Theology

the dangers in biblical counseling, part one

falling

[This is the first in a five-part series on my experience with biblical counseling]

I was almost done with my internship at the Academy– also known as “14 weeks in Shayol Ghul.” The internship itself was demanding 100+ hours of work every week, and combine that with my insomnia and trying to keep myself together after my fiance had broken our engagement . . .   it wasn’t a very pretty time in my life. So when my internship director confronted me about my less-than-eternally-cheery attitude, my response was, well, less than lackluster. I mustered up enough assurances and promises out of my lethargy– yes, I’ll do better, yes I’ll try harder, yes I’ll focus on my work . . .

About a week later, I was standing in front of my mailbox, staring at a green note. A green note had a variety of names on campus, none of them pleasant, but the most favorable was “The Summons.” It meant I had an appointment with Student Life– a non-optional appointment. It’s a bit more like a mandated court date that if you don’t show up for it they put a warrant out for your arrest. There’s also never a specified reason on the note. Sometimes, you know what you did– sometimes you didn’t. In this case, I was pretty sure it had something to do with my interview at the Academy. “Catching the Spirit” of my fundamentalist college was also one of those non-optional requirements. I certainly did not “have the Spirit.”

I waited in the Student Life office, trying to tune out the chipper quartet singing in the background and trying to ignore the receptionist that was earnestly stapling papers– a bit like Marianne from Easy A. Eventually, one of the Student Life deans called me into her office. I had been hoping to graduate without ever meeting her– or her husband. Ironically, her husband’s previous position had supposedly been a prison warden; we students that was just a bit too coincidental, considering the fact that our campus was surrounded by barbed wire and we slept on beds purchased from a shut-down prison.

I sat in the miserably uncomfortable chair and waited for her to speak. She didn’t say anything for a while, just looked through a file on her desk. After flipping through some of the papers– one of them I recognized as a copy of a form I’d filled out at the campus clinic about depression– she looked up. “So, Samantha . . . well, we’ve been hearing from people who are genuinely concerned about you. It seems that you’ve been having some trouble.”

I waited. Not saying anything was always the safest course of action until you knew exactly where they were going.

“Well, are you, Samantha? Having trouble?”

I shook my head. “Not really. Just stressed, but who isn’t?”

“Well . . . that’s not what we’ve been hearing. There seems to be something more going on. Do you want to talk about it?”

“I’m not exactly sure what you’re talking about?”

“Well . . .” She seemed hesitant to give specifics. “Dr. Marlowe* said . . .  that when she talked to you about your internship and your plans for graduation . . . your reaction seemed to be like there might be something you should talk with us about.”

“Okay . . . I remember that.”

“And?” She had this odd Southern drawl that was lengthening her words that reminded me of creepy villains from black and white films.

“And . . . she said one of my supervisors hadn’t seen enough focus from me. I’m working on that.”

“That doesn’t really seem to be everything you two talked about.”

I just shrugged. “She asked about after graduation; I said I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

“Oh, alright – – have you thought about staying here? For grad school, I mean? We have an excellent education program.”

I pursed my lips and shook my head a little bit. “I’m not really interested in being a teacher.”

“But then why are you an education major? Our world needs good, Christian teachers, you know.”

“I’m just not really cut out for it, I don’t think.” I also just wanted this pointless conversation to end. She badgered me for a few more minutes about staying for grad school, but then moved on.

“Well . . . I can see that there is clearly something going on that you’re not telling me. I’m going to send you to our counselor, Miss Bradley*. Set up an appointment with her– do you know where her office is?”

I nodded.

“Ok, good. Now, make sure you set up an appointment with her today, and she’ll decide how many visits you need.” I could tell that this was just as non-optional as coming to see her. She dismissed me, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more grateful to get out of that particular office.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next week, I was sitting in yet another office, waiting to be seen, in yet another uncomfortable chair. At least there wasn’t any music and the receptionist wasn’t glaring at me. And I didn’t have to wait as long. It was still at the end of a 14 hour work day, and my exhausted self was not exactly thrilled about being required to meet with the counselor. Miss Bradley*, while a much sweeter and gentler woman than the prison warden’s wife, was still not someone I wanted to talk to. Not talking to anyone would have been my preference, but my college doesn’t have a reputation for not caring about personal agency for a reason.

She called me into her office and asked me to sit down in a slightly more comfortable chair. She opened up a cabinet behind her desk, and I saw that it was stuffed to the brim with Kleenex boxes. She set one on my side of her desk, and gestured that it would be ok if I took one.

“So, Samantha, how are you doing?”

“Alright.”

“I heard you were getting married– how are the wedding plans going?”

I went blank. It was an innocent enough question, but the answer . . . I didn’t want to talk about this. “We, uh– we’re not getting married anymore.”

“Oh.” She seemed genuinely surprised, so at least not all of my personal life had managed to make it through the Student Life rounds. “What happened?”

I closed my eyes. “Uhm . . .” Don’t think about it. Don’t go there. Just don’t. “It– it just didn’t work out.”

Her voice dropped, became even more gentle. “Was there sexual sin, Samantha?”

It didn’t even occur to me that this was an unusual and invasive question. I didn’t have the tools to sense that she had just made a huge leap forward in the conversation– but the leap had been fueled by an assumption that I was more than familiar with: the assumption that physicality in a relationship always leads to its downfall.

I didn’t even know how to begin to answer this question. If I said “yes,” then that would put me on the road to getting kicked out. I wanted to tell the truth to someone– I wanted to explain what had happened and have someone tell me that it was going to be ok, that I could come back. That maybe, maybe, what had happened to me hadn’t been my fault. My mind was skittering all over the place– for a millisecond I could feel old carpet scraping against my back, then I could feel a flash of pain from my head being slammed against a car door, then fluorescent lights glaring down at me, my neck twisting as I was thrown on a bed . . . I swallowed down the rising bile.

I tried to respond, to find the words to describe what had happened to me, to explain that something horrible had happened, but she interrupted me. “You do know, Samantha, how deep God’s forgiveness is? No matter what has happened, you can ask to be forgiven– you do know that, right? God is just waiting, hoping that you’ll come to him, that you’ll see His face . . . You don’t have to carry the burden of your sin all your life.”

I didn’t event want to nod, terrified that if I admitted to anything they would kick me out.

“You see, no matter what’s happened, there’s always something for you to do. You can’t take responsibility for what he’s done, but you need to admit to the sin in your life. If you do that, then you can find freedom from that sin.”

I managed a nearly silent “okay.” Inside, I felt bruised and drained. It felt like someone was trying to crush my heart, to squeeze it until it just disappeared from existence. I felt hot and cold all over, and agitated– like I needed to run, to flee. I wanted to get outside, just to feel like I could breathe. And I wanted to bury myself in blankets and never come out again.

Miss Bradley* slowly managed to cover the same topics I’d been over with Dr. Marlowe* and Student Life, and I managed to give the same answers. No, nothing’s wrong– just stressed and not engaged anymore, that’s it. Finally, she looked at me. “Do you feel like you would like to come see me again?”

I was so grateful she was giving me an option. I didn’t know if I could ever do that again. “No, I think I’m ok.”

“Ok, well, Samantha– you can always come back to see me. Anytime you need to, alright?”

I just nodded, picked up my bad, and tried not to make eye contact with her again before I left.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I didn’t seek counseling again. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened to me. I did my best not to think about it– I buried it, and hoped that would be enough. These two experiences, as well as a lifetime of victim-blaming, had taught me that if I were to “go through counseling,” it would be a heavy, long-term process of confessing my sin, taking responsibility for my actions. To me, just avoiding the problem would have to get me through it.

It took me three more years to start to see the truth.

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  • I am so thankful for brave people that are telling their story and bringing this issue out into the open because I believe this is the best way to stop future abuse.

    Thank you!

  • I discovered your blog last week and finding it very interesting. Love your style.

  • creepy dean!

    and your encounter with this ‘biblical counselor’ is a profound example of spiritual abuse.

    to assume sin into your life as she did… was perversely sick and abusive!

    Samantha, i’m only recently coming into your story… this place you speak of, i think it’s where back in the late 80’s my rigid step-sister from Michigan went to College—at Pensacola Christian College. Is this where you were doing a 100 hour a week internship?

    Fwiw, my last girlfriend worked long hours in a medical residency program, but there were standards followed that restricted resident doctors from being worked over 80 hours a week.

    Here’s the break down for a 100 hour-work-week. There being only 168 hours in a week, if we slice those hours by a third for sleep (which it seems you weren’t getting much of), minus 100 hours for work—you’re left with 12 hours a week free time. Divide that by the days of the week—we’re talking merely a 100 minutes a day to do all those things you need to do outside of work.

    Absolutely unsustainable!

    • I know, she was sooo creepy. I kept expecting her to say “Mr. Anderson!”

      And yes, this is Pensacola Christian. I’m trying to stay away from naming places/people in the context of my blog, because I don’t want it to turn into a “PCC and BJU are so awful!” vs “No it’s not, you just weren’t mature enough to handle to rules!” debate, which it seems to in other places I’ve read.

      And yeah… free time? What in the world is free time? They told us pretty much from the get-go that the internship would be one of the hardest things we’d ever had to do– and that to basically give up on doing anything else except the internship while we were in the midst of it. It was rough– but not that far removed from what most Christian school teachers do every day anyway. My best friend teaches at a Christian school in NC, and she works 14 hour days, minimum– and spends at least 10 hours on the weekend.

      And yes– the counselor was working in an environment that was top-down spiritually abusive. I don’t think that she, herself, was trying to do anything bad– she is one of the kindest, sweetest people I’ve met– she had just been indoctrinated with this crap.

      • “…indoctrinated with this crap.”

        Truth. And there is a ruling-spirit there, too, who is nothing like the rule of “the Spirit of life who has freed us in Christ Jesus [with Spirit-empowered personal agency] from the law of [legalistic fundamentalism, i.e.,] sin and death” (Rom 8:2).

        i shudder to imagine what it would be like for my spirit to breathe and thrive in such a toxic and oppressive environment!

  • For some reason I thought I made a comment on here already about the legalism crap, but I’m having computer troubles these days. You are doing sheer amazing on your blog!

    Side not on the computer problems, can you see my posts inside your wordpress reader? I’m guessing not, and its frustrating to me. I moved my blog to host gator, and its headaches. 😛 I lost my blogroll, too.

    • Sorry about the computer issues, I had some today that were aggravating.

      And… I don’t think I can see your posts. You’re still showing up in my blogroll, but I shall bookmark you. 🙂

      • rats, well. I’ll work on getting it to work again. Maybe. Thanks for the reply.

  • Erica

    I can not wait to read the next installments. Biblical counseling seems to miss so much of what it means to be human….it seems so damaging, particularly when it is relationship counseling. I’ll comment more as we go along.

  • Pingback: the dangers of biblical counseling, part two | Defeating the Dragons()

  • Pingback: the dangers of biblical counseling, part three | Defeating the Dragons()

  • Hello. I came across this blog while doing some research on biblical counseling…As a biblical counselor myself, please let me share with you how saddened I am to hear about these experiences. I have read your three blogs on “the dangers of biblical counseling” and I would like to share that not all biblical counselors are like this. The approaches you have learned are more extreme and the one that you experienced above is more like a Job counselor (Job from Bible, not work 🙂 ) who assumes and gives advice instead of walking beside and being loving. God spoke against such counsel.
    I know a couple from my church who have also come from a fundamentalist cult and when leaving, they were excommunicated/shunned and both her church and family. Just sad.

    I would advise your readers to ask questions to a biblical counselor as to what they believe, what church they attend, what their views are on meds, etc., to name a few, to help determine what kind of “biblical counselor” they may be. I believe that the counseling approach as taught by Christian Counseling & Education Foundation (CCEF) is balanced in being both biblical, sensitive, and clothed in grace and love.

    I wish you God’s grace as you continue to heal from such past spiritual abuse.

    • I would say similar things about the counseling program at the church I mentioned in part three. There can be good that comes out of biblical counseling, but there are some inherent “traps” involved. As the series continues, and I hope you’ll keep reading, I’m hoping to make clear that Christians can offer a unique perspective that can be beneficial to the healing process, but not if they narrowly define common mental illnesses strictly as “sin problems,” which is a common practice.

  • Pingback: the dangers of biblical counseling, part four | Defeating the Dragons()

  • “Inherent traps”? Not sure I know what you mean by that. To narrowly define our struggles as “sin” is too simplistic and inaccurate and does not take into account the physical aspects of our beings and how that can impact our emotional and spiritual well-being. I would say Psalm 88 would describe depression fairly well. Wow…a Psalmist had depression…go figure 😉 I’m continuing to follow your story. Blessings!

    • I’m glad you’re following along. Some of the “traps” I talk about as I progress. These are not universal by any means, but it’s necessary to look for them, unfortunately.

  • Pingback: the dangers of biblical counseling, part five | Defeating the Dragons()

  • I’ve been reading just about everything you’ve written on this blog in short bursts over the last few months, and I am finally commenting here because I want you to know how brave and how tough I think you were during this time in your life, and how tough you still are to honestly confront all the flaws in your early teaching, and what wisdom and courage you look ateverything you’ve been taught. I cannot imagine maintaining my composure in a situation like the one you describe, I’m sure I would have cried or given some other signal that all was not well, and who knows what damage those well-meaning (?) people would have been free to do in successive sessions.

  • I just saw this article for the first time and this is a topic I’m going to start writing about too! It’s so toxic and has done severe damage to me and my brother! I wish I could just make all of this end, that if you’re not a professional, licensed counselor then it would be illegal to practice even in a church… Especially in a church where ppl trust you and think you’re qualified!