So afraid of fear
Wright, N. (2004) ‘So Afraid of Fear: The Significance of Presence in the Pastoral Relationship’, Accord, Association of Christian Counsellors, Winter, Issue 41, pp28-29.
The psychoanalytic tradition presents anxiety as a key driver of human behaviour. Nevertheless, therapy and counselling that focus on application of skilled tools and techniques alone to address anxiety are often inadequate. This article argues that the incarnational dimension of ‘I am with you’ has profound implications for Christian counselling and that genuine relational presence is a critical success factor.
The psychoanalytic tradition portrays anxiety as a, perhaps the, most basic driver of human behaviour. A deep-seated fear of rejection, failure or annihilation are common examples encountered in therapeutic contexts. This anxiety phenomenon resonates, too, with experiences I encounter frequently in supervision alongside practitioners engaged in a wide range of caring professions. Sometimes practitioners carry the anxiety of clients as if it were their own, sometimes client anxiety amplifies their own.[i]
The notion of anxiety as foundational driver is tested easily by using what is sometimes described as the 7 Whys technique.[ii] Ask a practitioner to crystallise in one sentence, “Why is what you are doing so important to you?” and then write it down on a whiteboard so that the finished statement is visible. Next ask, “Why?”, in response to which a second statement is written below the first. Repeat the process up to 7 times and, almost invariably, some form of profound personal anxiety (most probably, a defence against anxiety) will emerge as a basic, hitherto subconscious behavioural motivator.
This observation should not, perhaps, surprise us greatly since the Bible is full of reassurances, bordering on commands, to trust God and not to be afraid (e.g. Josh 1:6-9). As a lecturer at London Bible College once commented, the foundational message of the Pauline epistles could be summarised as, “God is God, therefore relax”. Charles DeFoucauld summarises this point in even starker terms: “The one thing we owe absolutely to God is never to be afraid of anything.”[iii] The divine antidote to anxiety is revealed in the Bible as a large dose of God’s love and truth, releasing fear’s cold grip and evoking love and trust in return (e.g. Jn 8:32; 1Jn 4:18; Jn 14:1).
What happens in counselling, however, when a person experiences such psychological, emotional and/or spiritual turmoil that knowledge of love and truth at the level of rational-faith is painfully difficult to grasp and hold on to? What happens when a person is so ill or exhausted that even the most basic thinking processes become hopelessly disorientated? Such questions held far more theoretical than experiential interest for me until three years ago when, having been diagnosed with ‘chronic fatigue’ after a fairly long series of traumatic events, I found myself in a frightening new place where powerful, relentless, crashing waves of anxiety started to arise within me.
The doctor became the patient; the healer became the sick. All of my years of theological study and counselling training could not have prepared me for the terrifying onslaught of neurotic fear and panic attacks that followed. Deep in the midst of this experience, I remember frequently waking at night, unable to sleep or stop shaking
I discovered through this devastating experience that healing truth and love could sometimes not be found through words, reflections and scripture alone. I knew what I believed theologically but, somehow, it felt strangely detached, as did I from ordinary experience where irrational fears were causing my composure and coping abilities to fall apart.
Over time, however, I did begin to hear the quiet whisper of God through my wife’s endless patience and care, the leader at work who gave me space to recover, the counsellor who heard and brought insight, the pastor who unexpectedly arrived with pizza one evening, the GP who listened and offered strength through reassurance, the friend who took me out for a cinema trip, the young daughters who gave smiling hugs and held my hand.[iv]
Such experiences mediated a mysterious yet tangible sense of God’s continuing love, presence and grace when all else seemed lost (cf Psalm 34:4; 139). Incarnation began to assume new depths of meaning for me – God is with us; the God who enters our lives to save us within our experience and not just from it. This is how he transforms our anxiety, not by superficial denial of reality but by sacrificial solidarity within it.[v]
Andy Nott, in Accord (Spring 03), raised an important question when he asked what makes Christian counselling distinctive.[vi] I think I would want, through this experience of counsellor-turned-client, to add emphasis on a third dimension alongside those described as ‘worldview’ and ‘methods’: the significance of committed, relational presence – mediating the transforming presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit. In the final analysis, I think I’ve learned that ‘being with’ is the X factor that makes all the difference (Is 43:2).
[i] Hawkins, P. & Shohet, R. (2000) Supervision in the Helping Professions, Philadelphia, Open University.
[ii] Hardingham, A. (1998) Psychology for Trainers, London, CIPD.
[iii] Manning, B. (1976) Prophets and Lovers – In Search of the Holy Spirit, New Jersey, Dimension Books.
[iv] Cf Lyall, D. (1989) Pastoral Action & Theological Reflection in Willows, D. & Swinton, J. (2000) Spiritual Dimensions of Pastoral Care, London, JKP. See also: Lyall, M. (1997) The Pastoral Counselling Relationship – A Touching Place, Edinburgh, Contact Pastoral Trust.
[v] Campbell, A. (1985) Paid to Care – The Limits of Professionalism in Pastoral Care, London, SPCK.
[vi] Nott, A. (2003), ‘What Makes Christian Counselling Distinctive?’, Accord, Issue 38 p4ff, Coventry, ACC.