The idea of counseling and psychological treatment is quite new on the timeline of human history. For the millennia leading up to the late 1800s, the notion that mental disorders could be fixed or that people could use counseling to work through mental barriers was simply a fancy of the imagination. There have always been places to warehouse the mentally ill, of course; in the New Testament, one reads of the sad case of Legion, a man who had undergone demon possession and was chained up outside of town, left simply to wait for death. When Jesus arrived, he cast the demons into a nearby herd of pigs, who drowned themselves rather than live with the demons inside. Whether those beings were actual spiritual entities or disorders that could not stand in the face of such powerful healing is up to biblical scholars to debate; what is true is that confinement was the treatment of choice for those with mental illness or other challenges up until about 150 years ago. The first alienists, or psychologists, scandalized the public with colorful analyses of the symbolism of dreams, but as the decades have gone by, the academic community and the public have become more charitable toward the idea of counseling. By establishing a discipline of Christian counseling, the church has created a haven for members who need help dealing with issues in a safe environment. In Lawrence Crabb’s 1977 work Effective Biblical Counseling, the author outlines a specific philosophy of counseling that goes through the goals of counseling, the concepts endemic to counseling, a basic counseling strategy, and an overview for developing a counseling program that is distinctively Christian. Timothy Clinton has developed his own paradigm of Christian counseling that both agrees and differs with Crabb’s in some important ways.
According to Crabb, the nature of counseling involves a relationship between caring people. This means that, for Crabb, no professional training or licensing is necessary for one to counsel; rather, all one needs to find is a group of mature believers who can go through some theological training in the process of Christian counseling and some materials to help the counselors when the problems that come through their doors are a bit overwhelming. Crabb makes a point to emphasize that there are three levels of counseling: a ministry of encouragement, for whom all Christians are eligible; instruction in Biblical tenets for life; and specialized treatment with a more vivid analysis of particular problems. In general terms, though, the same thing appears to be true about most clients: they want to feel good about themselves and be happy in life. However, according to Crabb, true happiness is not possible without wanting to emulate the Lord. The paradox, then, becomes the impossibility of happiness if one is overly concerned with that emotional state. Crabb asserts that modern counseling literature focuses on expression of the self rather than the sort of discipline that produces similarity to Christ. This means that, according to Crabb, proper counseling helps patients serve God more richly rather than simply solving their own selfish problems. One major step that many of Crabb’s patients make is the realization that Christ has already accepted all believers as Christians. This means that the drive for acceptance that can be so crippling is completely unnecessary.
At first blush, Timothy Clinton’s ideas along these lines appear to be in opposition. Clinton includes a list of mistakes that counselors make in his collaborative work Caring for People God’s Way: A New Guide for Christian Counseling. One of these mistakes involves falling into the same panic from which the patient suffers rather than providing a calming influence (Clinton & Ohlschlager, 2005 p. 41). Because so many people are already in a type of panic when they meet a counselor, failing to provide some level of calm, no matter what the reason for the visit, is a major oversight. However, helping clients to see that the “rat race” of modern life is so antithetical to the peaceful plans that God has for his believers can be one of the most helpful ways to bring calm, and this is a world view with which Crabb would agree. The other mistake involves trying to save a client instead of bringing empowerment. While God can save at the end of time, the only person who can ultimately make meaningful change in a patient’s life is that person. No amount of external effort will make the difference, as long as the patient is not ready for change. This means that empowerment is the key to change, even if that change means moving toward God’s plan for one’s life.
Two basic concepts that, according to Crabb, are vital to instill are the importance of significance and security. Without these two elements in one’s life, contentment is impossible. Significance, for Crabb, comes from having a sense of purpose or meaning, having the skills to excel at a job, and bringing impact to others. Security refers not to financial matters but instead of that unconditional love and permanent acceptance that are so crucial for personal advancement in life. Crabb finds that one of the early responses from immature patients is a denial of culpability. Even when situations become difficult, a typical human response is that the fault and failure lie elsewhere than within the individual. Crabb believes that one of the most central tasks of the Christian counselor is to indicate to the patient that all Christians have everything they require to meet their needs appropriately. Clinton’s approach seems to be somewhat less didactic and more consultative. While Crabb’s approach appears to involve telling the patient what he or she should be doing in order to have a better life, Clinton’s approach appears to involve directing patients to discover those solutions themselves. Clinton’s process often takes longer, but if simply telling people what to do could bring about permanent change, then the world would be a radically different place – not just inside the office of a counselor or psychologist.
For Crabb, it is vital to understand those elements of human nature that cause problems to develop over time. This sort of understanding allows for the creation of a basic strategy for helping clients understand and resolve their own personal problems. The very first element in Crabb’s model is need. People have needs of a variety of kinds, whether physical, emotional or otherwise. As long as people believe that continuing in a routine will bring resolution to those needs, people will keep doing them. However, once people stop believing, they find alternate methods for meeting those needs, and the result of that failure is often depression or even suicide. Alternatives to suicide involve using inappropriate methods to assuage those needs, such as accessing pornography, turning to drugs or alcohol, running away from home, slipping into psychosis or simply having a nervous background. Crabb’s solution for all of these situations is providing assurance to the patient that he or she has security and significance in Christ and can realize that truth through a course of obedience, responsibility and reason, which bring fullness. With that said, there are many addicts and people with compulsions who are not able to accept this statement at face values. The lifestyle choices they have made have wired their brains to operate differently, and now it might be that hour of looking at Internet sex, that bottle of whiskey or that joint that they have learned brings satisfaction of their needs. Rewiring their brains requires a little bit more than simply enunciating a statement of perceived truth.
Part of Clinton’s strategy involves recognizing that all feelings have some validity. Counseling environments like Crabb’s tend to run roughshod over the feelings of the individual, branding those feelings as wrong or disobedient. That sort of therapy does not have the power that giving people a sense of dignity and validity can bring. The people suffering from these problems already have enough self-loathing; they do not need a counselor to make them feel still worse. While Clinton acknowledges that a wide variety of “behavioral deficits” (2005, p. 238) comes from the choices that patients make, Clinton’s method of acknowledging the validity of feelings is a welcome first step toward change. Realizing that one is not alone in sin is often the first step of incredible growth.
As one might guess, Crabb boils counseling down to eleven steps: identifying problem feelings; identifying problem behavior; identifying the point where the patient went down the wrong path; encourage emotional expressions about that belief; support the client while he ponders making changes; helping the client realize that he needs new thinking through the “tape recorder” technique, change these assumptions; find commitment; plan and execute the new behavior; and identify feelings more aligned with obedience.
In contrast, Clinton’s book does not have a simple set of instructions, as the author realizes that every client has a different path. While paths can often share similarities, the people on those paths can also be extremely different from one another. Starting with validity and moving toward empowerment is as specific as Clinton gets. Somehow, though, the idea that Clinton does not believe that there is an easy owner’s manual toward Christian counseling brings a deeper respect for his views.
Cherry, K. (2010). The origins of psychology.
Clinton, T., Hart, A.D. and Ohschlager, G. (Eds.). (2005). Caring for people god’s way: A new guide for
Christian counseling. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Crabb, L. (1977). Effective biblical counseling. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.