This is part 1 of 2 part series: Part 2
Counseling is a theological matter.
Why is this so? Because everything about people is actually happening in reference to God. The troubles of life. Health or financial problems. Inner struggles. The conscious, willful sins. The unconscious “lights-out” experience of forgetfulness, drift and unbelief. Life and death. The meaning of it all. Counseling always expresses theological commitments.
Hold onto this core principle. Your integrity as a Christian who counsels hangs on grasping this. Counseling programs may or may not arise from or live up to this core principle. You have to keep your head no matter where you train. God is always involved when you counsel. Consider several key questions.
First, what is counseling? Broadly speaking, from God’s point of view, counseling is as broad as every word that proceeds from every mouth. Words communicate values, attitudes and intentions that intrinsically influence or seek to influence others. “The mouth speaks out of what fills the heart,” whether it be for good or evil, right or wrong. At the deepest level, all human interactions are essentially counseling interactions. Counseling, then, is either wise or foolish. Some words are rotten, destructive, misleading, unnourishing (Eph 4:29); other words are constructive, timely, true, loving, grace-giving (Eph 4:15, 29). No words are neutral.
More narrowly, counseling is any conversation intended to influence, guide, or help another person solve a problem in living. A lawyer, a financial advisor, a counselor in high school, a friend to whom you pour out your heart, a pastor, and a psychotherapist may each offer counsel (the explicit or implicit content) and do counseling (the relational and change processes). You who are thinking of studying counseling are likely most interested in the kinds of things that those last three counselors—the “peer,” the “religious professional,” and the “mental health professional”—tackle, do, and say.
Second, what particular life problems do counselors attempt to address? That question focuses matters a bit. Counselors inevitably interact with the whole person: behaviors, feelings, thoughts, circumstances, relationships, desires, choices, beliefs, memories, anticipations, values, motives. Counselors profess to care, to be interested. Their stated purpose is to help you, not to get your money, take advantage of you, win your admiration, or prove themselves powerful, successful, or superior. They are in principle curious about your life and desirous of your candor. Whether their counsel proves wise or foolish, they will inevitably listen to your hopes and fears, discouragement and joy, life’s hardship and sweetness, anger and approbation, loss and blessing, hurt and happiness, guilt and relief, relationships in conflict and at peace, regrets and achievements, out-of-control habits and small or large victories, confusion and clarity. They hear of good and evil, both what you do and what happens to you.
In other words, counselors deal with your story. In fact, they become players in that story. By word and deed, even by their line of questioning, they inevitably offer some form of editing or rescripting, some reinterpretation of your story. They deal with who you are and how you live and what you face, not with the legal phrasing of your will, the pros and cons of your mutual fund choices, or which college might admit you. Whether as a peer or by profession, such counselors profess to help you by changing something about you as a person.
Now let’s get even more specific. What sort of sense should would-be counselors make of the life problems they encounter and address? That is the third foundational question. What’s really happening in lives? What ought to change? What ought to be encouraged? What’s the True story? This question recognizes that all counseling is value-laden. Systems differ. Counseling is inescapably a moral and theological matter. To pretend otherwise is to be naïve, deceived, or duplicitous. Whether implicit or explicit, theologies differ. Since all counseling uncovers and edits personal stories, what is the true “metanarrative” playing in the theater of human lives? Stories differ. All counseling must and does deal with questions of true and false, good and evil, right and wrong, value and stigma, glory and shame, justification and guilt. The answers differ. All counseling explicitly or implicitly deals with questions of redemption, faith, identity, and meaning. The redemptions offered differ.