Returning to School
Recently, I went back to school. I finished an old psychology degree. Then entered graduate school for Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I have loved every minute of the experience. I’m a little nerdy about learning—I can’t get enough. If I could be a professional student I think I would.
Nevertheless, along the way I discovered the mental health field isn’t respected by some. I’m not okay with that per se. But fortunately, I have recovered enough of myself to be at peace. I know there will always be people who do not like me or respect me.
Regardless, I may never be able to understand why some Christians, even whole groups/denominations, reject therapy. They do not view it as a legitimate science. This baffles me. Considering there is a host of research showing its scientific merit and how it improves quality of life in a variety of ways, one might assume this stigma would have faded into historical stories. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Instead, too many Christians regard accessing mental health counseling as a weakness. It makes me feel very sad—especially, for the people who need it within those groups.
The Chasm & Religious Guilt
Decades ago when I was in undergrad for the first time, I studied psychology. It was during the late 80’s and early 90’s. Back then it seemed like there was a chasm between psychology and Christianity. As a Christian, I felt like I was betraying my faith with aspirations of becoming a professional counselor. I had plenty of religious guilt over my academic interest. Furthermore, my faith heritage taught me that pastors and the Lord, Himself, through his Word, his Holy Spirit, or his people were the only acceptable and reliable resources for guidance.
After I experienced a traumatic event in college I found myself embroiled in significant internal cognitive dissonance. I couldn’t reconcile what happened to me with my theology. So, I reframed the story of my trauma in a way that preserved my religious beliefs. But, that just further harmed me. It didn’t work like I thought it would. Yet, I lived in that reframing for 28 years. I couldn’t resolve it on my own. I needed professional help to confront it—to be honest with myself and God.
I didn’t get that help. My fear overpowered my need. Therapy, or the idea of it in my head, threatened my faith and I couldn’t handle it. So, I made it the bad guy. Faith had saved me in childhood—it had to be the good guy. At all cost, I needed to preserve my loyalty to my religion and my church. No one in my faith tradition told me it was okay to need, much less get, outside help.
It All Belongs to God
Rather, I was told everything I needed would be met in God—the interpretation was God isn’t with those people who offer professional help outside of church. This belief is no different from the belief that drives some religions that refuse medical care in lieu of prayer. Few reasonable people of faith accept the rejection of medical care. Yet, many still preserve the rejection of scientifically based mental health care. It’s a nonsense dichotomy.
It’s an appalling fallacy made all the more apparent when I consider Psalm 24 which declares that the earth is God’s and everything in it. Furthermore it makes no sense to believe that God created humanity if I am to attach to that belief another one which tells me certain parts of his creation are to be loved while others are to be rejected. Surely, the Lord in all his goodness understood his own creation and from the beginning wanted more for us than we could want for ourselves. It seems he has suffered the misunderstanding of many of us–not the least of which has been me.
Changing My Life
For 28 years I lived in emotional pain clinging to a faulty belief system about God and about mental health care. When my inner life began to unravel from pressures connected to my career in ministry I knew I had to take the risk and get help. One thing was very clear to me. That help had to come from outside the church. By this time in my life, my inner world was in a desperate shambles—not by doctrinal standards but, certainly in reference to goodness I was made to experience. I knew I needed help. Things had gotten bad enough for me that I didn’t care what anyone else thought about it. Getting help was one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. It changed my life.
I found an excellent primary therapist. She referred me to an equally excellent trauma therapist. With the two of them I began the process of integrating the jagged fragments of my personal story. For the first time, I labeled abuse—abuse, instead of making a million excuses for people who hurt me. Someone heard my story and named my painful experiences for what they were. And, that made it possible for me too. In many ways, it was a relief. Consequently, I warred with the old internal belief system that protected abusers and left me wrecked, broken, and hurting. It was painful. It was necessary.
Recovering My True Self
The truth is powerful. It transforms. It really does set you free. I think it was designed for freedom–to point us to ourselves. Last year at a training event I heard a speaker say, “God is more interested in you getting you than in you getting him because he knows if you get you, you’ll want him.” This sentence helped me see God in a new way. He wasn’t trying to separate me from my self, he was trying to take me there.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and followed him. In the process, I reaped profound benefits from recovering my true self. I learned how to be honest with me and with God. I found freedom. My desire to learn more and to help others reawakened and I re-entered the field of psychology where I discovered a lot had changed—especially concerning conversations being had about faith and psychology.
The Conversation Changed
Finally, religious academics had begun to see God as the source of discoveries about the mind, the body, and the spirit. Instead of compartmentalizing these parts of humanity, there were exciting conversations centered on wholeness. Rather than remaining at odds with science, religious academics were discussing interdisciplinary integration. If you’re interested in catching up on this conversation a great place to start is with the book, Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity by David Entwistle.
Reduce The Stigma
It’s time we Christians at large engage conversation about the benefits of therapy and reduce religious stigma—especially among our more conservative groups. Treating the access of professional counseling like a weakness is as illogical as labeling medical health unnecessary or weak. I think everyone would benefit from therapy. We need to care for our minds and our psyche as readily as we care for our spirits and our bodies. Together, let’s improve the issue with education and help limit the stigma!
Entwistle, David N. Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity: an Introduction to Worldview Issues, Philosophical Foundations, and Models of Integration. Cascade Books, 2015.