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How Do We Know What To Believe?
I think you need more than biblical counseling,' a pastor recently told a troubled young woman. 'Your problem seems far too deep for what I can offer you. In my opinion, you need to see a professional counselor who can get all the way down to the buried emotional roots of your difficulties.'
The pastor then referred his client to a licensed psychologist who practices primal therapy, an approach to helping that claims to deal with deep issues through emotionally re-experiencing the forgotten traumas of childhood.
Another pastor referred a depressed husband, whose wife had rejected him, to a 'rage-reduction' therapist. The pastor assumed from his limited knowledge of psychiatric theory that churning anger was beneath the man's depression and that counseling to reduce rage would therefore be helpful.
After several group sessions of rage-reduction treatment, the husband reported not only a new awareness of previously hidden anger but a new ability to openly (and sometimes crudely) express it to others. His depression lifted.
Another counselor offers his clients something he calls 're-parenting' therapy in which he frankly encourages them to become fully dependent on him as he assumes the role of a warm parent. The idea is that when people can relax in someone's love to the point where they feel comfortable with themselves and unthreatened by others, they will find the strength to meet life's challenges. His appointment book is filled with hurting people who want to be re-parented.
How do we evaluate the dozens of approaches designed to help people solve their problems and live more effectively? There are family systems therapy, gestalt treatment, rational-emotive therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, implosion procedures, dynamic psychotherapy, Adlerian counseling, nouthetic counseling, spiritual deliverance, love therapy, encounter groups, directive therapy, reality therapy---the list could continue.
Both the secular and the Christian communities are overrun with ideas about growth and wholeness. Each claims validity as an explanation for how people function, why problems develop, and how change can occur. If we are to move about with any sense of clear direction in this raging sea of competing ideas, we must figure out a strategy for deciding what to believe. We want to know not only what will work, but as Christians we want to know what is true and right.
Our decision to accept a model of counseling should be based on more than the observed effects of the model. We must first concern ourselves with which ideas are true and which ones move people in directions that ultimately are good. Effectiveness is an important issue to be addressed, but only after we deal with accuracy and rightness. Yet how do we determine what is true, right, and effective?
Scientists work with different standards than the average person in deciding which ideas they will accept. In professional journals, psychologists must demonstrate research support for the ideas they advance. The more rigorous the research, the more credible the conclusions. In its effort to establish itself as a science, psychology has for more than half a century relied on an empirical approach to finding truth: just the facts---the observable, brute facts; if the data do not support the theory, throw out the theory.
But over the years, psychology---especially the applied areas of counseling and psychotherapy---has often granted a respectful hearing to experienced, able thinkers who have reflected on what they have seen in their consulting offices as their basis for developing coherent theoretical systems. Theories like those advanced by psychoanalysts such as Freud, Adler, and Jung, and more recently by psychologists such as Ellis, Perls, and Maslow, have little support in tightly designed research investigations, but they provide appealing explanations of human behavior and apparently useful directions for helping people. It is fair to say, therefore, that extensive experience with people coupled with insightful reasoning is regarded by many as a legitimate route to truth.
Occasionally a notion will seem to burst out of a creative mind without the support of either observed data or careful reflection, and people will uncritically swarm to it. Somehow the idea just 'seems right.' It fits. It feels good and it does something for people that apparently (and sometimes dramatically) helps. Werner Erhard's est or some of the meditation techniques might fall into this category. No one involved with the idea asks for proof; evidence seems quite unnecessary. People just give themselves to it because it seems right intuitively.
Christian counselors approach the matter of deciding what to believe very differently. Some depend on research support or clinical experience or tightly knit logic to defend their preferred hypotheses, but many appeal directly to the Scriptures to evaluate their ideas. They claim validity for viewpoints if they are taught in the Bible, and they reject ideas that the Bible contradicts.
The Christian woman I mentioned earlier eventually questioned whether the practices of her primal therapist were biblical. 'Is it right,' she asked, 'to go back to earlier pain and learn to fully re-experience it? Isn't that focus out of line with the biblical view of 'forgetting those things which are behind'?'
When the woman asked the therapist about her concerns, he responded without ever looking at the text his client was quoting to determine whether his treatment violated any of Paul's inspired teaching. His defense included a convincing appeal to (1) neurological studies on the brain's capacity to store repressed emotions; (2) the theory behind primal therapy which teaches that undischarged earlier feelings can interfere with present, normal functioning; and (3) his experiences with scores of people unhelped by pastoral counseling who reported real improvement through his methods.