"Pray more" is not counselling

The work of counselling helps persons discover new things about themselves and develop these patterns in a helpful direction.

July 6th, 2011

Editor's Note: How should the North American church relate to culture? How should it respond to deep racial, cultural, and religious differences and tensions? Is there a way beyond the false choices of cultural retreat and control? Beyond petrified conservatism and an obsession with the current zeitgeist? The daily work of Comment owes much to the rich cultural and theological vision of Dutch politician, journalist, statesman, and theologian Abraham Kuyper. For the next three weeks, we will be publishing a series of articles (curated by Matthew Kaemingk) that explore how Kuyper's vision and the neocalvinist movement he inspired can offer the church an alternative way of engaging with cultural issues as diverse as racial relations, youth ministry, personal piety, sports, work, and more. The series coincides with the release of Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans, 2011) by Fuller Theological Seminary president Dr. Richard Mouw.

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When I was about twenty years old, I was confronted with the first moment in church ministry that made me begin thinking about psychology. I had been asked to serve as a leader on a church youth retreat. Over the course of the weekend, a thirteen-year-old on the retreat told me that he had a plan to kill himself days before—he had taken a shotgun from a friend's house, loaded it, and gone into his bedroom. But instead of pulling the trigger, he decided to wait a few more days and go on the retreat to see if God might "help" him there. According to him, this retreat was his last attempt to see if "something or someone could help." In the next few days, we were able to get him the help that he needed, but I was alarmed to find out that he had sought help before—and church leaders said he should simply "pray more" and "give his problems to God." I have been haunted by these responses ever since and have recognized the lack of resources that many churches have when it comes to counselling.

While my perspectives on counselling and the church began forming when I was twenty, they can also be seen as part of the larger conversation about how faith and psychology are integrated. As I write this in the context of the United States, I recall the particularly difficult relationship that evangelical American Christianity has had in understanding how God works in cultural activity. And the evangelical suspicion towards the sciences (including psychology) has left many evangelical Christians in America with few resources to draw upon for psychology. So here, I will briefly demonstrate how the theological tradition of neocalvinism offers some perspectives on the mind and human behaviour that can broaden our understanding of the work of psychology and counselling—both within the church, and outside of it. The work of Dutch theologian pastor and statesman Abraham Kuyper helps guide this discussion.

Two specific elements in Abraham Kuyper's theology help us understand how a discipline like psychology can be approached from a theological perspective. First, Kuyper's notion of common grace helps us make sense of how God works in the wider realms of culture outside of the church. Simply stated, common grace is God's movement to develop human culture despite the reality of sin. For Kuyper, common grace is God's movement to restrain the power of sin and to develop "civic virtue, a sense of domesticity, natural love, the practice of human virtue, the improvement of the public conscience, integrity, mutual loyalty among people, and a feeling for piety."

Considering the idea of common grace helps us to see that God can work positively in the field of psychology in ways that benefit humanity—especially seen in, but not limited to, those areas of psychology that work to promote the health and well-being of families, couples, and children. Thus, common grace is at work in the family therapist who earnestly helps parents reconcile in order to provide a safer home environment for their children. Common grace enables us to see how the clinician who works with the mentally ill has been graciously given gifts to care for those who are often overlooked in our society. These gifts of God's common grace do not bring salvation, but they are graciously bestowed upon people so that God's goodness may shine forth. They are glimpses and reminders of God's coming Kingdom—a Kingdom where persons are whole and complete human beings.

Common grace reminds us that God is committed to sustaining and upholding his creation. One of the ways that I understand the Spirit working in people's lives is to instill hope, which enables someone to be lifted from their present situation and envision something better or different. This too is a working of common grace.

Second, while common grace provides some general guidelines that help us make sense of many of the "good" things that go on within psychology, Kuyper's notion of the discovery and development of culture give us insight into how we can understand particular aspects of psychology—especially counselling or therapy. For Kuyper, since God created a world that is unified and ordered in a certain way, humans have been given the ability to investigate and explore the patterns found in creation. Kuyper uses the words discover and develop to describe this activity of human exploration. Since God has created a world that can be explored and studied, and since humans stand in a certain relation with the world, humans also have the ability to discover the treasures of creation and develop these patterns found in creation. For Kuyper (in his Lectures on Calvinism), this discovery has potential to shed "light on the glories of the entire cosmos in its visible phenomena and operations," and there is nothing either in the life of nature or in human life that does not "present itself as an object worthy of investigation."

The significance that this holds for psychology cannot be overstated. Just as common grace allows us to make sense of the goodness found in creation—there are also elements of truth that are worth discovering within the human creature. Kuyper does specifically state that there are features within human life that are "worthy of investigation." Since the world and human creatures have patterns that are intrinsic to their existence, it also follows that these patterns (especially of human behaviour) are worth exploring. It is possible to see the work of psychology, and more specifically Christian psychology, as finding and developing these areas of "truth" that people possess and helping people understand their own patterns of behaviour.

One of my roles as a Christian in the field of psychology is to join with the work of God in redeeming patterns of human behaviour by helping people understand how they relate to themselves and others. Or to use "Kuyperian" language, the work of counselling helps persons discover new things about themselves and develop these patterns in a helpful direction. In many cases, the relational patterns of which I am unaware are often the patterns that cause the greatest difficulties in my relationships. As therapists we can help clients understand and discover how the pain of the past forces them (often unknowingly) to act within their relationships. Once these relational patterns are discovered, we can work on developing these patterns of behaviour towards wholeness. Negative patterns of relating are usually rooted in real pain or hurt from the past. If we want to use theological language, negative patterns of relating don't only come through sinfulness, but also as a result of being sinned against.

For instance, while we all have the emotion of anger, we usually cope with that anger in one of several ways: we might withdraw, shame others, blame others or ourselves, avoid responsibility, or even become violent. Terry Hargrave describes this as the feeling/coping cycle in his model of Restoration Therapy. The way one copes with anger is particular to the person. Nevertheless, how we cope with anger constitutes a relational pattern that we usually become "stuck" in because we are often unaware of our own cycles or patterns. Moreover, we fail to see how this relational cycle is rooted in the pain of the past. These behavioural patterns are worth investigating and exploring. If I am able to discover my particular coping pattern when it comes to anger, I can develop these patterns in a more positive direction.

While Kuyper spoke of developing and discovering patterns within the created realm in a more general fashion, I have shown how this can also apply to psychology—seen here especially in the discovery of behavioural patterns. According to Kuyper, these truths are knowable, since our Creator has made us in this way. We can conclude from Kuyper's understanding of common grace that God desires life for his creation, and this involves the prospering and flourishing of human life. This is part of what Jesus' ministry of reconciliation is about. Working for God's Kingdom here on earth means working towards shalom, which is not merely an absence of conflict but a fullness or wholeness to life. My Christian experience is informed by the basic belief that Christ's Spirit works to bring wholeness to the psychological and emotional aspects of our person. This growth and change happens best, both behaviourally and spiritually, in the context of healing relationships—and this is why the role of the counsellor or therapist is invaluable. Since God created a world that is knowable to the one who inquires, we can see part of the work of psychology as helping others to understand their own relational patterns and develop these patterns in a way that can bring people into reconciliation with themselves and others.

Topics: Philosophy Health
 

William Whitney currently works at La Vie Counseling Center in Pasadena, California, and teaches Theology as an Adjunct Faculty Member at Fuller Theological Seminary. He holds his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Fuller and earned his Master in Marriage and Family Therapy from Fuller's School of Psychology. Having grown up in Texas, William is currently on a quest to find the best tacos in Los Angeles. If you have comments for him, or taco suggestions, he can be reached at william.b.whitney@gmail.com.

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