Early in my graduate training to become a psychologist I offered counseling to a young female undergraduate student with my professor and class watching and listening behind a one way mirror. This was nerve-wracking! I was worried about how well I’d perform in front of my teacher and peers.
I was so anxious that it was hard for me to access my capacities for empathy and insight and so I was rather stiff and not very well attuned with her. At least she received free “counseling” and extra credit for her psychology class.
Why was I anxious in my practice counseling session? We could talk about my family history with anxiety, role as the hero child, perfectionistic personality, or the stressful situation I was in, but let’s focus on one factor that encompasses the others: I was relying more on myself than on Jesus.
Yet, I had taught Bible studies and preached sermons on trusting God. I “knew” better! Relying on Christ was top on my list of priorities. What was wrong? My beliefs in God’s trustworthiness hadn’t become the experiential reality that I was living from. The peace of Christ wasn’t ruling over my mind and body (Col. 3:15). What lived in my body was pressure, fear, and self-criticism.
Years later in my work as a psychologist, I also had the opposite problem: I became so confident in my psychological theories and abilities to help people in therapy that often I forgot to rely on Christ as the Wonderful Counselor and the Smartest Person (even smarter than Sigmund Freud!) in the therapy office beside me. Again, I “knew” to rely on Christ to help me. I “believed” in the Scriptures: “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:3). Only “In Christ are hidden all treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).
I had been committed to Christ for many years, but I hadn’t learn enough about how to practice the presence of God personally or in my role as a psychologist. This requires wise training over time.
A Friend of the Bridegroom
I have since learned by experience that as a psychotherapist, spiritual director, and soul friend I can join with Christ while caring for people. I am not the counselor, but an assistant to the Wonderful Counselor (Isaiah 9:6). The same can be true for you as a pastor, teacher, or parent who listens to those you care for share personal struggles. While helping people we can learn to appreciate and rely on the risen Lord is in our midst. What a blessing it is when his peace and wisdom flow through us to those in need.
John the Baptist gave us my favorite analogy for assisting Jesus in the ministry of helping others. People came up to him as he was baptizing in the Jordan River and said, “Jesus is baptizing too and everyone is going to him!” John replied, “The bride belongs to the Bridegroom. The friend who attends the Bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the Bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine and is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:26, 29-30) John didn’t want to be in the spotlight, he wanted to draw people’s attention to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you ever thought of yourself as a Friend of the Bridegroom? Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor, the Teacher, the Parent, the Friend who sticks closer than a brother, and our opportunity is to assist him in what he is doing. What a blessed ministry! We stand beside Jesus, listening to him and supporting his relationship with his beautiful bride that he loves.
Before we can serve well as a Friend of the Bridegroom we need to be in the position of being Jesus’ bride. This feels like a stretch for many men! But the Bible teaches that all of us in the Body of Christ are the Lord’s bride (Isaiah 62:5, Matt. 9:15). The truth is that we all long for Jesus more than the food we eat and the air we breathe! Being deeply connected to God — not only in belief, but also in actual experience — is our greatest need. But we forget this or become conditioned to live a physical existence as if we aren’t eternal souls created by God.
To foster someone else’s experience of God we need to be experiencing God personally. “Serve what you’re cooking,” is a way of saying this. If you had friends coming to your home for dinner you wouldn’t serve them a meal that you weren’t eating yourself! The only way to help further someone’s connection to Jesus, whether explicitly or implicitly, is be in warm-hearted companionship with Jesus in that moment. In other words, we’re letting the Spirit of Jesus flow through us — his love and wisdom, his presence and power.
Interventions for Assisting the Wonderful Counselor
Practically speaking, what does it look like to be Jesus’ friend for another person? What are some examples of how we might assist the Wonderful Counselor when helping someone who is hurting or struggling? First, we need to resist our heroic aspirations! It’s not our job to “fix” people. Most of the times that people give advice they’re speaking “proverbs of ashes” (Job 13:12).
The beloved disciple of Jesus expressed the foundation of all soul care, “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). This is true for every aspect of love: patience, kindness, truth-telling, etc. For instance, we could say, “We listen to others because God first listened to us.” When we offer compassion to a friend we do it with the Spirit of the risen Christ who is right beside us. Together we ask exploring questions, empathize, reflect feelings, and silently shoot up little arrow prayers.
The heart of assisting Jesus to care for another person is expressed in Aelred of Rievaulx’s 12th Century prayer that he prayed for a spiritual friend he was helping: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope that Christ makes a third.” (See his book Spiritual Friendship)
Implicitly, we can offer the care of Christ to anyone who approaches us. Additionally, many of the people seeking our help will be open to receive explicit spiritual interventions. One example is that we could teach them to pray from their hearts the words of John the Baptist, “Jesus must become greater, I must become less.” Or, “More of Jesus… Less of Me.” I call this a Breath Prayer from the Bible. It combines meditation on Scripture with deep breathing, both of which are scientifically proven ways of reducing anxiety and increasing well-being.
It’s a simple thing, if you practiced it in your personal life, to show someone how to do a prayer of breathing in and out, slowly and deeply. Breathing in to trust God and receive from him… Breathing out to let go or renounce something. “More of Jesus… Less of me.”
We may need to clarify the meaning of this prayer. For instance, if someone is depressed or struggles with losing self in pleasing other people then when they pray this way they may be thinking, “Jesus is good… My personality and needs are bad.” No! The grace of the Lord is that he wants to forgive your sins, meet your needs, and enliven your true personality!” John the Baptist is saying, “Jesus is Lord… Not me.” We’re praying to rely on Christ alone, not our anxious striving and straining, nor our depressive self-pity and negativity. We’re not renouncing our person, but our self-reliant pride. We’re putting off the “old self” and putting on the “new self” that is being renewed in the image of Christ Jesus (Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:9-10).
In this example, wise discernment may lead us not to share this spiritual exercise with a client or friend who is struggling with shame issues.
Loving Spiritual Interventions
In my training to become a Christian psychologist a heavy emphasis was placed on being ethical by being careful to protect the welfare of my clients. Of course, this is extremely important. Unfortunately, this teaching was limited to the context of following the guidelines of the American Psychological Association, which don’t go far enough, as they emphasize behaviors. The real issue is that we can become the kind of persons who in any situation would obey Jesus’ greatest commandment to Love God with our all and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31).
My therapist training left me anxious and fearful about doing something wrong, not just in the one-way mirror room, but even in my own office. I received dozens of rules and cautions that left me feeling like I was in a straight jacket. For instance, it was drilled into me that rarely is it appropriate in counseling to pray out loud or share a Bible verse with a client. To be sure, it is unloving to do this with someone who is not open to receive from these spiritual interventions. “Do not cast your pearls before pigs,” Jesus taught (Matt. 7:6). He’s not saying, as many Bible students think, “Some people are like pigs so just forget about sharing your wisdom with them.” No! His point is that pigs can’t digest pearls so give them some food they can actually eat! (See The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.)
I would suggest that it may be unethical not to use spiritual interventions with clients or friends who would benefit from them. The great psychologist Carl Jung, speaking from outside a Christian worldview, said that the Christian gospel contained what was needed for psychological health. Yet, many Christian counselors even when working with Christians shy away from inviting Jesus into the foreground of their conversations!
Perhaps our important concerns that we not impose our values on people seeking our help or tap into sensitive areas of their religious wounding have caused us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Once we understand the individual nature of a person’s faith and relationship with God and the kind of interventions they are open to experimenting with then we can tap into the rich resources for psychological health that are available from the Bible and Christian history.