No, this is not a call for a Royal Rumble, a Battle Royal, or a Steel Cage Match that pits therapist vs pastor. I believe both serve valuable roles in our society. At the same time, the roles are different, and quite often, a good pastor can lay the groundwork for a good therapist.
This post aims to help you understand the therapist vs pastor distinction and decide which one you need. In the end, if you need a pastor, I’m here to help.
Two Ways of Viewing Life: A Comparison
Before we get to the roles of a therapist vs pastor, it’s important to pause and consider how you think about life. To do that, let’s start by outlining the difference between what I call a cosmological vs an individualistic perspective (I developed these as a radical adaptation from a seminary lecture by Dr. Bryan Salminen):
|System Participant: We are all part of a larger system. There is, as Alcoholics Anonymous describes it, a Higher Power behind the system. If you’re a fan of Greek Philosophers (because who isn’t), this is what Heraclitus called the Logos.
|Emancipated Self: You are an autonomous individual with the power to determine what’s right for you. What feels good is good and should be expressed. If you’re hesitant to think this is you because it sounds selfish, be honest. It describes most people since Descartes, “I think therefore I am.” burst onto the scene 400 years ago.
|Objective Self: Our self-understanding comes from who our Higher Power declares us to be. Healing comes from believing our Higher Power.
|Subjective Identity: Our self-understanding comes from what we think and how we feel about ourselves. Healing means addressing past wounds, resolving our feelings, and living as our true self.
|Rebellious Self: Actions and choices stem from rejecting the wisdom of our Higher Power and turning in on ourselves. The consequence of this is chaos, not in a pop-karma one-to-one correlation, but a much broader and interwoven systemic matrix. Embracing a therapeutic perspective is part of this rebellion.
|Pathological Self: Actions and choices stem from a sickness that needs to be diagnosed and treated. Chaos is a result of not being true to yourself.
|We’re Redeemable: While we are responsible for what we’ve done, our past does not have the final word. Embracing our objective self is the beginning of deliverance, forgiveness, and empowerment.
|We’re Victims: Since my behavior is entirely pathological, I am not responsible for it. It’s a natural response to my circumstances and, if it’s going to be changed, I need to resolve those original wounds.
Two Ways of Viewing Life: My Journey
Let me explore these two frameworks or perspectives in another way … through my story.
I learned three significant lessons before I turned 10-years old:
- I’m not good enough.
- When I perform, I gain approval that makes me feel good for a while.
- When I act out sexually, I feel good for a while.
How I respond to these lessons varies depending on the framework I’m operating from.
My Journey: Individualistic
The individualistic framework began with feelings of inadequacy and a longing for significance. One way for me to fill this void is to turn to variations of my childhood coping mechanisms (performance or sexually acting out). Unfortunately, they are temporary fixes and, like a drug, I quickly need more to get an effective fix. On top of this, sexually acting out often results in hurting others (using them, infidelity, objectification of women, etc.).
A better individualistic solution is resolving my core issue or wound. Again, there are problems. The solution is all about me and my feelings. This means a life of perpetually overcoming wounds (new or rediscovered) and never really turning towards others (especially those I’ve hurt).
More tangibly? After my divorce, I believed I didn’t have a problem. I blamed my marriage, life’s stress, anything that could serve as the reason why I threw my family, ministry, and life away. It was mansplaining at its ugliest, and it left me convinced that in the right context my issues would go away.
So I designed a new life. I remarried, limited stress, and crafted my ideal world. But the inadequacy remained and those closest to me continued to suffer. Certain I could crack the code, I turned to my childhood and explored my backstory. I aimed to retroactively heal childhood wounds so I could live without struggle today … but the addiction stayed, the past became an excuse, and the assault on those I love continued.
Perhaps you can relate to this neverending cycle.
And that isn’t enough, whenever someone expressed hurt from the damage I inflicted, it triggered my inadequacy and prompted a search for significance. Not only did this approach block my healing, it prevented others from healing as well.
My Journey: Cosmological
Then, while working on my doctorate I discovered a different way of framing life: the cosmological.
For me, this framework begins with God’s love made manifest in Jesus. My most basic and foundational reality? I am loved. However, somewhere early in life, I learned to doubt Jesus’ love for me. My church’s strong focus on depravity encouraged this. Kids bullying me on the playground fueled my rejection. Not belonging socially was another factor. There are additional reasons I can point to, but the details aren’t important. What matters, is that I rejected divine love for the first forty years of my life.
Now, simply receiving divine love didn’t make feelings of inadequacy go away and the habits of performance and acting out remained habits, but the shift immediately gave me a different set of tools to work with when addressing life’s challenges. Here are a few tangible examples:
- I open every day with a set of affirmations that remind me who I am, how I live, and what I am moving towards.
- When I catch myself performing or wanting to act out, I can name what it is and remind myself who I am.
- My choices created the neurological reality of addiction. Past behaviors literally rewired my brain. In time, I can undo the damage.
- Others expressing the damage I’ve done to them is not an attack on me, it’s an invitation to face the consequences of my actions.
The cosmological mindset is a beautiful place to be! It’s also necessary if you want to heal and help others recover from the damage you’ve done to them.
Therapist vs Pastor
With that framework in place, we can explore the roles of therapist vs pastor.
One thing is clear from the two takes on a cosmological vs individualistic framework … we need to approach life with a healthy cosmology. This prompts two big questions:
- How do we shift from an individualist framework to a cosmological one?
- What do we need to deconstruct a bad cosmology and form a healthy one?
The answer to both questions is the same. Theology (literally, God-talk). Why? Theology defines, redefines, or strengthens your framework. Who specializes in theology? Pastors.
Now, once you have a healthy cosmology, a Higher Power you can fall into, a good therapist is invaluable as they help you navigate life within your existing framework. To that end, I can say that good therapy is a gift. Therapeutic techniques, especially non-cognitive approaches like support groups, role play, writing letters, EMDR, and hypnosis continue to play a central role in my recovery. But until I had a healthy cosmological foundation, I circled aimlessly and selfishly.
So where are you? Are you trapped in the selfishness cycle of the individualistic mindset? Perhaps you’re beaten down by an unhealthy cosmological framework? Either way, I can help. Let’s define, redefine, or strengthen your cosmological framework together, and give you solid ground to heal from.