Healing in Therapy: Love, Jesus, and Avoiding the Nonsense

Being a therapist is both better and worse than you’d think. On the better side, I can immediately engage with people on complicated concerns they have and make some sort of connection they might not have seen. On the worse side, many folks want an answer from the seer and/or a problem-they’ve-fixed instead of genuine healing. I’m going to spend most of this post talking about the worse side, though I’ll have a few other proposals jutted in there as well.

This attitude on “the worse side” seems to originate from any direction: the part of the therapist, the person seeking help, or both at the same time. I actually think there is something wrong with the overall “contract” that people believe in when they seek out a professional person to care. Therapists believe in it as well. Like many folks, a counselor may come to see their licenses or certifications or diplomas as proof that they are to be trusted with private information, vulnerability, etc. And many times people come to therapists precisely because of that. The problem is not that folks want some kind of reassurance, the problem is with who gets to decide what that looks like and who is qualified to serve or heal or listen.

A related problem in therapy has to do with the uneven relationship, which is almost always laden with power-over objectives. From the money (fee for a service) to the confidentiality (pretend you don’t know me in public) to the expertise (I can fix you). Therapists have replaced modern pastors and spiritual directors as the preferred choice for who to let in on your problems. Of course we could find good reasons to appreciate that change, such as the removal of certain types of religious superstition, but this new way also comes with a fee structure, expensive school loans, and a professional statewide board to oversee its healers. Plus, then, therapists also tend to believe in their own BS.

Us therapists apparently have no idea how to treat a person with Love, since Love has no place in a professional bylaw or training weekend. And despite the fact that many folks self-identify with problems of a spiritual nature, most of our training has nothing to do with that. So therapists feel inadequate and many pastors or lay people do not feel it’s their place to get involved. But a fluid and localized body of people who care about each other is often preferable to both professional counselors and clergy. Still, that ideal is hardly welcomed or enjoyed by practitioners or their “clients” on either side.

The biggest change I can see putting forth for conventional therapists would be to prioritize the poor by foregoing any fee structure. Make it a gift economy. In this way, it will resemble one of the positive aspects of Christian ministry (apart from the conferences and such) and, of course, be closer to the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples: “You received without paying; give without pay” (Matthew 10:8). Not everyone who receives assistance will be able or even willing to pay (and that should not determine what kind of healing they get). Others who see the value in what takes place should find a way to support it, even if they themselves do not directly benefit.

Another big change is to put the healing choices back with those in need and the Spirit who empowers. As a follower of Jesus, my singleminded goal is to love. But too much of professional counseling rhetoric is determined by subtle euphemisms; all of us need more than a “higher level of functioning” or “measurable goals” to truly experience grace. We should be wary of such pronouncements. So how then can I learn from Jesus’ loving action if I’m determined to follow “best practices” or simply work from the list of problems approved in the DSM?

I should now make it clear that the ideal, as I see it, is not to motivate a therapist to start their own private practice where there is less oversight or pressure from without on things like billing or a diagnostic “golden thread.” Even an apparently benevolent start-up is still an organized effort and can just as easily turn into a power-over relationship that patronizes, cheapens, and threatens genuine Love. Again, the question to be asked is how can we practice a love that heals when our heads are counting billable time or lusting after “observable changes”?

So should Christian radicals become therapists? Sure, but of a whole different sort. We sometimes get it backwards. Jesus healed and performed miracles and overturned tables as God’s Son, though some asked, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” The world seems to only want what it can manage and name. Isn’t it time to quietly walk away from this crowd? To resist their sloppy temptations and say, “True healing does not come from our own hands, but is a free gift.”

A lot of what I’m experiencing now as a therapist feels really good. And I hope to continue proclaiming Jesus’ liberty for a long time. But don’t let me fool you into thinking that the path toward integrity and wholeness is easy. I’m not there yet, and it has challenged many of my dormant assumptions about efficacy and strength. Still, the main reason to start is still good. I want to be like Jesus, to do it like he did and continues to do today. Meanwhile, I’m just trying to remember the old Stuart Smalley refrain: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it people like me.”