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…

Chuck

4 comments

  1. Excellent piece Chuck.  Very much appreciate your honesty about the vital (and extremely difficult) 
    movement from second to third stage–for others and ourselves.   Thankfully, I feel like there are 
    some great voices in a number of different fields of ministry, care, counseling, theology, pointing 
    to the absolute necessity of stage three–Miroslav Volf being one in particular who has been so good about reminding us of both the personal and corporate necessity and beauty of this blessing/forgiving.  Keep
    it up.  Thankful for your work and words.

  2. Thank you for your honesty Dr. DeGroat. We can only pray and hope that by gazing at the excellency of Christ, he would change and transform our hearts and renew our minds by the power of His Holy Spirit. Only He can. 
    And because we are a new creation and we have the Divine Spirit in us, I believe He is working in us to transform us – though it may be slow. 
    Author and theologian Lewis B. Smedes puts it this way, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

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