Christ & Culture Series: Biblical Counseling

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In this continuation of an ongoing series, I interview Teresa Chen about her seminary degree in counseling. 

Teresa grew up in Houston, went to the University of Texas at Austin and got a degree in Electrical Engineering in 2005.  After working for a few years in Austin and getting married, her and her husband Alex sensed a call to ministry, so they came to Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA in 2010. Alex worked on his Mdiv, while Teresa completed a Masters of Arts in counseling.

She also did an internship with the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF), which has close ties to WTS. Through that internship, she did some counseling through Covenant Fellowship Church in Glenn Mills, PA, as well as CCEF. Both Alex and Teresa graduated in 2014, and this September Alex will serve on the pastoral team for a new Sovereign Grace church plant in Drexel Hill, PA: Risen Hope Church.

Teresa is now a stay at home mom to Timothy (3) and Hudson (1). 

Could you give a brief description of counseling according to secular culture?

All counseling is our attempt to help people deal with the things that are hard in life. As Irvin Yalom likes to ask, “What ails?” People you meet with are all trying to make sense of the world, the things that happen to them, and also their own actions. Throughout the years, the solutions offered have changed, depending on the culture’s understanding.

In the 90’s the focus was very much on families and the effect of caustic relationships, such as between a parent and a child. Analysis of the dysfunctional family was very important back then. We saw court cases where children were able to legally divorce their parents. Also, Children would be on trial for murdering their parents and the contribution of the parents was very much scrutinized. But, the cultural emphasis has shifted since then.

Although relational dynamics are still very important, my understanding is that we are now focusing more on the impact of our biology. We are primarily bodies, and many solutions that are offered address bodily deficiencies. It’s almost as if we are victims of the bodies we are born with. Depression medication, sleeping aids, pain-killers are many times the first line of defense against many presenting problems. We are now born into certain sins, such as alcoholism or homosexuality. You have a disease that makes you participate in risky behavior.

While we must acknowledge that our bodies do play a huge part in determining the struggles that we encounter, we cannot blame everything on our bodies. In reality, we are embodied souls, living in a world influenced by other people, circumstances, bodies, hearts, and Satan, with our lives lived in the hope of and in light of a ruling and risen Savior. Romans1:21 says,

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

Because secular psychology denies God, their eyes are darkened to a real and true understanding of what it means to be human and is limited in how much it can truly cure souls. Although secular psychology can help dull the pain, they are unable to offer a source of true hope to people coping with very difficult situations. By denying God, secular psychology shuts the door to a glorious purpose to our suffering, the hope that one day all will be made new, and a guarantee that we will live life how it was meant to be — reconciled to our Creator and cured of the curse of the fall. While secular counseling’s aim is symptom relief, Christian counseling’s goal must be to point the person back to a growing, trusting, dependent relationship with his Creator no matter what the circumstance.

Is there a difference between secular counseling and Christian counseling?

The term “Christian counseling” is very broad. It’s a bit like the word “Evangelical” in that it could mean a lot of things. Generally speaking, there are three camps in counseling— Secular, Integration, and Biblical counseling. We have discussed secular counseling briefly. The Integration approach is where Christians try to combine secular counseling with Christianity.

Integrationists take both secular counseling and Scripture to be true and try to make sense of both at the same time. Biblical counseling sees Scripture as the ultimate, yet not comprehensive (a textbook), authority on life because it is God’s Word. While we won’t find systems theory or brain anatomy in the Bible, it speaks very candidly and truthfully about both the human experience of suffering and also how people can truly change and find comfort.

Has secular counseling influenced Christian counseling at all?

We have a lot to learn from secular counseling. It would be arrogant to say that we have nothing to learn from it. There are many brilliant minds thinking about how to help people, and they have many brilliant and useful observations and methods. Our job as counselors is to interact with secular methods in a thoughtful way by asking:

1.) What is this theory’s worldview? What does this theory describe well and truthfully?
2.) What things is this theory blind to? What can it not see?
3.) What are ways that we can learn from these observations that will help us to love others well? What are ways that we can adapt the strengths of their viewpoints and say it even better because we have a Christian worldview?

We must also be open to working with secular counseling to address any biological conditions that the person may have. We must be willing to dialogue with the person and help them to figure out whether their trials can be lessened through medication, physical activity, or other opinions who are better experts than we are. At the same time, while addressing and minimizing the effect of their physical bodies on the trial, we must also address the heart and their relationship with God.

As counselors, we need to have a good grasp of the pulse of secular psychology because it helps us understand the other voices people are hearing and keeps us up to date with current thought. We must always be learning from others and improving in our understanding of people.

How were you taught to counsel? Could you give us the foundation and basics of bible based counseling?

I was taught how to counsel through Westminster Theological Seminary’s Biblical Counseling program. Westminster partners with the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF) very extensively in this program. Our classes included both theological and observation classes. I was also blessed to have completed an internship with CCEF in 2013-2014.

Foundational to Biblical Counseling is our understanding of how people work. Scripture says that our hearts are idol factories. Trials in our lives reveal the idols of our hearts. When there are trials in our lives and we behave poorly, we can often say, “She made me do it!” or “If he hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have acted this way.” We blame the trial for our sin, when in reality, the trial only revealed an idol in our heart. When that idol is threatened, we can often try to protect it at all costs. Our behaviors reveal what is in our hearts. God should be on the throne, but sometimes we can place another good thing on the throne. We can take what is good and intended by God to be for our enjoyment and worship it. It is not wrong to want to be successful or to be married, but when we want it above anything else, including God, it begins to rule us. We begin seeking that idol at the expense of our worship of God and our relationships with others.

Biblical counseling calls people to repentance— to put God back on the throne and to trust him even though trials may abound. It might be easy to read this and think that if we just point out each others’ idols then we are doing good counseling. However, we are called to more. We are called to embody Christ’s love to fellow wilderness wanderers. Every Christian is wandering in the wilderness of the suffering of life. We have so much more in common with each other than different. As fellow wilderness wanderers, we are called to walk alongside each other and bear each others’ burdens. We are called to walk a mile in their shoes— to understand how it is to be the other person, to understand their experience and tell their story.

Only when we have properly understood them and told their story accurately can we point them back to how their story fits into the grand story of Scripture. Have they been lead astray? Christ is the Good Shepherd who not only leads His sheep but goes on ahead of them and dies for them as the sacrificial lamb. Have they been going after things in life that only leave them addicted and empty? Christ is the only source of living water who can quench our thirst. Do they live in fear? Christ is the King who has defeated Goliath/Satan once and for all and calls His soldiers to follow him into victorious battle. Do they feel like everyone has abandoned them? God tells us to be strong and courageous, because He is with us and will never leave us. Are they weary because of trials in their lives? One day everything will be made new and He will wipe away every tear from our eyes and our sorrow will be no more. This is true hope. This is the only peace that lasts. This hope is the true cure of souls. However, this change happens slowly. We can often move too quickly and offer pat answers that fall on deaf ears.

How should the church view counseling? When should a person get counseling and why?

There is a negative stigma associated with counseling. People think that if you’re seeking counseling, you are in serious trouble. In reality, we all need counseling, whether it is from each other in community, from a pastor, or from a professional counselor. We must have the humility to admit that we all struggle with sin and we all need help. We need the body of believers to speak truth into our lives, and sometimes in harder cases we need to enlist the help of pastors and counselors. CCEF’s motto is “Restoring Christ to Counseling, and Counseling to the Church.”

If a person is struggling with something, they should first seek the care of the structures provided through their church, such as their small group leader or pastor. Counselors are there to aid the local church in cases where proper care would be too much to bear or is out of the expertise of a pastor to handle by himself. However, the local church must stay involved if a counselor is sought for help and the counselor and local church must work together to care for the person. Often, those who are on the fringes of church community will seek out counseling centers without being properly engaged with their pastor. At a healthy gospel-centered church, the body of believers can potentially provide much better care in the day to day than a counselor could once a week or a few days a month.

If someone is interested in counseling, but maybe can’t go to school, what should they do? Can you recommend any resources for those wanting to learn more about counseling?

  • Foundational to Biblical Counseling is a proper Christian worldview. One of the best things you can do is find a good church who preaches the Gospel and will feed your soul spiritually. You can’t help others if you yourself are spiritually starving. You can have all the wisdom of secular counseling but can only point people so far if your theology is lacking.
  • CCEF holds an annual conference every year. This year’s conference is in Virginia Beach from October 16-18. This year’s topic is Side By Side; counseling in community. It’s a great way to get a taste of the foundations of biblical counseling and to network with other counselors seeking to learn.
  • CCEF also has blogs, videos, articles, and free downloads at http://www.ccef.org/resources
  • CCEF also offers online classes through the School Of Biblical Counseling. The classes Dynamics of Biblical Change and Helping Relationships are the core of the curriculum. They would be great for a person interested in counseling to start with. Also, the class Counseling and Secular Theology is really good as well. Any one of these classes would be a good taste of what Biblical Counseling is about.
  • The Biblical Counseling Coalition has a blog with many resources.
  • Books:
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