I have adopted an interpersonal therapeutic approach as my theoretical framework for counseling. While I see value in all of the various approaches, theories, and techniques of counseling, I believe that an interpersonal process is an effective people-oriented approach that seeks to address the core issues of the heart. I believe that everyone has been created uniquely and there is much truth to be taken from other therapeutic frameworks. Therefore, I integrate elements from other techniques when applicable to the needs of my clients. For me, this approach to counseling would be incomplete without my Christian worldview regarding the nature of life, people, problems, change, and helping. Both are key components in counseling, and together they provide a powerful opportunity for healing in the lives of others. When counseling individuals I always explain my approach to counseling and open discussion regarding my Biblically based approach. I have worked with many clients who do not share my Christian beliefs and I never try to impress my way of living on them.
My view of the nature of life is grounded in the theological notion of “creation, fall, redemption, glorification,” as found in God’s holy Word. I believe that all of life has been - and continues to be - created by God, the giver of life (Genesis 2:7; Deuteronomy 32:6). All of creation was created “good” and life was originally intended to be enjoyable and glorifying to God. However, when man chose sin over obedience, every aspect of life became corrupted (Genesis 3). The negative affect sin had - and continues to have - on creation and life is drastic; it encompasses our relationship with God, our relationship with others, and even our own self. Ever since the fall of man, mankind has chosen to worship the creation rather than Creator (Romans 1:25), which has caused a wealth of problems for humans spiritually, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Suffering is now inevitable (1 Peter 4:19) and earthly death is the ultimate result of our sin (Romans 6:23). Sin has not only negatively affected relationships, but the nature of persons, problems, change and helping; nothing has escaped sin’s touch.
Fortunately, life does not stop at the fall of man. God’s faithfulness to His creation is revealed in His redemptive nature. Immediately after the fall of man and the ushering in of sin into the world, God steps in and redeems aspects of man’s sin. For example, in Genesis 3 God seeks out His people, proclaims justice, and mercifully makes them clothes to cover their nakedness and shame (Genesis 3:21-24). Throughout the Old Testament we see a God who redeems all things (Psalm 111:9). In the New Testament, we see an ultimate act of redemption when God sends His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross and to overcome death in His resurrection as a means of final atonement for His people (John 3:16). These truths are a testament to the fact that everything was created to be good and to glorify God, everything has been plagued by and suffers under the affects of sin, and that everything is redeemable by God. It follows, then, that the nature of life currently contains a tension between knowing what ought to be versus what is. In other words, one can clearly see the “Echoes of Eden” throughout life. While glorification is a process that has already begun in the life of man, it will not be fully realized until after Jesus has returned to earth for the Second Coming and ushered in the full glorification of the world and of mankind. One could say that we are currently in the “now and the not yet,” meaning that we are only getting a taste of what this full glorification will be like.
I believe people were created by God and in His image (imago Dei) to be good and to glorify Him (Genesis 1:27). Though humans are very complex creatures, one way to look at the nature of persons is within the structural, functional, and relational domains of their lives. Every individual has been created with a unique body, personality, and skill set, has been created for a unique purpose, and has been placed in a unique relational context. Since the fall of man, each of these areas has been disrupted. Everyone is a sinner and falls short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Persons have responded to this altered state in a variety of ways, however, at the fundamental level most (if not all) individuals respond to their sinful state by attempting to protect themselves as a means to cover their fear, shame, guilt, and anxiety (Genesis 3). Ultimately, persons try to gain control over their helplessness and strive to create for themselves the safest environment possible, often in maladaptive ways.
Where humans have not been able to save themselves from this sinful state that is contrary to how they were created to be, Jesus Christ has. As a result of Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, all mankind’s sins have been atoned for (Romans 5:6-8). For those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and accept Him in faith as their Savior, they will have eternal life. For those who reject this notion, they will not have eternal life, but death (Romans 6:23; John 3:18). Jesus Christ came to die for all, which is a testament to the fact that everyone has inherent worth and is redeemable (John 3:16-17). Additionally, persons have been created with the freedom of choice (Joshua 24:15). Because Jesus is the only sinless human who fully reflected God’s glorious image, we must look to him as our model for what we are to be as persons. As people grow closer to modeling Christ and move closer towards being what they were created to be, God’s image will be more fully revealed in their structural, functional, and relational domains.
All problems in the world are either an indirect or direct result of sin, the result of a fallen world. Rarely are problems as simple as they may originally appear. They are always interwoven with emotions, underlying feelings, and often other problems that add to the complexity of the presenting problem. Many problems stem from a maladaptive adaptation to much deeper issues that are not necessarily readily apparent. For some, this looks like behavior such as those labeled by Horney as, “Moving Toward, Moving Away, and Moving Against” others. Each of these behaviors originate from deep attachment wounds and are coping mechanisms utilized by individuals to overcome the anxiety, fear, shame, or guilt their problem invokes. Teyber suggests that, “…interpersonal coping styles have become the primary source of their self-esteem and their principal avenue to succeeding in life” (Teyber, pp. 251-255). When these coping styles become rigid and unbending, fully dependent upon the individual’s ability to enact them perfectly, problems inevitably arise. Suddenly the self-defeating or problematic behavior presented is the very thing that provides insight into the individual’s behavior.
Though many problems are unpleasant and cause much distress, problems can bring growth, change, and healing as well (Romans 5:3-5). Throughout the book of First Peter, Paul explains how we should expect suffering, and that suffering can foster godly character. Addressing problems by going through them rather than working around them or ignoring them is ideal. In His graciousness and mercy, God has provided wisdom through His word, through others, and through general and specific revelation to guide us through our problems and closer to Him.
I believe that the process of change is nearly always a slow one, and that there is no “quick fix” for struggling individuals. Because everyone has been created uniquely, change may occur in a different way for each individual. Both short-term and long-term treatment approaches can be helpful in fostering change with surface level and deeper level problems. While I take my responsibility to be the best counselor possible very seriously, I realize that I am limited in the part I play in fostering change. Ultimately the change process is directed by God, and only He is capable of changing the hearts of clients. It is the client’s responsibility to take ownership of their problems and confront the deeper issues of their heart. If clients are unwilling to work on their problems, change will most likely be minimal.
People are created uniquely, and therefore change will look differently for each individual. For many, change means reenacting their past experiences or coping mechanisms within the present therapeutic relationship and working to create new positive ways of interacting and behaving. By helping clients identify their ability to think, feel, and act in different manner, clients can gain a greater self-awareness and a sense of autonomy. Furthermore, this approach to change helps clients take ownership of the change process in their life. Other key components of change include prayer, which can transform a client’s self-focus into a God-focus. Grieving one’s state of sinfulness and absence of full glorification, as well as identifying ways in which God’s grace, redemption, and glorification are taking place can encourage clients to continue moving forward in the change process (Romans 8). Ultimately, change occurs as God transforms the heart of the individual, which often occurs as the client focuses inward and addresses their core conflicts and emotions.
It is my belief that the nature of helping is best modeled by Jesus Christ, the only sinless human who fully reflected God’s glorious image. From studying the way He interacted with the broken-hearted, we can see the impact and healing power of connecting with others relationally (John 4). People long for and are made to connect with others and the therapeutic relationship can not only provide this connection, but help the client to transfer these skills outside of the counseling relationship. Providing a safe environment and attachment where clients can freely explore who they are is crucial for the change process to occur. What the counselor does, then, becomes far more important than what the counselor says. Often problems are reenacted within the therapeutic relationship, so a counselor’s response to a client’s words and behaviors can be quite a powerful thing. Fostering an environment where the counselor and client work in the moment, a working alliance is established, various issues and recurrent themes are openly addressed and discussed, and where emotions are heightened can all be part of the helping process. Helping clients requires that the counselor grasps what is significant to the client from their point of view (Teyber, pp.50-63).
Loving and helping others well means that the counselor must look for the underlying meanings in a clients’ words and body language and helping them to disclose their innermost thoughts, feelings, and emotions. At times this may require confrontation, while at other times it may require grace. To be most effective, counselors must not separate the scientific, theoretical, and relational approaches to counseling, but rather work to integrate all three aspects. In order to help clients most fully, the spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional aspects must be addressed. In sum, while these techniques may be helpful, ultimately deep healing begins in the context of a relationship. McMinn and Campbell describe this experience well: “The great hope of the Christian life is not disengagement from living in a broken world but establishing an identity in Christ that gives a new vantage point in understanding ourselves and the world in which we live”. For me, this means realistically addressing the ways in which we have been affected by the fall and embracing God’s truth and grace while He transforms (be it slowly or quickly) the client (Romans 5, 8).
by Terry Aaron, PhD, CPPT, LBT