Psychotherapy, or psychological counseling, is the practice of attempting to heal a person’s emotional and mental problems. The therapeutic practice often centers on regular conversations between a counselor and a client, known as “talk-therapy.” These sessions may include exploring troubling thoughts, fears, and personal history. They might also include exercises to help adjust troublesome thoughts or behavior. Often clients are assigned “homework” in between sessions that may consist of things like observing and noting emotions or behaviors, attempting thought and behavioral modifications, and the like. Sometimes psychotherapists work in collaboration with medical doctors as well. The general aim of psychotherapy is to increase a person’s awareness and understanding of the possible causes of unwanted feelings and behaviors so as to achieve a decrease in unhealthy emotions and behaviors.
Different psychotherapists base their practices on different psychological theories and employ different treatment modalities and techniques. Psychotherapy also covers a broad range of emotional and behavioral issues. These can include things like relationship issues, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger management, addiction recovery, learning disabilities, and more. Thus, it is extremely difficult to give a Christian view of psychotherapy as a whole. That being said, sometimes Christians have concerns with psychotherapy. We will explore a few of the reasons why.
Some Christians believe that psychotherapy disregards the reality of sin and instead labels issues of sin as mental disorders. They claim that psychotherapy mitigates personal responsibility by excusing problem thoughts and behaviors as illness rather than as things to overcome. It seems this claim is made only for certain mental health diagnoses and not for everything classified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or for non-diagnosable issues. It is true that some psychotherapists disregard sin and personal responsibility. However, since the goal of psychotherapy is usually to overcome the illness, having a diagnosis is not usually seen as a “free pass” to behave in any way a person wants.
Other Christians recognize both mental disorders and sin as being real. Not all classifiable mental disorders are related to sin, other than being a general result of the fall and the reality of death and decay our world now endures. Not all sins are classifiable as mental disorders by the psychological community. These Christians view psychotherapy as one tool in helping overcome problematic issues. They would claim that having a mental health diagnosis does not mitigate personal responsibility for managing one’s emotions and behaviors; rather, it helps explain why a person might be particularly prone to a specific emotional or behavioral response. Such Christians would say that psychotherapy might help with practical tools in recognizing and overcoming the issue.
Some Christians find it impossible to detach the practice of psychotherapy from the humanistic worldview on which many psychological theories are founded. They might also see how psychotherapy is used as a quasi-religion or purported savior in the minds of some, and thus discard it altogether. Other Christians disregard the worldview foundation of specific theories and instead integrate what they see as the helpful portions of psychological practice into the biblical worldview that governs their lives. These Christians would not disregard what the Bible says about our need for salvation, the healing available in Jesus Christ, or how we are to live as a result of knowing Him. But they would also see psychotherapy as a possible tool that could be helpful to some in that healing process. They would not see things like exploring one’s past, acknowledging and expressing one’s emotions, and using behavioral modifications techniques as contradictory to the Bible. Neither would they see them as a replacement for spiritual growth.
Perhaps one of the most complicating factors in psychotherapy is that so much is dependent upon the therapist and the client. The American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics (2014) calls upon therapists to be neutral: “Counselors are aware of—and avoid imposing—their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees, and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature” (Section A.4.b; www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/ethics/2014-code-of-ethics.pdf?sfvrsn=2d58522c_4, accessed 10/20/2020). While this ethical code is well-intentioned, counseling by its very nature is value-laden. A therapist who does not have a biblical worldview might be able to accept a client’s biblical worldview and support it. But that therapist might also think that the client’s belief in God and His Word is part of whatever problem brought the client into therapy. This can also be a struggle for Christian therapists trying to act within the ethical bounds of their profession and who believe a biblical worldview is what will be most helpful to their clients.
Whether avoiding all psychotherapy or making use of it as a tool, we all need to be careful to study God’s Word and rely on Him to be our source of truth. Second Timothy 3:16–17 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Hebrews 4:12 talks about how God’s Word can discern even our motives and intentions. Psalm 119:105 says that God’s Word is a light for our path. We are wise to examine anything we might be taught in psychotherapy through the lens of what the Bible actually says.
We also need to follow the instructions God gives us for how to live, not only in our personal lives but in community. This includes our behaviors. But it also involves our personal relationship with God. Not only should we regularly read His Word to better know Him, we should regularly go to God in prayer (Hebrews 4:14–16; 10:19–23). A psychotherapist cannot replace God in our lives. The Bible also encourages us to regularly engage in Christian fellowship. We should weep and rejoice with one another (Romans 12:15); we are to encourage and exhort one another (Hebrews 3:12–13; 10:24–25). Psychotherapy is not a replacement for the church.
No matter how a particular Christian views psychotherapy, we can all agree that ultimate healing and transformation come only from God. Our primary problem as humans is separation from God due to sin (Romans 3:23; 6:23). Only by God’s grace through faith in Jesus can we be reconciled to Him (Ephesians 2:1–10). When we are, we enter into a process of transformation in which we learn to put sin to death and to live as God would have us live (2 Corinthians 5:17–21; Romans 12:2; Philippians 2:12–13). We still endure struggles and hardships in life, but God is with us (James 1:2–18; Romans 8:28–30). We can lean on Him for our needs and trust in Him to transform us (1 Peter 5:6–9; Philippians 1:6; 4:6–9).