Becoming Whole and Holy through Christian Counseling

This week we bid farewell to our incomparably great intern, Ali Courtney, as she returns home to Australia after completing her MA degree at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Ali has kindly adapted the following integrative reflection piece which was originally written as part of her MA studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Though we might be tempted to imagine God’s presence as like the background static of the noise machine by the clinic door, the Scriptures give us images of God’s presence that are poised and pregnant with the potential for active, regenerative change. When the disciples’ boat is nearly swamped by the whipped-up waves of the Galilee Sea, they learn that they have nothing to fear when the Creator is in your midst—even when he sleeps![1] Nicodemus the Pharisee is humbled by Jesus’ teaching that an understanding of God only comes through rebirth, initiated by the Spirit whose agenda we cannot know, much less control.[2] Therefore, to say that our work as Christian counselors is done in the presence of God is to acknowledge his willful activity in bringing about wholeness and holiness in the lives of clients.

Holiness—or sanctification—is both an event and a process. As an event, sanctification draws on imagery from the Old Testament where rites, utensils, food, spaces, time, and people were “set apart solely for God’s holy purposes.”[3] When a person is sanctified, the Holy Spirit brings an “awareness of God’s holiness and conviction of the depth of our sin”[4] so that Christ can be accepted as Lord and savior. After this event, sanctification is also a process by which people progressively relinquish their allegiance to false idols and surrender their whole beings to the one true living God. 

The term wholeness implies health and maturity in the bio-psycho-social-spiritual dimensions of our being. Of course, health and maturity can be defined in various, sometimes conflicting ways, depending on the operating assumptions about what it means to be human. Most psychological theories that present a version of wholeness fall into two categories, each with a different hypothesis of the core tendency of all human beings.[5] Conflict-based theories assume that all human behavior is at bottom an attempt to find a compromise between “two great, opposing forces.”[6] Freud is a classic example, who posited that the core human tendency is to “maximize instinctual gratification while minimizing punishment and guilt.”[7] This we achieve through the use of defense mechanisms. Wholeness, in Freud’s formulation, is the sublimation of sexual instincts to more socially acceptable ends, such as creative pursuits, thus holding the libido and society in adequate tension.

The second grouping of psychological theories follows a fulfilment model, where the core human tendency is assumed to be “only one great force”[8] moving upwards and outwards from within us. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a popular example. He proposed that human behavior is driven by the progressive satisfaction of needs, from physiological through to self-actualization.

Both the conflict and fulfillment models highlight that wholeness is a process of becoming. Further, they illustrate the importance of articulating a statement about the core tendency of humans in order to set up an integrated picture of wholeness. Drawing the threads together, my suggestion is that where holiness represents our becoming more like Christ in every way, wholeness is about our becoming more human, in the fullest, healthiest sense of the word. And to be human, according to the Scriptures, is to worship the One who created us. The relationship between holiness and wholeness can therefore be captured in the phrase, worship as a process of becoming.

Of course, anecdotal evidence prevents us from conflating holiness with wholeness: it is possible to fervently follow Christ and continue to experience a lack of health or maturity in any of the dimensions mentioned above. On the other hand, keeping holiness and wholeness as entirely distinct, like two parallel lines, is also unsupported by experience. I think of a dear friend at my church who turned to Christ and was almost immediately empowered to quit smoking, and in the years that followed, able to sustain her recovery from substance abuse. Wholeness and holiness are therefore taken to be distinct processes that have the potential to interact.

What does this mean for Christian counselors, practicing therapy in the presence of God? First, it means we are confident that God is invested in making our clients both holy and whole, as he is the One for whom our worship-honing-device was calibrated. We can therefore internally or explicitly (depending on the client) invoke God’s presence by asking his Spirit: How are you counseling the client in this situation? Where can we see your comfort? What insight do you have for us? Where are sin patterns at work here? How can your empowerment bring change? These questions reflect a fluid movement between holiness and wholeness, and are driven by the overarching question, ‘Who or what is the client worshiping?’

A complementary question for the counselor to ponder is, ‘Who or what is the client becoming?’ The short answer is that we become what we worship. For example, in the area of sex and relationships, Jonathan Grant illustrates how our culture disciples us to become consumers rather than covenant-makers, seeking experiences for personal pleasure and believing that we have infinite choice.[9] In therapy, framing the question around behavior as what we are becoming, rather than what we should or should not do, orientates the counselor to consider the formational impact of culture and communities in the life of clients. Further, it invites an exploration of the formational possibilities of the gospel, applied with specificity and nuance. These applications are mere brushstrokes, but hopefully suggestive of the infinite potential for becoming holy and whole when tuning into God’s active presence in therapy, as the One who made us to enjoy him forever.

[1] Mark 4:35ff

[2] John 3:1ff

[3] Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 124.

[4] Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1979) 236.

[5] Salvatore R. Maddi, Personality Theories: A Comparative Analysis, 6th edition (Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1996).

[6] Maddi, 19.

[7] Maddi, 28.

[8] Maddi, 20.

[9] Jonathan Grant, Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2015). James K. A. Smith is also an excellent read on this concept.