A medical doctor once expressed frustration to me about the number of times he diagnosed significant levels of anxiety or depression only to be told by a patient that her pastor or spiritual advisor warned her against medicine and suggested that her problem was spiritual.
The doctor said, “This kind of five Bible verses and you’ll be better approach is far more common than many realize.”
He’s right. And Christians often lose credibility in this area wen they reduce everything to a spiritual matter. This is particularly disappointing because we are the ones who should have far more too offer. We can speak to the whole person.
My response to the doctor
In my approach to counseling others, I begin with an assumption that they have a full line of moral credit. I treat them as individuals who can accept and pay for their debts. Out of basic respect for their dignity (as beings made in the image of God), I relate to them as responsible, capable, culpable and accountable.
But I realize that life is not so easily reduced to raw choosing.
There can be a tendency within the Church to make all of life a matter of choice; of obedience or disobedience; of belief and unbelief.
Without ignoring the importance of these matters, we must be careful to apply compassionate consideration to how complex life can be. Approaching people one dimensionally, as if humans were only spiritual beings in need of salvation, is to disregard the multidimensional way God created humans. It also fails to respect the pervasive effects of human fallenness.
Speak to the whole person
According to Scripture, there are four dimensions of human life. We are…
- physical beings with bodily needs.
- social beings with relationship needs.
- psychological beings with cognitive needs.
- spiritual beings with a need for God.
Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being able to approach issues holistically based on these dimensions. I use the word “advantage” because many other disciplines will not consider that spiritual dimension. If we find it inadequate to leave out this dimension (as we should), why do we do the same thing with the other dimensions?
A thorough biblical understanding of humanity protects us from simplistic reductions because we know that God has made humans as physical, social, psychological and spiritual beings. Each of these dimensions must be considered when understanding and counseling behavior.
- “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out” (Proverbs 20:5)
Unlike other disciplines, Christian counselors do not treat people as products of impersonal chance. Since we know that there is a personal creator, we call people to more than human perspectives about life.
The mistake Christians often make is being overly zealous to offer quick answers for the issues that trouble people. “After all,” we’re told, “the Bible speaks to every issue of life.” “So,” it seems to many believers, “all I have to do is find a verse or two of Scripture that applies and share them with the person who asks for advice.”
This approach is typically based on careless listening. When we’re more interested in our answer than in understanding a person’s problem, we need to learn patience by listening more compassionately. We don’t want to be the fool who answers a matter before hearing it. And we should always try to ways that the four dimensions might relate.
I am not suggesting that we encourage people to avoid responsibility for their actions. Playing the victim only binds people to more destructive life-patterns. But superficial diagnoses typically lead to inadequate remedies.
When counseling others, for example, it would be horribly simplistic to overlook or minimize the effects of a deeply troubled upbringing. When children (who are intended by God to be lovingly nurtured and brought to maturity under the responsible oversight of parents) are neglected, poorly guided or abused, it profoundly affects their personal lives and relationships.
In many cases, one must look back to better understand the influences that shaped their current approaches to life. Our story is not meant to be one formed in isolation but in a social context — for better or for worse. Each persons story has been significantly shaped by others.
We shouldn’t look back to blame, excuse or justify, but to understand and find a clearer plan for change.
What we’re saying is that one’s sociology (relationships and life circumstances) plays a significant role (by divine intent) in shaping one’s overall life. This must be considered by those who counsel the whole person holistically (based on a full biblical perspective of humanity).
Wisdom then calls us to consider a wider perspective of life as we help individuals address their deepest needs. When counseling deeper life issues that hold people in patterns that are not flourishing in God’s will, very often a person’s social history and context must be explored as part of the diagnosis. This is validated by the fact that a key component to flourishing in a blessed life is our associations or those we are in company with (Ps. 1:1-3).
Another example is the use of medicinal aids for behavior or moods. Many medicines are helpful for addressing actual physical needs but use of them should not preclude responsibility and accountability in seeking resolution to negative behaviors and moods. The need for medicines should temper our approach to people with large doses of compassion and mercy, but only in a context that preserves the dignity of an individual exercising as much responsibility as possible — in a context of truth.
I suggest that counselors and doctors should never view medicinal aids as a solution for neurologically based needs. We are more than bodies and brains with physical needs. Other dimensions of our being (spiritual, emotional, social) must receive thoughtful consideration in our battle for health.
While there is sometimes a tendency among some Christian counselors to react with suspicion toward medicinal aids, the same reaction is common in the negative posture of secular psychiatry and bio-psychiatry toward spiritual dimensions. Yet this negative outlook on spiritual issues (no matter how condescending) must not lead to knee-jerk reactions among Christian counselors. Nor should we carelessly dismiss research and findings in the fields psychiatry and bio-psychiatry.
A biblically-based holistic approach to counseling respects all dimensions of personhood created by God in the full context of a narrative of creation, fall, redemption, sanctification and final restoration.
Christian counselors should use the widest possible lens for understanding and addressing human behavior. This provides counselors with a unique advantage for being holistically honest in dealing with human problems.
Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being holistically honest in dealing with human problems. A theologically grounded vision of humanity protects counselors from simplistic reductions.
Each dimension of life must be considered when understanding human behavior. And we also take seriously the profound affects of sin on each dimension. Diagnosis and solution that does not take seriously this painful truth will be superficial at best and ultimately harmful.
For more on this – Counseling