Dr. Chen’s story may help you know if biblical counseling is right for you.
Dr. Jenn Chen, PsyD, had been providing therapy for over 15 years.
And she had been a licensed clinical psychologist for 10 years.
She had training in Christianity, psychology, cutting-edge psychotherapies, and even neuropsychology.
She had been a clinical instructor for UCLA, teaching pre-doctoral students, medical students and social workers, and was busy compassionately helping people in the inner-city.
Then the perfect storm struck. She wasn’t able to make sense of it all as she faced severe illness with accompanying panic attacks, weight loss, depression, anxiety, and a deep awareness of her limited faith.
Everything she’d been taught and everything she knew wasn’t working, including the very therapies and techniques that were supposed to help.
This brought Jenn face-to-face with biblical counseling, but because she’d been taught to believe that biblical counseling was simplistic and hurtful, red flags went off in her mind even before she started the counseling.
As she began biblical counseling it felt at first like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but as she progressed, she realized how robust and helpful it was.
Fast forward…Dr. Jenn Chen is now a biblical counselor in California with a Master’s of Arts Degree in Biblical Counseling (MABC), and enjoys helping people find lasting change and peace.
Below, you can listen to a podcast, watch a video, and read an interview to learn more about Jenn’s story.
Listen to a podcast with Dr. Jenn Chen:
Hear Dr. Jenn Chen describe her journey to biblical counseling:
EXCERPTS FROM THE VIDEO
“I’VE BEEN TRAINED primarily to treat people with mental illness, more severe mental illness, but at the same time, therapy and counseling have been a piece of it. I also served on the UCLA faculty as a psychologist, teaching primarily pre-doctoral students, but also medical students, social workers about how to work with the persistently mentally ill, how to work with people who are chronically suicidal, and to people who self-harm as well as working with very impoverished communities.
“I guess due to some of the struggles in my life there were times where I turned to psychology/therapy to try to answer some of the questions.
“My theology was just not working.
“I was diagnosed with depression and it was very dark, it was like a loss of hope, of just wondering where God was and just wondering if I just need to make it to the end of my life to get to Heaven, and how do I do that?
(She explains becoming very sick on a trip to China.)
“My body was starting to have all these symptoms, part of it being depression, part of it just not able to eat, losing 20 pounds in three months, starting to have panic attacks and the doctor was telling me that’s just because my cortisol system was off of whack. But I just remember being terrified at that time of, I’m dying and western medicine isn’t helping me and I have a seven year old son that I can’t even care for. And I’m driving my husband crazy, and ‘God where are you?’
“To deal with my sufferings and depression I just did a shotgun approach. I first of all tried to apply everything I knew from psychology and from counseling and from what I was teaching other people. And maybe there would be some momentary relief but nowhere as a means as a solution to the problem. I was trying acupuncture, I was obviously just really careful about my diet, about just basically trying to control everything in my environment whether what I was putting in my body, what I was breathing, what I was wearing….
“Yeah, I was very desperate at the time. I was on medication from a psychiatrist for depression as well as for the anxiety and the panic attacks. It helped me to tread water, but I felt myself slowly sinking down further and further….
(She explains how she came to understand that biblical counseling was deeper and more helpful than she originally thought.)
“…What we believe about God really affects how we live our lives and how we see life and how we see God. It’s been amazing for me. When I experienced how biblical counseling really got to the roots of something that I’d been struggling with my whole life, how looking at my idols, how learning who God really is, has changed my heart it made me realize just how powerful the Gospel is. I feel like I’ve learned the things, in biblical counseling, that I thought I was going to seminary for, and just granted me a sense of peace that I’ve never known.
“So what I’m hoping by sharing some of my story is that people who are struggling would know that that’s OK and that they can get help with that.”
INTERVIEW, JULY 2019
DAVE BENDER: Dr. Chen, your journey from psychology to biblical counseling intrigued me. What did you enjoy about psychology, and what did you learn from it that has been helpful for you?
DR. JENN CHEN: In the upstream, there are theorists who are brilliant thinkers and keen observers of human beings as they seek to address societal and individual plights. God created me as someone who thinks deeply about things and this aspect of psychology was intellectually engaging to me. I learned about many differing influences on how people may view life, themselves, and their problems.
In the downstream, there are practitioners (think prescriptions and interventions) who are deeply compassionate, in the trenches daily in the muck with those in suffering and sin, when some Christians are more insulated from suffering in the world. In a time of my life that was confusing and full of suffering and sin, there were people in secular mental health that were trying to understand me and help me in the best way that they knew from their worldview.
One important thing I learned is how to listen well and to be present in suffering, not quick to give a trite or platitudinous answer. I also learned the importance of thinking through etiology (the definition and cause of a problem) as a guide to how I might intervene. I learned to be a careful student of people as a way to care for them.
DB: You mentioned you had therapy as a teenager. I’d be interested in hearing more about your struggles and your therapy. What was helpful and what wasn’t?
DR. CHEN: The secular label would be “eating disorder.” I had individual, family, and group therapy. My first therapist was a second wave Cognitive Behavioral therapist. He was a caring psychologist, who tried to help me restructure my thinking and behavior. He did his best to help my parents and I communicate with each other more effectively.
My second therapist was a licensed clinical social worker. Initially, she was more psychodynamic/object relations, but later provided EMDR. I am very grateful for both of these individuals, especially my second therapist who was there for me in some of my very dark moments, including 2 later times in life when I was going through fibromyalgia and then infertility.
But now as I look back, while therapy helped me become more “functional” in life and feel better about myself, it was due to a change in idolatries rather than gospel centered heart change. I ended up blame-shifting my sin, as well as focusing on more socially acceptable idols that offered temporary happiness and self-confidence, rather than on growing my love for and reliance on God, and sanctifying me in grace and biblical truth.
DB: Here at our counseling center, there’s a question we ask of new counselees on our Goals form, and I’d like to ask you that question: Will you please try to summarize your life in four to six sentences? I always enjoy reading people’s answers because it helps me know a person much better.
DR CHEN: One of my life passages is Isaiah 30:15-26. It starts out: For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling… Like the Israelites, I often sought salvation not in God, but in myself and in hard work.
I sought strength in striving (the opposite of quietness) and I lacked trust. Yet the Lord has waited to be gracious to me and has exalted Himself to show mercy to me. At the sound of my cry, He has answered in the way that has been best for me, always. Through my afflictions, He continues to pursue me and woo me from idolatry and bind up my brokenness.
DB: OK, similar question: If someone wrote a book about your life, what would the title and subtitle be? Personally, I’d hate to try to answer this question so feel free to skip it if you’d like.
DR. CHEN: (Laughs.) Okay, I’m going to use a song title instead of a book, and this may date me a little. There was a Kenny Rogers song called “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.” My song would be “Looking for Shalom in All the Wrong Places: Finally Finding Shalom at the Cross.” Shalom is the Biblical word for peace, wholeness, well-being.
DB: On the ACBC Truth In Love podcast with Dale Johnson, I must admit that I smiled a little smile when you said these words after finishing a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy: “I have no idea what I’m doing still.” After your master’s degree, you went for more training and achieved a doctorate in clinical psychology. Why did you feel so unprepared?
DR. CHEN: There are multiple ways I could answer this. One, I think is that my culture influenced me to believe that if I am educated enough, then I will have the answers. After my MA in MFT, I had some knowledge about psychopathology, a secular sense of how relationships work and the process of therapy, but limited experience.
Another part was that I had a desire to work with more difficult populations such as the severely persistently mentally ill, those diagnosed with Schizophrenia or Bipolar, whereas marriage and family therapy focuses more on relational problems. Some of it is my personality, where I like to understand what I am doing and why. But ultimately, it was because the tools I had were not enough for true heart change.
DB: What are some of the upsides and downsides of American psychology?
DR. CHEN: Phew, this question could be addressed by an entire field of study. But the short answer is similar to what I said earlier, the upside is that there are brilliant thinkers trying to solve true problems that they observe about the human condition. The downside is that God is not a part of how they perceive, interpret, and solve the problems. The Christian scholar Cornelius Van Til noted that there are no brute facts, no neutral suppositions or worldviews; facts are interpreted and come in a framework.
Those trying to view, interpret, and solve problems in the world without a biblical worldview will always have ideas and directions antithetical to the gospel. In addition, there are the noetic effects of the Fall, which I think Al Mohler does a great job addressing in a message (https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-way-the-world-thinks-meeting-the-natural-mind-in-the-mirror-and-in-the-marketplace). There is also a leaning toward scientism. I could also provide many secular critiques of the psychologies, but don’t want to go into this here. I’m using plural for psychologies, as David Powlison did, because there is no truly grand unifying theory in the field.
DB: You’ve now experienced both psychology and biblical counseling deeply and personally. Which is superior in helping people and why?
DR. CHEN: There is a strong discipleship thread running throughout both secular psychology and biblical counseling. As a patient of a therapist, your thinking and being becomes shaped by your therapist’s worldview, even if the therapist is trying to be objective and neutral, but again as van Til noted, this is not possible. Both in the MFT and Clinical Psychology program, my thinking and doing was being influenced by the worldview of my professors and supervisors.
The way secular mental health training works is that you receive a certain number of hours of individual and group supervision for every certain number of hours that you provide mental health services, anywhere from 2 to 6 hours a week. You are working under someone’s professional license, and thus what you do falls under their ethical and legal responsibility.
Under a competent supervisor, you are immersed in their worldview, learning to think (theory) and act (interventions) similarly. The same goes for a professor and teaching assistant, or writing a dissertation under a dissertation chair and committee. You are given written evaluations or grades based on how well you can think and work within their framework.
Here are some of the worldviews I was immersed in year by year.
- 1st year MFT – Child (play therapy) and Systems theory
- 2nd year – Multicultural Psychology
- 1st year DOCTORAL – Rogerian/Client-Centered
- 2nd year – Psychoanalytic
- 3rd year – Community mental health, Group Therapy and Psychological Diagnostic Assessment
- 4th year – Neuropsychological assessment (medical/biological view) at West Los Angeles VA
- 5th year – Psychodynamic (Group supervisor) and Existential/Humanistic (Individual supervisor). 40 hours a week position.
- APA accredited Postdoctoral Fellowship – Second and Third wave Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy). I also received inpatient experience. 40 hours a week position.
- I also completed intensive training in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy from Behavioral Tech and ran a fully adherent DBT program.
Throughout my doctoral psychology program, science and research were emphasized as a crucial world view through statistics and psychometrics.
I also received a MA in Church Leadership that exposed me to various theological perspectives, including process theology and liberation theology. I was “discipled” in each psychological and theological perspective, all having descriptions (data/information) that they focus on, theories (interpretations, or narratives to explain the data), and prescriptions (interventions for change).
Each is pointing to something or things as “salvation,” something that “saves”. Ultimately underlying any worldview is worship, what you find worthy of living for or what you value, and it will be either the only true and living God or false gods (idolatry) feeding the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16).
Biblical counseling discipled me in a biblical worldview and life, where sin both outside of myself and within my heart is the problem, and the gospel is the solution, or as Dr. Ernie Baker says, the “soul-lution.” While this is simple, it is not simplistic or reductionistic. The result is rather than looking to myself or worldly philosophies (e.g., Col 2:8), I look to the sufficiency and authority of Scripture (2 Tim 3:16–17), the conviction and power of the Holy Spirit, and the church to counsel my own soul and others.
Rather than being able to think and act more like a professor, supervisor, or master clinician, I am being progressively sanctified into the image of Christ as I behold God’s glory. My pastors, professors, and mentors in biblical counseling point me to worship of the Triune Redeemer, not to themselves.
DB: What would you say to a friend who told you she was thinking of seeing a psychologist for problems with depression and anxiety?
DR. CHEN: I would first make sure that she gets a full physical checkup – we are embodied souls. Then I would explore with her what she would hope to gain from seeing the psychologist, and engage with her about how biblical counseling could address her experience and concerns in a much more robust and eternal way.
DB: What do you want people to know now about biblical counseling that they may not know, or may misunderstand?
DR. CHEN: To be frank, I have heard some horror stories about biblical counseling, by God’s grace mostly after I had already received it myself. But I strongly believe the problem is not in biblical counseling itself, but perhaps in the weakness of specific counselors who may not have a full-orbed view of the gospel and counseling, or sometimes due to misunderstandings and confusing biblical counseling with therapy.
In my first brief exposure to biblical counseling in an Introduction to Integration class, biblical counseling was brushed over because it did not consider secular psychology to be vital to understanding how to counsel people, and it was portrayed as overly simplistic, so that it barely registered on my radar, other than something not to do. Prior to receiving biblical counseling, I used to think Christians who pooh-poohed psychology were naïve, legalistic, or non-progressive. I thought Biblical counseling might be shallow, limited, and not take science or intellectualism seriously.
I’m ashamed now to admit some of the excitement of psychology for me was feeling like I was on a cutting edge of intellectualism. I also wondered if in biblical counseling, they were going to just give me Bible verses, and how helpful could this actually be? I was concerned that they might overspiritualize everything and blame me for my own problems.
Ironically, some of my training encouraged me to search for whatever kernel of truth I could find from any counseling experience, which helped me to be open to receive what biblical counseling might have to offer. At the time that I received biblical counseling, I had tried everything I knew from secular and integrative psychology to try to handle my distress, and they were not proving to be very helpful.
I would want them to know that solid Biblical counseling embraces the transforming power of the gospel. It is comprehensive in its scope and practice. And through competent biblical counseling, they can experience a deeper grace and truth from our Triune Redeemer. If this is not happening, then I might suggest they are not receiving what I would consider true biblical counseling, but a counterfeit. Just as there are many false prophets in churches preaching a false gospel, there can be false counselors labeling themselves as biblical counselors. At the same time, there are no perfect biblical counselors, either, as all of us are a mix of saint, sinner, and sufferer.
DB: Probably most of us tend to see ourselves as strong and not in need of help from others. Why do you think relationships with people are important?
DR. CHEN: We are created in God’s image, who Himself is in community as a Trinity. Even before the Fall, it was not good that we be alone. Many passages in Scripture come to mind, such as 1 Corinthians 12, where we need different parts of the body to function together as a whole, or Hebrews 3:12-14 and Hebrews 10:24-25 the importance of exhorting and encouraging one another so that we are not deceived by sin. And the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor, which cannot be done outside of relationship. I’m also thinking of James 5:16, where we are called to confess our sins to one another, that we might be healed.
Furthermore, our counseling pastors remind us of Ephesians 4:15, that it is not just the designated “counselors” in the church, but all of us are called to speak the truth in love to one another, that the church body will grow up in every way into Christ. It is not just in formal counseling, but also casual conversations where we are giving “counsel” and it will either be biblical or it won’t. They actually encourage everyone in the church to take our biblical counseling training class, not just those who will be doing formal biblical counseling.
DB: What would you say to someone who is considering biblical counseling for the first time? In other words, how would you encourage them to press forward in that decision?
DR. CHEN: I am grateful to my biblical counselor, who knowing my background, did not disparage psychology, but basically intimated, “let me show you a more excellent way” and was winsome.
But know, especially if you have been in therapy before, that biblical counseling is not therapy in the sense that it is not about trying to immediately alleviate your suffering. It is pointing you to something even greater – your justification, progressive sanctification, and eventual glorification when you see Christ face to face.
At the same time, your counselor should reflect Christ’s grace, humility, and patience, so if this is not happening or doesn’t feel like it is, I would encourage you to discuss this directly with your counselor, or with another biblically wise person. It could be your perception, it could be that the counselor is not reflecting Christ, or somewhere between the two. Not every person that labels themselves as a Biblical Counselor is doing biblical counseling as I understand it, a reflection of God’s grace and truth in love.
I would also want them to know the importance of commitment to the counseling process. The counseling time is not the magic hour of change. Completing the homework is crucial as you do your part in sanctification through working out your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), putting off the old self/ being renewed in the spirit of your mind/ putting on the new self (Eph 4:22-24), and beholding the glory of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).
DB: In what ways have you been able to help people now that you’re trained in biblical counseling?
DR. CHEN: Biblical counselor David Powlison wrote a book called Seeing with New Eyes, which is an apt description. When I see women begin to see God, Scripture, themselves, their sin and suffering, and their lives through a gospel-centered perspective, it is such a privilege. It is a joy when they start to see the rhythm of the gospel of confession, repentance, and grace, and see the nature of progressive sanctification, rather than as seeing the Christian life as an impossible or dreary task.
DB: What do you love to do? What’s your passion?
DR. CHEN: I love to mine the riches of Scripture, whether a single word study, the overall epic story of God’s redemption, and everything in between, and grow in my gnosis of and love for God (Jer. 9:23-24, Phil 3:10-11). I love to point others to His perfect character and perfect Words of life, and hear how others are beholding His glory, whether current people in my life, theologians, the puritans, or ancient Scripture. I love to see others grow in their love for and worship of Him, and find joy in their salvation. I also love to laugh with my family at silly things and enjoy God’s creation together.
DB: Would you tell me a little about your family and then explain how your new understanding affected your marriage and family?
DR. CHEN: I have been married to my best friend Peter since 1996. There have been multiple challenges to our marriage including significant health issues, 5 years of infertility, and death of one of each of our parents. However, growing a gospel-centered approach to our marriage has been key. In the MABC program, the marriage and family class and the biblical conflict resolution class taught me what Scripture says about marriage and relationships, and how to honor Christ in these.
I still fight sin and living for my lower case “k” kingdom in my marriage rather than living for God’s capital “K” Kingdom (Paul David Tripp), but God continues to sanctify me and help me to put off my old self, be renewed in the spirit of my mind, and put on my new self. Similarly, parenting has become not about raising a moral and kind person with a secure career, but about pointing my son to the cross, as I share about my own desperate need for the cross. Our family seeks to live out the rhythm of the gospel through confession, repentance, and resting in God’s grace and mercy.
DB: Thank you Dr. Chen for taking time to answer my questions. I’m certain you’re going to be used in the lives of many people for many years to come.
DR. CHEN: May it be only for God’s glory! I’m but a jar of clay.
How has Dr. Chen’s story affected you? Feel free to send us your comments by going to the Contact Us page.