When Should Christians See a Professional Counselor?
Growing up, I didn't know too many Christians who sought professional counseling. That's because in the past, I think there was often a negative stigma attached to therapy. Author Jared Wilson notes that there used to be a "perceived ethos" that people who were depressed simply didn't have enough faith and just needed to pray more. So counseling wasn't seen as an attractive option for Christians.
However, things are different in the church today where professional counseling doesn't seem to carry the same negative connotations as before. This may be due to the growing presence of Christian counseling out there. In fact, there are now institutions, conferences, and podcasts dedicated to the importance of mental health. But I also think it's because Christians today realize struggling individuals may need more than the "normal ministries" at church to help them.
Personally, I'm a full supporter of Christians seeing a Christian counselor. In fact, I think Christians who go through traumatic events must receive professional help. But at the same time, I'm certain that some Christians whose knee-jerk reaction to a dark season in life don't really need counseling - they just need a solid small group. But while Christians in the past may have been overly-hesitant to receive such professional help, I wonder if some Christians today may be overly eager to utilize such resources.
So when do Christians need such help? When is an appropriate time to seek a professional? Should a person struggling with sadness automatically seek one out? Do all married couples going through a tough season need a marriage counselor? Here are some thoughts to help navigate through this important question.
What You Should Know About Professional Counseling
Before seeking professional counseling, I think it's helpful to know what you're actually getting yourself into. One thing I like to say is that counseling is kind of like getting a MRI. People usually get MRIs when they're injured and want to figure out the extent of the injury. But MRIs are an intense and expensive way of diagnosing your body. So if you've sprained ankle, it'd be silly to spend hundreds of dollars to confirm a diagnosis. But if you sense something is severely wrong with your ankle where it's hindering your day-to-day lifestyle, then it might be worthwhile to get that MRI.
Well, I think the same is true with professional counseling. Sure it's always beneficial to receive it, but you must realize a couple of things. First of all, counseling is time-consuming. You can expect to meet with a counselor on a weekly basis anywhere from 6-12 months - and if you only needed a month of help, you probably didn't need counseling. Secondly, counseling is expensive. Unless your health insurance covers it (which rarely covers Christian counseling), expect to dish out about $100-150 a session.
Lastly, your time in counseling is usually filled with more diagnosis than rehabilitation. That's because we go into sessions not really knowing what's really wrong with us. And even if we think we know the problem, we often discover there's something deeper going on. As author Dan Allender writes, "Therapy doesn't resolve the inner conflict; it intensifies the covert war fought just below the surface and lets it come out to the forefront." And by the time we figure out this conflict, we run out of money.
So before seeking professional help, Christians should think things through and really consider the time and cost that goes into receiving such resources. Otherwise, you might find yourself starting a process that you're practically unable to finish. But that's not the only reason why I think Christians should think things through first. There's more.
The Potential Problems of Seeing a Professional Counselor
Again, while I think it's great that Christians today are open to seeking professional help for their issues, I also think there's a problem when Christians only seek professional help. Why so?
1. We Overestimate Our Counselor
Usually when Christians muster enough courage to see a professional counselor, I get this sense that they view these sessions as some sort of "silver bullet" that will fix all their problems. I mean with the type of time and money you're putting into it and the type of professionalism that you're receiving, shouldn't you expect to be healed?
But the reality is that professional counseling rarely provides this type of solution. Even in the secular world, most counselors will tell you that you need to do a lot more than sit with them one hour a week to fix your issues. But especially as Christians who believe that only God through His grace can heal us, we should know that the solution to our problems doesn't lie in the hands of a professional counselor. Only the Great Counselor (Isa 9:6) is able to do this for us.
2. We Underestimate Our Church
I think one of the major problems with Christians running to professional counselors is that by doing so, they will often bypass their church community. But I can't help but think that something prideful is going on when we think the common Christian can't help us and rely only on the "professionals" to minister to us. It's as if the qualification for people to receive our burdens lies in degrees and experience. So while we'll ask church members for prayer and resources, we'll rely on the experts for help.
But as Christians, we're all supposed to be qualified to minister to one another ( 1 Pt 4:10) and to bear each other's burdens (Gal 6:2) because it's ultimately the Spirit of God who helps us - and each member of the body of Christ has the Spirit (Gal 3:2). By no means am I saying Christians should only rely on the church for help. But I think it's a problem when we bypass the church and run only to the professional. This seems counterintuitive to the ordinary means of grace that God provides for us.
3. We Misuse Our Counseling
Why does professional counseling work for some people and not others? It could be that the counselor isn't skilled enough to handle our problems or isn't a good match for our personality. However, I also think we may not be getting help because we go into counseling with the wrong mindset. Instead of wanting to change, many of us go to experience what counselor Paul Tripp calls "Protestant absolution." It's almost the Protestant version of Catholic confession.
According to Tripp, this happens when "the counselee confesses, examines issues, participates in an ongoing discussion of self and the situation and, week by week, leaves the counseling time feeling atoned, cleansed, and right. Yet all of this is happening without any substantive heart or behavioral change." In other words, we often go to counseling to simply feel better about ourselves by thinking, "Phew...glad I got that off my chest."
But as great as it is to share with a professional, it's probably not the best use of your time because any Christian can do this for you (Jas 5:6). Utilize your counseling better.
Before You See a Professional Counselor
So when should Christians see a professional counselor?
Well in my opinion, if you've experienced some severe trauma (e.g. sexual assault, unexpected death, etc.) or are going through an issue that's severely hindering you from functioning in your normal, day-to-day life, you should probably see a counselor right away. Yes it's expensive, but don't see it as paying $100 for counseling; see it as paying $100 for your mental well-being. And that's a worthwhile investment.
But if you're a Christian who's deeply struggling but still functioning, here are a couple of things I think you should do before seeking professional help.
1. Pray Pray Pray. Before you even think about seeing a counselor, re-dedicate yourself to lifting your burdens to the Lord in every situation by prayer and supplication (Phil 4:6). It's not easy to do this when you're sad or anxious, but God wants us to not wail on our beds but to instead cry out to Him (Hos 7:14). If you bypass prayer and just go to a counselor, you will end up subconsciously leaning upon him/her rather than the Lord to help you.
2. Utilize the Church. Before meeting with a professional counselor, take time to consistently meet with a couple of solid church members. Don't just ask them if they know any therapists around the area. Ask them what they think about your struggles. They may not give you the most profound answers, but to be honest, that's not what you really need. More often than not, you just need people listening and caring for you during this season of life. This is what your church community is meant for.
3. Read Relevant Books. I remember when I was lamenting over a personal loss, I didn't know how to express my feelings. So when people would ask me how I was doing, I'd reply, "I have no idea." Even though I was sad, I didn't know how to explain my sadness. But reading relevant books like C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed helped me articulate my feelings and think, "Yes, that's exactly what I'm going through." When you're not able to process your pain, it's helpful to read how others did it so that you can have language for what you're going through.
4. Journal Your Pain. During this season of feeling downcast, take five minutes to write down the negative emotions you've experienced each day. What did you feel today (ex: "sadness")? What triggered these feelings (ex: "thoughts of the past"). How did you respond to this feeling (ex: "sat in bed all afternoon")? After weeks of doing this, you'll end up with a plethora of processed information that can better help you figure out what's going on inside of you.
5. Meet a Counselor While Doing #1-4. Even if you do all of this and end up seeing a professional counselor anyways, I think your time in counseling will greatly benefit from doing #1-4. That's because your counselor now has something to work with. It's tough when you come to them as a blank slate saying, "I'm depressed but I don't know why." That's like a patient going to a doctor saying, "I'm hurting but I don't know where."
I think your times in counseling will be far more effective and efficient when you're able to triangulate your problems and, after exhausting your personal resources, are now seeking some professional guidance. And at the very least, your counselor is not longer a savior to you but as specialized resource that God is offering in your life.