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Synergeo: Becoming a Christ-Shaped Counsellor

Max Fraser-Masters —

In this reflection, I attempt to story who I am as a counsellor by exploring the prominent values that have shaped me as a person, and the ideas that have influenced how I understand my counselling work in light of the Christian story.

I have structured this reflection around a theme in Philip Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God: The world is good, the world is fallen, the world can be redeemed.[1] I offer examples from practice and reflections from my peers, clients,[2] and supervisor throughout. I then conclude by speaking about the place of courage in my work.

The World is Good

The world was good when God first established it because he purposed it to be so; he himself proclaims it after each day of creation. Despite the corruption and decay of the world resulting from the Fall (see further on sin), we still catch glimpses of goodness through the cracks of our broken world. We witness moments of divine inbreaking that at times make God’s goodness difficult to doubt. An understanding that the world was created good brings wonder into my life; it brings purpose to mundane activities and pleasure to simple things. When I experience goodness by eating fresh fruit from a tree or enjoying freshly roasted coffee with a friend, I am reminded that a loving God intentionally created us with the hope that we might experience such goodness such that, as we partake of the good gifts of his creation, we might offer back to him in praise what he first gave us. Perhaps one of the greatest experiences of goodness in the world is when I bear witness to the goodness of God in the lives of those who have been formed according to his image.

Imago Dei

The notion of imago Dei has shaped my life and my counsellor identity beyond any other idea. It has taken on so many different meanings throughout my three years of study, from simply viewing it functionally—possessing a mind, volition and will—to a relational understanding. [3] This shift in thinking has been monumental in my perception of how we image God and the importance of doing so well.

Buber’s notion of I-Thou has been extremely helpful for framing how bearing God’s image affords high value to both self and others. [4] Previously, I had believed that possessing a high view of self was only possible at the expense of holding a low view of others. However, in the I-Thou relationship, “both the self and the other are recognised and appreciated as unique, differentiated selves.”[5] Such a perspective shapes my identity as a counsellor because it reminds me that when I encounter my clients, I forego all opportunity for judgement or prejudice and decide to identify them firstly as someone bearing the image of God. [6] This grounds me in my work because it urges me to not allow myself to describe them the way the world does (as addicts, or victims), but to see them as God does, which cultivates both compassion and curiosity. I am aware of the discourses that might be present when I hear people referred to as “victims,” but I try not to take them up or encourage them. They are a precious creation of God before they are anything else. Starting in this way creates opportunities for me to naively inquire about who this person is and what they hope to become. This is an ongoing area of development for me, especially in my work at a community agency where there is plenty of talk about “victims” and “survivors.” Before I have even met my client, my perception of them has been somewhat tainted by these notions of “victim” or “survivor”, along with the social discourses associated with these labels. I sometimes find it hard to not take up these discourses and it is a conscious effort to choose not to view them as a “victim,” but rather, as people for whom Christ has died.

Humility is also required in honouring my clients as imago Dei. As a follower of Jesus, I am encouraged to honour and care for those in need: “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God” (Prov 14:31). Honouring my clients as bearers of God’s image affords those people a deep intrinsic value. Moreover, it also makes me “more sensitive to what the guest is bringing to [me], and what God might be saying or doing through her or him.”[7]

God is in my work through me, and also at work in me, through my client. This humility is outworked in my practice by trying to maintain a “decentred and influential” stance in the relationship by balancing power well. [8] As I allow my client to take primary authorship of their life, I am giving them the freedom Christ gives me to act and choose freely while supporting and coming alongside that person. [9]

Part of my counsellor identity and what I hope to do in this work is to offer hurting people an encounter they have never had before, to create a space where “anything goes, you can bring the darkest parts of yourself there,” as one of my group members described it. Another commented that in my work I am, “providing a bridge to [my] clients to a redeemed self,” and that, “When Max is engaging his client, his client is not only engaging with Max but engaging with God.” It is here that I reflect Christ, by becoming a small bridge for a person who is bearing heavy burdens to find rest for their soul, even if it is just for an hour.

Imaging God via Embodiment

Benner’s idea of incarnational integration was incredibly helpful for me because I found myself standing in a chasm between the incredible life God intends for humanity on one hand, and the reality of human brokenness and life without God on the other—both of which I have experienced.[10] I had not found the place where I could be Max, the ambassador of Christ, and Max, the ethically minded counsellor. An understanding of embodying Jesus in the counselling room by bearing the burdens of the client, extending hospitality, and inviting them to participate in the goodness of God has allowed me to be confident that I can both honour God by imaging him well and honour the person by not imposing my beliefs on them.[11]

An example of this in practice is when a young girl got upset when I told her we would be finishing up counselling soon and expressed disappointment with no longer being able to come. She grieved the fact that she could no longer visit me because in my room, she could be her spritely, imaginative self. She was free to talk about things that make her upset, annoyed, or excited and know that she was safe from bullies and the pressures of school life. This was her participating in the goodness of God through her encounter with me.

The World is Fallen (Sin)

One idea that shapes me personally and informs my counsellor identity is the idea of sin. While this might seem strange, it is helpful for me to grasp a strong notion of sin without diminishing its effects, because it affords me a context to situate all the abuse, neglect, and hurt that I encounter in my counselling practice within. My conception of sin is similar to what St. Augustine referred to as original sin; sin as a disease that has affected and corrupted every aspect of creation – the earth, the animals, the body, the mind, the heart – all of it has fallen from its original God-intended way of functioning.[12] Baxter Kruger’s comment on the pervasive nature of sin emphasises this point, “What God has on his hands in The Fall of Adam is not [primarily] a legal problem, but an organic one.” [13]

In light of the idea of sin, I operate with an understanding that no one is free from its effects; we are all subject to hurt and pain, all subject to loss and grief, all struggling to piece things together through the lens of a corrupted mind and a selfish heart that is “curved in on itself.”[14] Working with this understanding of sin allows me to experience a huge amount of grace for my clients when I hear of their story of suffering. It also enables me to avoid diminishing my clients’ experiences in order to feel less affected by it. Additionally, understanding sin in this way discourages me from minimising my engagement with my clients at relational depth due to a perceived sense of professionalism I ought to uphold. Sin has disconnected people from God and people are hurting. One major aspect of my counsellor identity is being someone who is not afraid to hear people’s stories of hurt and enter into them.

The World Can Be Redeemed (Hope)

Another value that shapes me as a person and is integral to my identity as a counsellor is the value of hope, in particular, hope for redemption in the eschaton. This value of hope is not the sentimental, “look on the bright side,” kind of hope. It is an audacious hope that is deeply rooted in the heart of every human being, a hope which all of creation groans towards, and a hope that reaches beyond all suffering towards the day when all things will be put right (Rom 8:19; Eccl 3:11). I agree with Allender and Longman’s proposition that only a hope rooted in eschaton is large enough to withstand the suffering we are subject to in this world, anything less than that can only guarantee despair.[15] What is more, this hope is not mere optimism, it is a secure hope, guaranteed by an empty tomb.[16]

The “eschaton focussed” hope I hold comes with me into the counselling room. So, when I sit with clients who disclose the kind of suffering that I mentioned earlier I am not stuck in a rut of despair. Rather, I believe there is hope for this person to find life again or to experience joy despite the injustices they have been subjected to. In doing so, I act as that bridge to God and offer hope on their behalf. The practical outworking of this is in looking for alternative stories of hope which come in many forms: resilience, protest, fighting, and resistance, etc. [17] Though their stories of pain or abuse seem at times to consume their lives and can seem like the only story, hope lays hold upon the work of constructing preferred stories. These preferred stories seek to displace the stories of pain while simultaneously fostering a sense of mastery over problems.[18]

An example of this in practice is when I worked with a young man to help him make sense of his experience of sexual abuse. In looking at how he resisted abuse by running away afterwards and verbally expressing his disdain for what was happening, we were able to build a story of a young man who stood for justice and resisted wrongdoing. He came to perceive himself as a brave man who expressed courage by informing the police despite his fears of not being taken seriously. Stories of hope emerged as the trauma became situated in a narrative that was empowering for him to live within. What was being created within the young man was a “reasonable hope.” [19] Such a hope is created by making sense of one’s past experiences as opposed to optimistically longing for an unreasonable future outcome. For me, this hope-creating work is animated by my understanding of hope for redemption in the Christian story, which “promises not replacement but a transformation that somehow makes use of all that went before.”[20]

Hope is present to me in my work through making meaning of experiences and in trusting that God is using me to venture towards a redeemed world. My hope for the future informs how I engage my clients and conduct myself in the present. It encourages me that “every demonstration of love, justice, peace, and compassion is a movement toward redemption.”[21] It evokes great passion in me when I walk into my office believing that me and my counselling work are edging us closer toward Heaven.

Courage in Counselling

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Josh 1:9). Courage is a quality that others have often pointed out in me. My friends at High school mentioned it when I did backflips off roofs, or “ran it straight” in rugby, or when I initiated conversations with the good-looking girls. However, I begged to differ because I did not feel courageous, I felt vulnerable. In reflecting on the idea of courage, I have realised that one thing was always present, vulnerability (or fear). Brené Brown speaks of the idea of daring greatly; the notion that courage is not merely the absence of vulnerability, it is simply the willingness to engage the task or take up the call despite feeling vulnerable or afraid—feeling the fear and doing it anyway. [22]

During counselling, people tell me things they have never previously mentioned to anyone. They utter broken words and cry tears that well up from the depths of their souls. In those moments, the fragility of our humanness becomes apparent and the opportunity for immense healing or unbearable rejection reveals itself. I know that to avoid their pain or withdraw from it due to the difficulty in hearing their suffering is to not allow them to experience being fully heard and fully known as God desires them to be. Yet to willingly bear witness to their story in all its painfulness and contradiction to the good world God intended is risky too; I am bound to testify to the chaos in their life and “suffer-with” my client in their pain, which can often be daunting. [23] Yet God’s words to Joshua words ring true even there—if I go there, God will be with me. My clients embody courage by daring to share the most fragile parts of themselves with me; I embody courage by bearing witness to those broken parts and being changed by them.

It takes courage to risk having an encounter so raw that it shapes me in some way or form. It involves creating space within myself for the other person and a willingness to allow my experience of them to alter my worldview and personhood. [24] Hearing stories of being forced to sleep beside dogs, of being neglected, being raped, being thrown out a window, or having a bottle broken over their head has shaped me—I am a different person having heard these stories. However, I am led to agree with the words of Henri Nouwen, “The deep truth is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead, the means to it.”[25]

If healing became possible for a client by having another person come alongside them and bear witness to their suffering, without distorting it or denying it, I would offer them that experience. It is costly to offer that experience to people, but if the result is the client believing that their experience of suffering does not bespeak their lack of worth or inability to be loved, then it is worth it. The joy in this messy work is in knowing that by encountering another in their suffering and bearing it with them, I am becoming more like Christ, in whose footsteps I walk.

This was something my group members noticed about me; that I allow “the darkest parts of their hearts to be fully known, just the way God allows us to be known,” and that I “don’t run away from their pain, but trust that God would give [me] the strength to stand in it.” My supervisor has helped me develop the awareness that entering into my client’s pain is actually God’s work, and this has helped me to not be so afraid to do so. I was often discouraged as I viewed counselling and “God’s work” as polar opposites, and yet I felt called to both. My supervisor helped me see that God is at work in my clients lives already, and that there is an offer to participate in God’s work as a counsellor suffering alongside them. I still feel the fear of vulnerability in these moments, yet I create space for them anyway. I see their brokenness and pain, yet I venture into it anyway.

Final Thoughts

I am a follower of Jesus living in a good but fallen world working towards redemption. Counselling is one of the ways I have chosen to imitate Christ to the world and enable others to participate in the Great Dance that gives life to all who encounter it. It takes courage to do this work, and at times it is costly. But what is love, if not sacrifice? What is sacrifice, if not service? What is service, if not venturing into the rawness and fragility of another's suffering and bearing the burden of their fallen humanity alongside them? Counselling is Christ's work.

Max Fraser-Masters grew up in Feilding, and upon coming to faith as a young adult moved to Auckland to study at Laidlaw College. He has recently completed his Bachelor of Counselling and is now working in pastoral ministry with youth and young adults. Max holds a deep passion for writing and faith and is currently pursuing his Master of Theology through Regent College in Canada. 

[1] Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God: What Can We Expect to Find? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 250-257.

[2] Any individuals referred to are composites with identifying information changed to protect privacy.

[3] Larry Crabb, Understanding People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 86–97.

[4] Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1970), 49.

[5] Buber, I and Thou, 49–50.

[6] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 129.

[7] Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 68.

[8] Michael White, Workshop Notes (Dulwich Centre, Australia, 2005), 9.

[9] Ibid.

[10] David G. Benner, “The Incarnation as a Metaphor for Psychotherapy,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 11 (1983): 287–94.

[11] Siobhan Hunt, “Creating Space for Faith: Relationality and Dialogical, Incarnational Integrative Method,” in Stories of Therapy, Stories of Faith, ed., Siobhan Hunt, Lex McMillan and Sarah Penwarden (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 39–60.

[12] Giorgia La Piana and Ernesto Bonaiuti, “The Genesis of St. Augustine’s Idea of Original Sin,” The Harvard Theological Review 10 (1917): 159–75.

[13] C. Baxter Kruger, Jesus and the Undoing of Adam (Jackson: Perichoresis, 2007), 23. Note: It is important to state that Kruger places heavy emphasis on the organic nature of sin over and above the legal nature of sin. However, the justification of sinners is also very much a legal problem as well as an organic one. This is evidenced by the strong use of judicial language in both the Old and New Testament.

[14] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Volume 25: Lectures on Romans, Glosses and Schoilia. (Concordia, MO: CPH, 1972), 345.

[15] Dan Allender and Tremper Longman, Bold Love (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014), 67-68.

[16] Nicholas T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2018), 147-159.

[17] Michael White, “Addressing Personal Failure”, The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work 3 (2002): 35–71.

[18] Maggie Carey and Shona Russell, “Re-Authoring: Some Answers to Commonly Asked Questions”, The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work 3 (2003): 60–71.

[19] Kaethe Weingarten, “Reasonable Hope: Construct, Clinical Applications, and Supports,” Family Process 49.1 (2010): 9.

[20] Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God, 256.

[21] Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God, 247.

[22] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York, NY: Avery, 2015), 198.

[23] James H. Olthuis, The Beautiful Risk: A New Psychology of Loving and Being Loved (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 45.

[24] Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 141.

[25] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (Spring Valley, NY: Crossroad, 2002), 57.