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What's a christian therapist? ... And am I one? Part 2.

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

A christian therapist is a Christian who is a therapist.

Here, Christian means someone who in their experience relates themselves to some or many christian traditions. This means that:

Christian therapy is the therapy done by a christian who is a therapist.

So, by these definitions, yes, I am a christian therapist. Fortunately or not. But, the point of all this is not to work out how to label myself (a label I will always feel ambivalent about), but that it makes us ask the, to my mind, far more important, poignant, and perhaps real questions going through someone's head as they ask the question, ‘What’s a Christian therapist?’:

'What’s the therapist’s christianity? What’s their faith? What’s their tradition and lineage regarding the sacred? What’s their relationship with that tradition now? And how does all that influence, impinge on, motivate, nourish, sabotage and ground their work, or, more accurately, how they approach and relate to someone who comes to them with struggles in living?’

In this blog, I’ll start to answer this for myself, at least as I’ve come to understand my ever evolving self.

Mechanic, Missionary or Wounded Healer?

When we describe the work of therapy, we often think of some mental health problem and doing something to make that better. This makes the therapist a mechanic working on some broken machine, the client. The problem is that clients are not machines; they are people. If we dare try to ‘fix’ them, we are likely to either do more damage or, preferably, they’ll resist.

Resistance in therapy has been long-discussed, often - at least at first - in a way that made the client the problem. We, the mechanic or doctors, knew best: we knew the truth about things; we knew how things worked and what was broken; we knew what they needed to do. But resistance isn’t always, or even often, problematic: it’s often a client saying, ‘I’m a person not a machine.’

So, clients insist - quite rightly - that we relate to them as people. This resonates well with christian tradition. The personhood, the ‘divine-likeness’ and thus dignity of each human, is found in many christian traditions. However, part of the traditions I grew up in also emphasized that humans were not only dignified but that this intrinsic value was deformed by something we called sin. It wasn’t always clear what this sin was. It seemed a bit like sticky black tar that somehow, just because we were humans, stuck to our bodies and souls. More, it was powerful. It made us do things, not do things, think things, feel things. It made us go against what was ‘right’, against how we were ‘made to be’. It made us self-sabotaging, aggressive, relationally divisive and perverse. It led to our mental health issues, as well as all societal, relational and personal problems (as well as, mysteriously, the devastations we experience from the chaos of nature). And, above all, it was tricksy: our sin made us unaware of the depths of our sin; it hid itself and made us helpless, pitiful liars and fools, yet also, somehow but significantly, guilty.

Now, that is a caricature of how sin was presented. But something like this caricature I found lurking in the background of my own beliefs about myself and others, perhaps because I learnt all this whilst young, unable to grapple with subtlety, nuance and ambivalence, and largely concerned with how to please the big people. And so it lingered and I arrived in training as a therapist with this notion of sin along with concomitant notions about how to then approach others who might be struggling.

The idea of sin (at least in some traditions) is often linked to other images around how to see ourselves (as christians, the saved) and others (perhaps non-christians, or perhaps those who are just struggling). Particularly powerful images are those of the christian missionary who had the truth to set the savages free as they selflessly went to foreign lands to preach the truth (an image that was particularly revered in my childhood experience); or of the minister who themselves, whilst having struggles naturally as they still contended with their own sin, had somehow reached a level of christian maturity that meant that they made their lives a service to teaching or helping others; or even the image I might have had of Christ who came down from heaven to rescue the lost and broken. All these were powerful forces in how I was approaching therapy. I suspect part of me wanted - and perhaps still does in a more nuanced way - this to be my mission and ministry.

But what they all do is make the therapist the expert, the rescuer, the powerful one, the one with the answers, that is, some super-human. We can mimic our idea of being christ, the saviour (who, helpfully for me, was also male and always pictured as white). And, the client, well, they get to be a person, but the sinful one: helpless, powerless, broken, deceived, not thinking straight, perhaps a bit evil, at least ignorant. And sooner or later, they will either learn from us that they are such - which isn’t exactly in Counselling 101 - or they will, again, resist.

Here, like before, resistance can be seen as symptomatic of the client’s problem, as much as resistance against the prescriptions or teaching of a minister or missionary (or just not getting any better) can be labeled as symptomatic of the person’s sin (and, it seems, often is, at least in how the individual experiences it). Alternatively, resistance might be a communication: ‘I’m not that bad! And you’re not that good!’

Now, the christian tradition I most felt I identified with had further powerful images that were often revered and that could counter this approach, this is the image of contrition and repentance. Now - and particular for a sensitive person - finding one’s acceptability through penitence is a peculiar, if not utterly poisonous, way of finding your place with the big people. Nevertheless, at least for me, mixed with a sufficient experience of love and grace, it was enough for me to realise the truth of how broken I was and tolerate that. Holding our own brokenness and value is an important journey, But, it meant that taking the role of the christian missionary or minister wasn’t something I could do with full self-credence. This disparity or incongruence (to use a Rogerian term) between what I felt I was being called to, or should be, or at least really wanted to be, and also my experience of myself in my more honest confessions, created a tension that, I suspect, many therapists need to resolve at some level.

The question, ‘How can I be a therapist and be broken?’ needs an answer. And it doesn’t just have religious force. Social, cultural and familial issues are as sizeable here. The question is not unrelated to: ‘How can I be a man and needy?’. ‘How can I be acceptable when I have all these parts of me that appear to be unacceptable?’, ‘How can I set myself up as someone who helps people if I need so much help myself?’, ‘Am I just being a hypocrite?’. If we identify too much with being the missionary or minister - or expert, therapist, helped, doctor, healer - then we will need to deny and push out of our awareness much more of our own neediness, brokenness, woundedness, or ‘sin’. This will often end up in blaming our clients. After all, we need them to hold all the sin, not us - at least in this domain.

Another way we might resolve the tension is to locate christ in the work. The work of being a therapist is somehow, magically, saving; it's like it is so beautiful it must be christ-like. I’ve been here too. Making therapy out to be some divine incarnation and salvation. The tendency towards this is probably linked to how much I’m feeling worthless, incompetent, useless and unwanted. How much I feel I cannot hold the missionary, minister, christ-like, potent, helping role. Instead, we can keep something of the divine image, of something good and healing, in our work. We might also locate christ in the client, which can seem even better, a way to mitigate against the dangers of being a missionary, and, in person-centred terms, respect the choice, power, or organismic tendency, of the client. The problem is that we haven’t resolved the tension within ourselves (and the client): we have just kept hold of our brokenness and abandoned our power. At its worst, we are needing the client to improve themselves - whilst we barely show up - in order to solve our own dilemma. The inevitable car-crash sessions lead to us wallowing further in our own inadequacy or turning quickly to judgement and criticism of the client (hopefully after the session!).

What we need is to locate personhood in the client and the therapist, where personhood means both the divine image and sin, or, alternatively, illness and health, powerlessness and power, woundedness and potentiality. This, I think, is what the image of the wounded healer tries to do (originally, I believe, a phrase of Jung’s, but perhaps more popularly taken up by Henri Nouwen’s book with this name). The idea here is that the power of the therapist lies in their own wounds. The salvific power of therapy, then, emerges when a client and therapist connect at their fundamental woundedness. It is here we find connection to the humanity of the other. It is here that our fundamental aloneness is somehow resolved (the therapist’s as much as the client’s): I can be wounded, broken, ‘sinful’ and still be acceptable, understandable, of value, human, in God’s image, loved. It is here the uncertainties, even terrors, in living find consolation for we face them with another. It’s like Christ is located in both the client and the therapist: Christ the human, incarnated, suffering, wounded, taking on our sin, cleansing, helpless, victim and rescuer, wounded and healer.

For me, I need such a wounded healer image if I am going to approach a client without inflicting the damage that the tension of self-incongruence always inflicts. For me, as my awareness of these images developed, I let go of some of what I thought I should be, some of the reverence I had towards these images, and probably towards my own desire to be a therapist. I started to look with a bit more of a squint at the ways I (and christians and anyone who seeks to help others can) relate and act. I find, now, I am far more sensitive to the potential for hurt when we think we’re doing good or when we think we're too bad. Equally, I find that such awareness has helped to underline the parts of christian traditions that excite, enliven and comfort me. These, I suspect, are the parts of christian traditions that have always brought me greatest relief, joy and meaning precisely because they let me experience more of my being, in all its ‘divinity’ and ‘sin’, with less anxiety - and, I hope, lets me experience more of another’s being, in all their complicated humanity, and meet them there.

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