Sunday, July 29, 2012

Jesus Christ in Pastoral Counseling

While the world benefits from psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and marriage and family counselors, no one can take the place of Christ’s pastoral shepherds, appointed by the Lord and empowered by the Holy Spirit, spending countless hours calming the anxious, encouraging the depressed, binding up the emotionally wounded: Maria, Bill, Antonio, Ming, Abdul.

Through his pastoral ministers, Jesus Christ reaches out in every culture not only to save people from sin and set them right with God, but to help them grow psychologically and spiritually, creating in them a sound mind and responsive heart, a relaxed body and serene spirit, edifying them with enough maturity to love others as they learn to love themselves and God.

During my seminary years, a classmate of mine I will call Jeff developed suicidal urges; his study of the Bible had left him with the impression that he had too many sins for God to forgive. Though there was a professional counselor on staff, this student chose to confide his soul-pain to a professor of Old Testament, himself an ordained minister.

What struck me was how the professor took time out of his schedule to shepherd and nurture Jeff, even to the point of visiting him in the dorm at night to make sure he was okay. After several days of being watched over, Jeff’s depression lifted. He told me that the professor’s faithful caring had penetrated his emptiness, opening an inner door through which he experienced God’s love.

Churches worldwide offer a natural home for healing and personality development throughout the lifespan. Many ethnic backgrounds, all kinds of people, and every form of relationship add to the richness and complexity of local churches. And if there are biases regarding class or gender, the Holy Spirit empowers the Word of God to challenge and change them.

The church is like a living organism, where the Triune God lives and breathes, awakening individuals to their full potential in Christ, stirring motivation that draws them forward, offering hope when difficulties overwhelm. Here pastoral counseling delivers the service of repair and recovery, providing confidential one-on-one or group sessions specifically designed to explore what troubles someone, what baffles or frustrates them, to the end that their lives are clarified and they are set on a path of healthy growth.

In a church counseling growth group I led, Charlie shared in halting words, face gaunt with pain, how he’d felt shunned by church members during the two years he and his wife Linda had attended the church.

“What makes you think that people have been judging you?” I asked.

“I was divorced before I married Linda. The pastor often preaches against divorce,” he  said, arms folded and legs locked together, reminding me of an armadillo encased behind armored plates.

“I see. So you’ve assumed that people in the church won’t
accept you because you’ve been divorced?”


“And do you know this for sure?”

“Well, no one has been friendly toward us. Except maybe this group a little bit. That’s why I’m mentioning it.”

“I appreciate you sharing this issue with us. I wonder if you’re open to hearing from people what they really think?” He stiffened somewhat, yet nodded his assent. Beckoning to the other eight persons in our circle, I said, “Out of curiosity, how many of you have known that Charlie was divorced before he married Linda?”

Only one hand went up, a woman named Barbara.

“Barbara,” I said, “can you share how you came by this
knowledge and how you felt about it?”

Barbara looked inquisitively at Linda, who gave a nod for Barbara to speak freely. “Linda told me last year,” said Barbara, “to help explain why Charlie holds back from people.”

“And how did you handle the issue of his divorce?” I asked.

“I didn’t think twice about it. I love them both and just wanted them to feel at home here. I tried being friendly to Charlie, but he didn’t seem to notice.”

“Thanks for sharing.” I turned to Charlie. “Seems like no one but Barbara knew you were divorced, and she tried to show you her friendliness. What do you make of this?”

Charlie’s face slackened. “It’s new information. It never occurred to me I was reading people wrong.”

It seemed time for a brief integration of psychology and spirituality.

Addressing the group, I said, “The type of difficulty that Charlie got into happens to all of us, doesn’t it. Our private perceptions influence how we believe others see us. If we have a negative experience, we can assume everyone sees us in that light, not knowing we’re projecting our own negative bias onto them. Even God has trouble convincing us that we’re loveable. The interesting thing is, all we have to do is withdraw our negative projection and we can feel close to people again.”

I noticed that Charlie was breathing more easily, his arms no longer tucked tightly over his chest. I turned toward him. “What are you feeling right now, Charlie?”

“Kind of amazed,” he said. “I don’t feel that wall between me and the people in this group any more. It makes me wonder if I haven’t been hiding behind walls for years.” He smiled as he looked around the circle. “This feels better.”

With that the topic shifted to a new subject. Charlie sat peacefully attentive, hearing from other people with a new look of caring on his face, a fresh touch from Jesus in his heart.

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