St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. And where there is sadness, joy.”
This prayer, penned 700 years ago, still stands as an often quoted prayer in our modern Christian culture. It also resonates with any healthy therapist’s mission statement, Christian or otherwise. Though therapists differ in extreme ways, we all (presumably) share the desire to bring health and healing to our clients. How we do this is the difference, which of course, can make all of the difference. The usage of Christian prayer in counseling is one major way many therapist differ from one another.
As an undergraduate student learning to be a therapist, I remember being fascinated by the idea of helping others through the use of well-studied scientific methods of psychology. At a secular university, I took many classes from professors whose belief systems were radically different from my own. One such experience was in a class taught by a staunch and outspoken atheist, whose husband and child had been killed in an auto accident years before. During class she ridiculed the Christian belief system and likened it to a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream. Although I empathized with her pain, when she assigned a research paper to each student, I chose prayer in counseling as a topic. I really didn’t have another topic that interested me more, and although I wasn’t looking for trouble, I also didn’t expect to find much about it when I researched it in the library of my large university.
Although I was a Christian and knew the power of prayer internally (even in terms of finding favor with this professor), my first shock was to gain approval to write about this for my main paper. My second shock was to find reputable study after study validating the usage of prayer in counseling as a healing component. One more shock came in the form of the grade of “A” from this teacher, on this very paper. Though she may not have liked Christianity, she didn’t even try to argue against the research, which I greatly respected.
A few years later, during my graduate studies, I read many more studies, and was taught by professors who had written books about the wonderful fellowship of Christianity and psychological research findings. I have known, for a long time now, through the research I’ve done in school as well as from my own therapeutic experiences, that prayer and counseling can and do work very well together, in a variety of ways.
Prayer in session can help solidify the therapeutic relationship. As all therapists know, out of all of the healing components to the therapist-client relationship, there is not much more powerful than the relationship itself. Many times over, the relationship between therapist and client is cited as being at or near the top of the list as the most powerful change agent in the work. Prayer bonds a therapist and client in a very powerful way, since it invites God to be the leader of the work, and helps the client to feel less of a hierarchical relationship to the therapist, but rather a partnership with a common goal, the healing of the client.
There are many other wonderful things about prayer in counseling; the fact that the therapist and client can rejoice in each affirmatively answered prayer, the fact that the client has a safe place to wonder over the “problem of pain” when things are not answered in their own requested ways, in the way that the client often takes ownership over their issues in prayer in ways they have not done in session otherwise, in the way the client may reveal new information about the pain or find emotions they had not allowed themselves to process before, in the way that the client may find relief from taking their burden to the One who made them and knows them even better than the therapist, and even in the way that the client may learn about the process of prayer as a therapist prays over them. There are countless other possible benefits to prayer in counseling sessions, but there are important red flags to remember as well as we navigate the idea of prayer and counseling in relationship.
The first important caveat is to make sure a client is comfortable with prayer. In our client information packets at Reflections Counseling Center, we ask every client if they would like prayer incorporated in session. We never want to take someone to a place that they do not want to go, it isn’t therapeutically ethical or kind. We don’t offer prayer time in session if they have not circled that they would want it. Often this comes up in session, when going over the information, that they may want it but are not sure. Either way, the therapist must respect the position of the client in the matter. Our prayers for our clients outside of the therapy session are as private as our lives, but in our work together we never take the client past their comfort level.
If a client does request prayer in session, an important caveat to make is that we never make “prayer” one more tool in our “therapy bag” or try to avoid giving well-researched therapy tools to our clients by dominating the session with prayer. We don’t use prayer to manipulate and share new information with clients that we have not bravely spoke to them about prior to that, or to manipulate them to share things before they are ready. We do not use the prayer time to talk about our own individual needs either, since the sessions are not for the therapist, but for the client. If a client turns the therapy hour into a boundary crossing, “How can I be praying for you?” it is important that the therapist keep it about the client, to best serve the work they have been contracted for, even though the intentions are usually kind.
Biblically, God says that He loves it when someone humbly prayers in secret (Matthew 6:5-6), as well as promises blessing over those who take time to pray with one another (Matthew 18:20). Whether you are a therapist, a client, or just another curious soul, remember that prayer is a gift from God, and we only share this wonderful gift with those who desire to share it.
These opinions are my own, and I welcome feedback from others who have explored this issue or thought about it also! In the meantime, I will keep praying over our counseling center, and trusting that God has the best plans for it! If you have a counseling need (and whether you want prayer incorporated into counseling or not), please don’t hesitate to call us 941-301-8420 or check out our counseling center at http://www.reflectionscc.com Reflections Counseling Center