Christian Community and Psychology

I find myself sitting in a chair with a group of people facing me. They’re not doing anything but waiting for me to speak. They’re listening. Is this just like a counselling session? Not quite. In a counselling session, you inevitably feel as though your counsellor or psychologist is detached from you. You’re his client and he or she is paid to do this. In fact, you almost feel as though there is some condescension like he has somehow gotten it all together and you haven’t. That’s why you’re sitting on this chair and not on the other side. That’s not to say that all counselling or psychology is bad, I’m sure it has its place in society and perhaps even in the church. But what is the difference between seeing a counsellor/psychologist and seeking direction within a Christian community?

I think first and foremost, the Christian community recognizes that they gather not in their own name but only in the name of Jesus. The gathering of Christians does not begin with their initiation as though they’re somehow drawn to one another apart from Christ. It is Christ who brings both the zealot and the tax collector together. The implication of this far exceeds what appears on the surface. It means that when Christians gather, they gather knowing that they are equally undeserving of grace and mercy. Neither is better than the other. But this recognition in turn ought to mend our horizontal relationships for we begin to realize that the person who is in need of ‘direction’ is only in need of it as much as we ourselves are. Perhaps this is the reason why the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasizes the need to confess sin within community. For to him, the confession of sin is to “break through to the genuine community of the cross of Jesus Christ; in confession, we affirm our cross.”[1]

If this is true, then the sad reality is that as useful as psychology or counselling is, it will almost always create a chasm between therapist and patient. To the therapist or counsellor, you will almost always be the patient. But in Christian community, the roles may be reversed. Such can be seen in group spiritual direction where each member rotates and take turns to be directee and director. The only prerequisite is that both live their lives “beneath the cross of Jesus.”[2] At this point, some may say that the role of a psychologist/counsellor can be reversed too on the basis that both are psychologists or counsellors. There is some validity to that. The question is, will counsellors and psychologists ever see themselves as broken people in need of counselling? This is a question that only they themselves may be qualified to answer. The Christian community on the other hand, regardless of role, and by this I mean regardless of whether they are a pastor, elder or deacon not only feels the need for direction but must continue to do so. For to think that one has arrived in his or her Christian journey is surely arrogant and naïve. So what is the difference between the Christian community and a psychologist/counsellor?

I think Bonhoeffer still says it best:

The most experienced judge of character knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beath the cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability and experience cannot comprehend this one thing: what sin is. Psychological wisdom knows what need and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the ungodliness of the human being. And so it also does not know that human beings are ruined only by their sin and are healed only by forgiveness. The Christian alone knows this. In the presence of a psychologist I can only be sick; in the presence of another Christian I can be a sinner. The psychologist must first search my heart, and yet can never probe its innermost recesses. Another Christian recognizes just this: here comes a sinner like myself, a godless person who wants to confess and longs for God’s forgiveness. The psychologist views me as if there were no God. Another believer views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the cross of Jesus Christ. When we are so pitiful and incapable of hearing the confession of one another, it is not due to a lack of psychological knowledge, but a lack of love for the crucified Jesus Christ.[3]

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together ; Prayerbook of the Bible, ed. Geffrey B Kelly, trans. Daniel W Bloesch and Burtness (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 111.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 115–116.


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