Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Secular Counseling has Failed to Provide Self-Awareness and Wisdom

David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D, worked for four years in psychiatric hospitals, during which time he came to faith in Christ. He teaches at Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF) and edits The Journal of Biblical Counseling (JBC). In an article entitled “Answers for the Human Condition: Why I Chose Seminary for Training in Counseling,” he explains his transition from secular to Biblical counseling.

Along with psychopharmacology, he had studied the leading lights of psychotherapy to conclude that they all represent “different ‘religions,’ and they treat each other that way.”

Nevertheless, Powlison attempted to borrow the best from each school of psychotherapy. However, he began to see that his syncretistic brew was filled with irreconcilable contradictions. This led to even deeper questioning:

  • I increasingly questioned whether the modern psychologies really offered much beyond common-sense observations of people and an attentive kindness. (JBC, Fall 2001, 47)
This questioning was intensified by observing a mental health worker who was completely lacking in any formal training. Nevertheless, he seemed to be more successful with the hospitalized patients than the professionals:

  • But patients respected him, laughed with him, loved him, got mad at him, and when they were in crisis, they wanted to talk with him.
However, it seems that Powlison’s “crisis of faith” came to a head when a young woman slashed her wrists. She then cried out repeatedly and imploringly, “Who will love me?” He then instantly perceived that nothing he had learned in university could answer this question, apart from the one he had rejected – Jesus Christ:

  • Although at times I saw symptoms moderated, I saw nothing that I could call deep, life-renewing change. I never witnessed a qualitative difference in any person’s life…I had long despised the Word of God, and repressed the God of that Word. I came to Jesus Christ because the God of Scripture understood my motives, circumstances, thinking, behavior, emotions, and relationships better than all the psychologies put together…They described and treated symptoms but could never really get to the causes…They – we – finally misled people, blind guides leading blind travelers in hopeful circles, whistling in the dark valley of the shadow of death, unable to escape the solipsism of self and society, unable to find the fresh air and bright sun of a Christ-centered universe. (47-48)
How do Christ and His Word better describe our lives? How does Christ represent the superior road-map? Let me try to briefly outline several ways:

  1. We are all screwed up – even those who come from nurturing homes. Consistent with Scripture, we find the same human problems from culture to culture, irrespective of upbringing. It had been expected that, once examined, it would be found that the Nazi leaders would signs of mental illness. Instead, they represented the normal range of human problems. This suggests that the problems are universal and not primarily the result of pathologies. Meanwhile, the universality of depraved minds in the very thing that the Bible teaches. There are no perfect people. We are all subject to the same temptations and commit the same immoral behaviors.
  1. Fulfilling needs and desires, as the secular worldview suggests, does not make us less screwed up. Some of the most needs-fulfilled people are the most screwed up. Likewise, gaining mastery and control of our lives doesn’t seem to help our mental condition. In fact, the principle that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” seems to describe the human condition very well and is consistent with Biblical revelation.
  1. Some of the most beautiful people are those who have experienced the greatest depravations. This also runs counter to secular expectations but is entirely consistent with Scripture. While secular thinking is unable to find anything positive about pathology, Scripture affirms the beauty and significance of weakness and infirmity.
  1. Growth in self-esteem seems to be counter-productive. While secular thinking had predicted that we would find a positive correlation between high self-esteem and quality of life, moral behavior and attainment, the opposite seems to be true. In contrast, Scripture affirms humility, an essential component for positive social adjustment.
  1. Taking care of our own needs first has been the bedrock truth of secular psychotherapy. However, there seems to be an increasing appreciation that relationships and society will work when we apply, first of all, the Biblical principles of respect, love, forgiveness, and other-centeredness.
  1. Trusting that we have the inner resources to produce change has been another bedrock principle of secular therapy. However, this breeds despair when we find that we are unable to change our mental condition or arrogance when are able to believe that we do have this power. Instead, liberation is found by trusting in God and not in themselves. We can never live up to our own expectations.
  1. The concept of “sin” has long been rejected in secular circles and at great personal cost. This has lowered our defenses against wrongdoing and has even served to justify it to our own detriment. In contrast to this, confessing sin to God (and even to those whom we have wronged) is a relieving and healing practice. Sometimes, it even takes on a magical or supernatural quality as we find ourselves washed clean of its effects and our relationships restored.
  1. Our attempts to understand our present problems by analyzing our past don’t seem to help.  This is not to say that self-awareness isn’t important. We need to examine ourselves – thoughts and behaviors – to grasp our deceptive motivations at their root. However, understanding by itself isn’t a cure. We have to apply moral principles to our lives – principles that secularism has relativized or even dismissed.
  1. Others respond favorably to our truth and transparency and not to professional distance, which conveys the errant idea of professional superiority. In opposition to the latter, the Bible teaches that we are all sinners who need a savior. This reality provides the necessary common ground for real relationships. It cuts through the superficialities and the facades.
  1. Life works when we take moral responsibility. In Scripture, morality is truth. For secularism, morality merely a pragmatic tool to use when it works. This can only breed cynicism and eventual decay.
  1. Life works when we understand that there is a transcendent purpose. Secular therapy actually erodes away any possible higher purpose, explaining away our values and goals as no more than personal needs, sometimes even pathologies. Our concepts of “honor” and “dignity” become no more than products of our upbringing. In this way, we are reduced to pursuing self-satisfaction. It dismisses our deepest inclinations.
  1. The Biblical prescription of how to treat others, whether children, subordinates, neighbors or bosses, works and yields fruits. It teaches us how to live life in a fruitful manner. It gets us to where we need to go.
  1. Secularism breeds unrealistic expectations about human thriving. It regards humanity as highly malleable, and therefore has generated many utopian schemes – whether economic, sexual or political. Specifically, it is always ready to give open marriages and polyamory a chance. Inevitably, they yield disastrous results in the long run. In contrast, the Bible sets realistic parameters for human thriving.
Biographer Jana Tull Steele reports about the views of Duke Ellington:

  • He used to say that he had three educations: one from school, one at the pool hall, and one from the Bible. Without the latter, he said, you can’t understand what you learned from the other two places. (Duke Ellington)
Scripture is the ultimate roadmap. Only through Scripture can we see how all of the roads or truths connect. Scripture also gives us the necessary paradigms to promote self-awareness.

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