THE BLOG

But Aren't You a Christian Counselor?

04/28/2013 10:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2013
Alamy

"My son, he goes to a Christian university, and we just found out last night...he's struggling with homosexuality. Can you help him?"

That's a verbatim quote from a worried mother who contacted my counseling practice last fall. I get a handful of calls like this every year. I recall them vividly because, among other reasons, the parents are usually so sincere. It's something that always sticks with me as one who gave his own parents much grief.

I didn't end up seeing this woman's son. We talked a bit more, and I could hear in her voice she wanted something I couldn't provide. "But your practice is Christian, right?" I told her what I tell everyone. "I am a Christian," I said, and rattled off some orthodoxy, "but if your son comes in and tells me he is gay, I wouldn't have any reason to disbelieve him. It wouldn't be my approach to try to change that."

She went on to investigate whether I think homosexuality is a sin and whether I'd be incorporating Scripture into my approach with her son. I answered her questions faithfully, and then made a referral to a practice across town more suited to her desires. I felt sad when I hung up, because I'm certain I'd have liked her son from the way she described him.

So far as I can tell, there's only one reason many Christians think counseling sessions with homosexuals must include efforts to reorient. It really has precious little to do with one's conception of homosexuality.

In principle, it's because they have a flawed understanding of the precise nature of counseling, and certainly, counseling undertaken by and from Christians. To many, counseling involves meeting with a soothsayer who looks into his psychological and spiritual crystal ball, then tells you what you're doing wrong and what you're supposed to do to fix it. It's a remarkably non-Christian idea, actually.

The word most commonly translated counsel in the Old Testament is the Hebrew term Ya`ats, usually denoting consulting, devising, or guiding, generally by those appointed to advise kings on strategic war and political undertakings. My favorite use of Ya`ats is in the Psalms, when David says he will "bless the Lord, who has given [him] counsel." An unknown Psalmist even wrote that the words of God are themselves counselors. Christians understand Isaiah to have been prophetically referring to Jesus Christ as "Wonderful Counselor," and he later distinguishes God as such when he infers through a series of rhetorical questions that God himself needs no counselors.

In the New Testament, the Greek word 'parakletos' was used most significantly by John the disciple, and is defined similarly to its Old Testament counterpart -- assistance or support. Christ is referred to in this sense when He speaks to God the Father in our defense, and the Holy Spirit is referred to as "another paraclete."

The point of all this? Counselors work with and within the sentience of human beings, not against or in spite of it. Counseling is not about telling people what to do, even when you think you know, even when you think God told you so -- and apparently, even when you are God.

Neither is it about being valueless or opinionless, as if such a counselor could exist. This kind of counselor is pure fiction, a fantasy Hollywood creation with swanky leather furniture who says things like, "I don't know what I think. The real question is, what do you think?"...as if mentally ill people get well by simply being asked to introspect.

Fundamentalists of all religious, political, and cultural sorts help propagate this false idea. In their world, the only position a counselor could possibly hold is their own, or none at all. And since no one holds their positions as perfectly as they, the only safe route is a valueless counselor with clipped wings, who watches silently while clients suffer rather than hazarding feedback at the risk of offense.

No, counselors have opinions. But they aren't license to shove people around, to callously disregard other points of view, or to tell clients what to do. This is not the Scriptural model, which promotes supporting and guiding where you've been invited, not demeaning and demanding where you've not. And since my context differs from Scripture, even the support and guidance I provide is done with caution and tentativeness. Truth be told, I don't know what people ought to do, so it makes much more sense if I act as though that's the case. I can't tell you how many times I've been sitting across from clients and thought, "Hmm...You should really seek the help of a professional!"

But there's the rub. Many Christians, and perhaps most people, don't know your name, your age, your story, or anything else about you, but genuinely believe they know what you ought do. They have made themselves soothsayers at best, and gods at worst. "They have exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator."

And as inevitably happens when we become gods, we completely ignore how God actually functions. The counselor who embraces vulnerability and mutuality is able to enter with clients into a fellowship of brokenness from which healing is borne. The counselor who embraces power and knowing enjoys no fellowship at all.

This is not the way of Jesus.

Late Dutch-Catholic priest and Harvard Professor, Henri Nouwen, believed the way of Jesus is "...to enter into solidarity with those who suffer. Those who can sit in silence with their fellowman, not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart can break through paralyzing boundaries..."

This is what counseling homosexuals, and indeed, all people, must look like if I am to follow Jesus. I embrace my weakness, my unknowing, my lack of clarity, my poor insight into their experience, my insensitivity to their plight, my sinfulness, and ultimately, them. I refuse to put on the cloak of presumption and certainty, and reject the position of authority that is God's alone, which is not something to be grasped or used for the advancement of some ideology. You are right if you believe this view of counseling requires a certifiably weak view of God, because I am portraying God the Counselor as suffering participant and guide, rather than dictator.

In Western Christian culture, we are made to believe that God's love is scarce and fragile, and you must be strong and hostile to receive and hold onto it. In my counseling office, both for client and counselor, God's love is abundant and resilient, but you must be weak and foolish enough to embrace it.