- Written by Margaret Bernhart
Christianity Today talked with Dr. Larry Crabb–well known author and speaker–about Christian counseling.
CT: What’s the first thing you would suggest to Christians who want to become counselors?
CRABB: The first thing I’d suggest is that they ask themselves what they fundamentally believe about the root purpose of counseling. What are they trying to accomplish when they sit down with a client who is anorexic, in a bad marriage or whatever. What’s their root thinking when trying to get a girl to start eating again or a marriage straightened out. All are worthy ambitions, but they must be secondary.
Our highest purpose as human beings isn’t to try to make this life work. It’s to reflect the character of God–of our Creator, Savior and Lord–in the middle of a life that doesn’t work. About the first thing Cain did after God judged him and told him he was going to wander around the rest of his life was to build a city. The implication was–forget this wandering stuff, I’m going to build myself a city and make my life work. God says in Hebrews that he’s ashamed to be called the God of a people who are looking for a better city than the one they’ll ultimately have in heaven.
CT: Is it wrong for Christian counselors to ask God to take away the pain in their clients’ lives?
CRABB: The Bible says our primary focus is to glorify God. If you have any compassion at all for your fellow man, of course you want to relieve the pain. But there’s a danger that god will become someone to be used rather than Someone to worship. He becomes useful for putting your life together–the way you want it. The tricky thing is, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your life put together. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a good marriage, enjoying your kids and managing your money in a faithful way.
But contemporary Christians seem to have the assumption that the Bible reveals an orderliness to this world that you can tap into to make things happen the way you want. That’s not true. There was order in the world God created–and then we sinned. We turned from the order God created to a chaos of our own making. There is chaos in the world now. And in the midst of the chaos, you have to look for Somebody to trust–not somebody to manage.
CT: So the primary goal of Christian counselors should be to point people to God Himself?
CRABB: Yes. Counseling is ultimately nothing more than one facet of sanctification–so counseling theory needs to be rooted in a biblical theology of sanctification. And the purpose of sanctification is not to get over your problems, but to reflect God in the middle of them.
CT: With the goal of learning to identify with people in their pain and redirect them to the Lord, what should a graduate student look for in a plan of study?
CRABB: A broad category comes to mind–one that deals with the “doctrine of man.” What does it mean to bear the image of God? And what has gone wrong? There are essentially three positions to choose from. The first says that fundamentally people just need to be loved. That’s because we’ve all been raised in dysfunctional backgrounds, we’re chained and the real problem behind all our current difficulties is a bad self-image. In this way of thinking, a counselor is all about affirming–and Jesus becomes just a richer opportunity for affirmation. I think this is disastrous. It leads to narcissism.
The other extreme is legalistic and fundamentalistic. This says that what’s wrong with people is that they don’t do the right things. It says just do what God tells you to do and you’ll be free of the things that hold you back It seems to me that in this scenario one of two things happens. Either you get successful and proud or you get defeated and discouraged. Neither of these options will land you on holy ground.
The middle ground is to recognize that sin is the root problem–not shame or wounds or hurt or damage. But sin is nor merely its behavioral manifestations. Rather it’s something we find in the human personality which makes us long for temporal solutions more than we long for our Maker, the eternal God. So it is our passions that have gotten all mixed up. Oswald Chambers said it well. He said the root of all sin is the suspicion that God isn’t good. That’s my theology about what’s wrong with people. We have lost confidence in God’s goodness and as a result have tried to take over our own lives. We have a passion against God and a passion for control.
CT: What else would you look for in a candidate for a counseling program?
CRABB: Three things. Personal integrity–a commitment to pretend about nothing. I’m not going to pretend I’m more than I am. I’m not looking for bad things, I’m just open to what is true.” Openness–tempered with wisdom. We aren’t talking about indiscriminate openness, but some commitment to a community of fellow strugglers is crucial to becoming a good counselor. Verbal ability–the gift of being able to talk to others in a way they can hear. I would hold up these three qualities as yardsticks for myself before I went into the field.
CT: How strong is the burn-out factor in counseling?
CRABB: Not many people last as counselors full-time for a lifetime–a thirty-year career of thirty clients a week. Most diversify after some years. Stress is a significant hazard of the job. When you counsel the way the Lord would want us to, you are passionately involved with people–it’s not just clinical thing. You are addressing issues in other people’s souls that have not been addressed in your own. Life has to be thought of as one big story. When I’m talking to someone about his or her story, it is parallel to mine in a deep way. The result is that I’m forced to look at my own story all the time. It’s not that I am a healer who fixes people–rather I’m a fellow struggler hoping to join others in the pursuit of God. When you are able to do this, you can grow and last in the people ministry of professional counseling.
Dr. Lawrence J. Crabb has been a licensed psychologist for 27 years. He is currently professor in graduate biblical counseling and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Colorado Christian University. Larry has authored over fourteen books, including The Marriage Builder, Basic Principals of Biblical Counseling, Understanding People, and Connecting: A Radical New Vision.
Used with permission from Christianity Today, 1993