Christian (or biblical) counseling is a topic that deserves more attention at places like Old Life that are lean sap and well-stocked seeking discernment. It strikes me that biblical counseling is another example of worldview, pietistic thinking that requires a biblical answer for each and every human problem. It also appears to suffer from a pietistic piety that runs roughshod over the regular ministry of pastors and elders who are ordained for the purpose of providing counsel, instruction, and exhortation — and they don’t even charge a fee for it.
Another part of the challenge of Christian counseling is the attempt to turn a human woe into a spiritual opportunity. I don’t mean to drive too great a wedge between the human and the spiritual sides of human existence, but since we do go to non-Christian physicians for help with ulcers and tumors, why do we need to go to Christian counselors for help with psychological problems or even broken relationships? What would be so awful if a person trained in certain areas of human existence wound up having a fund of knowledge about problems that Christians share with non-Christians? Are these problems the result of sin and the fall? Of course. Isn’t cancer or appendicitis also the result of sin and the fall? Of course. So why only go to Christians for help with the non-material parts of human misery? Why, I remember a time not too long ago when Christians thought treating depression with drugs was sinful. It is as if regeneration has powers that extend well beyond forgiveness, or as if sanctification leads to well-adjusted believers who will out perform non-believers in most areas of life — including happiness and well-adjustedness.
The Christian Curmudgeon reminded me of the dilemmas surrounding Christian counseling with his own reflections on depression. He writes:
Cowper’s depressions began when he was young. At his best, he was probably holding it at bay. He had at least four major depressive episodes in his life. On occasion he intended, though he failed, to end his own life. He died in despair, believing himself reprobate. His last poem, The Castaway, expresses his hopelessness with regard not just to this world but the world to come.
John Newton, with whom Cowper lived for a season and with whom he collaborated in the production of a book of hymns, testified that he did not doubt Cowper’s salvation. More recently, John Piper has given a similar assessment.
Despite the tragic course and sad end of his life, his hymns are given an important place in evangelical Christian hymnody. Six are included Trinity Hymnal. Just yesterday I sang with God’s people Jesus, Where’er Thy People Meet. Moreover, he is an object of sympathy, even of admiration, because of his affliction. He is sometimes held before depressed Christians, if not as an encouragement (how could a man with his end encourage) at least as a fellow sufferer.
Contrast that with Nevin. Several years ago, I wrote a review of a fine modern biography of this German Reformed theologian. It was not published by the media outlet to which it was initially submitted. (Happily it was published in Modern Reformation.) One of the reasons I was given for the review not being used was that it was not desired to call attention to him. And one of the reasons for not doing so was that he had been suicidal.
What? We sing despairing, suicidal Cowper but we suppress Nevin? I wonder why? Well, Nevin was not a poet, and he did not have a friend like John Newton. But, I think there is more. Cowper was a friend of Calvinist experientialism and Nevin was not. Nevin wrote The Anxious Bench while Cowper wrote O, For a Closer Walk with God.
Of course, the Curmudgeon’s point has less to do with Christian counseling than with experimental Calvinism. But he does point to another facet of the echo chamber affect that afflicts evangelicalism and its Reformed friends. And this affliction extends to Christian counseling. Even when we know that pastors and elders are supposed to be delivering pastoral oversight, which includes counseling of a basic kind, and even though we gladly receive the care of non-Christian specialists when it comes to a variety of human ailments, we generally refuse to subject Christian counseling to tough questions. The reason is that their models of human flourishing appear to point to a form of Christian piety that fits the conversionist ideal of a spiritual reorientation that radically changes a person’s entire being — from psychological make-up and worldview to plumbing.