Bread and ghosts
Wright, N, & Hallervorden, N. (2003) ‘Bread & Ghosts: Spiritual Development in Counselling’, Christian Counsellor, April-June, Issue 17, pp32-37.
In the first article of this series, we introduced a new development model that focuses on the following three dimensions:
We noted that these three aspects of development are inextricably linked, i.e. growth in one area inevitably affects all other areas too.
Parallels can be found here with Foster’s three movements on the journey of prayer: inward, upward and outward.[i] Essentially, we identify an issue or concern in our everyday life (personal or professional), move inward to examine underlying patters, belief systems, relational styles and motivations in ourselves[ii] then lift these upward to God to receive new perspectives.
These perspectives could include, for instance, a deeper revelation of God’s love for us, an insight which enables us to let go of sinful attachments etc. This, in turn, brings about the kind of change in us which affects our outward movement towards the world around us, transforming our personal and professional interactions with people.
We noted that the core principles of our own model can be applied at a number of different levels including:
In this 2nd article of this series, we will focus on spiritual development, exploring what we mean by this term and how it can be applied to the Christian counselling arena.
What is spiritual development?
Christian development is concerned with a process of positive change towards God’s eternal design and purpose including, ultimately, intimate relationship with him. In this sense, spiritual development undergirds all other aspects of development.
There have been various attempts to define and categorise spiritual development such as that by Shattock[iii] who comments that any strategy or intervention can be evaluated in terms of its contribution to spiritual development according to a number of categories including:
Does it promote saving faith (e.g. powerlessness and need of Christ)?
Does it increase understanding of the Christian faith?
Does it recognise the need for Super-natural gifting/power?
Does it provoke, challenge and/or encourage a life of faith?
We will use the term ‘spiritual development’ for the purposes of our model to describe in particular:
Growth in spiritual awareness & discernment
Growth in knowledge & relationship with God
Growth in maturity & committed discipleship
Each of these areas will be explored in greater detail below, with Biblical material and case examples to demonstrate their significance and application in the Christian counselling arena.
Spiritual awareness & discernment
Jesus fed 5000, and more, with just five loaves and two fish (Mk 6:35-44). This extraordinary public event would have made headline news today. The disciples were impressed, especially when Jesus sent them to collect up the leftovers and they filled 12 baskets.
Later that night, the disciples were out on a lake when Jesus appeared by the boat and they found themselves terrified, believing this figure to be a ghost. “They (the disciples) were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves...” (Mk 6:51f). Apparently, there was a link between the ‘ghost’ and the bread.
Some time later, Jesus feeds 4000, this time with seven loaves and a few fish and the disciples pick up 7 basketfuls. Jesus rails at them sharply when it becomes apparent that they have still not grasped the deeper significance of these events: "Do you still not understand?" (Mk 8:17ff).
The word ‘significance’ starts with the word ‘sign’, and a sign always points to something beyond itself.[iv] Many readers will be able to relate to the experience of reading a familiar passage of Scripture and, all of a sudden, understanding it in a new way. This generally reflects the depth of our understanding, our ability to ask: “What does this communicate to us? What is it pointing to?” Had the disciples been asking such questions, they might have understood the significance of the loaves and fishes sooner.
In the counselling context, we need to ask ourselves, “What are the signs in our own lives, and those of our clients, that we need to interpret and understand in order to develop spiritually? What is the significance of a particular problem in the client’s life? Which related spiritual issues are trying to emerge and need to be addressed?”
One of us was approached recently by a potential client who was struggling with involvement in an adulterous affair. She felt unable to stop this relationship, despite the potential hurt it could cause to her family. It soon became apparent that she felt this relationship was giving her something vital that she could not otherwise have. Eventually, we realised that his was related to the client’s inability to believe that God loved her and this led to a very fruitful exploration of what was blocking this experience.
As a result, she now has a much deeper appreciation of the depth, richness and unconditional nature of God’s love – a love that can transform even the most difficult of circumstances. Thus, in the middle of crises, we often find the potential for spiritual growth.
A key aspect of spiritual development in counselling practice is regular reflection on experience in the light of scripture and vice versa.[v] In order to picture this conceptually, we find it helpful to distinguish between two approaches to recognising and interpreting God’s ‘signs’ which are a bit like opposite ends of a see-saw.
Applied theology is concerned with studying the Bible and applying its teaching to specific situations. For example: Sarah studied the Bible’s teaching on forgiveness to see how she how this might be applied in the context of a client who had been physically abused as a child.[vi]
Theological reflection is concerned with reflecting on specific experiences in the light of the Bible’s teaching. For example: Peter was attacked verbally by an angry client and spent some time afterwards reflecting on how his defensive reaction related to scriptural examples of forgiveness.[vii]
We are reminded of the need to seek God’s revelation in prayer and not simply by our own human effort: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor 2:14). As one counsellor friend has summarised this principle, “The only way to study the Bible is on your knees”.
The same applies to Christian counselling practice. The Christian supervisor/counsellor, concerned with promoting his or her own spiritual development as well as supporting that of his/her clients, has a particular responsibility in this area. We suggest the following practical tips:
Thematic study: spend time studying Biblical themes (e.g. salvation, repentance, faithfulness, grace), making note of any key points and verses.[viii] Write down, alongside those points, what their application might be to your church/agency[ix], supervision practice, counselling practice and clients.
By way of example, Mary was studying the theme of faithfulness. As she was pondering the implications for her life, several different issues emerged. Mary had been considering transferring one of her clients to another counsellor, as she has recently taken on responsibility for running the counselling service and found she was busier than expected. However, in light of her Bible study, she realised her responsibility to be faithful to her previous commitment to her client and revised her decision accordingly.
Mary also wondered how she, as a supervisor and agency director, could model this quality of faithfulness to her supervisees and colleagues. Mary decided to use time at the next team meeting to share her reflections and ask for feedback on ways in which the service as a whole could develop the quality of faithfulness further.
Case study: spend time reflecting on specific examples of church/agency, supervision, counselling or client experience as a basis for learning and development.[x] Write down your reflections and action points systematically as follows:
What did it feel like?
What were the key issues?
What does the Bible say?
How should I/we respond?
Knowledge & relationship with God
“Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). Knowledge and relationship with God is the highest goal of spiritual development and Christian counselling. In fact, the verb to know (ginosko) used in this verse normally refers to the level of intimacy reserved for a marital relationship.[xi]
This kind of knowing moves beyond rational ‘knowing-about’, although this aspect is retained, to a depth of relationship where trust in God’s love lies at its heart and inspires us to love Him in return.
God’s love is not even necessarily felt in its emotional sense, since knowing at a spiritual level is able to transcend even the experience of God’s apparent absence in times of distress.[xii] It is sometimes in the darkest and most barren of experiences that we learn new depths and dimensions of God’s upholding presence with us.[xiii]
“Two years ago, I suffered from what was described by my GP as stress bordering on depression and nervous breakdown. I had become so exhausted that I couldn’t stop trembling, started having terrifying anxiety attacks and could hardly think clearly at all.
Christian friends were quick to pray against ‘attacks of Satan’ and to encourage me to ‘carry on in the strength of the Lord’, arguing emphatically that what I was going through could not be part of a loving God’s design for me. This only added to my sense of spiritual pain and loneliness.
In contrast, the counsellor who helped me most did not pray against my experience or exhort me be to be strong, but simply walked with me in all my vulnerability and weakness, revealing profoundly the Christ who walks with us too.”
This example illustrates how a key role of the supervisor/counsellor is to mediate the love and truth of God. In practice, this may involve helping the client to grow in awareness of spiritual dimensions of his/her experience, to discern and interpret ‘signs’ (see Spiritual awareness & discernment above) and to enable opening of experiences before God in prayer.
Since honesty is a key requirement for growth in any relationship, it is often necessary to help clients be honest with their current feelings about God, giving themselves permission to express even negative or seemingly ‘unacceptable’ feelings to God rather than feeling obliged to express traditionally accepted feelings such as worship, praise and adoration at that time.
Ignatian prayer can be particularly helpful in this context, e.g. asking clients to pray through a gospel passage, imagining themselves as part of the story. It is often quite revealing which role clients decide to take. In the example of the miracle of the loaves and fishes above, would the client choose to be one of the disciples whom Jesus rebukes, or one of the crowd perhaps? Are they contributing food, or without anything to contribute?
Key questions to ask concern how the client experiences Jesus in these contemplations, e.g. as loving, distant, angry, compassionate, arrogant etc? Another key issue is the client’s response to Jesus – do they feel angry, hurt, loved, understood, bitter, deceived?
Explorations of this nature can be a good starting point for further prayer, asking God into this experience, understanding why we feel the way we do, coming to a new awareness of God and this improving our relationship with him. This type of prayer can also be used to promote the counsellor’s own spiritual development, too.
At a wider church/agency level[xiv], we suggest that the questions posed by Shattock at the start of this article can provide a useful touchstone for testing periodically strategies/policies and supervision/counselling and church/agency practice, bearing in mind that these questions should relate to the overall direction/ethos of the work rather than to the specific content of any one session.[xv]
Maturity and committed discipleship
One of us once ran a course where participants were asked, at the beginning, what they believed to be the distinctive aims of Christian counselling. Without exception, the group identified the therapeutic goal of ‘healing from pain’ as the principal goal.
After a brief exploration of various New Testament passages, the group quickly revised its definition to, “(to) reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:13). The word ‘unity’ points back to Eph 4:12 with its emphasis on the building up of the body of Christ; that is, individual growth takes place within the context of community.
This is, perhaps, one important aspect of Christian counselling that is very different to its secular equivalents. The real context for Christian counselling is the church as community and not the relative isolation of the counselling room. Even the Christian engaged in secular practice does well to be rooted in God’s church as a vital place of support and accountability.
Having commented that spiritual development is fundamentally concerned with spiritual maturity, we certainly don’t wish to infer that Christian counselling has no wider concern for emotional and/or psychological healing. Indeed, the Bible is filled with references to God’s compassion for humanity and his committed actions to alleviate human pain.
We do believe, however, that ultimate healing and wholeness can only be found in Christ. The whole of the beatitudes could be summed up in one statement, “Blessed are those who realise that God is their only hope.”[xvi]
It is only as clients work through the painful process of understanding what this means for them in their pain, crisis and healing process that they are released from previous negative views of themselves, others and God and free to fulfil the two greatest commandments: to love the Lord your God with all that you are, and to love your neighbour as yourself.
[i] Foster (2000), Prayer, Hodder & Stoughton.
[ii] For further comments see the next article in this series (Jul-Sep 03): Personal Development in Counselling.
[iii] Shattock, Spiritual Development seminar. Christians in HRD Conference. Waverley Learning. 26/1/01.
[iv] cf John 20:30f: Jesus’ miracles as ‘signs’.
[v] See Lyall (1989), Pastoral Action & Theological Reflection, inWillows & Swinton (2000), Spiritual Dimensions of Pastoral Care, JKP, Ch4, p53ff.
[vi] See Foskett & Lyall (1988), Helping the Helpers, SPCK, p44f.
[vii] See Wesson (1986), Theological Reflection on Practice, in Ballard (Ed) (1986), The Foundations of Pastoral Care & Practical Theology, University College of Cardiff, p136f.
[viii] A Thematic Study Bible is a helpful tool for this purpose. Studying alongside other supervisors and/or counsellors can bring additional perspectives and insight.
[ix] E.g. how is the Biblical theme reflected in relationships, leadership, teamworking, policies, priorities, strategies and practice?
[x] See Green (1990), Let’s do Theology: A Pastoral Cycle Resource Book. Mowbray. Reflection alongside other supervisors and/or counsellors can bring additional perspectives and insight.
[xi] Cf Eph 5:31f.
[xii] For further study of God’s paradoxical “presence in absence” see, for instance, St. John of the Cross: Dark Night of the Soul.
[xiii] This helps to counter-balance current emphases on experiencing the presence of God as the implicit goal of spiritual growth.
[xiv] Spiritual development at a collective level is a common Biblical motif (e.g. Ro 12:27-31; Rev 2:1-3:21).
[xv]That is, it’s fine to ask things like, “How was your bus journey today?” without having to worry about whether the question “promotes saving faith”!
[xvi]See Mt 5:1-12 against the backdrop of Mt 4:23-25.