This post isn’t just for those who are engaged (as I am) in the process of psychological counselling, but for any who are on a journey of self-discovery and of learning to understand, love and accept themselves, warts and all.
Christianity vs. counselling?
If you’ve been around Christian circles for a while, if you’ve read many Christian books and listened to many sermons, you’ll probably have imbibed the message of dying to self and putting others’ needs first. “JOY is putting Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last,” I was told at primary school. The highest ideal held up to us is a life of sacrifice poured out for God and for others with no regard to ourselves: “to give and not to count the cost, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and ask for no reward save that of knowing that we do your will” as St Ignatius’ prayer puts it, setting the bar fairly high.
If, on the other hand, you’ve been around psychological counselling circles for any time, you’ll have heard a message that seems almost the direct opposite. Understand yourself; love yourself; care for yourself; attend to your own needs; ask for what you want; stop trying to live to please others and win their approval.
So is it simply a case that secular psychology has got it wrong; that the goals of Christianity and of counselling are irreconcilably incompatible? Many Christians do think that, and have labelled psychology a false gospel of self-fulfilment.
There’s no doubt that dying to self and putting others first are biblical messages: for example, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24); and “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil 2:3-4). But, as always, these need to be interpreted in their context and also read alongside the whole of scripture.
Fully human, fully alive
The goal of psychological counselling is reality, honesty and authenticity; what the psalmist calls ‘truth in the inmost parts’ (Psalm 51:6). The aim is to become ‘Fully Human, Fully Alive’ as Catholic writer John Powell puts it. Getting to know, understand, love and accept yourself and your deepest needs and desires – as well as your darkness – are all part of this process. These are all not only compatible with Christian spiritual growth but essential to it.
Furthermore, I would argue that you have to learn to be human first – with all the attendant flaws and baggage – before you can even start to be a saint. Part of this is that you have to know your darkness and the depths you can sink to before you can genuinely overcome it. You’ve got to know that you can sin (that you’re able to and even, in a sense, allowed to) before you can truly and freely not sin; otherwise it’s just obedience by compulsion or repression. Much of the time we try to bypass our human reality and jump straight to saint without passing Go, with the result that we either fall flat on our faces or end up kidding ourselves, pretending we’re something that we’re not. When Jesus says ‘deny yourself’ he’s not saying ‘deny reality’ – quite the opposite.
Love, loving and being loved
Christ’s paradoxical message seems to be that if you truly love God first and ‘seek first the kingdom’, then you’ll get yourself thrown in as well; whereas if you seek yourself first then you’ll end up without even that. (It reminds me a little of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, where only someone who desires to find the Stone – find it but not use it – will be able to get it, whereas anyone who just wants to use it won’t have it at all.)
However, at this point it’s important to realise that we can only love God because he first loves us (1 John 4:10). If we haven’t really experienced and known his love for us, if we haven’t received his complete and unconditional acceptance of us deep in our being, then we can’t and won’t truly love him. And if we then try to do all the good Christian things for God that we’ve been told we should (pouring ourselves out for others, toiling and not seeking for rest), we just end up empty, burnt out, angry and resentful – like the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable. (In that story, both sons are lost but only one has left – and only one ultimately returns).
Paul memorably says in 1 Cor 13:3 ‘If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.’ The obvious reading is that however noble my actions, if they’re not done from love of God and people then I might as well not bother, for all the good it does me. But ‘if I have not love’ can also be read ‘if I am not loved’, or ‘if I don’t know myself to be loved’. In other words, I can only truly work for the Kingdom if I’ve first received God’s unconditional love and acceptance; if I’ve come to know, love and accept myself as God knows, loves and accepts me – the real me, the human me, not the false super-spiritual me. To receive God’s love of myself as I am now is the beginning of the long, slow process of transformation and metamorphosis.
Others have noted that when Jesus commands us to ‘love your neighbour as yourself‘, he’s implying that you have to start by loving yourself; you can’t love your neighbour as yourself unless you already do love yourself.
Self-love vs. selfishness
The true goal of counselling is not selfishness but self-love, self-acceptance, self-worth. It is not about having an inflated sense of your own importance or your own needs and desires, but having a proper, honest sense of these things. One word for this could be humility – neither self-abasement (“I’m ever so ‘umble”) nor arrogance, but a true sense of yourself.
Furthermore, counselling is not just about the self in isolation but very much about relationships; about learning to relate to others in freedom, honesty and mutuality. Again, we can’t relate freely to others if we don’t already know and love ourselves.
Dying to self
So it’s okay – no, vital – to love yourself. But… do you then need to die to this self that you love? What does ‘dying to self’ mean anyway and how on earth do we do it? I’m not sure I know the answers but here are some thoughts.
Firstly, I don’t think we can make ourselves die to self any more than we can make ourselves be ‘born again’. Both are a work of the Spirit (perhaps even the same work of the Spirit) in which we can participate but which I’m not sure we can initiate or direct.
Secondly, I would suggest that the ‘self’ we’re to die to is not our true, real self but the many layers of false self we have built up around it; all the encrustations and distortions that mar God’s image in us. I think of Eustace in C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, turned into a dragon by his selfish greed and having to let Aslan (Christ) tear off all his layers of dragon skin till it seemed to tear at his very heart.
And one of the things we need to die to – one of the false selves – is the false ‘Christian’ self, the ‘good person’ we try to be and to project for others to see. This is the self that seems to do all the right things but does them out of compulsion, from fear of rejection or desire for acceptance, rather than in true freedom and love. I suspect most of us need to die to this self – the ‘older brother’ self in the Prodigal parable again – which prevents us properly receiving (and therefore giving) God’s unconditional love and acceptance.
Finally, in Christ dying is always only the prelude to true living. We die only so that we can really start to live, to love, to be free. Good Friday on its own is an unfinished story waiting for Easter; the agony is incomplete without the ecstasy.
So in conclusion, I believe that the goals of psychological counselling – honesty, authenticity, self-understanding and self-acceptance – are not only fully compatible with Christian growth but are essential to it. That’s not to say that counselling is a substitute for discipleship or an alternative to Christian spiritual disciplines; simply that in the right place it can be an incredibly powerful and helpful tool in the spiritual journey of becoming more fully and truly human.