The Secret to Good Counseling

What is already in your client is far more powerful than anything you can give them.

Consider that for a moment.

We’ve made our words, our precise articulations, our interventions, our expertise far more important than the hidden treasure within.

In the last chapter of Leaving Egypt, I talk about theosis, the deepest truth about ourselves, that we exist in union with God.  It’s the most central theological truth I believe there is.

St. Paul says, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)  Or, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  (Col. 3:3)  We are the temple (1. Cor. 6:19), the paradise of God, called a “new creation” (2. Cor. 5:17).

So, counseling is easy.  It’s what Michaelangelo said about David, among his greatest works – I kept chipping away everything that was not David.

Counseling chips away at everything that is not you.  St. Paul calls this “not you” part of you the “flesh” (sarx), better understood as the false self, bearer of all of our selfish ambition, insecurity, manipulation, image-creating, and more.  Or, as Thomas Merton says, “The self that begins is the self that we thought ourselves to be. It is this (false) self that dies along the way until in the end ‘no one’ is left. This ‘no one’ is our true self. It is the self that stands prior to all that is this or that. It is the self in God, the self bigger than death yet born of death. It is the self the Father forever loves.”

This ‘no one’, of course, is quite unappealing, and so clients often sabotage the counseling process before finding this core, true self.  We’d rather live with the illusions.  As Hezekiah’s misguided ambassador’s told the truth-tellers on their road back to Egypt, “Prophesy illusions.  Tell us what we want to hear.” (from Isa. 30)

Listen counselors…you don’t need to convince your client.  You don’t need to drop great theological truths on them.  You don’t need to fight them.  You need only call out what is already there, what is most deeply there.  The Spirit living within is already praying (Rom. 8:26) in words your client cannot even articulate or perhaps even understand.  This is why when they change, often in drastic ways, you stand in amazement, knowing it had little to do with you.  After all, what could you do that Spirit could not do!?

A client once said to me, “You must work twice as hard with a client as difficult as me.”  I said, “Oh no, all I can do is offer you a taste of life like anyone else I counsel.  God’s doing the deep work already inside of you.”  She began to cry.  She said, “God cannot possibly be inside someone as disgusting as me.”

If she got this message from a pastor, she’s been lied to.  Our deepest reality is union with God.  It is a mystical union.  Juridical theologizing often misses this, and we end up feeling separated from God, and very, very guilty.  But this is “unio mystica,” as John Calvin calls it, whereby “his divinity and our human nature might by mutual connection grow together” made possible by the “secret energy of the Spirit.”  Not your grandfather’s John Calvin, is it?  This Calvin sounds more like a mystic in the tradition of Augustine, Bernard, even his contemporary St. John of the Cross, than a simple forensic-minded lawyer.

What is the secret?  That our deepest reality is hidden in Christ.  As a therapist, then, my work is to simply chip away everything that is not Christ, not the true self, not the self held safely in the Father’s hands.

2 comments

  1. I really appreciate this. I’m just starting counseling (again)… brought on by a lot of stuff in Newbigin (thank you Enneagram and Leaving Egypt and the Gift of Being Yourself… etc). I don’t think I’ve ever been in the place to benefit from counseling before in the way I feel now. The Enneagram was a HUGE part of that! And the idea that there is the essential me underneath all this crap. It’s very exciting… and very daunting. I HAVE to trust that the Spirit is working… and even when I have no idea how to be me… I will trust that the Spirit will uncover her. Also… I wouldn’t have read this except for the assignment on the other blog post… so thanks! 🙂

    “The Spirit living within is already praying (Rom. 8:26) in words your client cannot even
    articulate or perhaps even understand. 
    This is why when they change, often in drastic ways, you stand in
    amazement, knowing it had little to do with you.  After all, what could you do that Spirit
    could not do!?”

    Amen

  2. I really appreciate this. I’m just starting counseling (again)… brought on by a lot of stuff in Newbigin (thank you Enneagram and Leaving Egypt and the Gift of Being Yourself… etc). I don’t think I’ve ever been in the place to benefit from counseling before in the way I feel now. The Enneagram was a HUGE part of that! And the idea that there is the essential me underneath all this crap. It’s very exciting… and very daunting. I HAVE to trust that the Spirit is working… and even when I have no idea how to be me… I will trust that the Spirit will uncover her. Also… I wouldn’t have read this except for the assignment on the other blog post… so thanks! 🙂

    “The Spirit living within is already praying (Rom. 8:26) in words your client cannot even
    articulate or perhaps even understand. 
    This is why when they change, often in drastic ways, you stand in
    amazement, knowing it had little to do with you.  After all, what could you do that Spirit
    could not do!?”

    Amen

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