Who needs professional counselors when all we really need to do is repent of our sin and obey God?
This is a popular question among those in certain religious circles. I will start with a statement of my position regarding the relationship of sin to the suffering and heartache we face. I am fully persuaded that sin is indeed the root cause of all our ills and afflictions, physical, personal, interpersonal, national, and international. It is the dispute over the validity and use of secular psychology that causes confusion resulting in the polarized stance between those who advocate discipleship-only therapy and those using secular tools within a Biblical orientation.
The question posed strongly implies that everything can be dealt with by focusing on the perception of what is the immediate sin. Such a position can result in overlooking the possibility that what we identify as the afflicting sin might be a symptom of a less obvious and more pervasive sin, or the possibility that someone can suffer from the effects of the sin of those who have impacted his or her life. Before an infant breathes that first breath of air, that tiny body is already tainted by the effects of air, food, and water pollution to which the mother has been exposed. Let us take a look at several possible paths and mechanisms which sin employs to impact a person and which types of counseling are helpful.
The first, and most obvious way is that the person is reaping consequences of a sinful behavior or mindset that he or she is wilfully choosing to embrace. This is a no-brainer. The required action is to repent and commit to the Godly action or mindset. The person still might seek counseling in regards to exploring options for effectively making restitution where that is applicable, or for needed support while coping with the consequences. That counseling might be implemented by a wise friend or support group within his/her current circle of fellow believers. This is the type of situation that can often be successfully dealt with within the church and is a fundamental benefit of identifying with a local body of believers. If that person has difficulty coping with the consequences of his or her sin, then professional counseling might be sought as in the case of a young unwed mother who yielded to her boyfriend's demand to abort her pregnancy. Some years later she had convicting dreams even though she knew God had forgiven her. Certain therapies, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), can help such clients bring their emotional state into agreement with the truth of their forgiven state.
A second way sin can affect someone is when that person is the victim (or target) of someone else's sinful act or mind-set. In this case, the client has done nothing to bring this on him or herself – he or she is an innocent injured party. There are several instances in the life of Christ of this situation. The victim's potential to respond to the instigator with a sinful action or mindset is the major risk for which to keep watch, otherwise it can prove to be an opportunity for growth and service as the victim experiences injustice at the hands of a sinful perpetrator. The victim might seek the same kind of counseling as in first scenario regarding ways to appropriately cope and respond in a productive way. And if the consequences prove to be disruptive to his or her ability to function well, professional counseling might be sought.
An example that comes to mind is of a policeman who found himself face to face with a man pointing a gun at him who refused to drop the weapon. The officer shot the man and later discovered the gun was a toy. It was an obvious ploy by the victim to manipulate someone to carry out his suicide and, although the officer believed that, he still could not shed the haunting memory which interfered with his clearness of mind while on duty. Again, therapies such as REBT, CBT, and EMDR practiced by professional therapists have been used to great benefit in such cases.
A third way that a person can be affected by sin is physiologically. Physical injury can set up a person for a life of discomfort, suffering, loneliness, poverty, sickness, or rejection by others. He or she is the victim or target of the injurious action and could benefit from both the counsel of believers, as in the first scenario, as well as those in the professions of rehabilitation and career counseling.
The person might not, however, have been physically injured but rather been born with one or more birth anomalies. People with birth anomalies might well profit from medical as well as cognitive interventions available from counselors, psychologists, psychiatric nurse practitioners, and psychiatrists. A classic example are those with the symptoms of Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder. Prior to the 1900's, such folks were thought to be rebellious, undisciplined, selfish, careless individuals, or the product of inadequate parenting. They were ridiculed for being slow learners, forgetful, restless, and a host of other choice names, over all of which they had little to no control. The parents also suffered the stigma of the names with which they were labeled for their apparent failure as parents. It has been a long road to obtain the care and understanding these families have needed and it was professionals in counseling, psychiatry, and medicine who pioneered the research in the belief that the cause was something other than sin on the part of the child or his or her caretakers.
I have had men who sought counseling for issues that were a direct result of having ADHD symptoms. Sometimes it resulted in the wife thinking they were signs of his not loving her, even being unfaithful. Sometimes these men were labeled as spiritual deadbeats because of their assumed dislike of reading the Bible. You can imagine the joy in those households when they gained understanding and the husband benefited from medication and/or training on how to manage the symptoms. Some were able to read the Bible and remember what they read for the first time in their life. They were able to better carry out their role as a father and husband, all of which had been very difficult for them to do before getting professional help. They wanted desperately to be men of God, but could not match the level of their peers. The wives were distressed because they did not understand what was happening. So, whose sin is responsible in these cases? For what should they repent?
The fourth and final way I will offer to our reader as to how sin can affect individuals is that of childhood training. The book of Proverbs tells us to train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not likely depart from it. What a neat promise. Neat, however, if you had the right upbringing which most of us did not. That leaves the question: "What if you were trained up in the way you should not go?" The fact of the matter is that we have all been trained, either by intentional design, or unintentional disorder. Every one of us has been trained, that is not the issue. It is the way we were trained to go that is the issue.
The scary part of being trained improperly is that such a person considers him- or herself to be normal. Put two of these together in a marriage and you have the recipe for disaster. Put two of these together in a company, committee, or most any other social situation and you can smell conflict coming. Their sin behavior is obvious to all, but if a discipleship-only counselor were to stop there, he or she would be doing these clients a disservice. Until the training they have had is examined for sin tainted assumptions and beliefs, they are likely to continue to live out their training despite the counseling. The difference would be that they would recognize that they have sinned, “feel guilty,” and try to make amends, but will continually find themselves behind the curve, so to speak, and be frustrated by their best attempts to avoid the problem behavior in the first place. This often results in depression, discouragement, a critical view of God, and withdrawal from church involvement. These folks are good candidates for Bible based professional counseling to help them quickly retrain themselves.
They represent a great challenge because their backgrounds require so much effort to identify the beliefs, assumptions, and errant thought processes that are hurting them -- issues that they are not even aware they have because they seem so normal to them. To get them to view their history with suspicion is a big step. Then they can come to realize that their enemy is not their spouse, but the effects of sin that have accumulated and influenced them since childhood. The realization of this is often followed by a renewed love and bonding to others as they support efforts to identify and renounce a common enemy. Put simply, they are working to bring every thought into subjection to Christ, and they can better do this once they have identified their distorted cognitive processes -- something most of us are not very good at doing on our own.
So yes, sin is behind all of it, but it is not necessarily a sin committed by the afflicted person, his or her partner, or caretakers. Sin uses the very mechanisms God gave us for our good and His glory to mess us up. For example, God gave us the ability to learn things that go into our subconscious and work in the background -- something akin to a computer TSR program. Can you imagine what life would be like if you had to consciously remember every little thing in order to make a decision, discern truth, or respond quickly to a situation or request by someone? It would be like having to remember all the things you first thought about when learning to drive an automobile every time you went for a drive. How wonderful it is to be able to be programmed correctly and thus free to direct our attention to other significant issues while our programming works for us in the background. How miserable it is to be programmed incorrectly and continually have to deal with the consequences and anger over being caught by surprise by those behaviors while asking ourselves, "Where did that come from – I thought I had repented of that?"
Fortunately, God has given us the ability to discover and understand how He has created us, to unlearn distorted thought processes, and learn to process information the way He intended us to think. As a Bible based counselor, I use the Bible as my absolute reference for what healthy thinking and training looks like. So yes, all the answers are there. However, most discipleship-only church counselors never study these aspects of physiology and behavior and are therefore neither trained to identify them, nor equipped to treat them. I am grateful for the many professionals who continue to research the physiology and psychology of mind, and explore our learning mechanisms.