By Amanda Brandimore
October 21, 2021
Christian Clinicians: How can our faith inform how we approach our clients’ suffering?
For clinicians who are also Christians, it can be difficult to walk the line of responsible integration, particularly when we see the deep pain of our clients. We see that our personal faith can offer a hope to that suffering, and yet, as ethically-minded professionals, we see the potential for harm in sharing your faith within an unequal power differential. However, we can find some guidance in the wisdom of the psalms that can inform our attunement to our clients and provide a model for lament that is useful regardless of religious belief.
Suffering is Everywhere.
It is the stuff that brings our clients in to see us, and it is a part of the human story and every human’s experience at one point or another. Because of this reality, it is so important to hold space for lamenting with our clients. We have a culture that numbs or distracts itself from pain and suffering, which ultimately exacerbates and prolongs that suffering. This is where the psalms have a lot to offer us in the counseling room, whether we incorporate them explicitly or implicitly. The psalms model for us what it looks like to cry out in anguish from the depths of suffering, to express our pain and in so doing, to find comfort and hope. Incorporating psalms explicitly, then, by reading a psalm with the client, can serve as a model and an invitation for the client to express their pain.
Incorporating the Psalms
As Brueggemann aptly puts it in Spirituality of the Psalms, “…the Psalms permit the faithful to enter at whatever level they are able — in ways primitive or sophisticated, limited or comprehensive, candid or guarded.” Alternatively, even if the client is not Christian or does not wish to use explicitly Christian interventions, the psalms of lament provide us as Christian clinicians with biblical corroboration for what psychology teaches as the importance of expressing pain in relationship and attuning to our emotions in order to heal. There is a beautiful paradox that we see clearly in the lament of the psalmist. The chaos and disorientation of our pain and suffering is organized and clarified when we attend to it and express it. We may feel that ignoring or swallowing the suffering will allow the pain to dissipate, but that only serves to exacerbate our pain. Only by facing the pain head on, and by facing it in the context of a safe relationship does the chaos lose its hold on us.
Responsibly Integrating Theology and Psychology
In the realm of suffering, this is crucial for Christian counselors. Many opportunities for growth and change can come out of a client’s suffering, but there are also many clinical pitfalls and dangers to be aware of when walking with your client through that suffering. Suffering can be a refining fire that illuminates a person’s blind spots, challenges their weaknesses, motivates them to learn from their experience and emerge stronger on the other side. However, suffering can overtax an already weakened cognitive schema, coping repertoire, or strained social support system. Sensitive and discerning support from a counselor at a critical time of suffering can be that catalyst toward growth and resilience. However, inattentive, bypassing, or condescending words to a client can cause significant damage to the client’s well-being and the therapeutic relationship. This is where the importance of client-centered, implicit integration informed by Scripture becomes so critical. We cannot go wrong by being warm and present to our clients, and we must be sure to only offer more explicit interventions when we are sufficiently sure that the client would benefit from them. Our goal as counselors should be to sit shiva with our clients or to bear witness to their pain, and in so doing to point them toward the incarnational and healing presence of Christ.
If you resonate with this post, want to learn more, or have found ways to do this work of integration in our own practice, feel free to reach out. Ongoing dialogue with fellow Christian clinicians is crucial and enriching to our practice. I’d love to talk further with you.
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