17 July 2006

pastoral counseling

pastoral counseling

Over five years ago I took a course in "Pastoral Counseling" as part of the Masters degree in theology I was pursuing at the time. Part of the requirements of the course involved writing up a "pastoral counseling philosophy." The professor commented that she thought my paper was a bit overly intellectual and philosophical, though I'm not sure what she expected when she asked a philosopher to write a counseling philosophy.

It was a helpful class in many respects, especially given how often I find a troubled student in my office seeking someone to listen to them and advise them. While I still typically feel out of my depth in those situations and will suggest that the university's own counseling services might be worth looking into, it is also often the case that the student really wants to speak to someone already known, trusted, and perceived as "approachable." The coursework I've done in counseling, though not extensive, has been a great asset in such situations.

In any case, without making any claims whatsoever regarding its insightfulness or practicality (or even its being well written), below you'll find what I penned at the time. I'd probably put some things differently today, but it's an interesting window (at least for me) on what I was thinking half a decade ago:

In developing a pastoral counseling philosophy, it seems to me that there are two primary perspectives that need to be kept in focus, both on the part of the counselor and in the experience of the client: one's theology proper (view of God) and one's theological anthropology (view of humanity in relation to God).

After all, we are not considering human psychology in the abstract or just as the various kinds of psychological theories and therapeutic strategies that have been offered over the past century or so. Rather, we are considering the process of human development, growth, and spiritual formation against the backdrop of a particular faith tradition, as well as the beliefs, stories, and practices shared within that tradition as the proper context for growth - whether a belief in the reality of human sinfulness or various practices of spiritual direction.

In the following pages, then, I will outline some of these primary perspectives from the standpoint of Christian faith and tradition, looking particularly at:

[a] the Trinitarian backdrop of theology,
[b] the human person as a "covenantal" being,
[c] the role of narrative in our individual life-stories and as persons inserted into the Christian narrative, and
[d] some very brief comments on various forms of Christian spiritual praxis including confession, the cultivation of virtue, prayer, and spiritual direction.

None of this is designed to eschew contemporary research and methods or to ignore further aspects that are explained better elsewhere. Rather it is intended to provide a structure in which those tools can be evaluated and used effectively.

Nor is this designed as a philosophy for counseling people from all faith traditions. My focus is upon those who are committed to an orthodox Christian faith. In much of the following I will address the counseling situation speaking of how "we" might approach various issues, recalling thereby that one can come alongside others in their process of restoration and growth only as one who has also been wounded.

The Trinitarian Backdrop

The Christian understanding of God is as a Trinity of Persons, revealed climactically in the person, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and his sending of the Spirit. As creator of all things and as the ground of all being, God is the ultimate reality and who God is tells us a lot about who we are and what the world is like. So it will be useful to consider the rudiments of Trinitarian theology.

As the doctrine of the Trinity is exposited in the ecumenical Creeds, each of the Persons of the Trinity is understood to be eternally identical with the one God in essence and yet totally distinct from the other Persons in terms of their own Personhood. It is also the case that each of the Persons of the Trinity is who he is only in the specificity of his free, loving relation, giving over, and commitment to the other Persons. Thus the Personhood of each is received as a gift from the Others. Moreover, by positing difference, diversity, and plurality in the very nature of God in this way, created qualities such as interpersonal relationships, freedom, love, communion, service, grace, and faithfulness are analogically rooted in the very being of God himself as ultimate reality.

The Christian tradition, building on the Jewish tradition before it, understands the human person, individually and in community, in terms of the "image of God." In the context of the Christian faith, however, this takes on a specifically Trinitarian complexion. While various apsects of the human person have been highlighted by different theologians as embodyying the imago Dei, in light of a Christian Trinitarian faith, it seems most natural to explicate that image of God in terms of the human capacity for freedom, relationships, faith, and so on.

What is more, if the divine Persons receive their personal character only in relation to the other Persons, we must also conceive of human personhood and individuality as something received and formed only witin the various relations we have with others, including our relationship with God and the means by which that relationship is constituted and sustained within various human contexts.

Persons in Covenant

One way of thinking about all that has been suggested thus far is in terms of "covenant," a theological concept that has found a place most centrally perhaps within the tradition of Reformed Protestantism.

Given the Trinitarian backdrop, the concept of covenant must be seen first of all in terms of the intra-trinitarian relationships that constitute who God is, which are the analogical ground for God's dealings with humanity. Human beings were created with the intent to be enfolded within the relational life of God as God's children and, as obedient children, to grow and develop therein more and more to image who God is, both individually and together as the people of God. Of course, it is evident that the human condition falls far short of this due to the presence and power of sin and the brokenness and damage that sin produces in our relationships with God, with one another, and within ourselves.

But a covenant is more than just relationship (though it is certainly not less). The concept of a covenant implies an ultimate commitment of trust in the covenant Sovereign, a form of organization, particular practices and activities, the exchange of signs, as well as the promise of blessing and fulfillment. In the biblical tradition, God established covenants with the people of Israel as a sheer act of gracious intention to accept them and bless them as an object of his own free love. In response and as a result of knowing their God, the people were to embody a way of life that reflected who God is. This covenant relationship was further celebrated and cultivated through various signs and practices: sacred feasts, the Temple, a range of rituals, and study of God's word. The covenant defined who Israel was both as nation and as individuals within that nation, in relationship with God and with one another.

All of these things, however, were marred by continued faithlessness, sin, and idolatry. Though we are damaged, the presence and effects of sin do not change the disposition and nature of what it means to be human as covenantal beings. Rather, in turning our backs upon God, humanity characteristically exchanges the gracious and forgiving God of the covenant for idols of our own making or borrowed from surrounding influences. Like the true God, these idols functions convenantally: making demands, promising blessing, and embodying all of this in definite patterns and rituals.

This understanding of the human person as essentially covenantal provides, I think, one useful model for counseling: trying to come to understand the various false images of God and other idols that function in our lives, unmasking their empty promises and unrealistic demands, and unlearning the patterns and rituals by which they have bound us. This must be joined with an attempt to come to understand who God really is, who we are in relationship to him, trusting in his promises, and attempting to form new patterns and rituals that reflect this understanding. This model, however, can be conceived in overly narrow ways.

For instance, someone might interpret this model's opposition between idolatry and true faith merely in terms of relying upon our own performances over against simply trusting in God's forgiveness as that is expressed in adoptive sonship. While such a pattern is an important one and certain one useful and powerful way of seeing various kinds of human dysfunction, it appears rooted in a law-gospel dichotomy that misreads certain biblical themes and posits that the problem of human fallenness is only ever a kind of "works righteousness" that attempts to earn God's favor.

While there is no doubt that such a dynamic is at work in a wide range of situations, it also risks the danger of trivializing personal problems that don't neatly fit into this schema, for instance, the sense of shame that accompanies sexual abuse. While a sense of God's unconditional love and acceptance us as his adopted children is crucial for healing in that context, thematizing the counselee's problem in terms of his or her sinful attempt to earn God's favor strikes me as more likely to compound shame than to overcome it.

The Role of Stories

One difficulty with accounts that want to reduce diverse phenomena along a single interpretative axis (such as performance over against trusting God's promises), is in terms of how they tell the biblical story and what categories they use to do so.

While the categories of guilt, sin, atonement, and so on are certainly fully biblical and indispensable, they do not exhaust the range of biblical language available to tell the Christian story. Narrative, nonetheless, is essential to counseling and part of such story-telling involves getting the vocabulary of the story right, both in terms of one's own personal story, how one hears the stories others tell, and in re-situating the re-telling those stories within the larger narrative of God's gracious covenant plan in history.

As already noted, we are constituted by our covenantal relationships and patterns whether those are faithful to who we are intended to be in relation to God or embody the sin and damage of human fallenness. But these relationships and patterns are to be found embedded within the stories that we tell about ourselves, that we have learned from our families, close companions, and wider culture, and that we speak about God. Just how we recount those stories says a lot about our self-understanding and may reveal ways in which we need to find new ways of speaking. A significant part of narrating our lives as Christians is to come to understand our own personal narrative in the terminology of and as of a piece with the biblical narrative - as well as the continuing narrative of the church - into which we were inserted by baptism.

The grand sweep of the biblical narrative culminates in the story of Jesus Christ, transforming the story of Israel into one of typological anticipation in which God's covenant has been fulfilled in Jesus himself. In doing so, God has fully revealed his divine character as one of love in action, on mission to bring the deliverance and healing to the world, sharing our suffering with us in solidarity, even under the disfiguring power of sin and death, and triumphing over them. In these events God provides a challenge to the many false images that we cling to and makes his loving and forgiving divine presence known, even in the most god-forsaken of moments as even Jesus experienced in the cross. And by our baptism identity the story of this God revealed in Christ becomes our own, to be taken up in faith.

Sometimes this story does very much need to be told in the vocabulary of sin, forgiveness, receiving that forgiveness in faith, and the possibility of overcoming sin in God's own power, by the Spirit. But other times the story needs to be one of God's coming alongside us in our shame and woundedness, sharing fully in it, in the atrocity and humiliation of the cross - a God who fully understands our situation and remains present with us in it to shoulder the burden. Still other times, it is the story of a God who lovingly cares for, attentively sees, and fully appreciates the contributions, how ever small, of the weak, the lonely, the marginalized, and the overlooked. And there are numerous other re-tellings, for a variety of circumstances and contexts.

Christian Praxis

The Christian narrative, however, was never intented to remain at the level of a simple chronicle of what God has done in the past. Rather, it must come to us personally and transform how we live and act - covenant praxis. The assortment of ways in which this can happen is too numerous to try to inventory here, since many of the various stragies suggested by diverse counseling models can be deployed prudentially within the account I am sketching. Nonetheless, I shall highlight several possibilities that I believe to be helpful.


One of the means by which God's covenant love is made known is through rites and sacraments that God has given the church. And though baptism and eucharist are central here, the church has also developed rites of confession, rooted in Jesus' own commission to his apostles and the practice of the earliest church as witnessed to by the New Testament. While many Protestant bodies have abandoned confession in reaction against what were deemed Roman Catholic abuses at the time of the Reformation, the practice of confession is not foreign to either the Lutheran, Anglican, or Reformed traditions, even if largely unused or replaced by more informal interactions.

The formal rite of confession, however, can be an excellent way in which the forgiveness offered in the Christian gospel is applied personally and individually to those baptized persons who are troubled by ongoing pangs of guilt, who stand in need of serious self-examination, or who require some kind of accountability structure for some specific struggle with sin. It should be always made clear to the penitent, however, that the rite of confession is not a means by which we merit God's forgiveness by our contritions, but rather is a personal celebration and reception of God's ever-available forgiveness in Christ, who is held out to us in the word of the gospel, already sealed to us in baptism.

Christian Virtue

Another aspect of personal growth and spiritual formation relevant to counseling, is the cultivation of Christian virtues such as friendship, prudence, peace, hope, courage, patience, and the like. It is not enough simply to leave off destructive and unhealthy ways of thinking and actions, without adopting new patterns of thought and behavior as well. This is simply the Pauline dynamic of "pooting off" the old Adamic humanity and "putting on" the new, as an outworking of our baptismal identity and within the context of the Christian community. I cannot enter into a full discussion of virtue presently, but a few remarks are in order.

Virtue, in most traditional accounts, is the formation of a particular habit of character, involve both a matter of right thinking and right acting in order to accomplish particular ends in relation to oneself and others. As discussed above in connection with narrative, coming to think about things in a new way or in a new context can be crucial in learning to act in new ways, to meet goals, and to break old habits.

But sometimes, consciously and deliberately adopting new patterns of behavior can be just as effective in shaping one's thinking and emotions. For some, it might be waking up in the morning and reminding oneself, infused with Scripture and prayer, tht I am a forgiven and beloved child of God. For others, it might be carefully stepping back from a situation and breathing deeply a few time before re-engaging with the difficulty at hand. In any case, the relationship between thought and practice is reciprocal and which takes relative precedence in a particular situation is a matter of prudence.


Habits of personal, small group, and corporate liturgical prayer are also key factors in emotional and spiritual health and growth. Such practices will naturally vary for person to person depending upon time and temperament, but they cannot be neglected. In the context of counseling this could be expressed in a number of ways: beginning and ending sessions with prayer; using prayer as a means for the client to speak to God about past and present wounds; the use of the laying on of hand with prayers for emotional and mental healing; assigning exercises whether the daily office, lectio divina, or centering meditations; suggesting attendance at a prayer group or weekday liturgy that is know to provide the kind of support and spiritual nurture neeeded; in some traditions, participating in a eucharist offered up in memory of and thanksgiving for a deceased person with whom there remain unresolved issues.

Spiritual Direction

Finally, Christian traditions of spiritual direction offer many insights for counseling even today. For instance, they commend the use of silence in counseling in order to open up a space between the counselor and client into which God may enter and his voice heeded. Likewise, notions of sacred trust and the seal of confession may be used to supplement more contemporary forms of professionalized confidentiality, as well as the wisdom of letting rest any past issues that have already been effectively dealt with and only bringing them up again with great care and discretion. Many other aspects of spiritual direction can be draw upon those these few will suffice here to gesture towards a deeper engagement with those traditions.

In conclusion, then, this bare sketch of a counseling philosophy remains incomplete and schematic, and that is as it should be given that the practice of counseling is itself open-ended and a process of ongoing learning. Still, the broad outlines I have given are, I hope, fairly established and clear enough and developed enought to suggest how further elements might be incorporated.

We also had to prepare an annotated bibliography for the class along with the counseling philosophy, providing further resources as well as support for the paper itself. But I seem to have misplaced it. Ah well.