This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.1 John 3:19-20
As a pastor, I have recommended counseling for a countless number of people. I am a strong believer that getting to a place of emotional health often requires the help of others, and sometimes professionals, to help us see our blind sides and the deeper wounds in our hearts.
When counseling is done well, especially when done by someone with a Christian worldview, it can be a good first step toward emotional healing and emotional health. However, I’ve also seen the darker, more damaging side of counseling.
Do you know people who have gone to counseling for years, even decades, and are not much better than they were before? They are no more free and no more like Christ than when they started counseling? Sometimes they are worse? Me too. Unfortunately, as a pastor, I have had front row seats to see how very common this is. It is so common it is embarrassing.
John reminds us in this passage from 1 John 3 that what truly sets our hearts at rest in God’s presence is not an endless cycle of morbid introspection. The key to emotional health and healing in our hearts, he tells us, is having confidence that God is greater than our hurts, our emotions, our past and that He knows everything. Which means instead of spending years in an introspective search for all that is wrong with us, we can simply seek God and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the things deep in us that need healing.
The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians about the “search engine” capabilities of the Holy Spirit:
…these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.1 Corinthians 2:10-13
In a subsequent letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds them that it is the Spirit that does the work of transformation in us. He said:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.2 Corinthians 3:17-18
The Holy Spirit is a master at searching the deep things in our heart and in the heart of God and bringing them to the surface so that our heart can be healed. So often we struggle to see ourselves the way God sees us, so we either end up blind to our own sin or we end up with a lot of self-condemnation.
The beauty of allowing the Holy Spirit to reveal things to us–rather than endlessly, introspectively searching for what is wrong with us–is that He is able to masterfully avoid the traps of justification and condemnation. He reveals to us what needs to be healed, what needs to be surrendered, what needs to be faced, what needs to be forgiven, what needs to be confessed, but does it without an ounce of fear, avoidance, shame or condemnation. He also knows when to reveal it and when to wait until we can handle seeing it. As John said, “If our hearts condemn us, we know God is greater than our hearts…”
Counseling, without also engaging in the inner healing ministry of the Holy Spirit, can become just a self-absorbed exercise in endlessly talking about oneself. And we all know people that love to endlessly talk about themselves. It is a sign of the very opposite of emotional health.
Morbid introspection assumes: 1) I will have the ability to see what the problem is, 2) I will want to do something about it, and 3) I will be able to do something about it. But we need the Holy Spirit to enable us to do all of these things. Without the Spirit we are blind and powerless to enact real, deep and lasting change in our lives. Christian counselors know this better than most.
What we need to cultivate is 1) the willingness to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal areas that need addressed in our life and 2) the ability to listen to the Spirit’s direction. So much of Christianity has lost the ability to hear the intimate voice of the Shepherd. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me“(John 10:27). But rather than cultivate the ability to hear the Spirit speak to us, direct us, and reveal things to us (1 Kings 19:12-18), we’ve substituted that kind of intimacy with other people telling us what’s wrong with us.
I will always be an advocate of counseling, especially by those who do therapy from a Christian worldview. But I do not think it is the ultimate solution to our problems nor should it be done in a vacuum. I believe it should be used as an aid, a helpful addition, to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit speaking to us and revealing to us what He wants us to see when He wants us to see it. This allows us to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” (Hebrews 12:2) rather than turning our attention to self-absorbed introspection.