My goal in this article is to briefly consider a specific pastoral question: What is a wise approach to those in your church who see a secular therapist? Since this question is part of a long and winding road, we will make a couple of stops before we arrive at an answer.
The modern therapeutic era made its first obvious appearance with Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and his associates in the early 1900s. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875–1961) was among those associates. Both men had religion in view as they developed their therapeutic approaches.
Freud’s theory created a doctrine of the person that attempted to explain both the conscience and belief in God as mechanisms within the person rather than as evidence of humanity-before-God. Jung was even more deliberately anti-Christian as he reacted against his Swiss Reformed upbringing.1 He replaced God with the Self and sought to rectify what he thought were imbalances in Christianity. His teaching is less frequently cited today (perhaps with the exception of Jordan Peterson). You will, however, find that Jung’s Self and the centrality of our internal experience quietly remain the center of modern psychotherapy. Together, Freud and Jung announced the emergence of what we might call secular priests.
Christians would expect the rise of a secular priesthood. Secular people want help, but they don’t have pastors or a church community. Instead, they go to their friends and therapists. But I see, especially in Jung, something more than secular therapists filling a secular void. At times throughout history, perhaps particularly in the 1900s, the church tended to focus on combatting the rise of liberalism, while careful work on soul care languished. By the 1950s, many churches emphasized the end times, neglecting to create fresh applications of Scripture for present-day pastoral care.
How did the world of secular therapies grow so quickly? A secular community wanted help, and many churches were not listening carefully to their people or bringing the direction and comfort of Christ in meaningful ways. Instead, church cultures commonly suggested that Christians should feel happier than the rest of the world and have fewer problems. When that becomes the normal Christian life, churches lose their voice and can no longer speak into daily trouble. We are recovering from that era, but slowly, and sometimes in ways that mimic the secular therapies.
Appeal of Secular Psychotherapy
American psychotherapy accelerated during the decades after World War II but with a different feel from its European lineage. Given the profound differences between war-torn Europe and the relatively unspoiled and victorious United States, American therapies were more optimistic, favored autonomy and the freedom to live with fewer constraints, and believed in the agency of individuals to help themselves.
We might suspect as much, for these therapeutic foundations were forged in an unleashed economy that was ready to accommodate new desires. The birth-control pill was on standby to push those personal freedoms into sexual realms. The self, as a result, officially had a makeover and was reframed in various ways. One such reframing is “the empty self” — hollow, consuming, and hoping to be full. A better-known version is called “expressive individualism,” in which feelings become the new morality — they should be expressed to others, and they should guide us.2
There are other perspectives on our humanity. The study of the brain is in the news, and our self-understanding tends to follow media interests. Who are we, according to this perspective? We are bodies and brains. The feelings that are so important to us are embedded in our brains, as are our sexual preferences (or sexual confusion). Since our brains can be changed profoundly by our experiences, hardships and trauma seem to etch into our brains, and only rewiring the brain can undo it.
This perspective is best known from Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score. It is also represented in a catalog of recent Christian books about the physical body in life and worship. My point in highlighting this perspective is not so much that an interest in the body is misguided, but that it is triggered by technological developments and cultural trends.
Should secular psychotherapy receive the credit (or blame) for these changes? Not exactly. Modern psychotherapies are not so much leading the culture as they are taking notes. Therapists are known for their listening skills. These skills are at the heart of their broad appeal. Their clients feel known, which is a prized and rare human experience. As they listen, therapists have found so much wanting and so much pain, and they have designed their therapeutic models around that neediness and hurt.
If we want to look for the more powerful influences on our changing views of ourselves, we look to the world broadly more than just its smaller slice of secular therapies. The world is the sub-biblical culture that is in the air around us, and it cannot be reduced to one particular participant — like secular therapists — in that culture.
How Do We Respond?
Now to the question about people in your church seeing secular therapists. What might we do when Christians confide in secular priests? This question becomes even more significant when we learn that clients tend to drift toward the worldview of their therapists.3
All secular theories receive at least two biblical critiques. First, they do not see their patients as persons before God, but prize independence and self-care as the goal rather than the problem. Second, they are reductionistic in that they point to certain influences in our lives as fundamental, such as past victimization or early-childhood attachments, while neglecting (or not seeing) other influences, such as our own hearts and moral agency.
Those who embrace secular care, therefore, will be more prone to managing their own world rather than learning dependence on Christ in weakness, and they may miss how the heart is the real center of human life. They certainly will not be encouraged to see the connections between life and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Given these critiques, our preference would be for pastors to vet potential counselors just as they would vet elders, church staff, and others who do the work of ministry. That is the ideal. We would direct church members to Christian counselors skilled in both understanding people and applying God’s word to the whole person.
Vetting Counselors, Processing Care
Vetting, however, has its challenges. Christian counselors share a number of characteristics with their secular counterparts. Some are experienced; some are less so. Some are skillful and know people well; some are blunt objects that offer an inflexible script. “Christian” does not mean competent. We can inquire into theological orthodoxy, but orthodox beliefs do not equal orthodox practice, and orthodox beliefs do not reveal one’s character and experience.
And what if congregants are already seeing a secular therapist? Or perhaps they cannot find a local Christian counselor with the needed skills for a particular problem. We are unlikely to prohibit those in our churches from seeing secular therapists, a move that would come close to transgressing the bounds of pastoral authority. Among secular counselors, some are foolish in how they steer everyone away from “toxic relationships,” fail to distinguish severe offenses from minor ones, or neglect skills in self-control and humility. Others work out of the wisdom tradition that existed among the ancient Near Eastern nations and persists today. They do not know the true God, but they have keen instincts on how to live well, and they offer concrete advice that is easily reframed in a larger scriptural context.
These are some of the complexities of pastoral care in an environment where there are more pastoral needs than there are those who can care well for those in need.
A worthy goal would be to become familiar with the Christian counselors around us who have been helpful to people we know, and offer to subsidize that care. Also, if we know people who receive formal secular care, we can give them opportunities to reframe their care with Scripture. This offer could be as simple as asking someone how we can pray for them and their counseling. Prayer is a natural way that we connect troubles in daily life to Christ, and it takes us to those deep matters of the soul that can be reached only in Christ.
The Care All Christians Need
It’s important to remember that all of us receive “secular care” for our souls from neighbors, the Internet, advertising, movies, music — the list goes on. In a sense, we’re all listening to secular priests, and our corporate mission is to bring everything back into God’s house, where we can see its wisdom or folly clearly. Even more, we listen to Scripture and search together to see how God’s words in Christ go deeper and are more liberating and life-giving than even the best of what we hear in the world around us.
And so, prodded perhaps by secular therapists who listen well, we carefully listen to the troubles of people’s lives so that they feel known, and we also carefully listen to Scripture until God’s words sound as good, true, and beautiful as they are. Consider the counsel of J.I. Packer:
As a Puritan once put it, the pastor must study two books, not just one. Certainly, he must know the book of Scripture. . . . He must also be a master in reading the book of the human heart. He must know men no less well than he knows his Bible.4
The task is not easy, but it can be accomplished in small steps: mature laypeople take initiative in “the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12), sermons make connections to trauma and other common struggles, Christian counselors have a person’s soul and life-before-God always in view, and we all insist that Christ reach into every dark or uncharted recess of the human heart with words that speak life in a way unlike any other.