Monday, January 9, 2023

The popularity of the book, The Purpose Driven Life, highlighted the fact that most of us desire to fulfill our purpose on this earth. For me, that purpose began to take shape after the tragic loss of my older brother from a terrorist bomb on an airplane.

Devastated by his unexpected death, I changed my college major from law to psychology. As a young adult, it was difficult for me to understand how a good God could allow such a bad thing to happen. I wanted answers; and while I believed that one day, all pain would be gone, I live on this side of eternity. Bad things do happen to good people, but how do we make sense of this and stay in positive mental health?

Navigating Competing Narratives

I was raised in the church but had no real theology for suffering. Mental health problems were not discussed. I knew Jesus came to bind up the brokenhearted and to proclaim freedom for the captive, but no one talked about what that looked like in everyday life.

How does faith inform not only my life, but also my clinical practice?

After my brother’s death, I immersed myself in the study of psychology, determined to find ways to help those who suffer. My secular professors made it clear that my faith had no place in the classroom of serious study. In their eyes, a belief in Jesus was for the delusional and the weak. I needed to drop my insistence that religion had value and awaken to their reality that humanity is capable of self-fulfillment and healing without God.

Our narratives were very different.

For me, the Christian world view supported the findings in psychology. Psychology helped me understand and navigate the grieving process. I also knew that without my faith, I could not have handled my brother’s death nor held on to the hope for a better day and eventual reunion.

Psychology could only take me so far. It was helpful, but not life transforming. It taught me much in the practical realm and helped work me through difficult relationships and events, but we are more than body and mind. Walking through suffering also takes attending to the spirit.

Counseling After the Fall

After the Fall, the rebellion of man plunged the world into brokenness and changed our natural human disposition. We are not fundamentally good, but in need of redemption, and we cannot find answers by solely turning inward. As lovers of self, this disordered love leads to pain, restlessness and psychological distress. The unredeemed human heart is wicked and the mind easily deceived.

As Christians, we are not exempt from the natural causes of a fallen world or the progression of a poor environment or bad habits. Our world is full of disease, illness, violence, abuse, and all sorts of pain. Scripture tells us that even creation groans in this fallen state.

In my profession, clinicians daily witness how much pain and suffering exists in peoples’ lives. At times, it feels overwhelming—a six-year-old beaten by his father, a ten-year old sexually abused by an uncle, a 13-year-old neglected by a drug addicted mom, an emaciated teenager who starves herself to 83 pounds and believes she is “fat,” a couple who grows apart and becomes emotionally distant believing there is no way back to love, and a daughter who finds her father hanging in his bedroom from an act of suicide. The stories go on and on and repeat in numerous versions.

The emotional pain is real and the suffering immense.

Sitting with people in emotional pain is a privilege that I don’t take lightly. People trust me with the most vulnerable parts of their lives. I do what I can and do help people because of my training. I have to be willing to be vulnerable, to sit with pain, and be compassionate to those who are hurting, but I also have to balance the pain of others with self and soul care. I can’t fix everyone and I certainly can’t make people change.

At times, it is easy to grow weary, feeling that the enemy is winning the battle to steal, kill and destroy. But we can fight back because we understand our authority in Christ and because what we do is a calling.

Called by the Counselor

When I taught at Wheaton College, I required all my students to read The Call by Os Guinness. Guinness says, “Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by Him, to Him, and for Him” (p. 31). In other words, we are called to Someone and out of that call flows everything else.

Guinness asserts that whatever the profession, it is only work if there is no Caller. He reminds us that calling and vocation should be the same. We are all called to God first, and once in relationship with Him, He expects the gifts He has given us to be stewarded for His purposes. We live out who we are and allow God to work His transforming power in and through us. We are His hands and feet for those who desperately need hope and healing.

From a Christian perspective, those difficult moments of darkness in our soul lead us to depend on God’s power, not our own. We need someone bigger than ourselves to help transcend suffering and to understand who God is. He doesn’t downplay the suffering we face. He doesn’t tell us not to hurt or minimize our pain, but in fact, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, He is acquainted with our grief.

The promise is that His presence will walk us through pain and suffering to the other side.

Comfort for Sojourners

The calling of a psychologist/counselor is to be physically present in moments of pain and guide people through dark and difficult times. In the process, we are sojourners, witnesses, bearers of hope who provide an eternal perspective. Soul care is based on this. God gave Himself, and He is better than any pill or advice we can offer. He has the power to heal, to stop anxiety, to trade hope for despair and bring joy out of sorrow. He will equip those who are called to healing professions to be ministers of that healing.

With God, there is always a way of escape and joy and peace in the middle of difficulty.

Emotional and physical pain draw us close to God, often making us desperate for Him, and reminding us of our weakness and dependence on Him. C.S. Lewis says in The Problem of Pain, “God whispers in our pleasure, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain” (91). For those in pain, there is a lot of shouting going on, but in that suffering, if we listen, pain can be transformed and bring humility, trust, faith and even gratitude to our life.

Suffering can grow our faith if we approach it in an honest way with God. When we suffer, there is an opening of our soul and a cry for God’s help that leads to a deeper walk. There are times when God allows suffering for a greater purpose to be accomplished in us and others. We control how we respond to that pain and suffering. My job is to help people with their responses and point them to things of eternal value.

Doing Christian Counseling

The Christian therapist’s goal is to help people overcome their problems and improve their wellbeing, relationships and mental health. This is done by combining faith with the principles of psychology, intentionally practicing spiritual disciplines, and growing in Christ. It also requires a working knowledge of the psychology field, application of evidence-based practices and staying current with research and new treatments. The whole person is treated; body, mind and spirit.

Christian counseling is always rooted in God and biblical principles, shaped by love, and should exalt Christ above all. His Spirit uses us to accomplish His purposes through the use of wisdom, compassion, empathy and discernment. The goal is to help patients see that their life has value, that their identity is ultimately found in Christ, and that they are unconditionally loved and accepted.

Nothing can separate us from God’s love, and despite what happens in this life, God is constant, never changing, and always good. He is the solid rock on which we build our lives, and this then is the foundation for mental health redeemed.

This article was taken from the sixth volume of Faith and the Academy, a journal published by the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement. Read more at this link.

Dr. Linda Mintle is a professor at Liberty’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, chair of the Division of Behavioral Health, and a senior fellow at the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement.