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Being a Christian Counselor in a Secular Environment

December 4, 2020 5 min read
By Dr. Kristi Bitz Director, Psychology Program, University of Mary
Light Shining on a Dark Road

Individuals seek counseling for a variety of reasons, but common presenting issues include feelings of hopelessness, sadness, anxiety, and a lack of purpose. Hopelessness and sadness are commonly associated with clinical depression, along with other possible symptoms such as changes in sleeping or eating patterns, lack of concentration, and irritability. Anxiety and depression are often comorbid conditions, and both need to be addressed in effective treatment. When a client presents symptoms of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety and/or a lack of purpose in a therapist’s office, it begs the questions: who and where is your hope and your purpose? What brings you joy, comfort, and peace? These questions are central to human experience, and Christianity provides an answer to them: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (John 14:27).

Searching for purpose and meaning in life and work provides an opportunity to explore who defines the client’s purpose and whose approval they seek. Discussion of where their purpose originates and whose approval matters ultimately can lead to a discussion of the Creator and our purpose as creatures, namely, receiving his undying love for us and serving him. As much as we can struggle with our desire to please our boss, our significant other, our family, or our friends, Christians recognize that our purpose in life is not to please man but rather God; however, letting go of our need for approval from others can be incredibly challenging. Our desire to please others may only be matched by our desire to maintain control of our lives. Coming to terms with the fact that we are not the orchestrators of our lives can be both frustrating and freeing. We often want control, yet that places an extremely heavy burden and responsibility on us. Learning to relinquish control sets us free, as doing so places control in God’s hands: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Many great minds in psychology have contemplated the search for meaning and purpose, and for those who integrate the Christian faith with psychology, the fundamental answers become clear. The outcome is rich and complete in a way that psychology without reference to Christ cannot compare.

Along with a desire to find purpose and meaning, people may seek counseling due to emptiness and loneliness. We now have ways of connecting that those of us who are considered to be members of Generation X and older (born before 1979) would have never imagined 40 years ago. Who would have thought we would ever be able to talk to people from across the globe, from anywhere we find most convenient (our car, backyard, or even grocery store), and even have the ability to see them while we are speaking with them over the phone? It does not make logical sense that despite all these ways of connecting we would feel lonely, yet loneliness is on the rise and is contributing not only to mental health concerns, but even early death. God’s unwavering presence can give those who feel lonely a sense of companionship and worthiness in the midst of despair and isolation. When we feel betrayed, isolated, and empty, God tells us that he will never leave or forsake us: “It is the LORD who goes before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you; do not fear or be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:8).

Many of those who seek counseling do not have a Christian background or may feel they have been betrayed or abandoned by God. A therapist must meet his or her clients where they are. For a therapist who has found comfort and peace in the King of Kings, it can be a challenge to refrain from offering that answer to a hurting and searching client. The Bible has the answers to all our struggles, and with that knowledge it can be trying to patiently help our clients who do not know that these answers exist. While we care for our clients and want them to be fulfilled, joyful, and content, and we know that we have the key that unlocks the door to fulfillment, it can be hard to fight the urge to make a copy of the key and hand it over. Yet, in many contexts, such a path is not available to us, and we must be sure not to cultivate dependence on a practitioner. Christian faith tells us to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19), but we are faced with the task of properly balancing that call within our roles as helping professionals.

As Christians, we are called to trust that Jesus’ light will radiate in us and that he has placed us in our client’s life for a reason. We must be patient. The relationship between a client and his or her psychologist or counselor takes time to develop just like any healthy relationship, and it possesses its own unique set of boundaries. Since the field of psychology helps us to understand others and ourselves, it lends itself to looking at thought patterns and adjusting those cognitions that are maladaptive – doing so helps to change that narrative running through our minds. The resulting increased understanding of ourselves and others lends itself to respect for persons and compassion for those who suffer and search. Many great minds in psychology have contemplated the search for meaning and purpose, and for those who integrate the Christian faith with psychology, the fundamental answers become clear. The outcome is rich and complete in a way that psychology without reference to Christ cannot compare.

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