Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Culture of Therapy

A recent Wall Street Journal article caught my attention with the title "Help Wanted: a Good Therapist." The image next to the title showed three separate pictures. The first picture featured a very sterile looking office with a stern faced therapist behind a hard wooden desk. The caption next to this first picture read, "Too Hard?". The second picture depicted two people sitting on cushions in eastern meditation poses. The caption here, "Too Soft?". The third picture showcased two people, smiling at one another, sitting in overstuffed chairs. The caption? You guessed it, "Just Right?".

In Goldie-Locks-esque fashion, the three pictures illustrated the main thrust of the article, namely, that there are different kinds of therapists for different kinds of people seeking therapy. The encouragement from the article is that "patients" should be proactive in interviewing and trying out various therapists and therapy styles and methods to determine which combinations are right for them. The article mentions three popular therapeutic approaches, among many others, that a therapy consumer could choose: the cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal, and the psychoanalytical. Some therapists, the article goes on to say, are beginning to collaborate more with patients on developing treatment plans.

What is the Christian to think of the culture's fascination with therapists, therapeutic methods, and the desire to control treatment options? In his forthcoming book, The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams, Heath Lambert states that "counseling is the word our culture uses to describe what happens when people with questions, problems, and trouble have a conversation with someone they think has answers, solutions, and help." I think that captures well the longing that drives people to therapy, aka counseling. The article highlights the desire many people have to find someone with whom they can "converse." However, it also highlights the confusion that arises when the outcomes of therapy are left to the personal preferences of those seeking therapy. People naturally want to deal with their questions, problems and trouble on their own terms. When we pursue life on our own terms to the exclusion of God's standards, the Bible calls this "doing what is right in [our] own eyes" (Judges 17:6; 21:25).

The article also highlights the great diversity of approaches to identifying what a person's problem is and how to deal with it. As David Powlison writes in the Forward to The Biblical Counseling Movement, "There is something essentially autobiographical about every counseling model ever proposed.... Each counseling theory and practice reveals its author's core personal faith." Perhaps that is why there are roughly as many psychological theories and therapies as there are Hindu gods. Okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but you get the point. In addition, followers of Freud, Jung, Rogers, and the like can be every bit as zealous for their founder's vision as the proverbial religious fundamentalist.

What quickly becomes apparent is that there is not really one single discipline called "Psychology," but rather hundreds of differing psychologies, each of which has its own theory of personality, change and counseling.

Let me propose what is increasing gaining momentum in the Christian world. It is the (correct, in my view) idea that the Scriptures teach what we might call a biblical psychology.  As David Powlison points out in his article, "Cure of Souls (and the Modern Psychotherapies)":
The Christian faith contains comprehensive internal resources to enable us to construct a Christian model of personality, change, and counseling. While the modern psychologies will stimulate and inform, they do not play a constitutive role in building a robust model. The operating premise of [this view] is that the Faith’s psychology offers a take on the human condition essentially different from any of the other contemporary psychologies. The living Christ working in his people through his Word is the engine producing depth of insight, accurate theory, and effective practice. The counseling that Christians do must orient to and take its cues from our own source. Practical theological development is the cutting edge. The modern psychologies and psychotherapies are relatively dull, shallow, and misleading in comparison.
This is exciting news for "people with questions, problems, and trouble." The person looking for help need not wade through the mire of one human opinion after another in seeking to discern if a particular theory or therapy "works" for them (whatever that means). The omniscient, omni-benevolent God of the Universe knows the human heart, the suffering of people, and the sin that so easily entangles. It is God the Son, Jesus Christ, who gives the call,
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV)

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