Some may have heard that I am beginning to provide some counseling as a ministry to the church, and I wanted to say a few words about the larger conceptual framework from which I am hoping to serve in this role. For context, I should share that my training is as a psychologist at a public university (go Sooners!), and my practical experience has been largely in secular settings, although I also have some training in explicit Christian counseling at a seminary (Covenant Theological Seminary).
While there is much debate about what constitutes appropriate and God-honoring counseling in terms of the relationship with secular psychological science, a framework which I find especially helpful in forming an explicitly Christian counseling practice is described extensively in Eric Johnson’s book, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (2007).
In particular, he proposes a four-level model of human nature, which I believe may help in understanding the sources of “psychological” problems, and how best to approach intervention as a helper. He labels these orders the Biological, the Psychosocial, the Ethical, and the Spiritual.
The Biological Order might best be encapsulated by considering the physical structure of the brain, in particular, and its relationship to human functioning (although this order would also include other physiological constructs like genes and the endocrine system, for example). Fascinating research continues to uncover the ways in which human thought, emotion, and behavior are linked to specific brain activity, and the ways that psychological problems are reflected at the physiological level.
The Psychosocial Order refers to what psychologists call “cognition,” otherwise thought of as the “mind.” This is the primary domain of modern psychology and includes constructs like emotions, motives, perceptions, thoughts, and personality. The psychosocial order is dependent on and grounded in the biological order, such that each thought has a physiological correlate, but is also distinct in that structures of the psychosocial order cannot simply be reduced to their physiological counterparts.
The Ethical Order is comprised of such structures as the conscience and morality, and is concerned with one’s responsibility for self and to others. As with the relationship of the psychosocial to the biological order, the ethical order develops when there is proper functioning of the lower two orders. An immature person – like a child, or an adult with compromised brain development – has less ability to function at the ethical level than someone who has properly functioning physiological equipment and adequate psychosocial development.
The Spiritual Order relates directly to God and his activity in an individual’s life. It deals with ultimate meaning, worldview, and the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer’s life. Sin is only properly understood at this level, as the antithesis to God’s holiness. This order should also be considered the most important as it deals with the most important meaning, and as such can be thought of as the interpretive key for understanding the rest of the lower orders – one’s ultimate beliefs ought to direct one’s ethical decision-making (ethical order), influence one’s thought content (psychosocial order), and which also impacts, changes even, structures at the physiological level.
Contemplating these four levels may help to identify how problems of human functioning can occur at any of the four levels, and proper diagnosis and intervention should seek to identify the level of the problem. For instance, a brain injury would not most responsibly be understood and intervened solely at the spiritual level, even though a brain injury will certainly impact functioning at the higher levels.
Thinking about psychological problems in this way might also help to avoid errors often made in the secular psychiatric community. Many members of this community view problems only as dysregulation at the physiological or psychosocial levels, and as a result, intervention is aimed exclusively at these levels. Similarly, errors are made frequently in the Christian counseling community when problems are solely viewed as dysfunction at the higher levels. As Johnson describes, some are so damaged at the biological and psychosocial levels that they may have difficulty benefiting from explicit work at the spiritual level. For those exposed to spiritual abuse, for example,
“Working explicitly with spiritual discourse may be counterproductive, like forcing someone to exercise after surgery before they are ready for it. On the other hand, depending on the problem, one may still be able to work minimally in the spiritual order (e.g., praying with the counselee) while concentrating on addressing lower-order damage first, for a time.” (p. 379)
The goal, as Johnson suggests, should be to counsel at the highest level possible; since as believers we recognize our greatest good as glorifying God in all that we do, Christian counseling should work to move upward when possible. We ought to be seeking to submit all of life to the lordship of Christ and to live in such a way as to give explicit glory to God in everything we do. I believe work at this level is already happening regularly in the church; that is, we intervene in each other’s lives through meeting together regularly, praying with and for one another, confronting sin together, and exhorting one another in repentance and love.
On the other hand, as Johnson also notes, Christian counselors should counsel at the lowest levels necessary. I believe we recognize this implicitly when we seek specific medical guidance for a physiological illness, even as such illness impacts higher level functioning. Nevertheless, even in such circumstances we ought to make use of medical care with explicit gratitude to God for the gift of medical science and should be seeking his glory even in something so mundane as taking one’s daily medicine. We should also watch out for our propensity to make an idol out of anything other than Jesus to solve our deepest problems, as we may be prone to do with medication, a counseling approach, or even a specific counselor.
A few ways in which I hope to serve the church are through consultation, counseling, and training. In consultation I hope to help identify when there may be a need for lower level work, and what might be an appropriate intervention. I hope to develop a network of trusted counselors and professionals in the community who we can reliably refer to for help, and also provide some specific counseling myself, when appropriate. I also have a vision for a “lay counseling” ministry in which helpers are perhaps more responsibly equipped, and I hope to provide some training and supervision for those who have a particular interest.
I invite you to pray for this vision, for me, and for the church, that this endeavor would be honoring to God, faithful to the Bible, and do justice to the multi-layered and multi-leveled nature of the kinds of problems of human functioning that we are confronted with in this life.
Johnson, Eric (2007). Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.