By Hua Ou
How would you respond if someone suggested you might benefit from seeing a counselor or therapist?
I smile as I visualize the possible reactions. In my experience, many people are not eager to associate themselves with needing to seek mental health services. Dare I say Christian communities are even more so disinclined? “Bible reading and prayer life are enough for me; I don’t need counseling,” a person might say. We often say we are sinners but fail to live out this reality by asking for help and helping one another. This misconception – that accessing mental health services is a negative action – might come from the fact that people try to separate themselves into delineated categories: healthy vs. unhealthy, functional vs. dysfunctional, etc. When I was studying family system theory in graduate school, I came across the term “dysfunctional families,” which refers to families where there might be trauma or abuse. People generally do not like to categorize themselves as dysfunctional. This is especially prevalent in Christian families, where appearances and service roles in the church and the community are important. Over the years, however, I have come to recognize that there is no such thing as a completely functional family on this earth. We all come from dysfunctional families in one way or another because each one of us is dysfunctional. We are ALL affected by others’ sin and our own wrong choices. My husband and I came from non-Christian families where there were different dysfunctions. Ever since we accepted Jesus in our twenties, we became faithful members of God’s church. We also raised our two daughters in the church, striving to live a godly life. From the outside, we are contributing and moral citizens—we pay taxes, smile courteously, and do not use swear words. However, privately, in the light of the presence of God, each one of us falls short of his glory. It is as if we have this decay in us that deteriorates our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. I always say in my sessions that in this fallen world, each one of us can benefit from seeing a counselor. Each of us needs a counselor. Deep down, each of us desires a counselor who truly knows and understands us.
“How can you listen to people’s sad stories all day long? Don’t you get depressed?” I am asked this question a lot. And I am increasingly aware of the fact that each one of us, made in the image of God, is gifted with unique talents, skills, and interests that wire us so differently to serve this world’s various needs. I was naturally born to be sensitive, observant, reflective, verbal, and expressive. I loved reading fiction novels when I was young, and other people’s stories fascinated me (they still do). Reflecting back on my life journey, I recognize God has been long preparing me with the essential elements to do this special work: empathy, love, and care for people. He ordained life experiences of all aspects to equip me with understanding and knowledge in caring and counseling people from diverse backgrounds. I find it deeply satisfying to help individuals and families gain self-awareness and awaken to the goodness of our Creator, solidifying hope from extremely intricate points of life.
Sometimes these moments come with no preparation beforehand. I remember once telling a client, “If there is no goodness, there is no beauty.” The room quieted down. I never planned this farewell statement to my client, who had been discussing his lifestyle through therapy sessions. A person who highly regards beauty, my client was demonstrably struck by the statement. He fully agreed with it and later referred to me as “a philosopher.” He left with the profound awareness of the concept of “goodness.” I was equally amazed with this perspective, as it did not come from me. God ordained that moment to release his truth and love to a man who has been struggling in pursuit of self-defined beauty all his life.
As a counselor, I work with people from different walks of life: children, adolescents, adults, families, low-income populations and people who struggle with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, substance abuse, and much more. I get to know them. My heart aches with them. As I meet them, I experience this simple reality: we are the same. Yes, it appears that we are different: our looks, temperaments, skills, socioeconomic conditions, different psychiatric diagnoses, etc. However, looking beyond our individualities, we are all the same. Just like Mandisa’s song sings, “We all bleed the same.” Our core and ultimate needs are the same: we are all made in the image of God; we are all broken human beings who struggle; and we are all in need of a Savior, the Wonderful Counselor. My clients taught me that deep down we all desire to be loved and known intimately. Maybe the first step to love people struggling with mental illnesses is daring to walk closer and getting to know each other in humble humanity.
What can I do?
In this fallen and increasingly broken world, each one of us can benefit from a counselor. We are all affected by others’ behaviors as well as our own choices and actions. Besides counseling services, each one of us also can exert our influence and promote the welfare of our fellow citizens. Many hurtful behaviors might be bred from social and emotional isolation or exclusion. We need to ask ourselves: in this increasingly digitalized world, how can I help promote human kindness? Nothing can replace the warmth of a real smile from across the table. Let us strive to deliver kindness to each other face to face. While we are texting smiley and heart emojis, how often do we look up and smile at a fellow person and say hi? How about starting a friendly conversation with a stranger? Maybe a heartfelt “Have a great day!” can deter a person’s hopelessness of that moment. Inviting our neighbors for dinner, patiently listening to telemarketers, listening to others’ complaints…The list can go on and on.
In this life we all struggle, and we all long for tender love from real people. In a class recently launched in my church, believers were encouraged to “neighbor well” by following Jesus’ model. “Jesus listened. He asked questions. He touched people. He did not label people but treated them as individuals with real needs” (Go! An Adventure in Kingdom Living, 2018). Jesus walked into the crowd and made eye contact with people. He looked at you and me. It is in God’s nature to care in this way, not only in how he acts, but also in how he identifies himself.
Our Wonderful Counselor
I am always amazed by God’s names in Isaiah 9:6. I wonder why the first name is “Wonderful Counselor”? How do you feel toward the name? Have you ever had an experience of being in front of a counselor? When I heard of the recent Parkland, Florida shooting tragedy, I went back to my Wonderful Counselor. I could sense his deep, deep sorrow mixed with sovereign control. I was in front of the Wonderful Counselor, who created us, knows us, loves us, cares about us…most importantly, he is ALL GOOD. To know and be known by an ALL GOOD Counselor—how wonderful it is! No wonder the psalmist says, “…your love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3). Life can be tough, uncertain, painful—but life is worth the living, just because he lives. Our Wonderful Counselor was where we were, is where we are, and will be where we will be. He was dead, and is now risen. We are fully known by him, and will know him fully on that Glorious Day.
His name is the Wonderful Counselor because he knows that we need one. In this sin-ridden world, each one of us needs the Wonderful Counselor to heal and to save. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3 was one of the guiding verses for me to enter the seminary. It was as if the Wonderful Counselor was asking me, “Are you willing to heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds for me?” His question echoes in my heart still. And maybe he is asking you today. By his grace, may our one answer always be, “Here am I, send me” (Isaiah 6:8).
Kakolowski, Maria, and Linda Doll, editors. Go! An Adventure in Kingdom Living. Lexington, Grace Chapel, 2018.