A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Abuse Recovery: Should a Christian Seek Psychological Therapy?

Luke 16:8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.

We continue to encounter victims of abuse who have been taught by their pastors and churches and by fellow Christians that psychology is evil and that a Christian should never look to anything for help but the Bible.  I was taught the same thing and developed a real suspicion of psychology, psychologists, psychiatrists, and secular counselors – or even Christian counselors who utilized some of the same methods and theories as non-Christian practitioners.  You have probably all seen the books like “Psycho-babble” or other such titles written by people who profess to be Christians and who demonize psychology.

In particular, we find a lesser or greater degree of this (depending upon the person making the claim) among adherents to the theory of nouthetic counseling (initiated largely by Jay Adams).  We have written in other articles why we do not recommend nouthetic counseling.  We believe that it:

  • Is far too simplistic, attributing every problem to the sin of the counselee, without considering the effects of someone else’s sin upon the counselee,
  • Assumes that with the Bible alone a Christian is “competent to counsel” in any scenario,
  • Discourages people from seeking help from trained psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors.

We know full well that there are bad psychologists and counselors.  Some of them are Christians!  As in any field or profession, there are going to be some members who are “out there,” and in the judgment of Christians are simply unbiblical or even hostile to God’s truth.  We reject such people when we come across them and realize that what they believe and say is contrary to Scripture or even plain common sense.  Freudian theory, for example, is certainly not a good place for anyone to go and in fact in our day it is being increasingly rejected even by non-Christian professionals.

However, as I have heard Barbara Roberts point out, God has given all human beings varying degrees of what theologians call “common grace.”  It is “common” because He gives it to all human beings.  And it is “grace” because it is undeserved good that He rains down upon the just and the unjust.  Because of this, a person does not have to be a Christian to discover truth in mathematics, history, biology or other fields of study.  Most of us had many teachers and professors in school who were not Christians by any means, yet they were wonderful teachers with real insight that we benefitted from.  I could also give you a list of some really bad teachers I had in Bible College and Seminary who were Christians!

I include psychology in this list.  Most of our readers know that we hold Lundy Bancroft’s books in high esteem and in fact his book “Why Does He Do That?” is generally one of the very first books we recommend to people.  And then we have also commended George Simon Jr.’s books, “In Sheep’s Clothing” and “Character Disturbance.”  We could go on, but you get the idea.  And we would take this even further and say that for the most part the very best books on abuse, sociopathy, psychopathy and so on are written by non-Christians.  And some of the very worst are written by Christians!

A related point concerns some of the discussion we have seen here on the blog of late about victims of abuse needing to take responsibility for their reactions to that abuse.  We agree, but with some qualification.  But let me propose this principle in question form:

How can a person take responsibility for something that they do not even realize exists within themselves?

The answer is obvious.  They cannot.  And when it comes to the effects of another person’s sin against us, such as the damage that abuse has done to the victim, many of those effects and even the victim’s various ways of dealing with those damaging effects are unknown to the victim.  For example, a woman who was sexually abused as a child has been affected greatly by that abuse.  But does she realize it?  Has she been able to “connect the dots” so that she comes to realize that, for example, her habitual anger is the product of the shame she has borne all of her life?  No, she has not.  And she hasn’t done so because she doesn’t see the shame.  She is damaged, but the damage is in her thinking and is simply not that simple to spot.  These things lurk and hide.  You cannot handle such issues by quoting a Bible verse that tells us we are not to let the sun go down on our anger and then telling the person they are sinning by doing so, and they need to repent and stop sinning.  Yet this is the very thing that so many “biblical” counselors do.

Is the Bible the problem?  No!  WE are the problem.  When the Bible speaks to us about anger, we so often stay on the surface in our understanding of the thing.   But God’s Word plainly tells us that the real strongholds against God’s truth lie in our mind.  It is our mind that needs to be renewed by God’s Word and His Spirit.  So we need help in discovering the why that lies behind the outward symptom, be it anger or some sexual dysfunction, inability to trust our perceptions, and all the other long list of effects that abuse by another has upon us.  Psychological therapy can indeed help us in uncovering these hidden obstacles.  Good, competent, qualified therapists do have the ability to help.  In fact, as an illustration of this, I was recently corresponding with a therapist who is a Christian.  She was trained at a Christian university in the field of clinical psychology.  I had asked if I could refer a Christian to her and that this person would really feel more comfortable with a Christian as a therapist.  The therapist told me that in fact for most of the therapy and counseling she does, it really does not matter that she is a Christian or not.

Now, some Christians would go ballistic at that comment.  I didn’t because I think I understand exactly what she meant.  There are many conditions – personality disorders and so on – that require certain methods of therapy that psychology has proven to be most effective.  Those methods are going to be the same methods used by any therapist that is competent to work with someone in a particular area.  It is very similar to going to a Christian medical doctor versus going to a non-Christian.  If you have a certain malady, you are going to get the same treatment from either one, assuming they are both competent.

So, at the risk of being labeled a non-Bible believing preacher of heresy, I highly recommend that victims of abuse seriously consider seeking therapy.  Feel free to read books that are not necessarily written by a Christian to find out about things like shame, PTSD, tactics and effects of abuse, and so on.  Evaluate what you read and what you are told through the lens of Scripture, yes.  But don’t reject the common grace God has given to us.  I know some abuse victims who have taken that latter route, and I don’t see them getting better very quickly and in some cases, not at all.

16 Comments

  1. Jeff, as a Christian therapist, I greatly appreciate this blog. It is true that, if I have a medical or mechanical issue, I am just concerned that my “specialist” is trained in the field and can give me – or my vehicle! – good care. However, I would like to add that it is important to most of my clients that I AM a Christian. As a fellow believer, I understand their upbringing in the church and, sadly, the “shame’ messages that have too often been preached at them. It is helpful for them to have me know my Bible enough to help them discover the truth of how God sees them.

    My doctoral dissertation research was on how the experience of incest distorts a woman’s image of God (and it does, indeed), the very foundation of how she views the Trinity has been twisted. Without knowing the truth of who God truly is and how God sees her, the emotional foundation of her life has been impacted. It is like building a house on sand.

    I do agree that it is important to “shop” until you find the right medical doctor, dentist, mechanic or counselor. The trust relationship is extremely important. For many hurting individuals, a secular counselor may be the only option, and they may indeed find a good one. Sadly, many of the worst counselors I know are Christian ones, and I have had to help pick up the pieces of their former clients.

    Bless you, bless you, for being a voice in the wilderness.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Thank you very much, Morven. I am happy this is encouraging. And you give some very good input here for me to think about too. Yes, for Christian abuse victims it is a “plus” if the counselor is a Christian who also understands how the trauma can affect one’s relationship with the Lord, and (this is harder to find) is a therapist who understands just how badly these people get treated in their churches. Thanks again for your insights!

  2. Jeff

    This is an interesting topic. I ended up with a secular therapist after trying a Christian one, and I can say he was truly a God-send. However, there were definitely issues with some of the things he told me that made me wish he was a Christian. I think I had a few things going in my favor that made it work- the first being that I’m fairly solidly grounded theologically and have a reasonably discerning spirit. The second was that I had a good Christian friend with a counseling background that was on the phone with me every night during the worst part.

    I think having a secular therapist can be dangerous because he or she is going to be influencing your thoughts and behavior at a very vulnerable time. However, having no therapist or a therapist (Christian even) who does not understand abuse is even more dangerous. And when you are hurting amd broken with barely the energy to get out and see a therapist, you probably don’t have it in you to shop around. So the ideal is to find a Christian therapist who understands abuse, but if you have to comprise (and a lot of people probably do) don’t compromise on the abuse part. Hopefully that will change some day as more people become informed about abuse, especially in Christian circles, but I at least had no confidence in Christian therapy by the time I turned to a secular therapist (it did not help that my church only believed in Nouthetic counseling and regard all other therapy as worldy).

    I was very up front with my therapist on my beliefs, and the one time he did cross a line encouraging me into sinful behavior, as soon as I brought it up he apologized and backed off.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Jeff – Your experience shared here is very valuable and I hope many people read it. What you say, according to the abuse survivors that I know who went to therapy. A non-Christian therapist who understands abuse is far better than the alternatives, if a person cannot find a Christian counselor who also “gets it.” And those type are very, very rare. It sounds like you were able to sort out the unbiblical data from that which rings true to Scripture and common sense, and you were helped. I think that is the most vital factor here. Theology really does matter, and it behooves all of us to get ourselves onto solid ground in our understanding of the Word of God.

  3. J. Ann

    This issue of whether or not to go to a non-Christian counselor was an important one for me back in the mid-1980’s, before my abuse situation was so serious. I was dealing with a more urgent issue then. My Mom suffered from a disabling mental illness, and my father had passed away. I was her legal guardian, and I was desperately searching for help for her. The church was still blaming the individual, families, or ignoring the existance of such illnesses, but medications were helping some people, and I couldn’t find a Christian psychiatrist, or at least one that would admit to it.

    My mom had been ill ever since she experienced post-partum psychosis in 1959. In 1986 she finally was given medication that made her dramatically better. Then started the education push that mental illness like hers was a dysfunction of the brain and its chemicals. That was very slow to be accepted by the Christian community. It took Christian psychiatrists like Drs. Minirth and Meier to publicize the true nature of severe mental illness. I remember Paul Meier saying that demons don’t leave when you give medication, and his explanations were most helpful to me. After his information, I got my best education from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, not a Christian organization, but with a lot of Christians in it. I learned how to help my mom in a loving, yet responsible way.

    But no-one has all the answers, and their book that helped so much with understanding mental illness also gave some bad advice on domestic abuse 25 years ago. About two years ago Dr. Meier wrote a book on narcissistic personality disorder and abuse (You Might Be A Narcissist If…). He had written one on Crazymaking a few years before. His website also provided a link to a secular source for more information on NPD and how to deal with it. I still couldn’t find information on abuse at his sites, but it is not a mental illness. Many Christian leaders and counselors have not stayed current on the new information, and still hang onto old ideas that have been proven wrong. Praise God for the internet and blogs like A Cry for Justice! Maybe it won’t take so long now to get the correct information out.

    Counselors are more willing to admit they are “Christian” today, but we need to ask them what that means to them.

    • Jeff Crippen

      J. Ann – You have given a really excellent, capsulized overview of the development of psychology and counseling among Christians in the last few decades here. Thank you very much. Yes, we all hope and pray that we are in yet another era of the church waking up to the truth, this time about abuse. When it comes to this subject, the church still says the world is flat.

  4. Dru

    Thank you for this post. Your blog is always encouraging, affirming and biblical. I’m not sure if my comment fits here,I’m sorry if its out of place but this is similar and at the same time different where I come from. In many parts of Africa, among christians every challenge or problem in life is blamed on 1] some (secret) sin or the reward for some past evil deed, 2] the handwork of enemies using ‘means’ such as witchcraft/voodoo and spells or 3) the direct result of a ‘spirit wife or husband’ in the case of marital problems. Tragedy never just befalls anyone, and no-one just dies no matter how old they are. Someone must be responsible for that person’s death. The absence of ‘problems’, having loads of money, driving a good car, having children of both sexes etc are all proof that one is really a child of God. This is what is taught from the pulpit by the most famous ‘men of God’ and is generally believed by even the highly educated. Some serious marital problems, which I now understand to be abuse, are blamed on witches and wizards (usually the family of the abuser) or a ‘spirit-wife’ (demon) who is in competition with the real wife and will not allow the marriage [of believer’s by the way] to succeed. We have women praying and fasting, for 40 days 70 days even, for deliverance from these ‘spiritual attacks’. Any mention of abuse is called carnal or just ‘ignorance of the devices of the enemy’. The woman is told she will miss God’s deliverance from the demonic attack on her marriage by seeing it as a mere psychological / abuse issue. What she does is to attend deliverance sessions and night vigils and conferences. Her pastors, family / friends will claim to be praying with/for her, encouraging her to hold on, the battle will soon be over and if she gives up the enemy will triumph etc.Reminding her that ‘ a wise woman builds her own home’. Meanwhile, the abuse gets worse. Many women die.
    In such a case, its almost impossible to even talk of therapy or abuse counseling.It’s not an option. And not even available in a society that disdains common sense and only ‘revelations’ from the ‘man of God’ matter. All pastors and most church workers are do counseling ( and deliverance). Even seeking medical care is seen as unbelief / worldly and so many women live with PTSD and heart problems etc without even realizing their true situation. When she seems to keep talking on and on about her experiences even though it was years ago, she is accused of unforgiveness. Not realizing that its a symptom of PTSD. Fear and poor decision making, disturbed sleep, agression etc – and she is accused of not ‘letting go’ and allowing a ‘root of bitterness’. Being forgetful and unable to concentrate or focus, will be blamed on demons. We don’t understand that these are all signs of PTSD from the abuse. We really have a long way to go but many women organizations are trying to protect women and children. The church is yet to arise. I am so glad for your blog that is shining the light powerfully. Thanks and God bless

    • Anonymous

      After reading your comment, Dru, I now understand what happened to me once. An African woman who saw herself as a prophetess tried talking to me along the lines that you described. She claimed to be speaking for God and said that only prayer and deliverance would see a breakthrough in the marriage, and that if I left the marriage, things would go pear-shaped for me and I would eventually lose not only God’s blessings but also my kids. She even said that I would experience worse abuse but I had to persevere before God would give a breakthrough. A friend of mine has been treated the same way by another African sister, who sees her PTSD as her fault and that it is up to her to use her faith to break it. Fortunately, this friend is well-educated on abuse and has a secular therapist who has been very helpful. I shudder to think about the poor victims who are in the dark who only have these types of ministers around them.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Dru- Thank you very much for these insights into abuse in another part of the world. Although these explanations of abuse from “deepest, darkest, Africa” (to use an old phrase describing the westerner’s concept of that country) may at first sound very strange to us, I am struck by the similarities to the thinking among many Christians in this country. When we demonize psychology and tell traumatized or ill people that the Lord forbids them from seeking out therapy, we really aren’t much different from the thinking that you have described here. The victim must have done something wrong to deserve this — or maybe it is God’s visitation of punishment on her for some ancestral sin. All will be well if she will just pray and pray and pray and read her Bible. This, of course, does not mean that I mean to deny the power of prayer and the transforming, Spirit-empowered work of the Word of God in us. But nevertheless, we are sorely mistaken when we refuse all of the means of help that the Lord in His goodness has given us – like medicine and modern understanding of things like PTSD, shame, and other effects of existence in a sin-filled world. Thank you again for these great observations.

    • Dru, I am rejoicing to hear an African perspective on this. Thank you so much for explaining it so clearly. I wonder how you came to see through those false beliefs and traditions and realise they were false. Only share if you feel able to, as I know you may not want to say anything that could identify you.

      The absence of ‘problems’, having loads of money, driving a good car, having children of both sexes etc are all proof that one is really a child of God. This is what is taught from the pulpit by the most famous ‘men of God’ and is generally believed by even the highly educated.

      What a fallacy to say that being prosperous and having an ideal family is the mark of God’s approval! It reminds me of the mindset of the disciples who asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (There must be a sin in this family somewhere, to have caused this problem; we have to find the culprit.) (John 9)

      Likewise, the people who brought up the matter of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus knew what was in their minds, he knew they were thinking, “Those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way. And we aren’t as bad as them. We can diagnose the problem and prescribe the right solution.” Jesus told them: “Hey guys, you’ve got tickets on yourself (are puffed up and proud), you aren’t such hot shots. You are just as bad as them.” (Luke 13)

      Reminds me of a self-styled African preacher who someone once tried to get me to follow. The guy wore a gold colored suit, gold silk waistcoat and gold tie. Not subtle. But maybe in Africa that was the norm for preachers. Like designer jeans and an open neck casual shirt is de rigeur for pentecostal preachers in the Australia and America.

  5. Dru

    What you have described is all too common Anonoymous. I’m sorry you had that experience. Our God is not like that. It’s sad….thousands of my sisters in bondage when Christ has set them free. There are a few pastors who teach sound doctrine without the sprinklings of our culture, tradition and superstition. Needless to say they are …well, unpopular. I’m glad for your friend, having a good therapist is so vital to recovery and breaking the cycle.

  6. Concerning nouthetic counseling and the attitude that comes with it- I used to attend a church where the man who publishes all of Jay Adams’ books also attended – his daughter once made the statement that if someone were having problems she would make an effort to listen to what they say until she could figure out where they had sinned-and then she would know “how to help them”- I am paraphrasing -but I was just floored. I was in the middle of a terrible emotional breakdown that no one there really knew about-so basically she was saying that it was all my fault and I couldn’t expect any compassion from her , just judgment.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Yep, and that’s the problem with this nouthetic stuff. It does not give enough consideration to the effects of the sin of others upon a victim.

  7. C

    People can be so ignorant, especially when ignorant people use religion to back up their ignorance. Usually the ones saying don’t go to counseling, are people who never went to a certified counselor or therapist, never studied psychology, and have some outdated, stereotypical views of what counseling and psychology actually is.

    • Hi C, welcome to the blog. I’ve changed your screen name a little just for your safety. Please read our New Users Info tab for tips about commenting safely here.

  8. C

    Another good analogy is this; There are 2 plumbers, one an atheist, another a professed Christian. Which plumber do you choose? Some people automatically choose the professed Christian without giving a thought about if he can actually knows what he’s doing! That is a big mistake many Christians make, “Are you a Christian” has nothing to do with how someone can help you. I will choose the plumber who knows how to fix my plumbing, the one who is licensed, the one is bonded, the one who is insured, and has a good reputation with past customers of doing a good job.

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