Getting Beyond Our Moral Shyness

A deafening silence came over the classroom as my professor announced the topic for the evening: The Role of Spiritual and Religious Values in Counseling. Miss Smith [not her real name], please share your comments with the rest of the class, the professor asked. I do not believe a Christian could ever be a professional counselor, the young woman blurted out emphatically. Christians would push their toxic faith positions on clients seeking help specially their views about homosexuality and abortion. The young woman went on to state that Christians should go into preaching, not counseling. She fashioned herself as being client-centered in her efforts and that Christians would be seen as faith-centered.

The professor, sensing the immediate tension and seasoned in Rogerian therapy turned to the class and simply asked, how do the rest of you feel? Dead silence followed. As a young graduate student, I was perplexed because there were significant issues to me. Could it be that because of my Christian beliefs I could not be a professional counselor? Spirituality and religious values have largely been ignored or dismissed in the mental health disciplines through the last few decades. People of faith (especially Christians) have been depicted as living in denial, caught up in mind control and manipulation, and broad brushed as extreme right-wing fanatics…fundamentalists who bomb abortion clinics! Interestingly, however, spirituality (in various forms) has recently become stylish, making room on the therapeutic couch for dialogue. The role and need for Christian counseling has never been more evident.

A Faith Gap: In a day characterized by isolation and disconnection, millions are desperately seeking relief and embarking on a search for the sacred in their lives.1 According to recent research data, 90% of Americans claim to believe in God, with 82% believing in an afterlife that includes heaven and hell, and 55% believing in the existence of Satan. In addition, 58% of the people attended some kind of religious services when they were growing up…services that presumably had some type of influence in their lives.2 In addition, a 1992 Gallup Poll showed a strong interest in spiritual and religious issues as it relates to counseling. Over 60% of the respondents said that if they needed mental health assistance, they wanted to see a provider who has spiritual beliefs and values. A whopping 80% would want to have their beliefs and values brought into the counseling process. In historic contrast stand the mental health disciplines with seemingly little religious preference or regard for religious and spiritual issues in counseling. For example, in one survey, only 33% of clinical psychologists described religious faith as the most significant factor in their lives, compared with 72% of the general population.

A more recent survey of counselors found that 64% do believe in a personal God, and 45% regularly participate in religious services. Still, most of us would agree that reconciling faith and practice goes much farther than basic beliefs and attendance at worship services. The exciting news is that mental health leaders are recognizing how spiritual values are Important components in the helping process and render the treatment process more effect have. Psychological, social, and political revolutions have not been able to transform the heart of darkness that lie deep in the breast of every human being, Dallas Willard writes. Amid a flood of self-fulfillment there is an epidemic of depression, suicide, personal emptiness, and escapism through drugs and alcohol, cultic obsession, consumerism, and sex and violence all combined with an inability to sustain deep and enduring personal relationships. So obviously the problem is a spiritual one. And so must be the cure. This transition appears to be related to our increased struggle with the overall role of values in counseling.

Values in Counseling: Values are best understood as personal beliefs about that which is true, good, right, or virtuous. Everyone has values. Without functioning values in life (and counseling) we would be aimless, without purpose or a moral compass of sorts. That’s why we develop laws and codes of ethics, which translate our values into human and social direct haves. Unfortunately, many are confused about how to develop and integrate a value system in the counseling office. There are social forces in and outside of the discipline that contribute to the confusion over values. At the social level, liberal philosophies of self-determination and rugged individualism generate the fear of moralizing or intruding into somebody else moral space, a fear shared by many psychotherapists. Given the state of affairs, many counselors and counselors-in-training are led to believe truth is obscure at best. As a result, relativism reigns when in reality, it cannot because every decision in life is value-laden. Counselors are caught between the emphasis on values and knowing what to do in the counseling office. Such incertitude, states Isaac Prilleltensky, characterizes post-modern psychology more than other paradigms, but no psychological approach is Immune to the prevalent sense of moral shyness.

The Myth of Value Free Counseling: The young woman in my class was working from the assumption that counseling can and should be value free. I later learned that it is neither possible nor desirable for counselors to be scrupulously neutral with respect to values in the helping process.10 No matter how or at what level the counselor is intervening, his or her values will have some kind of influence on the client.

Without question, what we believe influences what we see and do in counseling. The very nature of counseling and psychotherapy is intrinsically interwoven with and cannot be divorced from its moral, theological, and philosophical roots. The growing evidence that values permeate the therapy process and that a counselors values influence the issues, intervention, and goals of treatment only serve to remind us that our field is largely dependent upon the ethical strength of its practitioners. And as long as there are counselors and clients, there will be differences in values, which can lead to a breakdown in communication and conflict in the counseling office.

Know what you believe: Since the influencing of values is inevitable in the counseling office, counselors (Christian and non-Christian) need to identify their personal values, consider the therapeutic effect of those values, and determine if any of those values are barriers to their client’s desired goals. A major conflict of values will probably only occur rarely. During these times, a responsible counselor recognizes that the issue is not about values but rather the application of these values.

The following are some guidelines to observe:

Do not condone; do inform: Our respect has disciplines need men and women who pursue truth and are given to personal convictions. We must value truth and learn to express it through a variety of ways Scripture, stories, metaphors, history that inform clients toward appropriate goals. If we condone values contrary to our own, we may compromise our integrity, the profession, and the therapeutic relationship. This means that we cannot be all things to all people.

Do not impose; do disclose: In America, we value our freedom to worship and know God. As a result, professional counselors must always protect client’s rights to freedom of choice and informed consent. The rights, however, do not mean that we are banned from disclosing the attributes of Christ. Most clients can distinguish between the counselor who discloses subtle judgments, accompanied by pressures about religion and the counselor with whom they experience a relationship characterized by the Christ like qualities of grace, joy, and compassion.

Do not conceal; do reveal: To resolve some of the concerns about faith issues in therapy, we Christian counselors must be upfront in promotional materials, consent forms, and other means of describing the nature of our counsel. We must also carefully consider our counseling setting if we desire a therapeutic approach using the authority of God’s Word, the use of prayer, meditation, confession, forgiveness, worship, fasting and other spiritual interventions. Many hurting people are seeking counselors who will help them bring faith and life together. There is some evidence that Christian clients who are aligned with non-Christian therapists tend to respond poorly in therapy.11 In contrast, matching people of Christian faith with Christian counselors usually enhances clinical outcomes and client satisfaction with the helping process.

Discuss; refer; negotiate: An individual seeking treatment always deserves some type of help and assistance. When a conflict in values ars, discussing the problem directly with the client and renegotiating the counseling contract, if necessary, is the preferred action to maintain the therapeutic relationship.

If this does not work, ethically, we are called to make a sound referral that demonstrates a challenge toward truth and reflects compassion and sensitivity. Abandonment because of a conflict in values is always wrong in counseling. Although it takes honesty and courage for counselors to recognize how their values affect the way they practice, it takes wisdom to determine when they cannot work with a client because of a clash of values. Find a therapist to get solution of your problems.

The recent surge of interest in spirituality and religious issues in therapy is forcing us to more fully consider how God works in and through the human experience. And, the more I come to know Christ, the more I am amazed at the great hope, meaning, purpose, and value we have in him. He is truth! Because of his redemption have work in us, we can act as his agents of change in the lives of our clients.

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