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Synergeo: From Chaos to Wellbeing in Counselling

How do you talk about what you do for a living?

When I am introduced to someone new in social settings, it doesn’t take long before the, “And what do you do?” question comes up. That used to be tricky for me to answer, and the easy reply was, “I teach counselling.” I am passionate about teaching this subject and helping students make the connections between theory and practice. But teaching is what I do only half of the week. During the other half of the week, when I am not a counselling educator, I am a counsellor. Now, when you tell someone you are a counsellor, it can be a real conversation stopper. The person standing before you may get a confused look on their face, or they may awkwardly back away for fear you will try to ‘analyse’ them, or they may open up and begin to tell you all about their problems, which makes you want to awkwardly back away from them! In my everydayness, outside of the counselling work, my counselling vocation can hinder me from just being ‘me’… you know, the social, non-counsellor me. I like being social, yet my counsellor-ness can sometimes get in the way of that. Yet, I am a counsellor. Not only that, I am also a Christian.

My vocation as a counsellor who is Christian is shaped by who I am, and that shapes what I do. It is informed by the integration of many things, such as the knowledge and experiences I’ve gained from psychology and theology, and it includes my values, beliefs, personal experiences, and how I make sense of things. For me, the framework of this integration emerges out of an ontological point of difference that informs how healthcare providers provide healthcare. That point of difference is: what does it mean to be human? As a counsellor who is Christian, that begins with how and why humans were created.

The Bible, when read from front to back, locates our theological anthropology in the creation story of Genesis. However, personhood takes on a different shape when the creation story begins from the New Testament. The apostle John, like Matthew and Luke, started out his gospel by talking about Jesus. However, John didn’t talk about Jesus as man; he talked about Jesus as God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God”(John 1:1-2 ESV). These two verses containing the repeated phrase “in the beginning” would have been recognised by John’s audience as a pointer to another story that began with the same three-word phrase:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters(Genesis 1:1-2 NIV).

With the clues provided to us in the opening of John’s gospel, we witness in that creational space of Genesis the presence and workings of God the Son (Jesus), God the Father (referred to as Abba by Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit. At the close of each day God saw that what he created was good. This includes day six when the triune God created humans: “So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27 NIV).

God is three distinct and unique persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet he is one God. With the former in mind, “God’s personhood confirms us as persons.”[1] Just as God’s being is relational, humanity’s story is a relational one and relational unity is basic to personhood. We are relational image-bearers of a relational triune God and we exist as relational beings. Therefore, “bearing the image of God means living as unique individuals in reciprocating relationships with others.”[2] This invites us to consider personhood not as an independent individual, but as a community of persons in communion with each other.[3] To be human is to be persons-in-relation, which means we have a fundamental need to relate to others.[4] This means “humanity, then, is created in relationship, for relationship, and for a task that requires relational cooperation.”[5] What that means for me as a counsellor is that my clients’ wholeness or wellbeing is impacted by their relational health.

It is important to note here that humans are not exclusively relational and that we also exist as beings who are spiritual, physical, emotional, cognitive, experiential, and cultural, etc. However, the ontological point of difference for a Christian healthcare provider in what it means to be human is to understand that mental health and wellbeing are relational in nature because we are image bearers of a relational God. It is within the relational context of Genesis 1 that humanity’s first experiences of mental health were very good, in fact – they were excellent (Genesis 1:31 NLT). The creational space of Genesis 1 is one of shalom; where things were as they were created and intended to be,[6] and humanity experienced mental health and wellbeing in its fullness.

Looking again at Genesis 1, the text reads that the earth was ‘formless and empty’ (v. 2). The Hebrew phrase for this is ṯōʹ·hû wā·ḇōʹ·hû (pronounced toh hoo wa boh hoo) – avery similar phrase is also found inIsaiah 34:11. Combined with Genesis 1:2, ṯōʹ·hû wā·ḇōʹ·hû can be described as empty, wasted, confused or chaotic.[7] Genesis goes on to say that “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (v.2). ”Surface of the deep” – ṯehômʹ in Hebrew – is translated as something gloomy, foreboding, and a surging watery abyss. Tehômʹ existed over ṯōʹ·hû wā·ḇōʹ·hû and the Bible gives us no indication that sin existed in this place; it just was. But it was out of this that God created new life, order and beauty. God took the desolate, foreboding, chaotic, and dark abyss of ṯōʹ·hû wā·ḇōʹ·hû and ṯehômʹ and created that which he declared as good. Not just good enough, but good.

I realise I am taking a degree of license in the original sense of the Genesis text and linking the use of John’s Genesis language to speak of the new creation Christ is initiating. However, the idea of movement from ṯōʹ·hû wā·ḇōʹ·hû and ṯehômʹ to creational wholeness and wellbeing is something that resonates with me as a counsellor. Often in my counselling work I encounter people who are in that place of ṯōʹ·hû wā·ḇōʹ·hû. They feel as if their life is empty, without meaning, and they’re often confused about who or why they are. Many have described themselves as feeling worthless and unimportant: not good enough. I recognise ṯehômʹ when clients describe feeling as if they’re overwhelmed, drowning in life, in over their head, or just can’t see a way forward. Life can become very difficult and hard to navigate and some feel just plain stuck. Tōʹ·hû wā·ḇōʹ·hû and ṯehômʹ are lonely desolate places devoid of life that can make us feel helpless, powerless, and most devastating of all – without a sense of hope.

Anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental health psychopathologies are the labels given to people’s experiences of ṯōʹ·hû wā·ḇōʹ·hû and ṯehômʹ. These experiences can drive people away from engaging in healthy relationships as they draw people’s attention inwards toward themselves. This changes how people live their lives and how they see themselves and the world. We hear how this is languaged in identity-forming statements such as, “I am afraid,” “I am depressed,” or “I am an addict.” Some people can get so used to living life in this way that these self-identifying assumptions become their reality. This impacts hope and shalom. But these assumptions and experiences, as real as they feel, do not define what it means to be human. After all, in the mess of ṯōʹ·hû wā·ḇōʹ·hû and ṯehômʹ was the triune Creator God who created that which he declared as good.

But I am not God; I am a counsellor. I cannot create a brand-new life out of ṯōʹ·hû wā·ḇōʹ·hû and ṯehômʹ like God did in Genesis 1. But my clients and I are not without hope. For you see, Genesis 1 is a story of bringing forth order, function or purpose, creating identity, and giving value out of darkness and chaos. I find that counselling is similar to this. In collaboration with my clients, I can help them discover value in their being and that can promote a sense of purpose in life and establish different ideas about identity that is more in keeping with their hopes and dreams.

Health and wellbeing, from a relational perspective, looks like living in mutually beneficial relationships in communities that cultivate belonging, value, trust and love. Jesus knew this and he demonstrated how we were meant to engage with each other relationally. He commanded us to “love one another” (John 13:34). With this love in mind, Jesus reconciled us to God with his death and resurrection. He renewed and restored our relationship with God and tore down the relational curtain that hung between us (Matthew 27:51). This opened the door to a new way of engaging with God through Jesus. It also invited us to live in authentic reciprocating relationships with others “characterised by mutuality, give and take, and enabled the self to be known most fully in the process of knowing another.”[8]

Counselling therapy emerges out of relationship and mutual reciprocating love. What clients experience from me is what Carl Rogers described as intentional presence and a deep relational encountering space.[9] This offers them an opportunity to “return to their natural habitat – a deep and swirling ocean of human connectedness.”[10] As a relational image bearer, I offer my clients a different experience of themselves, a relational experience of connectedness that mirrors the way humans were meant to engage and authentically be with one another; an experience of shalom. This experience offers hope. What many clients long for in life, but are unable to find, are trusting, and satisfying intimate relationships, and this is what draws them to counselling. Humans cannot help but be relational. It is not just what we do, it is who we are and this human capacity for relationship is a key element of psychological wellbeing.

To be authentically relational in my vocation implies that I engage with my clients as my authentic relational self , which is in keeping with Jesus’ example. I also pay attention on the outcome of counselling. So, when I meet someone new in a social setting, I have learned to explain my counsellor vocation by its outcome rather than the name of my role: I am in the business of renewal and restoration that promotes health and wellbeing in people. I often find this explanation invites further discussion on a topic that is more welcoming for my new acquaintance. It also gives me the freedom to be my relational self and shoo that awkwardness away.

Jane Hepburn is a lecturer in the School of Social Practice at Laidlaw College and a counsellor in private practice in Auckland. She received her B.Couns from Laidlaw College in 2010 and is completing her Master of Health Science (MindBody Healthcare) at AUT.

This article was inspired by a sermon on Genesis 1:2–13 by Reuben Munn at Shore Community Church.

[1] S. Grenz, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living (2nd ed.). (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 55.

[2] J. Balswick, P. Ebstyne-King, P. and K. S. Reimer, The Reciprocating Self: Human Development in Theological Perspective. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005), 36.

[3] S. C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 92

[4] D. Mearns and M. Cooper, Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy. (Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2017), 8.

[5] C. J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 428.

[6] C. Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 10.

[7] Definitions suggested by Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon.

[8] J. Balswick, et al. The Reciprocating Self, 41

[9] C. R. Rogers, A Way of Being. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), 129.

[10] Mearns and Cooper, Working at Relational Depth, 5.