Excerpted with permission from the Jan/Feb 2000 issue of Family Therapy Networker

It is just before dusk on a September evening in Nashville, at the Opryland Hotel, a colossal antebellum theme park of a hotel. The Presidential Ballroom is already packed with 3,300 professionals here for the four-day meeting, and latecomers like me are climbing over rows of knees to get to the few remaining seats. I study the glossy program, noting the sessions on trauma and abuse, children and adolescence, marriage, psychopharmacology, sexuality, managed care, psychological research and new techniques, spiritual issues in therapy and multicultural populations.

The standard crowd of professionals seems to be here--middle-class, young to middle-aged, mostly white with a sprinkling of blacks, Asians, Hispanics--though everyone is a bit better dressed than usual at conferences. Name badges refer to all parts of the country--though southern states predominate, and southern accents waft gently around my Yankee ears--and reveal the usual alphabet blizzard of credentials: mainly M.S.W.'s, M.A.'s, a scattering of Ph.D.'s and M.D.'s and M.Div.'s.

In short, this conference looks no different than any other of its type. Until, that is, the opening prayers and gospel music. Within a few moments, the whole assembly is standing, arms upraised, belting out "Oh, How I Love Jesus" and "Only God Can Heal." Everybody seems to know the songs by heart and sings them with body-swaying, toe-tapping, arms-outstretched exuberance--everybody, that is, save one self-conscious family-therapy magazine journalist who has never been to a therapy conference quite like this before.

"We live in a time of great darkness, but you are the light of the world!" the first speaker proclaims to the audience. While we will spend this meeting talking about standard therapeutic fare, he tells us the real problems our clients face are in essence spiritual, and so must be the cure. "You are a distinct type of people helper. You are the image bearers of Christ. What you are doing offers the greatest platform for evangelism."

Christian counselors draw enormously on the Bible for psychological truths, as do many of their clients, who often go in expecting they will get a good dose of Scripture.

Evangelism? Isn't this word more suited to a revival meeting than a professional convention of mental health providers? In fact, this conference is both.

Archibald D. Hart, the man exhorting the troops to be Christ's image bearers, is a psychology professor and former dean of the Psychology Graduate School at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, one of the leading evangelical Christian institutions in the country. And this meeting is the World Conference of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC), an evangelical Christian organization with more than 18,000 members dedicated to the proposition that modern psychotherapy derives a critical healing edge from conservative Bible-based faith that secular approaches can't match.

The keynote presenter, Joni Eareckson Tada, is a strikingly pretty woman, with a radiant smile and brilliant eyes that flash like strobe lights. Tada has founded a worldwide service ministry providing spiritual and practical resources to the disabled, won a presidential appointment to the National Council on Disability, written more than 20 inspirational books and now hosts a daily five-minute radio program broadcast over 700 stations while producing a regular column for Moody Monthly, a religious magazine. She is also a quadriplegic.

Tada's message sounds some of the traditional paradoxes of Christian belief--the blessing in suffering, the power in weakness, the hope in hopelessness, the self-fulfillment in selflessness, the ultimate victory in defeat. "God has the world rigged for frustration, pain, disappointment," so that we will be driven to seek him out. "Life is supposed to be difficult." We are supposed to experience the suffering of Christ, so we can experience his power.

"The weaker I was in the wheelchair, the harder I learned to lean on Jesus, and the stronger I found him to be. . . . There is no help, no hope except in him."

Tada reminds her audience, a message I will hear often during the next few days, that ultimately, it is the divine agency of the "Wonderful Counselor" of Scripture.

I find myself ricocheting crazily between different emotions. On one hand, much of what Tada says embarrasses me, ringing of manipulative pathos and manufactured spiritual uplift--except for the authentically heart-breaking words at the end, "I will get my new body!"

And yet, I am moved by her in spite of myself, even a little afraid of her, her words, her glittering eyes, the possibilities she raises. Perhaps she is talking to me, after all, and I don't like it because I don't want to see myself in this crippled woman, who still rebels in her heart, against the unpalatable truths of mortal existence: We are all crippled by something, and we all fight against the knowledge of our own inadequacy.

"You go to God because you have to," Tada says, awakening that old, sick sense in me that I'm in for it, like everybody else, one way or another. "You can endure almost anything if you know God is sitting next to you."

I come to the conference sharing with other secular professionals a certain attitude about conservative evangelical Christianity, based on a smorgasbord of impressions from the media, from chance acquaintances, from my own experience. I think of recent attempts to foist "creation science" on public schools; of radio preachers fulminating against gays, feminists, "New-Agers," Disney Studios, the ACLU and the United Nations; of Southern Baptists commanding every wife to "submit herself graciously" to her husband, declaring Hindus and Muslims to be "lost in hopeless darkness" and calling for the conversion of Jews.

Except that none of those Christians seem to be at this meeting. True, some of their views would scandalize most secular psychotherapists: that all human beings are inherently sinful, that the flesh must be mortified to save the spirit, that Christianity is the only true religion and that Christian conversion may be the best "outcome" therapy could have.

And yet, theological points that sound so sectarian on their face seem to undergo a kind of humane metamorphosis here--the cold, legalistic word belied by the warm spirit of personal compassion, spiritual integrity and the determination to love, rather than judge.

There is also something powerfully attractive about the honest passion of their conviction. Their message taps into yearnings that ring like a clear bell even in worldlings like me, some gnawing, half-shamed desire for something not fulfilled by work, money, travel, hobbies, friendship--not even by love. The words I hear at this conference glimmer with implicit promises that are hard to resist--the promise of freedom from the chronic anxiety that we will never be quite attractive, smart or successful enough; the promise of relief from the exhausting obsession with our own tiny, earthbound, egocentric selves; the promise of unconditional love in spite of the deep-down suspicion that we are unlovable. But even more, these counselors evoke the possibility of some joyous transfiguration that entices.

"People know they desperately need someone bigger than they are--when it comes to learning to love yourself, it makes a huge difference if you know God loves and accepts you," says one counselor.

So, what is this thing called "Christian counseling"? In spite of many similarities of training and preparation to secular therapists, Christian counselors are still a world apart. "It is important for us not to be just counselors, but to be agents of God's grace," says Christian psychologist David Benner. "Our challenge is to look behind the symptoms and see [the client] first and foremost through God's eyes of love."

John Ortberg is a psychologist and teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois--a 17,000-member evangelical church that has pioneered the use of performing arts and social support groups to attract young, uncommitted religious "seekers." Ortberg passionately argues that Christians who are not emotionally and spiritually transformed by their faith have missed the whole point and promise of Christianity.

Thinking about Ortberg's insistence upon the power of transformation, I speak with Paula Rinehart, a Christian counselor in Raleigh, N.C., about a case of hers--Lorraine, a woman of 45, abused and neglected as a child, diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Having spent 22 years in therapy with numerous clinicians, Lorraine came to Rinehart for counseling shortly after joining a local evangelical church. Rinehart worked with her, trying to help her become more realistic in her expectations of people, less angry and disappointed when they did not live up to her exorbitant demands. Lorraine also became part of a warm and supportive church group that assuaged her need to belong. In addition, using Bible passages, Rinehart conveyed to Lorraine that she was the beloved child of God, that he loved her, personally, no matter how unloved or unlovable she might feel. Lorraine came to feel that no matter how badly her own parents had failed her, God, the "perfect" parent, cared for her.

Once she began thinking of herself as God's beloved child, Lorraine saw herself differently. "I am the daughter of a king. I really am someone."

And when she said this, says Rinehart, her face changed. "She looked like somebody had just given her a million bucks." After five months of therapy, she has begun to relax with other people and seems less driven by her own neediness, says Rinehart. She has more personal confidence. For the first time in her marriage, for example, Lorraine is able to hold her own in conversations with her domineering husband; this childish, immature woman is beginning to sound and act like an adult.

A secular therapist, says Rinehart, might have tried "empowering" Lorraine without reference to God. "Good luck," says Rinehart. People like Lorraine "know they desperately need someone bigger than they are--when it comes to learning to love yourself, it makes a huge difference if you know God loves and accepts you."

The Christian counseling movement seems to be entering boom times. Tim Clinton, president of the AACC, says its membership has increased from about 700 in 1991 to roughly 18,000 today. There are also nearly 100 chapters of the AACC on college campuses for aspiring Christian counselors, and dozens of post-graduate clinical psychology and marital and family therapy programs offered by Christian theological seminaries and universities, including Fuller, and Pat Robertson's Regent University in Virginia.

The history of evangelical Christian counseling is only about 40 years old, and in this movement's growth, few figures have cast as long a shadow as Gary Collins. Sometimes called "the Father of Christian counseling," Collins founded the AACC, practiced counseling and taught psychology for 30 years, currently edits the AACC's magazine, Christian Counseling Today, and has written close to 50 books.

In college during the late '50s, he tasted of the apple of psychology and found it good. But the world of academic psychology found his religious views essentially worthless. In his first-year psychology class, the only mention of religion made by Collins's professor was of medieval churchmen torturing the mentally ill to drive out their demons. As an intern, he once saw a patient who said she felt she had committed a terrible sin. "I asked her to tell me about this sin, and afterward was chewed out by my advisor, who told me never to talk about 'sin.'"

Shortly after he began teaching full time at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, during the mid-'60s, Collins and his wife took some time off to travel around northern Minnesota. While staying at the homes of Swedish Baptist pastors in isolated towns, he listened to his hosts talking about how baffled and powerless they felt by a part of the job they hadn't expected. What could a minister say to the woman so depressed she can barely get up in the morning, the college student so anxious he never leaves his dorm room, the wife who confides that her husband beats her and that she suspects he is molesting their daughter, the businessman who appears in church obviously still half-drunk?

The nearest secular therapist was many miles away and didn't understand Christians. Collins had his mission, and immediately began writing books and producing tapes for people like those pastors.

Christian counseling is fundamentally different from other modern therapies, in that its ultimate goal is not to help clients eliminate symptoms or even achieve maturity, career success, the capacity to love and nicer personalities--but to honor God.

About 25 percent of the American population is conservative Protestant, which includes both evangelicals and fundamentalists. While both evangelicals and fundamentalists hold basically the same orthodox beliefs--biblical inerrancy, original sin, the reality of Heaven, Hell and Satan, salvation exclusively through Jesus Christ--comparing the two is like looking at the same landscape first in the gray, frigid half light of a winter twilight and then again in the warm, bright sun of a June morning. Evangelicals, who usually have undergone a personal and emotionally ardent conversion experience, find in Christianity a faith of love, hope and joy. Fundamentalists focus more on sin and judgment.

Not surprisingly, many fundamentalists are suspicious of, or downright hostile to, psychology. Yet, Christian counselors admit to a certain tension within their own minds between religion and psychology. "A lot of our psychological theories reflect our effort to make life work in the absence of being able to tap into the supernatural," says psychologist Larry Crabb, one of the founders of the field, but also a strict defender of the faith.

Others share his concern that the culture of psychotherapy might still hijack faith. "Therapy arose because of a failure of the church," says David Benner, founding director of the Institute for Psychospiritual Health in Ontario, a network of Christian psychologists. "If the church starts to do its job again, there may be fewer Christian counselors."

When Christian counselors are not grilling themselves about their calling, they defend it as really no different from any other field of expertise. "God, in his wisdom, has allowed us to discover things about the world, and make use of them," says Collins. "If I have a heart bypass operation, I want a physician who knows cardiology. Faith goes with me into the operating room, God is the one who heals, but he has also given us modern medicine, and I think it is to be used."

And yet, Christian counseling is fundamentally different from other modern therapies, in that its ultimate goal is not to help clients eliminate symptoms or even achieve maturity, career success, the capacity to love and nicer personalities--but to honor God. Christian counselors draw enormously on the Bible for psychological truths, as do many of their clients, who often go in expecting they will get a good dose of Scripture. "At its best, psychology echoes what is in Scripture--all the principles of behavioral and cognitive therapy can be found there," says Christian psychiatrist Peter Dyck, who directs a psychotherapy clinic in Raleigh, N.C.

"Pastors regularly tell me that if I just preached the word to people, they wouldn't need counseling at all," says Oregon Christian counselor George Pritchard. "I tell them the Bible is like a very powerful cancer medicine that can transform lives, but you can't just plop it on the skin like an ointment. You have to get to know and love the person first, and apply Scripture respectfully and appropriately."

One young woman named Louise went to see Pritchard suffering from clinical depression. Not only was she severely overweight, unmarried, lonely and stuck in a job she hated, but she also felt deeply spiritually guilty--if she were really a good Christian and God really loved her, wouldn't she feel better? Pritchard first pointed out the biblical figures who had experienced anguish and despair including Jeremiah, Job and Jesus. In addition, he pointed out Ephesians 2:10, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus . . . ." This verse, says Pritchard, helps a depressed person see him- or herself not as a loser-victim, but "as God's masterpiece." A "new narrative" like this can change a client's mind-set. After a number of months in therapy, Louise joined a weight loss group, found a new and better job, developed a social life and announced with great energy that she was getting too busy for therapy.

While many counselors seem comfortable keeping separate the sacred and the profane, evangelism and therapy, others appear to struggle mightily with the boundary question, particularly if they work in secular settings. Even Christian counselors who don't openly evangelize maintain a moral agenda that would give most secular counselors pause. Few self-respecting evangelical counselors, for example, would treat unmarried clients having sex with "therapeutic neutrality."

And then, there is the whole fraught issue of homosexuality. The current position of most enlightened evangelicals is that homosexuals can't help being what they are--the desire for same-gender sex partners is an "orientation," not a "choice"--but acting on that unchosen orientation is both a choice and a sin.

The counselor suggests to one woman that God did not intend women to become slaves or floor mats; that there is a difference between being a loving, loyal but self-respecting wife on the one hand, and a passive, codependent martyr on the other.

The goal of Christian counselors at this conference who do reparative therapy is essentially to love gays out of "the life-style" and back into the straight Christian community. Not that anybody in this workshop expects it will be easy, or that reparative therapy is a cure; the speakers reiterate that many gays will always struggle with their sexual orientation. But evangelical Christians, including evangelical Christian homosexuals, march to a different drummer than I do, or does the general membership of all the major mental health associations.

As inflammatory as the evangelical take on homosexuality is the invocation to wifely obedience, taken from Ephesians: "Wives, be in subjection unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church . . ." Some evangelical counselors give the passage a certain spin that tends to neutralize it. Consider Betty Ann, the wife of an alcoholic, who comes to see Mark Good, a Christian counselor in Arnold, Md. In a typical scenario, Betty Ann's husband comes home at 2 A.M. drunk and belligerent, yells abuse at her, falls asleep on the sofa and is too hung over the next morning to go to work. She is hurt, furious and disgusted, whereupon he apologizes profusely, even cries; she feels guilty, remembers that wifely submission is her Christian duty, relents and takes up her cross once more. Until the next time he gets drunk and the whole codependency rigamarole begins anew.

Good suggests to her that God did not intend women to become slaves or floor mats; that there is a difference between being a loving, loyal but self-respecting wife on the one hand, and a passive, codependent martyr on the other. Good encourages her to become more responsible for herself, to cultivate an inner emotional boundary between herself and her husband. "Then she can watch God work in her husband's heart as she holds the boundary," he says.

The Christian invocation to obedience and surrender can be an odd source of liberation. To live a life in submission and obedience to God often means giving up trying to control what can't be controlled, thus actually freeing people from emotional bondage to their own past histories and current insecurities.

There is something eminently sensible about advising an overanxious wife to "stand firm" in her marriage, acquire some emotional independence and place her trust in God's providence. But how much trust can a victim place in a God who has shown himself either incompetent to stop terrible injustice, or indifferent in allowing it to go on?

According to psychiatrist Peter Dyck, trauma survivors often blame themselves for their abuse in order to protect their faith in a just God. "These clients believe that God can't really be that bad, so there must be something wrong with them." The alternative to believing they deserved the abuse is to reject God outright, which for believers can be almost as spiritually and emotionally devastating as the abuse itself.

The crux of therapy for Christian trauma survivors, particularly those who have been abused by ministers, church elders or their own parents, becomes a struggle to reclaim for themselves the God who loves them. In short, their task is to redeem God.

Therapist Paula Rinehart was summoned to a local church one day, where she found Jordon, the pastor of the church, curled up under the stairwell, weeping like a small child. A man in his thirties, Jordon had been in therapy for some time with Rinehart because of depression, anxiety and difficulty handling the ordinary pressures of his ministry. As a child, Jordon had experienced grotesque sexual abuse at the hands of his father until, when he was 14, he was virtually adopted by his grandfather. At 18, Jordon had "given his life to Christ" and, unlike his siblings-with their multiple divorces, drug and alcohol addictions and generally chaotic lives-he had become a reasonably well-adjusted adult, married, had children and become the pastor of two churches. But Jordon was prone to flashbacks triggered by upsetting events on the job that left him exhausted, depressed and subject to nightmares.

Although Jordon was grateful to God for having sent his grandfather to rescue him and felt his own conversion experience at 18 "saved" him from the same wasted life of his brothers and sisters, recently he had come to despair of God's grace, or even his very existence.

Rinehart did what she often does with traumatized clients struggling between fury at God and the desire to find peace with him. She told Jordon to spend mornings visiting the garden of a local Catholic retreat and sitting at the foot of a life-size statue of Jesus on the cross. "I ask clients to just be with Jesus and his suffering; to try to imagine what he was feeling, and to think of the verse from Isaiah: 'In all their affliction he [God] was afflicted, . . . in his love and in his pity he redeemed them.'"

As he prayed in the garden, Jordon remembered a night when his father loomed, huge and forbidding, in the doorway of his bedroom. He saw himself sitting on the edge of his bed, sick with dread, but this time, he looked down and sitting next to him was a lion, his tail switching lazily and his great, maned head turned toward the door. It was the Lion of Judah of the Old Testament, an emblem of the coming Messiah. Jordon "saw" this, and knew to the depth of his being that his father could never again hurt him.

What makes Christianity unique, Rinehart says, is that Christ was both human and divine at the same time: both weak, suffering victim like the clients and, at the same time, sovereign ruler of the universe; both little, scared boy and great lion.

What happens inside a client like Jordon as he sits quietly in a garden before a crucifix is a mystery--something that seems to have nothing to do with "therapy" at all. Indeed, Rinehart takes the attitude characteristic of many Christian counselors--they aren't active clinicians as much as they are merely conduits for something far larger than themselves.

Some views held by Christian counselors would scandalize most secular psychotherapists: that all human beings are inherently sinful, that the flesh must be mortified to save the spirit, that Christianity is the only true religion and that Christian conversion may be the best "outcome" therapy could have.

Passionate Christians--who do not have to be evangelicals or conservatives--are in the very best sense god-besotted; they don't just believe that God loves them, knows them, protects them always and forever, they feel it to the center of their being. The Christian counselor who can tap into this kind of spirituality and convey it to a client has a powerful therapeutic resource. The impossible paradox is that at the worst of times, under the most grueling miseries and greatest abuses, Christians still feel they are watched over by a personal God, held in the arms of a father who loves them.

At the end of this journey into the heartland of evangelical Christendom, I have found much about this culture that seems wonderful, and some aspects that definitely do not. I have heard the voice of Christian exclusivity and spiritual superiority, so irritating to the liberal mind--that everybody not Christian is essentially, if unintentionally, an idolater worshiping false gods.

Why, then, am I drawn to these people, in spite of a worldview that can seem so foreign to the culture I inhabit? The simple answer is that evangelicals seem to enjoy a glowing intensity about their belief, that makes me wistful for something that seems missing in my life.

One of the great passages in the Bible, which perhaps most simply encapsulates the Christian's holy duties in life and the Christian counselor's professional credo, is from Matthew--the two "great commandments" that Jesus gives the pharisees: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. . . . And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Like so many biblical commandments, they are, of course, an imposition on the fundamental rule of ordinary human life in our self-absorbed age--the cardinal principle of "Me First."

The downside to this egotism is that it keeps us lonely and isolated. It may all work out just fine, for years and years and years, this concentration on me, me, me. Like many of my peers, I have spent hundreds of hours in therapy discussing these epochal issues.

But after a while, all the concentration on self grows boring. Perhaps the world's best evangelist is the human aging process, which makes painfully clear how little we can do, how short the time we have left to do it.

I go out running at noon on a mid-November day, and end up in a grove of pine trees by the ocean. I stop to rest for a moment, and as I stand there, I hear the wind make a whirring sound high up in the trees, the waves slap at the shore, and see, the ocean sparkling and white capped, a few ducks bobbing on the water, quacking to themselves. I think about the people I have met, the conversations I have had, the books I have read, the questions I have asked. The place where I now rest is both quiet and vibrating with the sounds of a chilly fall day, and there seems to be almost a living presence in the air all around me, and in that strangely buzzing silence, I listen for something. And I wait.

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