Regular readers of this blog will know that I believe that Christian counseling is not merely counseling done by Christians or merely the use of specific christian interventions. Rather, Christian counseling is founded on Christian/biblical ways of perceiving the world, the problems in it, and the goal of imaging Christ from start to finish.
However, it is good to think about the specific use of certain christian practices in counseling: meditation, prayer, bible reading and application, casting out demons, absolution, etc. How are we to think about these practices? Do they have a place in professional counseling? What are limits we ought to place on them? When should we refrain? How do we secure informed consent?
Elsewhere I have published on the guidelines we ought to consider when using Scripture in counseling. I will not repeat them here but for those who have not read that article, I do think Scripture is something that CAN be used in counseling–even OUGHT to at times. What is of more importance to me is HOW and WHEN and WHY.
Let me here consider the most commonly used practice: prayer. Here are some shaping values before we consider any practical application.
1. Prayer is talking and listening to God. It is not a technique and should not be treated as such. It is not magic. It is, from a Christian perspective, sharing one’s heart, praising, questioning, interacting with the Creator of the universe who remarkably wants to relate to me. At its heart prayer is submissive acknowledgment of God–even when praying like Job.
2. Prayer then needs to be a free act without trace of coercion. The one praying must not be coercive (you talk to God not at another person). The one being prayed for ought not feel obligated to say anything.
3. People have diverse (and not always happy) experiences regarding prayer, faith, relationship with God, etc. So, what is comforting to you may be triggering for another.
4. Prayer is intimate. Prayer often results in our setting aside defenses and becoming vulnerable and needy.
5. Prayer is power. Praying for someone gives the one praying a position of power.
So, how might a counselor consider these values and use prayer in counseling.
1. Assessment of client. What is my client’s faith tradition, experiences with prayer, history of abuse by leaders of the church, understanding of God? Have they ever felt coerced to pray, coerced by the prayers of others? Have they been publicly prayed against? Do they value prayer?
2. Assessment of self. Why am I praying for my clients (out loud)? What messages am I trying to communicate? What do my prayers reveal about my own faith?
3. Consent. Have I explained why I pray for my clients? Do they really have the right to say no?
4. Review. How are my prayers received? What impact, if any, do they have?
What does this look like for me? I don’t pray with every client. I don’t choose to start my sessions with prayer (at least the first one) until I have a better sense of my client’s experience with prayer. I work very hard not to use prayer as an effort to disarm (though I think it can do this) or to preach a message, but only to make supplication to God for healing, for care for the downtrodden. When I use imagery in prayer I make sure that it is grounded in common biblical images (God as shepherd, Christ as lamb, etc.). I never ask clients to pray but many of them choose to do so. And, I do let clients pray for me when they want to. It is part of how believers care for each other.
I do believe that prayer is extremely important but that I do not need to do it to be actively asking God for healing or guidance. I will say that when conflictual couples pray, they often find that it is hard to stay angry and embittered and pray. It can be helpful, either in reducing bitterness or by discussing bitterness and its impact.
It should not be used when clients do not want it, might be confused by it, or if it is not authentic to the counselor. It is considered good professional ethics to utilize resources from a client’s life. However, it would not be good to fake (e.g., my praying in a way that would please a member of a cult, an atheist praying as if he or she believed what she said, my talking to God even though I am no longer practicing as a Christian, etc.).