Sometimes I go to secular psychology conferences, hear someone speak, and think, “I would be happy to bare my soul to that person. He seems to understand people and care about them.”
Describe a person well
Skilled secular counselors can describe people well. They seem to understand pain, especially pain from the past, and their counselees feel understood and cared for. Biblical counselors should be able to do that and be able to take people to depths of insight, hope and growth that secular counseling cannot. But I suspect that secular counselors, on average, might do a little better at describing people’s hardships than biblical counselors.
This is a problem.
A good description opens doors
As a general rule, whoever describes the person best wins the person—and whoever wins the person—gets the opportunity to impact the person. Think about it. Speaking for myself, if I feel you understand me, you could give me most any explanation or direction (that is within biblical boundaries) and I’d run with it or be blessed by it. But if I feel you don’t know me or understand me, I am probably not going to pay attention to you, even if what you tell me is true and good. If you don’t “get” me, you don’t get to direct me. I am not saying that I am right in thinking this, but I am typical.
I saw a psychologist on TV recently—okay, it was Dr. Phil. He was talking to a thirty-ish-year-old husband who, to use Dr. Phil’s words, was an arrogant, narcissistic racist. Many biblical counselors would have reacted to his degenerate swagger in the first few minutes, reminding him that his issues were with God more than his fellow human beings, and that he was in spiritual trouble. In response, he would probably have smirked and said that he, indeed, might be the son of the Devil himself!
Dr. Phil took a different path, one that is traditional in modern psychotherapy. He went to the man’s past, found pain, and told him that fear was behind his bravado. “You are afraid of intimacy,” Dr. Phil said. “Because of your past pain, you are self-protective, and your goal is to hurt and reject people before you can be hurt and rejected.”
Bingo! This man, who had felt little or nothing for years, felt understood and he cried on national TV. And—he was willing to follow Dr. Phil anywhere. It made me want to be a guest on the show.
There is no mystery in Dr. Phil’s approach. He looks for the hard things in a person’s life that might lie behind the sinful and bad, and, when in doubt, he tells the person that he or she is fearful of being hurt—you can’t go wrong by offering that to any human being. He follows that up with something that makes sense and has pragmatic appeal but is certainly shallow by biblical standards.
Biblical counselors need to grow
Biblical counselors should be able to offer accurate, “that’s me” descriptions—we must if we want to persuade people. We should be able to look for the good in someone and the hard things in the person’s life, before we consider the bad. Otherwise we will have sound theory but ineffective practice.
Scripture guides us in both descriptions and explanations. When patience and kindness are coupled with biblical insight, we hope that those who receive biblical counsel will feel deeply understood and eager to hear more from the God who knows the heart.