Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Wrong Tool

Have you ever tried to turn a screw with a hacksaw? Or pound a nail with a drill bit? Of course not. But we do this all the time in the church- use the wrong tool to fix spiritual problems in one another.

It seems so simple to point at a scripture and shout REPENT! But for some sins it's just not that straightforward. My church just concluded a series from Andy Stanley's Enemies of the Heart covering the root-sins of anger, jealousy, greed and guilt. Do you notice a glaring omission? Stanley dedicates the last chapter, and we devoted our last lesson, to lust. The reason lust isn't listed as one of the four core emotions that lead to sin is because the desire to lust is God-given and not sinful. When taken to the extremes of pornography, affairs and so on, this God-given desire is typically driven there by one of these core emotions (often anger or greed). Yet we approach the person addicted to pornography the same way we'd deal with someone who struggles with cussing. It is one thing to tell someone just to stop lusting, it is something else entirely to dig deep to the root cause of a brother's addiction to porn.

The same is true in dealing with chemical addiction. I help lead a recovery ministry that has been ongoing for ten years now. But it was an uphill battle to get that ministry started in the first place. "Can't you just tell them to repent?" was the conventional wisdom. It wasn't until ministry staff saw first-hand the nuances involved in counseling someone enslaved in their addiction that this ministry received a green-light.

Last year the couple who lead this ministry attended a workshop on counseling. Another taboo. Another problem in the church being fixed by the wrong tool. From what I heard, most left that workshop still skeptical counseling works, or at least works any better than the traditional way of beating someone over the head with the Bible.

I already wrote about how the church needs to overcome the stigma of medications for mental health. The church also needs to overcome the taboo of psychotherapy as a means to holistic healing.

A couple of years ago one brother was brave and humble enough to seek out a professional counselor for something that normally would be dealt with the usual rebuke of "repent!". I say brave because it took a lot of courage to step away from the church conventional wisdom; humble because he realized that the personal demons he was fighting against required more than faith and willpower to overcome. A year ago another person started seeing the same counselor. It was entirely a coincidence- the first brother found him through a list provided by his insurance, the second followed a recommendation from a school psych. Since then, between the two of them, at least a half-dozen brothers and sisters in my congregation have been referred to this one counselor and another half-dozen, roughly, are seeking therapy elsewhere. We joke about getting referral discounts. But it has spread like this because we've seen that it works.

There is a somewhat famous quote attributed to Viktor Frankl that goes, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” The application to counseling versus rebuke is that the latter focuses on the response while the former identifies the stimulus and the habits that have formed in the space between.

Many addicts, be it chemical (drugs, alcohol) or behavioral (gambling, pornography), have evolved their lifestyle around their habits and routines in that space between. To tell one to simply stop will not change those patterns, and if the stimulus is not identified they are bound to fall into the same temptations, struggles, and failures all over again. Addicts literally need to be retrained on how to live in that space between. The Word of God is a great guideline, but the counselor, discipler, accountability partner, etc needs to know how to apply it. This is the nuance mentioned above. And every person is different. There is no one-size-fits-all fix.

Which leads us to mental illness, the theme of this last series of posts. For the mentally ill, retraining that space between is even more delicate. If done unprofessionally, or inappropriately, one can do irreparable harm. Identification of the stimulus (or trigger in popular counseling parlance) also requires specialized skill that most church-goers do not possess.

So the church needs to overcome its bias against professional counseling. It needs to let go of its monopoly on pastoral counseling. The caveat of course is that one has to carefully choose their counselor- there are bad-apples everywhere (I know of one specific instance of a marriage counselor having an affair with the spouse of a couple he was counseling! Although it is cliche and not much of a surprise, it is different when witnessed first-hand.) Ideally one would choose a Christian counselor, not because they are better since they share the same label I do, but because they counsel in the context of God's sovereignty. But even then, one must be careful. I don't recommend opposite-sex counseling for obvious reasons. And you want to make sure the counselor has experience in the area in which you are seeking help. A Certified Drug and Alcohol Counselor (CDAC) is less likely to be able to help you with pent up rage toward your parents than a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT).

If nothing else, I hope the takeaway from this post is to reassure you that professional counseling, outside of the church, is ok. In fact it may be necessary. And to continue what I've been saying since i started this series of posts, if you are struggling with some form of mental illness (even if that label makes you flinch) you are not alone, there is help, and you do not need to feel judged.

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