Power of Christ in Counseling   

(click here for Chinese version 基督復活的大能在專業輔導)


Over a decade ago when I was considering building a  private practice after my career in public mental health and university teaching was completed, many mental health professionals who hold themselves out with terms like “distinctly Christian” concerned me. I was often puzzled by this description because I was concerned by the real measurement and definition of the “distinct” aspect of Christian counseling. It is easy for anyone to claim to be a Christian. It is almost impossible to measure the genuineness of a professional’s level of spiritual maturity. This latter quality does affect the successful outcome of therapy in Christian counseling.  

My career in public mental health as well as assistant professor of psychiatry in a large university and hospital gave me the impression that anything “Christian” about mental health was considered suspect. In the manifestations of serious mental illness found in psychiatric emergency situations and inpatient psychiatric hospitalization, symptoms with religious overtones are common. By the grace of God, I have had the precious opportunity to treat patients and counsel clients in both settings; secular and Christian. My impressions over the years were that there was really specific distinctiveness in the Christian aspects of mental health treatment. At times, I found myself awe struck by what I witnessed in the counseling room or in a lock ward of a psychiatric hospital.


While acute symptoms of mental illness may not show any differences between Christians and non-believers, the less serious aspects of these illnesses were very different. For example, for patients who were depressed and considering suicide, they tend to respond to directions better. Even for the seriously suicidal, the gospel could be used to provide hope in the darkness of dire despair of a patient.


1.  Overcoming Divorce by Christ’s Power

On the less serious side of mental health treatment, the Christian aspects that make a difference are more obvious. In marital conflicts, when each spouse is a committed Christian, they can consider outside help easier because of advise from church leaders. They also can come to terms with their powerlessness on fixing the conflicts by themselves. They can accept prayer as part of their solution. While they may not be able to pray for each other out loud because of unresolved hostility, they can consider silent prayers. When two people are committed to the desire to make their marriage work better, half the better was won. The rest is really about process. There were times in the counseling room where I realized the therapeutic outcomes were quicker and the improvements were deeper. I have to acknowledge that the positive outcomes far exceeded all of my training and experience can produce. I could only give thanks to the Lord for the presence of the Holy Spirit as well as the prayers of others who love this couple.


The most difficult aspect of a marital conflict has to deal with each spouse taking personal responsibility in his or her relationship. Shame and blame are common features in immature personalities and characters, but as hard as it is for each of them to admit guilt, taking personal responsibility is easier to get across with Christians because of the understanding of the effects of original sin as well as taking personal responsibility for their own sinfulness.


One of the most difficult marital crises to resolve has to deal with the immature relationship dynamics between two narcissistic personalities. Each wants to get their own way and they do not expect to give in. Each has very little regard for the feelings of the other. In their upbringing, there were no protocols for the experience of forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. Confessing one’s wrong and repentance is never acceptable because of the egotistical nature of their under-developed self. Christian narcissists, while always a challenge to deal with, generally are a little easier to manage than non-Christians. Most narcissists would not want to be involved in any counseling other than to prove their spouses wrong, but the Christian narcissist can sometimes response to the concept of confession and repentance given enough time.


Family value is another key reason why most troubled marriage remained together for most people. In the case of committed Christians, the interests for the wellness of children are also taken into consideration more seriously. Couples could be encouraged to at least postpone divorce until their differences are worked out to preserve the stability of the family environment for their children. Churches also have specific programs for children in troubled families.


2. Strengthening Marriages by Christ’s Power


Prevention is better than cure. By Christ’s calling many English speaking and Chinese speaking groups are using retreat to help husbands and wives find ways to strengthen their marital relationships. Individuals who have participated in these retreats almost always report an experience of renewal and invigoration beyond their expectation. Critics would say these are only meetings of ignorant people using psychological group dynamic to make them feel strong and renewed. Factually, you have to have experienced it to realized it is more than just process and learning, it is more the presence of the Holy Spirit that convicts us and motivate us to commit ourselves to our spouses like Christ loves the church and sacrifice for the church. The climax of such retreats is generally found in the Holy Communion service. The presence of the Spirit is so evident that the reader has to be there to fully appreciate the Power.


3.  Overcoming Alcoholism and Drugs by Christ’s Power


Lay Christian counseling has been around a lot longer than professional Christian counseling. It is just the last decade that there is a term to describe counseling with a Christian worldview as Christian psychology. The early churches have already been dealing with addictions and substance abuses far longer. For example, the well-known self-help group for alcoholics used to be called Alcoholics Anonymous Fellowship (AA). This group was the first to use the twelve-steps for recovery from alcoholism. Before the politically correct term “higher power” was used, the old term “God” was used to address how the addicted person is powerless over one’s impulses that he or she has to submit to the spiritual power of God for recovery.


This self-help group was so effective and successful that people borrowed this twelve-step approach to treat other substance abuses such as narcotics. Over the last several decades, this AA twelve-step formula has been used for all kinds of dependence including emotions and food addictions.


4.  Overcoming Homosexuality by Christ’s Power


While the issue of homosexuality is a controversial one within Christian circles, the treatment of unwanted homosexuality and gender identity disorder are even more divided among denominations. Political correctness aside, there are many deeply spiritual people who do not want their homosexual orientation. Again, lay Christian counseling were there almost three decades ago to serve these struggling people before the Christian mental health professionals took notice of them in the last several years.


It is interesting to note that these lay self-help groups were effective without the technical foundations of Christian psychology; rather they were based primarily on the teachings of the Bible. Christian psychology eventually provided more theoretical understanding and methodology that proved to be helpful in advancing their protocols of treatment.


This perspective is so provocative to the opposing side of this treatment issue that the term “recovered homosexuals” is considered an oxymoron and threatening to the gay movement in North America. Political and social pressures were applied to these self-help groups and mental health professionals who provide “reparative therapy” to stop them. This level of pressure is a sign of the disgust from the clinicians in power that based on the best of their secular clinical knowledge, re-orienting homosexual orientation is utterly unimaginable and therefore not possible. A Biblical analogy is how Christ healed the leper and the Pharisees were utterly disgusted. The interesting outcome is that more and more people are aware of the hope found in sexual wholeness in Christ worldwide.


The distinct features of Christian counseling have to do with the hope and optimism in the fallen condition of all people. Psychological conditions are just part of the fallen nature of humankind so the counselor can regard all problem people with somewhat of an unconditional positive regard. Biblical principles provide the framework that defines the treatment goals of counseling. Counseling and psychology only provide the knowledge of methodology in the process.

  © 2001 Melvin W. Wong, Ph.D. (All rights reserved)