In case you haven’t seen it, Christianity Today recently published an essay entitled, “When Restoration Hurts: Christian counselors grapple with how to encourage reconciliation while protecting victims.” Not quite an expose, it does detail some of the damage done by biblical counselors pressing victims for forgiveness of and reconciliation with those who abused them.
The essay details some of the experience “Amanda” had, both when looking for help as a 17 year old after sexual abuse by her father had come to light and then later when she brought a complaint against the organization that had certified the counselor. The writer of the essay goes on to describe the landscape of biblical counseling, integrationist counseling, and a new version of Christian psychology before returning to the challenge of what Christian counseling care is available for victims and perpetrators. Of concern in this essay is how the biblical counseling group views the bible’s place in counseling victims of abuse.
Before I make my observations, which will only be a small portion of what could be discussed, I want to give some background. I was first trained by CCEF (mentioned in the article) and worked as a part-time counselor there. I still have many friends at that organization. I’m quite impressed with Darby Strickland’s teaching on abuse in families. I’m acquainted with ACBC (formerly NANC) and know many who have been certified by them. I got my psychological training at Wheaton College and there became good friends with Eric Johnson mentioned in the article and was present for the early days of the Christian Psychology movement. Then, I spent 18 years leading a MA counseling program at a seminary. While this background does not mean I am smarter than anyone else, I repeat here to say I know the people and the conversations well. Over the years I have listened to stories of pain and healing at the hands of counselors from all parts of the professional, biblical, and pastoral counseling worlds.
Here are some thoughts of mine about what problems lie behind the misapplication of spiritual principles in these cases of abuse.
Restoration over protection. When restoration is valued over protection, it can only be for the benefit of the one pressing for restoration. What benefit do they get? They get to feel that God is indeed in control. Why do you think that false prophets told the exiles in Babylon that in 2 years they would be back in the land? Was it to earn money? Doubtful. Was it to appear wise? Maybe. But, most of all, it was likely that in repeating this belief (based on knowledge that God would redeem) they could take comfort now rather than sit in the reality that life was broken and not likely going to be restored in their lifetime.
Misapprehending fruit of repentance. I’m going to skip over the large problem of counselors pressing for any change whatsoever. (Suffice it to say that pressing a client for forgiveness, confession, reconciliation, or any other action rarely works and more often causes harm. You cannot heal a trauma caused by misuse of power with more force–even if your goal is good.) One of the great mistakes counselors make is speaking as if they know the heart of another. In no case is this more true than trying to speak with confidence about those who have a long pattern of deception. Tears, time, nice words are not evidences of a changed heart. It is ironic that those who are caring most about righteousness, who seem to be aware of “bad” fruit of not reconciling with someone who has done harm, appear naive in recognizing that tears and the right words are not evidence of change. For example, if a parent who abuses a child seems wholly focused on return home and to church life, is it possible that they only want the benefits of repentance without the work? Might better evidence be a willingness to die to own desires and to ask, “what do those I harmed most need?” while looking for the answer from others.
I conclude this point noting that those in the biblical counseling tradition have been quite willing to acknowledge the problem of evil and deception in the human heart. It is strange, then that some hold those who resist reconciliation to a tougher standard than they do those who have been harming others in the dark but now claim repentant hearts.
Restoration to what? One disheartening experience mentioned in the essay is when those in power demand that the primary goal of forgiveness is restoration and reconciliation. The essay quotes Heath Lambert, former ACBC head, “the goal in ministry to an abuser–as long as he will receive such ministry–is to see him be restored to his family, and ultimately to Christ.” In Ezekiel 34 God charges the priests of Israel with abusing the people, as shepherds who feed on the sheep. In chapter 44 he announces judgment on these idolatrous priests. He will restore them but only to the work of cleaning up the mess after the sacrifices. They will not be restored to their previous position. Today, the modern equivalent would be for an abusive church leader to be allowed to clean the church and the toilets but not to preach, teach or lead. Lambert is right in desiring to see restoration to Christ but his apparent assumption that the restoration would be to position (family) seems faulty. The goal should be to be present with the perpetrator on their journey rather than focus on the final destination.
Pride is the issue. “…Several victims pointed out the difficulty of knowing when real change [in perpetrators] has happened, and that it was prideful for their counselor to assume they knew the hearts of their abusers.” Pride is one of the greatest sins of counselors and pastors. We think we know the problem/diagnosis and therefore we know the solution. The great trap for spiritual leaders and helpers is that we want to be seen as such.
Do you want to be a leader? Be a servant. In this case, be a student of those you want to help. Learn from them. Stop trying to dictate what they do and how they do it. When we experience pride as therapists we stop asking questions of ourselves, stop evaluating our motives and our hypotheses, stop desiring to learn. This can happen to licensed therapists as well as pastoral counselors. Those who want to work with trauma should ready widely those who have the most experience with trauma–regardless of their religious and philosophical moorings. Those who want to work with people who have abused power ought to learn from those who have worked most closely with patterns of deception. Don’t assume you know something just because you know basic categories of right and wrong. Your pride may be evident to those practiced in deception who will tell you what you want to hear (your greatness) in order for you to do their bidding.
Nothing harms the bible and Christian counseling more than someone with half understanding of basic ideas acting as if their opinions should be taken as pure doctrine. If you are facing a situation where you are wanting either a perpetrator or victim to progress, take a moment and write down what you think their most pressing need is today. Take a moment to listen well and see if they also agree. When pressures mount to get to some destination, resist it. Pray for God to give light to the path today. Let him hold the concern for where the journey ends. For that we can be sure he will be faithful to complete in his timing.