "But wait--I thought we were only suppose to work on the goals of the client--not my goals for them."  I believe this is an important distinctive between a Christian counselor and a counselor who does not work from the foundation of God's Word.  Of course we need to work on the goals of the client. Discovering and working on the goals of the client indicates that we truly care for them (agape love) and that we have healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries empower us to work not only on client goals, but also goals that we have for the client. God models for us healthy boundaries. There are numerous ways we see His healthy boundaries in the Scripture that set an example for us in how we work with clients.

God models healthy boundaries with us in the area of His knowledge. He knows what is best for us, since he knows everything about us (even things we don't know about ourselves). He knows how many hairs are on my head (Matthew 10:30; Luke 12:7). That is a lot of detail! I don't even know that about myself.  This reminds me that it is imperative that I have an attitude of wanting to know, to understand, to learn about my self, and to learn about my client.  What else does God know about us besides the number of hairs on our head?

Ø  God knows my heart, even the things I hide from myself.
            I Kings 8:39 reminds us "then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Forgive and act; deal with each
         man according to all he does, since you know his   heart (for you alone know the hearts of all
            Jeremiah 17:9-10 "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?
        "I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, 
         according to what his deeds deserve.  
It is very easy for us to deceive ourselves., but we never deceive God.

Ø  We need help to identify the things that are in our heart that are not what God desires.
            The Psalmist in Psalms 26:2 asks God "Test me, O Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my 
            In Psalms 139:23-24, the writer cries out to God, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test 
            me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in my heart, and lead me
            in the way everlasting."
            Proverbs 21:2  says "all a man's ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart." 

Ø  Often the tests that God allows in our lives reveal to us what is truly in our hearts.  These "tests" are what bring many people into the counseling office.
Ø  God not only knows all that is in our heart, but he knows what the future holds for each of us.
            Jeremiah 29:11 "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and 
            not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

Yet, with all his knowledge, God does not force us to do what He knows is best for us. He allows us to choose to obey or disobey. Of course, we will experience the consequences of our choices, but He allows us to choose.  As Christian counselors we should have those same healthy boundaries with others as God does.

With that in mind, our understanding of the condition of people's hearts and the opportunity to hear their circumstances gives the Christian counselor an opportunity to help the client formulate and work on goals that will be beneficial for the long term. 
Proverbs 20:5 reminds us that "The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out."

Frequently the goals of the client will be enhanced by our understanding (although limited) of what God is working on in their lives.  For example, a couple may come to counseling with the goal of improving their communication skills in their marriage. In their limited understanding they may focus primarily on one thing their partner does that blocks their communication, like interrupting, or a defensive response. If the only goal I work on with them is to change the pattern of interruption, another pattern may develop that is just as irritating as the first pattern. Learning the skill of listening to understand would be a more helpful goal--and come from me, as the counselor. 

Helping Christian clients discover God's goals for their lives may be one of the greatest services we perform for them.