Apart from the sacrificial figure on the cross and the blessed emptiness of the tomb, at present God is showing his love for me most in the office of a Christian clinical psychologist. It is only a transition time in my life, but the experience of relief and growing calm is so real that at least for now this statement is true.

I write in the full consciousness of the many other spiritual and physical blessings God has given me. My marriage, my children, my husband’s job, our home, are all part of God’s goodness. God is working in our church in fresh and fruitful ways. I find God’s love in depth in the freedom and acceptance of a psychologist’s office because I know that He could be saying instead, with the same perfect justification with which he always acts, “Shape up, child. Count your blessings. You already have far more than enough.”

I also write knowing full well that if I were a woman in a place like Burundi, a wife who had just felt the last embrace of a Christian husband taken from his home to execution, or a mother whose child had just been snatched from a Christian school and mutilated, my problems would melt in the intense heat of that fiery trial. We Christians in our Western affluence are subject to a different kind of trial—to the many faces of depression, to shadowy goals that defy attainment, to our general preoccupation with grasping at spiritual formulas to find fulfillment. How do we meet these trials?

Twice recently someone has said, “You don’t need a psychologist when you have the Bible.” I disagree. It may well be reading the Bible that shows a person his need for professional care. In verse after verse we are confronted with God’s standard, the awesome fact that we “should be holy and blameless before him.” How do we move forward to that standard? Some of us find ourselves faced with problems that block our growth in spite of prayer, Bible study, worship, and fellowship.

Satan has ways of insinuating himself into the lives of Christians to rob them of Jesus’ gift of peace and joy. Of course, multitudes of committed Christians have overcome simply in the light of God’s Word and the strength of his presence. But at the moment my vision is studded with the others, the others who are committed to Jesus Christ but for whom the battle is the reality—not the clean and strengthening battle of a healthy soul against the world, the flesh, and the devil, but the despairing conflict with an unknown enemy. Often for these Christians the message of the Bible, its beautiful insistence on the love of God, falls on deaf ears.

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Actually, many of the Christian psychiatrist or psychologist’s clients are troubled Christians from evangelical backgrounds to whom the Gospel has become bad news. Then the psychologist has the opportunity to work with God to “untie things that are now knotted together and tie up things that are still dangling loose” (C. S. Lewis’s description of our predicament). Christian psychologists acknowledge the reality of sin. We do them an injustice when we claim that they work hard to explain it away. We also do them an injustice to call them by the slang term “shrink,” or “head-shrinker”; for me, at least, the psychologist has been a welcome “head-spreader.”

I write all this for several reasons: first, because I believe many persons in conservative pews could use some straight talk from the satisfied customer of a good “head-spreader”; second, to try to help children of the Father recognize when they need professional help; third, so that my own experience might pave the way for others who need therapy and hesitate to seek it; fourth, in the hope that a Christian psychologist or two might be encouraged to continue in a life of personal integrity and biblically oriented counseling; and fifth, in the hope that we in the Body of Christ, members of one another, might reproduce in our churches something of that rare, accepting atmosphere of the therapist’s office.

Several years ago Dr. Donald Tweedie, a professor at the graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Seminary, suggested that professional care is in order when a problem is so persistent that one has been unable to overcome it with sustained effort. He used as an example a man who has determined to give his wife and family the kind, personal attention and concern he knows God wants him to give but who finds that despite his earnest resolve he just cannot produce anything but negative responses.

In my case the immediate problem was my inability to function compatibly with my husband in handling our children. Often I asked God to make me as good a partner to him in our day-to-day lives as I was in the satisfactions of our physical union. (Beware of automatically assuming a sexual problem when a person goes for professional care!) Like a receding wave on the shore, my husband’s patience grew justifiably thin, and then in God’s own time and way we located the right psychologist.

Good news! I found a freedom to air the problem in the presence of a skilled, accepting person. But even as this happened, a whole thicket of brambles revealed itself—alien roots in the soil of a heart essentially bent toward God. Among the thorns was a self-consciousness that dogged me in almost every relationship, including an inability to look non-Christians in the eye and witness lovingly and without embarrassment and confusion. Then too I had begun to experience a depression, a kind of paralysis in daily living.

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The handles of my problems were not hard to grasp. Together we found that I had unconsciously raised such rigidly high standards for myself and those I love most that I consciously majored in weaknesses. This led to nagging and preaching and that insidious kind of appreciation that responds only to good performance. Unnecessary feelings of guilt were there, too—not just a healthy sensitivity to sin, but self-imposed burdens. I had applied the old theologically sound “Fact, Faith, Feeling” formula to my personal walk with Jesus and then ruled out feelings. I needed a warm emotional experience with him that would be far better than my panic-prayers and the sporadic reality of his presence. As the kinks straighten I find my experience with God renewed. I’ve discovered how much he really loves me. I know him better.

How can others find the same kind of help on the road to emotional and spiritual maturity? No one would hesitate for a minute to make distinctions between effective and ineffective ministers, but we easily lump all psychologists together. That is a mistake. There are psychologists under the name Christian whose credentials are not trustworthy, or whose personal integrity or doctrinal stand is disappointing. There are good Christian men who have not been given adequate tools and skills in their graduate training; many a pastor and Christian physician have been discouraged by referring a person to one of these. There are dedicated non-Christian psychologists who can provide significant help along the road to emotional health but who cannot help to smooth the path to spiritual maturity. And then there are some with adequate training whose chief desire is to serve God and help people, and who sensitively seek to bring it all under the limits and freedoms of their personal experience of Jesus Christ. But there are too few of these, not nearly enough to go around. So there are many among us in the Body of Christ who need but may never have an opportunity to share my rich experience of elusive problems aired and answers found in a professional setting.

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Many Christians are very tentative about therapy because they sense risks. There may be risks. Susan B. Strachan, the wife of the founder of the Latin America Mission, wrote a little pamphlet based on an old quotation she had found: “Life is only safe when it swings between a risk and an opportunity.” She did not know its original context, so we can borrow the quotation for our purposes. She wrote:

Does not the risk always wait on the opportunity, and is not the opportunity that is worthwhile ever attended by risks? We think it must be so, and the life that is worth living, the abundant life, the productive life, the life that blazes new trails, must always swing out into the unknown and take huge risks with God.

Taken in this spirit, therapy can be a major boost to the kind of life of which Mrs. Strachan speaks. But too many of us settle for the problem for fear of taking a risk in the effort to solve it.

I see two risks in therapy that lie in the introspection, the keen involvement with feelings, that accompany it. The first is that one can almost create another world, where the reality is the counselor’s hour and much of the rest of the week is filled with thoughts about past or future sessions. Often when problems are deep, progress may not be observable. Problems that have taken a long time to come can take a long time to go. Depression may increase for a while. The client does not always leave the therapy session with a sense of well-being. But I encourage any Christian who is involved in therapy to try actively to remember God’s love and acceptance at every level and his eager desire to be a conscious part of the healing process.

A second risk is that the same inward concentration can cause us to put aside the burning reality of a decaying world, a world whose problems are so immense that most of us tend to see them as unsolvable and ourselves as helpless. It is not unhealthy to look past our own troubles to the far greater ones of others.

There is the additional risk of what the psychologists call “transference,” when this accepting listener, this psychologist who with great sensitivity and gentleness allows us to see ourselves, begins to fill a role in our lives that at best can be only temporary and at worst can rob us of the health we are seeking. The good counselor maintains the balance between being involved and being impersonal.

All these risks have been involved in my time with the counselor. On the other hand, the psychologist too lives with risk. I think it possible for the Christian psychologist to become so immersed in his own private harvest field that his vision for the whole world is slight. In finding a large measure of wholeness for himself, a counselor can find himself without that longing after God that often comes with a sense of need. It would seem folly for him not to enter privately into active partnership with God in the therapeutic process. Certainly many times the roots of a problem lie in a twisted Christianity that won’t permit the counselor to talk about God in the counseling situation itself. But the counselor seeks to know a person already fully known by God. He seeks solutions God has already found.

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Because of the scarcity of capable therapists, and because of risks, and often because of lack of funds, there are members of the Body who need other help. I want my brothers and sisters in Christ who are hurting to be able to experience this same atmosphere of freedom and acceptance, to breathe the sweet air that is free of judgment and criticism. What would God have us do?

A good start is to imitate the love of Jesus, the love that led him to die for us while we were yet unfriendly, cold, critical, sour, and full of pride. What about the man who approaches you on your way into the sanctuary? Could you love him more if he spoke a little less effusively, if he were a few shades lighter, or if you could only forget the rumor that he stepped out on his wife? What about that woman toward whom you are being ushered into the pew? Is she acceptable to you? Or could you love her more if she sang a little less enthusiastically, or if her wig were a little less obvious, or if you could only forget that she had recently begun speaking in tongues?

And those you love the most—are they absolutely free in your presence to be who they really are? Are they free to share without inviting a sermonette? Are friends free to cry in your presence with frustration or heartbreak in the comfort of unembarrassed silence? Are you willing to choke back the pat answers in the face of tragedy and enter the struggle with quiet compassion? Or are you afraid even to be in the presence of someone who is deeply troubled? Are you open to love strangers and to break your own comfortable molds in order to accommodate them?

Sometimes those of us who are undergoing professional care forget that God has the answers and that the psychologist is just one of the different members of the Body whom God uses. I am deeply thankful for a husband who seeks God’s best for me. Our worship service is a very crucial hour in my life. I am grateful for answers from my own family and from a few close friends in the larger family of God. As the Holy Spirit moves us toward one another, with our various gifts, we fulfill one another so that Jesus can be seen. And when because of circumstances he is not allowed to do his fulfilling work, when for some reason he cannot for lack of open channels, then I am grateful for the work of his particular servant, the dedicated psychologist.

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