Comfort & Counsel

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by Jacob Ninan

When someone says, "I don't need psychology, I have the Bible," does it show that he is spiritual or super-spiritual? Is he implying that the Bible has all that we need for dealing with every challenge we have to deal with in life? Certainly, the Bible is a great gift from God to us in which He has revealed Himself and shown us the way of salvation. But just as the Bible has not told us how to deal with different types of physical sicknesses, it has not also said much about dealing with mental problems. If we are able to trust doctors and medical procedures, why is it that we hesitate when it comes to scientific ways of understanding how people get mentally ill and use such techniques to resolve them? Shall we put aside all such knowledge and expertise as 'worldly' wisdom and 'human' effort, and think we will be spiritual only if we rely entirely on prayer to heal sicknesses? Aren't these also gifts that God has given to us to help us with our life on earth?

People are more easily able to accept medical treatment in the case of physical illnesses than when it comes to using psychiatry, psychotherapy and counselling for things that affect the mind. Some of these mental 'issues' may be due to biological factors that affect the brain. These are actually, at least partially, 'physical' in origin, even though their effects are seen in the psychological aspects of thinking, feeling, choosing and behaviour. They come under the purview of psychiatrists who may deal with them medically, followed up by psychotherapists and counsellors. Some other issues are essentially due to the 'environment' in which the person grew up, or the experiences that have negatively influenced his way of thinking, feeling or behaviour. These need to be dealt with by psychologists who are the experts in this field, along with the possibility of involving psychiatrists in certain cases. But the greater majority of cases are where there is no mental or biological disorder of any kind, but the person simply does not know how to handle particular situations in life! Knowledgeable 'counsellors' can guide them along. Many Christians also recognise the possibility of demonic influences that can affect people in different ways, for which pastors with a special gift in this field can be approached. 'Mental health professionals' may be from any of these fields and they can all work together for the help of the affected people.

Well-trained Christian counsellors can actually form the first layer of treatment in which many of the problems can be handled straightaway, and the more challenging problems may be referred to psychotherapists, psychiatrists or pastors, as described above. Depending on the level of qualifications, training, spiritual gifts and experience, some Christian counsellors may also be able to handle psychological and spiritual problems their counselees bring to them.

But this does not seem to be how it is actually done in practice among many Christians. For some Christians, the solution for all problems is simply prayer, sometimes augmented by fasting. Certainly, this should be the first response for all Christians. But we need to also admit the fact that God does not always answer such prayers in the way we would like -- miraculously and without our having to do anything. Miracles do happen even in the 21st century. But we do have to recognise that they are comparatively rare, considering the number of prayers that are offered to receive them. We also need to realise that many times God chooses to instruct and equip us to handle the situations in our life by using the wisdom and strength He grants us (Psa.32:8,9). In such cases, it would be wrong for us to sit back, do nothing, and expect God to handle everything for us.

Another way some Christians deal with mental issues is to treat them as spiritual issues. Some of them assume that every problem is the result of the work of demons, and their solution is to cast the demons out. This is too simplistic, because all problems are not from demons and, in the process of trying to cast out demons, real physical and psychological problems are overlooked! (In addition, problems remain even after such attempts, because people were 'barking up the wrong tree'!) Some others treat all problems as the result of personal sin and search for Bible verses to point out to people, in order to convict them and cause a change of behaviour. Many times, this approach gets counselees into condemnation or hopelessness, and many other times it does not solve the problems because it is not their personal sin or lack of faith that is the cause of their problems. For example, when married couples do not understand the differences between the way men and women think, feel and respond, they cannot deal with problems due to that ignorance!

How much better it would be to recognise that we are a body, soul (mind) and spirit, and to look at these different parts separately and together to understand what is going on! Psychiatry looks mainly at the biological causes of mental problems, and psychology is the science that studies the mind in relation to thoughts, feelings and actions. Christian theology explains what has gone wrong with man because of the Fall and how God wants to restore us. If we can understand what is happening in the biological, psychological and spiritual aspects of the counselees, will not that give us a holistic understanding of the problem?

Look at marriage counselling. The Bible tells husbands to love their wives, and wives to submit to their husbands. Apart from a few other verses that relate to this relationship, the Bible does not cover many other vital aspects such as understanding the differences in temperament, childhood upbringing, gender-related physiology and psychology, value system, worldview, culture, etc., which the spouses bring to the marriage. A trained marriage counsellor can identify which factors are causing conflicts in a particular marriage.

Take the case of teenagers and young adults struggling with issues such as the relationship with parents, relating to people of the opposite sex, the meaning and purpose of life, poor self-esteem, a sense of failure, etc. Think of how their lives can be set in the direction by counsellors who can come along their side and point out the right way forward.

A good training in counselling helps a counsellor to become empathetic towards the counselees, able to put themselves in the position of the counselees and understand what the counselees are going through. They have learned special techniques to be able to put the counselees at ease, gain their confidence, listen to the problems they present and to draw out the real issue from their heart and its causes. Two major factors that help the counselees to open up to the counsellor are the non-judgmental attitude he presents and the guarantee of confidentiality.

For counselling to succeed, the counselee must be someone who sincerely wants help and is willing to make changes. Some counselees seem to expect that the Christian counsellor has only to pray and their problems will vanish. Some other counselees are unwilling to take any responsibility for their own behaviour, and for them their problems are all from other people and circumstances. They want the counsellor to change the other people or suggest ways to change the circumstances! This can be often seen during marriage counselling. In such cases, the process takes longer or may fail.

Jesus is not called 'the Wonderful Counsellor' without purpose (Isa.9:6). He came to proclaim "release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed” (Lk.4:18). Is He not doing that many times now through counsellors who are gifted for this ministry in the body of Christ? "The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But a wise man is he who listens to counsel" (Prov.12:15).

-- Editorial in the Light of Life magazine, November 2018

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