A friend asked me to explain the difference between secular and Christian counseling. I’m sure that my response must have seemed quite judgmental. I accused secular, humanistic counseling of being essentially religious. However, I’m scarcely alone in this assessment. In One Nation Under Therapy, psychiatrist Sally Satel and ethicist Christina Sommers make the same indictment:
"At the heart of therapism [the no-fault, disease-pathology philosophy of psychotherapy] is the revolutionary idea that psychology can and should take the place of ethics and religion. Recall Abraham Maslow’s elated claim that the new psychologies of self-actualization were offering a “religion surrogate,” that could change the world. He had “come to think of this humanist trend in psychology as a revolution in the truest, oldest sense of the word…new conceptions of ethics and values.” Carl Rogers then looked upon group therapy as a kind of earthly paradise—a “state where all is know and all accepted.” The sixties and seventies were heady times for Maslow and Rogers. They were promoting a visionary realignment of values, away from the Judeo-Christian ethic, in the direction of what they regarded as a science of self-actualization." (217)
Secular, humanistic psychotherapy (SHP) is not only a religion, it is also a religion at odds with Scripture. I will try to demonstrate this. However, in doing so, I will have to resort to generalizations, which will not accurately describe all the therapists in the secular/humanistic camp. Nevertheless, I think these generalizations do capture the core essence of this religion.
1. While SHP understands us as a product of nature and nurture (genetics and environment), in other words, a pathological result, Scripture sees a broader, more creative process at work, which includes our own choices. Fundamentally, many of our struggles are self-caused. We reject the light in favor of the darkness (John 3:19-20), bringing upon ourselves all manner of ills (Romans 1:21-32; Proverbs 1:29-32). By rejecting God’s gift of righteousness, we condemn ourselves to pursuing a non-existent alternative righteousness, significance, and self-esteem resulting in self-justification and denial.
2. While the secular approach is client-centered, the Biblical is God-centered, acknowledging that God is the source of everything good and the ultimate answer to whatever our problem (Romans 8:31-32). Meanwhile, SHP claims that the answer is in us. Actually, the Christian counselor starts where the sufferer is (1 Corinthians 9:19-22) and later lead them to higher ground.
3. Consequently, while SHP tries to build a self-trust based upon self-esteem and behavioral mastery over fears and other conflicts, the Biblical rejects self-trust in favor of trusting in God alone (Psalm 62). Self-trust opposes the Gospel. Jesus instructed His followers that they could do nothing without Him (John 15:4-5; also Jeremiah 17:5-7; 2 Cor. 3:5). Furthermore, those who trust in themselves have fallen from grace (Gal. 5:2-4).
4. While SHP seeks to exalt the client, Scripture counsels humbling ourselves to the truth of our brokenness and need, trusting that God will exalt us (Luke 18:14; James 4:10).
5. While SHP is focused on symptomology and, in the short run, feeling better about oneself, Scripture is primarily focused on truth and thinking correctly (John 8:31-32).
6. Consequently, SHP is about affirming the self, while Scripture is about affirming God and His truth, and only secondarily, who we are in Him! SHP focuses on improving the client’s performance and feelings about oneself, while Scripture’s focus is upon performing for God, knowing that He will, in the long run, take care of our needs better than we can (Matthew 6:33).
7. SHP emphasizes self-expression, while Scripture emphasizes self-control and virtue.
8. SHP tends to be non-judgmental and tolerant of just about all forms of expression. Scripture maintains that truth has to guide all of our thinking and behaving. Underlying this distinction, SHP resorts to the disease model. In the same way that we are not responsible for contracting cancer, we are also not responsible for our problematic behaviors. Scripture has a higher view of humankind, and therefore we must take responsibility for our lives.
9. Because SHP is all about mitigating symptomology, it has little tolerance or understanding of the role of suffering. Consequently, it fails to be able to embrace the totality of our experience. Scripture however recognizes the need for suffering (2 Cor. 4:7-11), thereby helping us to accept it.
Tragically, the Church has failed to detect this SHP stealth virus as it has entered, pushed aside and denigrated the Gospel. Professor of religion, Philip Jenkins, writes:
"During the 1970’s and 1980’s, psychological values and assumptions permeated the religious world no less than the secular culture…But an intellectual chasm separates the assumptions of traditional churches from those of mainstream therapy and psychology. The medicalization of wrongdoing sharply circumscribes the areas in which clergy can appropriately exercise their professional jurisdiction, and this loss of acknowledged expertise to therapists and medical authorities at once symbolizes and accelerates a substantial decline in the professional status of priests and ministers." (“Opinion: The Uses of Clerical Scandal,” First Things, 1996, 60.)
Sadly, SHP also diminishes the Gospel, abruptly informing us that healing is only in the hands of the mental health professional. Nevertheless, I believe that there’s a lot we can learn from others. When Anita needed additional computer skills, I was all in favor of her taking some computer course offered by NY State. However, I find little that we can profitably borrow from SHP.