Clinical language and The Word

I’ve been a student of psychology and counseling for so long now that sometimes it’s easy for me to forget that I love it. Tonight I was reminded.

I think I’m guilty of being anesthetized by our own kind of vernacular. Some call it “psychobabble,” I call it clinical language. Either way, I throw around terms like these every day it seems: disordered thinking, dysfunctional core beliefs, unhealthy schemas, unhealthy character style, and on and on. I say them now without giving much thought to their meaning, because most people I use these words with are in the field and don’t need them defined. In seminar tonight, our prof offered another kind of language to describe the same ideas. She reminded me that while psychology may say that someone is disordered in their thinking or dysfunctional in their character style, Christian theology calls this all “sin.” And what we in the psychological field and we in the Church are saying when we sit with someone in their brokenness is essentially the same thing – something’s not working.

As a therapist, I get to work with people as they figure out what that means. It’s not the whole of my job, but a large part of it is facilitating a safe place for people to be real. Often as I sit with clients, I’m reminded of Jesus sitting with the Samaritan woman at the well, because He did the perfect job of creating a space for her there to talk about the things in her life that were shameful – the divorces and current living situation, for example. He met her where she was, and he heard her when she shared her story. He didn’t just listen, He heard her. He understood her. He joined her in the shame. Then He offered her another way of looking at herself and her situation: You’re thirsty. Let me give you Living Water so you’ll never thirst again.

I love my job because every day – EVERY DAY – I get to emulate Jesus. I may not pray with every client, I may not share the Gospel with the client in words, but I bring the Word (read: Christ, John 1:1) to them in a tangible way every day by creating a safe place for them to tell their story and offering back a different way for them to look at themselves and their situation.

Psychobabble, clinical lanuage. Words and the Word. Seems to me it all works together to bring healing to a world that hurts. I happen to think that’s pretty special. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s divine.

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8 thoughts on “Clinical language and The Word

  1. Umm … this is really just for you, so don’t worry about letting it get posted publicly – but you forgot a “g” in your title. check the word ‘lanuage’

    I love the post, but the person that told you sin=dysfunction is incorrect. Sin is disobedience. A badly behaved child isn’t necessarily dysfunctional, just disobedient. The solution may be the same … both need help, guidance and/or discipline. But the problem is very different, I think.

    God is our Father, and when we sin we are disobedient, unloving, unkind, broken. Only the lost are truly spiritually dysfunctional. Either they’ve been repeatedly disobedient and lost it – or they never had it.

    anyway, I kinda hope you don’t post this (or keep it posted) because I’m not trying to be a jerk, but I’m too lazy to erase it now, and hope you will appreciate the opportunity to fix the spelling error.

  2. Don’t hate me, but I am going to leave it up – because I don’t think it reads as “jerk”-like, and because I think you make an interesting point. Also, I really hate looking silly and am grateful that you pointed out my typo. 🙂

    Let me offer that I while I was writing and thinking through this idea after class that night, I think I was operating with a pretty general definition of “sin,” which was geared less toward specific behaviors and more toward “that which separates us from God.” I think you’re right, that sin is disobedience, but I also think it encompasses a bit more than that too.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! (And for noting my missing “g!”)

    1. You’re kind.
      I’m glad to have found your blog.

      My expertise is in biblical interpretation, and psych stuff is just a hobby, which means I think I know it all, but really know nothing. With that as a disclaimer, let me say this:

      One of the things I like about modern psycho-babble is the tendency to label many (perhaps too many) things as ‘diseases.’ I like that because it helps (or should help) Christians seperate sin from sick. Sometimes one causes the other, and they can be confused, but I don’t believe God confuses them. My mother knew when I was really sick and when I was only kinda sick and when I was just plain faking it. Degrees of sickness and sin. She knew, because she loved me … and her love impelled her to look at me so hard, she was really looking through me. She listened so closely, she could hear meaning, when my words were off.

      I believe many things are both sin and sick, like alcoholism or (maybe) homosexuality, for example. If it’s a chronic illness that cannot be cured, but can be managed … then you can still have the sickness, but not necessarily commit the sin.

      I also believe that “Christians” could really benefit from seeing things this way, because it makes us more like healers instead of judges.

      and I wrote all of that to get to this… what do you think? What do they teach about this in your upper level classes (if anything). I’m a struggling pastoral counselor, and I’d love to learn some more about what others think – especially you.

  3. Man, way to stretch my brain on a weekend! 🙂

    Truth be told, my advanced-degree training has been mostly psychotherapeutic, and not very theological. Any study of integration between psychology and theology has been done on my own with guidance from professors whom I respect. As such, let me recommend that you read a guy by the name of Mark McMinn, who’s a prof in the PsyD program at George Fox. In my humble opinion, he is “the man!” His book, Sin and Grace in Christian Counseling, has been formative to my understanding. That, of course, is geared toward clinicians. He tapers the language a bit and flushes the same ideas out in Why Sin Matters with a less clinical bent. I highly, highly recommend you give them a read, as Mark is the expert in the field and I barely have my foot out the door.

    That all said, let me say that I appreciate that distinction you’re making. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best in Life Together when he says, “In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother, I can dare to be a sinner.” I think Bonhoeffer makes the same distinction that you’re making, in a way. And I think that the gift of what we do as counselors and therapists who are Christians is…being both. And that the joining of the two is a demonstration of God’s love in a really unique and special way.

    Let me also say, I think you’re spot on – that Christians need to operate more as “healers” and less as “judges!”

  4. So…wow. I love this post. I love love love it. I see a therapist, for almost a year now, and I struggle with being so completely open and honest with him A LOT. Like, it’s incredibly difficult for me to not hide. Even from someone who’s job is to hear alll the stuff in my life!

    So I LOVE how you described your job as a safe place for people to tell their story; kinda like Jesus and the Samaritan woman. It’s really intriguing to think about it from the therapist point of view, as opposed to mine, the patients. I need to be reminded that he is safe, and I can be real.

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