If you know people in your social circles who are struggling with doubt, you suspect that sometimes, no amount of reasoning is sufficient because their objections and questions are maybe primarily emotional rather than intellectual. I had an opportunity to interview a Christian counsellor/pastor on this issue.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hi everyone! My name is Thaleia (THAY lee ah) – it rhymes with Australia! In Hebrew my name means “potential” and in Greek “Thalia” is one of the daughters of Zeus. However, I am neither Hebrew nor Greek – my parents simply liked the name. I grew up in North Vancouver and moved to Abbotsford with my husband Mark in 1996. We settled at Northview Community Church shortly after moving to Abbotsford and we have enjoyed volunteering in many ways throughout our time here.
I have my Masters Degree in Counselling Psychology. I have enjoyed working in a variety of areas including mental health, addictions, career counselling, and marriage counselling. I even did an internship at the maximum security prison here in Abbotsford for my counselling degree. I have lots of interesting stories from that experience! Currently, I am serving on staff here at Northview Community Church in Abbotsford as a Pastor in the Care Department. I use my counselling training to work with a lot of “muck.” “Muck” is my word for anything that is difficult, confusing, painful, and challenging. Churches are not immune from “muck” and so I have plenty to keep myself busy.
So, you are a trained counsellor. For some Christians, the word “psychology” alone brings up their defenses. Why do you think that is? And how does psychology and spirituality intersect for you?
It’s true – many Christians are skeptical when it comes to the field of psychology. Some regard psychology as an airy-fairy/hocus-pocus kind of practice, and some completely disregard psychology since they see it as a secular field of study that is contradictory to the truth of the Bible. I promote a different view of psychology. Since psychology is a study of the mind and behaviour, who is able to understand our minds and behaviour better than God? He is the best and original Psychologist. It is He that understands our minds, behaviour and even the hidden motives of our hearts. In Psalm 139:1-4 we read, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.”
My view, and that of many Christian counsellors, is that we use psychology as a tool, but we do not view it as absolute truth. The Bible, God’s word, is absolute truth. Psychology is a field of study that can lead to a deeper understanding of the people God created. There can be genuine Christian counselling that is Biblical and also uses psychological theories and practices. If well-trained Christian counsellors are able to integrate their faith with their education, they can remain faithful to biblical standards but also use to their advantage the science of psychology.
As we engage non-believers, we often come across those who struggle with emotional barriers. How would you reach out to them?
It’s true, when people are hurting physically and/or emotionally, they generally cannot think rationally, logically, or academically about God. Often, their first need is to deal with their pain. We understand this in the case of physical pain. For example, someone with a migraine headache needs medication and rest before they can engage in any rational discussion about the Bible. The same applies quite often to emotional pain. Before a person can process truths about God, they need someone to spend time understanding their emotional pain. When I meet with people here in the office, I often spend the first 45 minutes or so of a one-hour session trying to understand that person’s point of view. I ask good questions. I make a lot of truly empathetic statements (i.e. “That sounds really tough” or “That sounds very painful”). I continually clarify the issue so that they know I really understand their current struggle. Only when the person feels fully understood will they be able to hear anything I have to say. I would imagine that the same would apply in the field of Apologetics. People will probably be more willing to dialogue about the deeper questions of faith and life after their own perspective has been clearly understood. This takes a lot of time and intentional engagement with people, but I believe it is very important.
What kinds of questions do you ask? What are you looking for as you ask them?
When I meet with someone, I often do not know them as a person (their personality, their history, their life in general) and I usually don’t know very much about the “muck” they are struggling with. I start with general questions, leading to more specific questions until the client and I both feel that we have a good understanding of the particular challenge we are working on.
I start by asking basic questions:
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Are you single? Married? Divorced? Kids or no kids? Student or working or both? What do you like to do for fun? What role do God and church play in your life?
Then I ask questions to gain a better understanding of the particular concern or challenge they want to address. For example: What brings you in today? How long has this been a struggle? How does this affect your life? What have done about this issue in the past?
And in all cases I want to understand how the person is coping physically, mentally, and spiritually. I would ask them: How are you eating or sleeping? Are you on medications? What is your support system like? Does it include family, friends, another counsellor/psychologist/doctor, and/or Bible study group? Do you have activities that re-energize you?
Meanwhile, in the privacy of my head, I am praying that God will give me wisdom for this situation and this person. Which issue should I address today? Which issue should I leave for another day? What resources should I direct them to? A medical doctor? Another counsellor in the community? Another Elder or Pastor, or program, or book/DVD/podcast?
For some believers who are struggling with emotional doubt, no amount of answers seem sufficient. How would you help them along?
Again, very true. Some people seem to be a pit of never-ending doubt or questions or resistance to the truth of God’s word. There is a difference however, between believers and unbelievers.
For unbelievers, we pray continually that God will open their minds and hearts to the truth of his word. Only when this “veil” has been lifted will they be able to understand the truth of the Gospel as presented in the Bible. “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world (Satan) has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Corinthians 4: 3,4) So we pray for them, and take every opportunity to care for them in their struggles and present the truth of God where appropriate. But we must remember that we cannot save anyone, that is God’s job. His timing may not be our timing, and His process may not be our process.
Believers are different. Believers have God the Holy Spirit inside them as their Helper, Guide and Counsellor, as Jesus said in John 14:15-17 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” So we encourage believers to continually ask God for his help through the power of the Holy Spirit to deal with issues like understanding the Bible, dealing with doubt, emotional struggles, battles with sin and every other kind of “muck.” I often remind people that we are all “in process” like the popular saying from when I was younger: “Be patient, God’s not finished with me yet!”