Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Holy Spirit and Pastoral Counseling

It is perfectly appropriate for a pastoral counselor to suggest that God is present in counseling, offering redemptive hope that helps remove obstacles blocking the way to wholeness.

In some contexts, a pastoral counselor’s freedom to invoke God’s blessing through prayer is part of the counseling process. This is especially true in pastoral ministry, spiritual direction, and church-based counseling centers. On the other hand, there are contexts in which it is unwise to mention God in a personal way, such as the name of Christ.

Even so, there is a considerable range of opportunity where spirituality is welcomed covertly, if not overtly, and this may be where a significant number of the new generation of pastoral counselors find themselves.

The Spirit Moves Where The Spirit Wills

As a professor at a graduate school of psychology, I found myself in one of these places. While affiliated with a Christian denomination, the university reached out to students of all races and faiths, and pursued academic excellence within a context that celebrated and extended the spiritual and ethical ideals of the Christian faith.

Yet Christian witness or prayer was not acceptable in the classroom. I understood and accepted this. Nevertheless, some students knew of my relationship to Christ, and perhaps because of that saw me more as a pastoral counselor than a professional psychologist. Greg was such a student.
Following a class one afternoon, Greg called me aside in the hallway and said, “Dan, can we talk privately?”
“Sure,” I said. I opened the door to an empty classroom and we sat down in two desks. “What’s on your mind?”
“Well,” he said, looking suddenly unsure, “I just wanted to get something off my chest and you’re the one I’ve chosen.”
“I’m honored. Go ahead.”
“My life has fallen to pieces. Ever since elementary school, I had only one goal in life and it didn’t matter what it cost to get there.”
“That’s unusual clarity and single-mindedness. What was the goal?”
“To become a National Football League player. And finally, last spring, I was recruited.”
“That’s great news. Congratulations.”
Greg’s face turned to stone and he shook his head. “That’s when it happened,” he said. “I had a great spring training and a strong start to the season. But then I got hepatitis.” His eyes watered and voice broke. “They hospitalized me. My skin turned yellow.”
“I am so sorry,” I said.
“It gets worse. The doctor said there was permanent liver damage—that I could never play football again….”
We sat searching each others' eyes for a long minute. I let my face express the shock and sorrow I felt.
Finally, placing my hand over my heart, I said, “This is truly tragic. How have you possibly coped?”
“That’s just it,” he said. “I haven’t. I withdrew from my wife to the point where we hardly talk anymore. I withdrew from the players because it was excruciating to watch them working out. And I withdrew from God because I don’t believe he exists any more.”
Another silence.
Now I knew why Greg had chosen me. Paradoxically, he had sought out a person of faith in order to confess his loss of faith.
“Greg, I believe you of all people have every right to challenge God’s existence,” I said. “Do you care to share more about that?”
He nodded. “Yes. I always thought it was God calling me into professional football. I asked his help all the times I felt crushed by opposition or numb with pain. I thought he had big plans for me. And then when I finally became a pro and got my uniform and saw my name on the locker, he gave me hepatitis. What kind of God does that to a child he loves!
I suddenly felt as helpless as Greg did. I had no answer for God. It would have seemed trite to quote a scripture or ask if he still attended church. At times like this I can wonder why I got into counseling in the first place. Some problems seem too profound to fix.
“So that’s why I came to you today,” said Greg, breaking through my internal anguish. “I want you to pray for me.”
My mind became a freight train: Oh-my-goodness-what-have-I-got-myself-into-I’m-not-supposed-to-witness-to-faith-in-Christ-here!
Fortunately another voice, a calmer one with a different message, whispered within me: Dan, it’s okay to offer a healing prayer when a person asks for spiritual help.
“All right, Greg,” I said. I bowed my head. “Dear Father, you’ve heard Greg pour out his pain and confusion today. All his hopes have been destroyed; all his dreams shattered. Can you please, in your brilliant capacity for resurrection, restore this young man to a life filled with meaning and fulfillment? I praise you and thank you in Jesus’ name, Amen.”
I looked up, but Greg still had his head in his hands.
“Greg,” I said gently. “Would you like to say a prayer too?”
He hesitated. Then he said, “Oh Lord, I am so sorry I have forsaken you. I never even said goodbye. I just tightened my heart and shut you out. Just like I shut out Marilyn. And all you both ever did was try to love me and help me through life. Please come back to me. Please don’t leave me all alone….”
My heart caught. I sat waiting for Greg to finish the prayer. But he didn’t, at least not that I could see. Instead, he began to tremble. I thought immediately, Oh no, I’ve done it now…I pushed this student over the edge…he’s having a panic attack.
The trembling increased and so did my heart rate, until Greg suddenly sat bolt upright and practically shouted, “I feel him, Dan. I feel God. He is right here with us!
It took a moment for me to understand that this was no psychotic break, but a glorious visitation by the Mighty Counselor himself.
I watched as Greg looked upward, directly over my head, beaming like a child chucked under the chin—a six-foot-six two hundred and fifty pound young man being hugged and loved by his heavenly Father.

When we did finish up our impromptu session that day, I left campus appreciating more than ever that we are not alone as pastoral counselors. We are not left fending for ourselves with mere counseling theories and clinical techniques. The Holy Spirit moves where the Spirit wills, and that especially means moving where people are broken and needing one called alongside to help them, one like you or me and the Lord. 
Greg later told me that God had led him to become a football coach, a calling that he greatly enjoyed in service of his Lord and Savior. 

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