Counseling 101

This is an email I sent to a friend in the past few months.  Her question was:  “There are so many counseling perspectives and so many Christians trying to integrate them all.  For some, it’s all about symptom management.  For others, it’s about confronting old wounds.  And others seem to emphasize healing and forgiveness.  Help me understand what we ought to be doing!”  It’s an actual letter, so forgive the lack of formality and lack of clarity at times…

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A great question, and one I’ve wrestled with for a while.  It prompted the whole “Leaving Egypt” book and my New Exodus paradigm for how people grow and change.  I hope I can state it simply, because the best wisdom is very simple. 

Do people sometimes need steps, boundaries, rules, strategies?  Yes!  You might be surprised to hear me say that, but I think this is necessary, a necessary “Stage 1” in the journey.  Whether it’s a new Christian or a new client, a few do’s and don’ts are not bad, and in fact are necessary.  (Hence, the need for the law!)  Now, I know cognitive-behavioral therapists and pop Christian psychologists (and Pharisees!!) have made a killing off of this self-helpish kind of solution-based thinking.  But, in the early days of counseling especially, people need some guidance.  My clients will tell you that I’ll often give some basic rules of engagement, relationship advice, etc.

But you’re right, it’s not enough.  You’ve got to understand where the relational strategies come from.  That’s why we ask about Mom’s and Dad’s and people’s stories.  Much of what therapists address are symptoms.  We want to get to the heart motives beneath – that precious core, the treasure beneath.  And we’ve got to understand why the treasure has been buried.  Why do people disown glorious parts of themselves only to present false selves to the world?  I’ve seen a number of somewhat narcissistic and competent businessmen who present “put-together,” but who are really scared little boys at their core.  This kind of work is tough – a lot of admitting hard things, seeing how parents disappointed you, grieving, accepting that parts of you are dark.  It’s what some theorists call “separating and individuating” – clients are learning to grow up, leaving the idealized family they knew, forging their own way.  This is a necessary stage of therapy.  But even this stage is not enough.

I always tell new therapists that they’ll be prone to terminate with clients when they seem to have completed this second stage, when it seems like they’ve grieved, or been mad at their parents, or acknowledged the details and pains of their story, or left their idealized codependent homes and realities.  I think this second stage is necessary, too…even if it creates a few narcissist clients along the way who prefer to parade their woundedness rather than engage a real healing process.  But there’s more.

You see, you cannot really heal until you can forgive and even bless your enemy.  If we really believe Jesus and take him at his word, we’ve got to do the hard work of moving through the grief (you have to grieve…get mad…lament!), and doing the counter-intuitive, paradoxical work of actually blessing those who have hurt us.  Henri Nouwen uses Luke 15 (prodigal son story) and calls this “becoming the Father.”  We move toward the one who abandoned us, left us, hurt us, wished us dead.  We bless.  We forgive.  This is where real healing begins.  Most therapists don’t want to do this work, because we haven’t done it ourselves.  We got into the therapy business because of our own wounds, and we’re just fine staying there…and helping others stay there.  But that is the height of narcissism, of immaturity.  It’s lazy therapy.  It’s half the Gospel.  The Gospel acknowledges the truth…yes…but then it does the foolish – it forgives, loves, blesses, embraces.  Ugh.  My own heart resists this so much!

I can only go so far, because my own heart has only gone so far.  I wish I could offer the way of wisdom through all of this, but I can barely get myself beyond that second stage into a very unformed and basic stage of forgiving and blessing others.  I like to hold my pain.  Sometimes, it feels like an old friend.  Letting go is so hard.  I’m a beginner at this.  My heart is just beginning to feel the joy of surrender.  I’ve taught it for years…but I haven’t known it.  I haven’t known real transformation.  So, accept my very limited perspective on it.

I can say…I know this process is true.  I believe it to my core, and pray for its work in my own soul.  I have sat with spiritual directors…nuns and old men…and asked them for wisdom.  I’ve read a lot throughout church history.  And I see a similar pattern.  This has been the pattern for centuries…way before therapy came along.  It’s all about transformation.  It’s all about surrender.  We forgive.  We never forget, right?!  But we do bless our enemy.  We do move toward the unlovable.  We do find ourselves praying for the assholes we’ve mocked.  Yes, assholes…I use that word because that’s how our hearts really feel, right?!  (Amazing that we blush over this stuff when our hearts are so dark…)

I’m asked a lot to guide others through this process, but it causes me to tremble to my core because of my own immaturity and regression along the way.  I waited until I was 40 to write a book.  I wish I would have waited until I was 50.  But I’d probably be feeling the same way.  So, pray for me.

Good question.  Thanks.  It’s given me pause to reflect.  Thanks for always challenging me…


The Dawn Breaks | Holy Saturday

David Tracy, a Roman Catholic theologian, has said, “There is never an authentic disclosure of truth which is not also transformative.”  What he means, at least in part, is that the Christian claim on ‘truth’ is hollow if it remains a doctrinal claim apart from a lived experience of transformed lives.  And, of course, Jesus places a big exclamation point on this when he calls himself “the way, the truth, the life.”  Indicting the religious experts, he shows truth by embodying the pascal mystery, by becoming our Passover, by descending into hell to release us from our own hellish prisons.

As the sun descends beneath the horizon and darkness falls upon the earth, millions of Christians all over the world are celebrating the dawn.  Darkness is required for a dawn.  You cannot have authentic faith without a darkness.  The mystery of the faith is precisely this – that we must walk in the cruciform way of the suffering Savior.  Christianity is, in the end, no happy-clappy, wealth and health social club.  It is about a transformed community, imaging the Son, walking the pascal way, dying and rising, resisting the violent-coercive-imperialistic way of consumerist culture, and most likely paying the price for it.  Humiliation is not an option – it’s an inevitability.

But the breaking dawn invites us to see that all is not doom and gloom.  From darkness, the impossible is realized.  With the disciples of Jesus scattered to the four winds, afraid to embrace a faith that might require their participation as those transformed by truth, Jesus emerges to a world that must now reckon with a very new reality.  This new reality is that wars are not won and lost by power, intimidation, competition, or violence.  The real battle is won through self-surrender, humiliation, turning the other cheek, loving and blessing and forgiving our neighbor.

If only that might become the politics that informs this election season.

Real faith requires more than intellectual assent.  It invites participation in that downwardly mobile, self-sacrificial, humiliating way of the Cross.  Jesus does not save us from suffering.  He saves us from ourselves, which engages us in a process of intense suffering, as every part of us that resists God is chipped and stripped away.  And he calls us into the path of blessing and forgiving others.  It’s so hard, because its so counter-intuitive.  We’d rather live out of our old reptilian brain, our evolutionary hangover, which pits us against others, which defines others as enemies, which demonizes and uses and manipulates.  God knows I am fighting this very battle every day.  And but for the suffering servanthood of Jesus, I’d be well on my way to living an vacuous Easter faith that does not require Good Friday suffering.  I’d have written my own version of the story – only victory, success, fame…no participation, humiliation, risk, vulnerability, suffering.

And so on the heels of Easter, we can only say, “He is risen” because he first suffered and died.  And we can only experience our own risenness through the same.  Faithfulness isn’t some life of legalistic and moralistic perfectionism.  It is, instead, a dying and rising with One who paved the highway through the desert for us.  The dawn is breaking.  Are we on that highway, or have we paved our own more convenient way?

Seeing in the Dark | Good Friday

It’s our human tendency to want to know.  The serpent, long ago, offered knowledge of good and evil.  And ever since, we’ve been judging who’s in and who’s out, who gets it and who doesn’t, who believes the right things and who doesn’t.

It’s fascinating, then, that the way Jesus restores relationship is by paradox.  He does not offer the right answer.  Instead, he lives it.  He embodies it.  And, it’s called “scandal,” “foolishness,” and “folly.”  He enters into the darkness, through the portal of suffering and death.  His life ends on a different kind of tree – not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – but one which would need to die in order to sprout again, only to grow in the hearts of men and women who could bear its death in their own bodies so to offer its best fruit.

A seminary professor once said, “I went to seminary to learn about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, only to later see that I was devouring its fruit the entire time.”  We crave knowledge, control, certitude.  It is the appetite of the false self, the “ego” as many psychologists have called it.  But the paradox of Good Friday is that life comes through death, that wisdom comes through the embrace of the paradox, that fruitfulness in our lives emerges as we die, again and again, to our ego.

Good Friday is not a day where we merely remember, though remembering is vital.  Rather, we participate, because it is in dying that we live.  We can only love, serve, risk, and become the mission-shaped people we’re called to be as we succumb to this inevitability.  It may take a thousand humiliations to make a significant dent in that hell-bent ego.  But death will come, whether we surrender to it or not.  And through the darkness, we will discover real illumination, the kind of freedom that manifests in a flourishing life.

The Way of Love | Maundy Thursday

“To love is to care, to care is to give ourselves, and giving ourselves means being willing to hurt. In love we fall from our pride, from our sense of mastery and separateness, from whatever towers of false safety we have constructed for ourselves. We fall into wonder and wakefulness, joy and agony. Then comes the difficult part: we must try to live according to our desire in the moment-to-moment experiences of our lives. The way of love invites us to become vessels of love, sharers in grace rather than controllers of achievement. It asks for vulnerability rather than self-protection, willingness instead of mastery. It beckons us toward participation in the great unfolding of creation, toward becoming one with it rather than standing apart and trying to overcome it.”  Gerald May, The Awakened Heart

The War Within | Lent 43

I remember being very suspicious in my first seminary Psychology course.  I was told the psychologists know nothing of theology or the Bible, and only lead one down the path of secular humanism and self-reliance.  It took learning that John Calvin was steeped in the humanism of his day for me to gain a bit of courage to read outside the box.  Paradoxically, my own therapy and study of psychology has led to a greater awareness of the depth of sin and struggle within us all.  Consider the great 20th century psychoanalyst Carl Jung:

“We know that the wildest and most moving dramas are played not in the theatre but in the hearts of ordinary men and women who pass by without exciting attention, and who betray to the world nothing of the conflicts that rage within them except possibly by a nervous breakdown. What is so difficult for the layman to grasp is the fact that in most cases the patients themselves have no suspicion whatever of the internecine war raging in their unconscious. If we remember that there are many people who understand nothing at all about themselves, we shall be less surprised at the realization that there are also people who are utterly unaware of their actual conflicts.”

During Lent, we consider not merely what we profess about sin and struggle (our creeds and confessions) but we consider ourselves…

The Mess You Discover Just May Be Your Own | Lent 42

Lent invites honest self-reflection.

Renowned 20th century psychoanalyst Carl Jung tells the story of a patient who came to him for therapy.  This patient was frustrated with his job, his work colleagues, and his relationships.  Jung said, “Go home this week and spend each night alone and quiet.  Come back and tell me what you experienced.”

A few weeks later, the client came back reporting that Jung’s method was unsuccessful.  “I’m no happier, Dr. Jung,” he said.

“Tell him about your evenings alone,” Jung replied.  The patient responded with a description of his evenings after work.  “I came home, fixed myself a cup of tea, and spent my evenings reading and listening to some Mozart.”

“You missed the point,” Jung said.  “I said you needed to be alone and quiet.  No Mozart.  No books.  Spend time with you.”

“Why would I want to spend time with me?” the patient retorted.

Jung replied, “Exactly.  And yet, that’s the very self you inflict on your colleagues and friends each day.”

Perhaps Jung had stumbled on to Thomas a’ Kempis, who wrote, ” “The inward Christian prefers the care of himself before all other cares.  And he that diligently attends unto himself can easily keep silence concerning others.  You will never be inwardly religious unless you pass over other men’s matters with silence, and look especially to yourself.  If you attend wholly unto God and yourself, you will be but little moved with whatsoever you see abroad.  Where are you when you are not with yourself?  And when you have run over all, what have you then profited if you have neglected yourself? If you desire peace of mind and true unity of purpose, you must still put all things behind you, and look only upon yourself.”

Delusional Christians | Lent 41

I have to ask myself regularly, “Am I not THAT person, the person Jesus came to indict?”

After all, I am the religious professional.  I have the degrees.  I’ve been approved by the club.  And much of the time, I think that I have it figured out.

Are you that person?  Do you have it figured out, too?  If so, Holy Week is for you.  Will you follow Peter?  Or will you follow Mary?

Like Peter, I wonder this:  If I play my cards right, I might just have a chance to make a name for myself after Jesus is exposed as a fake.

Like Mary, I wonder this:  Can I imagine any place other than at the side of my beloved Jesus, no matter the cost?

If I’m truthful, I am both.  I will continue to delude myself into thinking I’m the chosen, the smartest, the holiest, the wisest.

God willing, this week will be full of holy humiliations, exposing my false self, revealing my insecurity, inviting me to an intimacy that God pursues apart from my petty attempts to manipulate it.

God willing, I might find myself empty handed at the end of this week, dependent and humbled.  And I suspect that is just where God wants me.  Empty of my false self.  Empty of my delusions of grandeur, influence, success.


Deliver us from evil | Lent 40

When I consider that Jesus, on that celebrated “Palm Sunday” many centuries ago, walked straight into hell, I shutter.  That this Jesus called us to love our enemies, that he delivered us from evil by invading it…this puzzles me.  It puzzles me because I’ve seen evil.

Evil isn’t some movie magic, it’s not some Poltergeist-production or Peritti-novel.  It’s sinister and snake-like.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he was entering a church office, a denominational building, a religious holy-ground.  There were no spooks, just normal church-goers looking to live the holy life.  Evil is often disguised in such a garb.

Evil often looks polite and deferential.  Snakes parade around in holy garb.  They compliment you first, then go in for the kill.  They are incapable of self-reflection.  Instead, they flaunt a false self covered in false humility.  They can confess with the best.  They can theologize with the greatest.  They are defined by their enemies, because they’re always looking for a scapegoat.  They are convincing, lawyerly in their arguments and accusations.  They are sinister in their ability to exploit the weak.

Jesus identifies, however, with the weak and oppressed.  And I’ve seen plenty of men and women like this over time.  I think of the emotionally abused wife who faces the passive politeness of an apparently godly man, whose subtle and snakelike button-pushing ignites an eruption of anger, all of which he can conveniently deny.  I think of the hard-working young man whose boss calls him in to his office to confront his behind-the-scenes power grab and his desire to take over.  In his narcissistic rage, the boss sees the success of his young employee as a threat to his, and any success he cannot claim he must extinguish.

Palm Sunday is no abstract religious ceremony for the abused, betrayed, or indicted.  It is a day of solidarity.  And this week, of all weeks throughout the year, is your time if you’ve suffered in this way.  Jesus walks the way of mockery and humiliation for you, on behalf of you, with you.  You do not suffer alone.  Now, more than ever, embrace a faith that sometimes feels counter-intuitive, filled with Pharisees and snakes, but see its center not in the Snake but in the Suffering Servant.

He meets you right where you are.

A New Exodus | Lent 39

A thought on the eve of Palm Sunday and this week’s New Passover journey…

Brain Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat write, “This language of inheritance, forgiveness and rescue from one empire in order to be freed in another kingdom harks back to the exodus narrative. It was Israel who was rescued from the imperial captivity of Egypt. It was Israel who received the promised land as an inheritance. And it was to rebellious Israel that God revealed himself as a God of forgiveness (see Ex. 32:7-34:10). Now, says Paul, we experience an exodus liberation in Jesus. . . . In postmodern terms, this liberation is not in order to enslave us in yet another regime that would violently impose it ideology on us . . . the kingdom of the beloved Son is a kingdom won not through violence imposed on others but through violence imposed upon the Son.”