Spiritual Counseling or Hocus-Pocus

As we begin our adventure in that interesting land of personality health and pastoral counseling we face several possible choices as to the road along which we might proceed. We could, for example, come to grips immediately with the question, What is mental health? The relation between so-called normalcy and so-called abnormality could be our first concern. A discussion of the personal qualifications of the counselor would be another possibility.

None of these possibilities is our choice. Before entering any of these areas of discussion we simply must deal with a subject that is no less fascinating and which is most certainly basic. In fact, the subject we are constrained to deal with first of all is one that would dog our footsteps all along the road if we did not deal with it at once.

A Sermon on Confession

This important matter can be broached by referring to a sermon of a type that many readers may well have heard.

Psalm 51:4–7 is the text. This familiar and searching passage begins thus: “Against thee. thee only have I sinned. and done this evil in thy sight.” And it concludes with the plea, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” The sermon obviously is on the grand theme of confession of sin.

What does the minister say? He speaks eloquently to the point that confession is good for the soul. He dwells on various ways in which confession is good for the soul. Confession purges the mind of filth and dirt. Confession lifts the soul to a high plane of spirituality. Confession gives power to the will as the load of guilt is lifted. Confession clarifies the vision for the same reason. These are some of the points made by the minister.

What shall we say in reaction to a sermon like this? Is it a good sermon? Is it sound spiritual counseling? Does it really gain its end, namely, to make compellingly clear and inescapable that confession is good for the soul?



That brings us into the heart of our problem. What is good for the soul? That which gives it a temporary lift? There are many experiences that can do this. Much the same psychological effect is gained by feasting upon the majestic beauty of a snow-capped mountain with a sun-bathed, gem-like lake at its foot, or by the ecstasy of hours spent by a lover with his beloved, or by the overwhelming enjoyment of listening to Lily Pons sing the “Mad Scene” form Lucia de Lammermoor. In a very real sense all such experiences are good for the soul. What gives confession a special place among those experiences that are good for the soul?

The writer recalls how startled he was some years ago when he waS’ told by a professed unbeliever that he always prayed fervently before he gave a major address. He said the prayer did him a world of good though he didn’t believe in the efficacy of prayer as Christians believe it. In a very real sense such prayers did his soul a lot of good. Or did they? Why not?

Our problem should by now be fairly evident. Let us go back to the sermon on confession. The sermon lacks something very essential, indispensable. It lacks precisely those things which make confession of sin a tremendous and a richly meaningful reality. To put it directly. such a sermon lacks those elements of divine truth which make confession of sin what it is. Such a sermon is much like an essay on the question, What is a cake? This essay on the nature of cake says that a cake is good flavor, fine texture, sweet frosting and a social delight. The essay says nothing about the basic ingredients that really make a cake.

The sermon on confession says nothing about that one thing which makes sin sin, specifically sin, namely the breaking of God’s holy, specific law. Such a sermon says nothing about the amazing grace of the almighty offended God as he gave the rich gift of his love in awful and complete satisfaction for our sin. It is these changeless elements of the truth of God that make confession a meaningful, powerful experience. rather than just an exercise in psychological house-cleaning.

A Treacherous Pitfall

In a word, such a sermon slips into a pitfall that must by all means be avoided. That pitfall we call psychologism. This rather heavy term has a simple but most important meaning. He who gets caught in this pitfall loses truth in the wilderness of human experience, in the psychological jungle. He who gets caught in this snare is so concerned with facts and experiences in the life of man that he loses Sight of that which alone can give meaning to life’s facts and experiences, namely, God’s changeless truth. Psychologism is in the realm of human feelings, thoughts and experiences what materialism is in the realm of money and things. Both make the creature the first concern, not the Creator.

A few more illustrations of the ways in which men may fall into this pitfall will help to clarify this point. In his widely read book On Being a Real Person, Harry Emerson Fosdick speaks of a woman’s hatred for another in this way: “What she failed to see was that whether her hatred was ethically justifiable or not was a minor matter compared with the ominous fact that it certainly was a psychological disease” (p. 102). Fosdick is saying here that questions of right and wrong are not so important as man’s states of mind. He is saying that a human state of mind is of more importance than the holy, glorious Jaw of God. We do not question the importance of man’s states of mind. The writer would be among the last to do that. And he would be among the last to be unsympathetic toward painful and twisted states of mind. But an emphasis which gives creaturely states of being first place over God’s changeless standard for living is seriously at fault. It weakens the moral fiber of life. And anything that does this is sharply to be rejected, for no really healthy state of mind is possible without true moral tone.

Another New York clergyman who is quite celebrated for his work in the field of pastoral psychiatry also gives us an instance which is close to psychologism. In the book Faith Is The Answer, co·author Norman Vincent Peale tells us that he sought to help a man in distress by telling him first of all !o believe in his own “innate (inbom) goodness” (p. 54). Why does Peale say this to the man? Because he believes this is an article of Christian faith? Or does he speak thus to the distraught man just to give him a lift, regardless of the exact and full truthfulness of this counsel? Certainly Peale can’t find such teaching in any historic statement of the Christian faith. And if such advice is given with the thought of helping the man along his psychological road. Dr. Peale might well ponder the worth of an “innate goodness” that didn’t prove itself good enough to keep a man from deep failure.

Avoiding the Pitfall

The pitfall of psychologism is not easily avoided. It is really very easily slipped into. The writer once had a little discussion with a man on a rather important point of Christian doctrine. After a while the man felt constrained to say, “Well, you may know the theory of it better than I do, but I have had quite a lot of practical experience and on the basis of that I am sure my position is correct.” This man was close to the pitfall. He was saying that truth is decided by what man feels and thinks rather than by a solid effort to get at the truth as revealed in God’s Word.

All approaches to the question of salvation in terms of how wonderful it makes one feel to be saved are dangerously dose to this pitfall. A radio preacher working with young people had the habit of asking for a testimony with this question, “Does Jesus satisfy you?” That is getting on precarious ground unless the question and answer are carefully guarded. A glass of ginger ale satisfies too. So does great symphonic music. The writer is not being irreverent. He simply wishes to point out that the issues of truth and life must have a sounder basis than passing states of human feeling. In ten years of counseling, the writer has dealt with a considerable number of distressed men and women who had lied spiritual matters too close to their own feelings, leaving the individuals concerned in a condition without sound spiritual supports when the feelings gave way.

Why is this matter so important in connection with the problems of personality, health and spiritual counseling? It is important for a most convincing reason. The very nature of personality illnesses and tensions is such that the sufferer twists and distorts truth and reality to meet the demands of deep emotional needs. It therefore follows that if a sufferer is to gain real support from the final comfort, that of religion, then religion must not be too wholly tied up with the emotions that become sick.

“My sins can never be forgiven,” a deeply depressed person may cry out in despair. He is wrong, of course. Any sin sincerely confessed in Christ is forgiven. (The “unpardonable sin” is never sincerely confessed.) Why does this person speak this untruth? There are strong and deep-seated reasons for such a cry of hopelessness, reasons often having their roots in profoundly disturbing experiences in the younger formative years of lire. This is but one example among scores that might be given of ways in which the truth is twisted or distorted to suit deep emotional needs.

It should now be perfectly plain that the very first requirement for one who would deal with personality problems is that he so present God and his mercies that they are kept clear from the ever-grasping entanglements of human emotion. In fact, the pastor in all his preaching and in all his work with human souls should bear this in mind. Preaching of a sickly subjectivistic sort is not only out of harmony with the very nature of true proclamation of the unsearchable riches of God’s Word; such preaching is also positively harmful to human souls. Does that mean that there shall be no emotional appeal in preaching? Not at all. Bu, the emotional appeal must be in the name of solid, changeless truth, and must be directed toward drawing men unto complete rest on this sure ground.

“Why, Oh Why?”

That leads us to a second closely related matter. Personality problems always deeply involve the question of meaning—the meaning of life, the meaning of our experiences. “Why, oh why?” is the anguished cry that rises from the heart of the troubled personality. “A psychoneurosis,” says the Swiss psychologist Jung, “must be understood as the suffering of an individual who has not discovered what life means for him” (Modern Man In Search of a Soul, p. 260). Tolstoy, ill in the middle years of life, spoke of “the meaningless absurdity of life.”

Rollo May (author of The Springs of Creative Living and The Art of Counseling) uses the word clarification to describe the process by which the psychiatrist or counselor seeks to help the sufferer understand his problem. By this effort the counselor seeks to help the troubled person see his problem in the light of the meaning of his life.

It is interesting to notice that many books dealing with these mutters often conclude with a chapter or two on the need of a philosophy of life. Fosdick’s On Being a Real Person winds up with such a discussion. So also does Bonnell’s Pastoral Psychiatry. The last chapter of Freud’s New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis is entitled “A Philosophy of Life.” These and other writers realize that it is quite impossible to find meaning in a single experience or group of experiences without relating these to the meaning of life as a whole. And a life has no meaning by itself apart from the meaning of the universe as a whole. There can be no island of meaning in an ocean of meaninglessness.

In Conclusion

What is the result of all this? On the one hand we learn that the very essence of personality illness is to make the truth a broken and bent slave of human emotions. On the other hand we learn that the broken personality thirsts for meaning. Do these two considerations not direct arrows at the same point? These two important matters tell us very plainly that a sovereign source of truth and meaning is required which cannot be made the slave of human feelings. An absolute source of truth is needed which is greater than life and its creaturely strivings and yearnings. The first condition for effective spiritual counseling is a whole-hearted recognition of the most tremendous and the most practical fact, namely, the fact of the sovereign, almighty God who has given to men those changeless principles of truth which alone can give final meaning to life. Paradoxically enough, in the insistence upon the glorious objective reality of divine truth lies the greatest subjective service of the truth.

Spiritual counseling, therefore, is not a refined type of hocus-pocus. It is not a matter of clever, psychological trickery, as a popular misconception of it seems to hold. Spiritual counseling should re just what the name says. It should be counseling and clarification in the light of those changeless principles which the Spirit of God has given to men. No basic element of Christian truth has to he trimmed or laid aside in this work of dealing with troubled men. Counselors are reportedly asking for a “clinical theology.” They should.

Let him who works with men’s souls in distress he first of all relentlessly and intelligently theological. That does not mean that one should be unwise in the sense in which some people thing of a “dogmatician” as unwise and coldly logical. It does mean that through all the efforts and strategies resorted to, will run a strong cord that leads all these efforts and strategies to that fin al source of meaning which says, “Thus saith the Lord.”

In future articles we hope to examine in detail what rich implications for personality health and wellbeing there arc in the basic elements of Christian truth. For the present we would conclude with this final summary thought. Always, always after the last flicker of hope has vanished into the night and the last earthly support has withered away, may the soul of man still reach forth through its tears and its anguish and cry, “Be merciful unto me, O Lord: for I cry unto thee daily. Rejoice the soul of thy servant: for unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul” (Ps. 86:3, 4).

Edward Heerema is public relations secretary of the National Union of Christian Schools.