People have problems. Plain and simple. These problems can range from things as serious as abusive home situations and substance addiction, or as simple as sibling rivalry, lack of direction in life, or discontentment. You would be hard-pressed to find someone in the world who doesn’t have any problems. With as many problems as there are in life, there are entire groups of people whose job it is to help people fix their problems–counselors. When it comes to Christians and their problems, however, should they bring their problems to the professional counselor–psychologist, psychiatrist, or mental health therapist–or to their pastor?
If you contemplate the question for any length of time, coming up with the right answer gets pretty confusing. Should a Christian with personal or mental difficulties go to an unbelieving mental health professional, or to the pastor? After all, the professional psychologist has been trained, board-certified, and approved for his or her professional practice in mental health. The psychologist has specific training and experience that may relate to the issue at hand. In addition, not all mental concerns and illnesses are spiritual, so why bother the pastor with them? Pastors just don’t have time to deal with everyone’s personal bête noire. On the other hand, an unbelieving counselor may diagnose as “illness” those things that are actually “sin.” This could create a huge problem. The presuppositions, worldview, and treatment prescribed by a psychologist may run totally counter to the instruction of the Bible. When it comes to marital relationships, anger, or addiction, doesn’t the Bible have enough answers?
And thus, there is no easy answer. On the one hand, it can be tempting to run straight to the psychologist’s office, thinking that perhaps the professional can prescribe a pill or share an insightful revelation that will change everything. Yet on the other hand, a Christian’s first recourse for help should be God’s Word. Most pastors are better qualified to share God’s Word than even a board-certified psychiatrist.
When to go to a Professional
There are a variety of mental and physical conditions that people may face, which may cause them to look for a psychologist. Issues such as severe posttraumatic stress disorder, insomnia, or other such psychological issues could be ameliorated by someone with experience treating them. But beware. There are not as many “mental disorders” as modern science would have us think. Many of the disorders seen today are symptomatic of a fundamental human “disorder”–sin. The psychologist cannot cure sin. Nothing but the blood of Jesus can do this. Even issues like anorexia, bulimia, schizophrenia, and the like may not be as much of a mental disorder as they are sinful responses. How can a psychologist offer real, lasting change? Take issues such as a disintegrating marriage, or alcohol abuse. Can a Christian benefit from some of the principles and lessons offered by a professional secular marriage counselor or an AA support group? Maybe, but these forms of help will never solve the problem. In fact, they may only exasperate it, by failing to deal with the underlying issue. God’s Word addresses these issues, and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). There is rarely a real need for a Christian to see a non-Christian psychologist, or any counselor who does not use a biblical worldview and solutions in his or her counseling.
When to Go to a Pastor
The job of pastor has long been associated with the task of counseling, and there is nothing particularly wrong with this trend. Pastors usually have solid Bible knowledge and an understanding of people, equipping them with the ability to help people deal with their problems biblically. Many people know that they can go to their pastor for premarital counseling, crisis counseling, and advice for difficult situations. This role of the pastor as counselor should not be underestimated. While the pulpit ministry of the pastor is essential and paramount in church life, the personal relationships and counseling of the pastor are also extremely important. Going to a pastor for issues is always recommended, insofar as the pastor is a man of godly character who is committed to the authority of God’s Word. The bottom line is this: In most cases, Christians should seek counseling from other Christians–people who are regenerated and functioning with a biblical source of solutions.
Admittedly, the role of pastor-as-counselor introduces some difficulties. Pastors, or most leaders for that matter, are busy people. Succumbing to the pressure of a heavy counseling schedule can leave the unable to fulfill his other pastoral responsibilities. The pastor should see to it that others within the church–deacons, elders, and other godly people–can help to fill the role of counselor. Delegating this task to other individuals within the church will give the pastor the freedom to fulfill his responsibilities. There is also room for the practice of committed Christian counselors–people who function from a biblical worldview, and whose primary gift and calling is to help with counseling issues. It is ideal when a Christian counselor can exercise his or her gifts in the context of a church.