How Therapy Helps Our Relationships with God - Nader Sahyouni
Sorry! This week's audio recording was lost due to technical difficulties, but you can view Nader's full notes below.
Interested in the Group Counseling Nader mentioned? Get on the interest list here...
SCOTT PECK - 1980’s - LOVE / EVIL / SPIRITUALITY AND COUNSELING
In the 1980’s, there was a famous psychiatrist named Dr Scott Peck who wrote a number of books that explored important topics like love, evil, and spirituality. I remember being very surprised by one of his observations about counseling and spirituality.
COUNSELING HAD 2 SPIRITUAL OUTCOMES
He said that he noticed that some of his clients who were religious became less religious after a period of counseling. Those tended to be folks who had a highly rigid view of God. But he also noticed that some of his clients who were not religious became more religious after a period of counseling.
STUDIED COUNSELING IN NON-RELIGIOUS ENVIRONMENT
So what gives? What is the relationship between counseling and spirituality? I have studied counseling at a secular university, (and by secular I mean, not religious) so I got a firsthand view of the counseling field from a completely non religious perspective.
SPIRITUALITY TO SUPPORT MENTAL HEALTH
At the same time, even in that most secular space, there was a recognition that spirituality matters, and that it can be helpful in the healing process. Most of the literature around spirituality and counseling you will find will focus on how a counselor can encourage the client’s spirituality, without pushing it of course, with the purpose being improved mental health for the client.
AGREE WITH THIS / GOD AGREES / JESUS HEALS
I don’t disagree with this for obvious reasons. I don’t think God disagrees with it either. I believe that God wants to bring healing to us physically as well as emotionally and spiritually. The biggest reason I believe that is the life of Jesus. Whenever people came to him for healing, he healed them. With Jesus as the ultimate example of what God wants for us I feel very safe saying that my first approach to suffering is always to try to bring healing, to try to bring relief from suffering.
RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD IS A HEALING FORCE
Another reason I agree with this wholeheartedly is that I believe a relationship with God is a healing force in our lives, so the fact that so much research shows that spirituality is helpful to counseling is not at all surprising to me.
COUNSELING HELPS OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD - PECK: NON RELIGIOUS-RELIG.
So far so good, having a relationship with God helps us through the counseling process. What about the flip side though, could counseling help our relationship with God? I believe that it can. Earlier I said that Dr Peck found that clients who were not very spiritual ended up becoming more so in the process of counseling. That makes a lot of sense to me.
PECK: BAD RELIGIOUS TO NON-RELIGIOUS FOR BETTER FAITH LATER
And, actually, even Dr. Peck’s other finding about the process of counseling leading some to come become less religious matches with this -- when what those clients leave behind is highly-rigid, non-Jesus-like views of God. In the long journeys of our entire lives, leaving a bad version of faith can be a step forward -- because it may free us up to later encounter a true and good faith.
TIMES WHEN GOD CALLS US TO A PERIOD OF COUNSELING
In fact, I believe that there are times in our spiritual journey where God will prompt us to go and seek counseling.
TWO REASONS: HEALING AND OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH HIM
And I believe God’s purpose in this is twofold. The first is that he wants to bring healing to us like we just talked about, but the second reason is more important. The second reason is that counseling can help bring healing to our relationship with him.
RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS VITAL AND CAN HAVE AS MANY ISSUES…
We here at Brown Line Vineyard believe that the essence of living a life full of depth and meaning is a vibrant relationship with Jesus. And that relationship with Jesus can have as many issues as our relationships with others.
MANY METHODS, TODAY FOCUS ONLY ON MIND AND HEART
So what are some of these things that can come out of our work in counseling that can help our relationship with God? There is no way of course I can cover all of them. There are over 400 methods of counseling, some deal with behavior, some deal with thinking patterns, others deal with emotions, and they do it in a variety of ways. For today though I want to focus on two very important areas, the mind and the heart.
COUNSELING AND GOD CARE ABOUT BOTH Counseling deals with both. God is clear that both are important. Without getting too much into the definitions of the words in the Bible, if we say that the mind involves our thoughts and our heart involves our emotions, that will help our discussion today.
FOCUS ON 3 THINGS: TRUTH, FORGIVENESS, AND JOY
So within these 2 broad areas God cares about, I am going to choose 3 things that I believe God cares about in our lives and see if we can unpack them a bit. The first is the transforming power of truth. The second is forgiveness, and the third is joy. And I’m going to suggest that you listen to these scenarios and think and ask God about whether this applies in your life.
TRUTH: REBUILD OUR STORY -
First in counseling, people learn more truth about themselves. One of the healing aspects of counseling is that as we talk about our lives in detail, it brings our story into sharper focus, and that has a healing effect. As we talk through our story with someone we trust, the different threads come together, and we start to see the truth of our story more clearly.
JESUS : I AM THE TRUTH
I have found that God is all about truth. Jesus has said that truth sets us free, and as we experience the truth of our stories more deeply, we become freer people. Jesus said something mysterious about truth as well, he said he IS the truth, and I wonder if as we experience more truth we end up somehow mystically experiencing a little bit more of Jesus.
OASIS STORY AND COUNSELING
As many of you know I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, and the civil war there began when I was 11, and for the next 3 years, we went to Egypt twice to escape the fighting because my mother’s relatives lived there. During that time, we didn’t have much money since my father was not working and the future was very much up in the air. One time we were driving back from Alexandria, which is Egypt’s second largest city to Cairo, and it’s about a 3 hour drive, and there’s a stop about halfway at an Oasis, and it was very hot day as you can imagine in Egypt in mid summer, I saw this waiter carrying a tray of ice cold drinks, and I wanted so much to have one, but I knew I couldn’t even ask my parents because of our financial situation. So fast forward 30 years into the future, I’m in counseling where I’m dealing with some of the trauma of those years, and the morning of my appointment, I’m praying about the session that day, and this memory comes flying across my consciousness, and I thought ‘huh that is weird, maybe God is telling me we’ll talk about my time in Egypt today’.
Well that’s not what happened, we ended up talking about something completely different, like how I’m always trying to cram so much into my schedule, and my counselor said something completely unexpected, she said “I’m seeing a pattern of a strong sense of scarcity in your life, like there will never be enough of everything”, and immediately that memory I had in prayer that morning came back to me, and I knew God was showing me something very true. Knowing this truth allowed me to begin to make some changes. This experience of the truth that Jesus wanted me to see set me free of the lie that there will never be enough, that I could let go of fear for the future. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe strongly in saving for retirement, in not going into debt, and in wise financial planning. But I was living a life that was enslaved to the lie that there would never be enough, and this change helped me to experience Jesus in a new and more life giving way.
TRUTH ABOUT VALUES OF THE FALSE SELF
Another important area of truth that many people work on in counseling is the truth about the values that we say we believe and the values that actually drive our thinking and our behavior. As we grow up, we internalize a lot of information about what’s important, specifically what will get us love and attention. I find that for most of us, whether our parents say it out loud or not, learn early on that we are rewarded for achievements, that we are rewarded for being smart or getting good grades, or for being athletic or theatrical or musical or having leadership qualities. All of those are good things of course, but what ends up happening is that we internalize them in such a way that we think we need them in order to be loved.
WHEN IT DOESN’T WORK ANY MORE
That tends to work fine for most of us until it doesn’t work anymore. There comes a time when we fail at what we’ve been best at all our lives. There comes a time when we lose all the external markers of success that have made us feel loveable. And if that coincides with a time when friends move away or we move away and have to build new relationships, then we feel like no one has a reason to love us any more, or to want to be with us.
IN COUNSELING, LEARN TRUTH OF WHAT IS REALLY VALUABLE
I find that in counseling I end up helping people see that the things about them that are most valuable are not at all what they thought. I find that people undervalue how important it is that they are a caring person, that they are committed to the ones they love, that they are self-sacrificing and so on…Somehow in their minds, and I include myself in this, we tend to lose sight of the fact that these are the values we really believe in.
DOCTOR, LAWYER, ENGINEER
This polished exterior that we want to show the world because we think it will get us the love and attention we want is a false self. At times like this, God may be wanting us to learn what our true self is. In the US in my generation a common marker of success was whether you became a physician or a lawyer. As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, and there the two markers of success were that you were either a doctor or an engineer. There was a Catholic priest I knew who had a ministry to Lebanese students at Ohio State University in the 1970’s, and he told me that out of 400 students in his ministry, over 390 were studying engineering. Seems a bit high to me, and maybe I’m remembering it wrong, but you get the idea…! It’s no surprise then that my brother and I both became engineers. I studied Biomedical Engineering, which was more science than engineering, but in my father’s mind, I was an engineer, and years after I moved from engineering to IT, and decades after I became a manager and had nothing to do with engineering, my dad would always introduce me to people as an engineer.
Yet I always knew there was something more for me beyond the world of technology. At one point my men’s group 15 years ago challenged me to get some career testing done to figure some of that out. I decided to pursue that, I did the tests and as I reviewed the results with my counselor, I began to realize that even though I could do the technology and management stuff with a measure of success, my calling and my gifts were really in mentoring, counseling, and teaching. That was my true self. This began a decade of going back to school as God opened the doors for me to begin slowly to change careers.
Secondly in counseling, we work on forgiveness. We work on forgiving others, and we work on forgiving ourselves. Perhaps you have heard sermons and teachings about the importance of forgiveness, and how not forgiving others keeps us stuck in depression and resentment and so on. Forgiving ourselves doesn’t seem to be as high on the priority list. Yet I think one of the very good things that comes out of counseling is that those of us who are hard on ourselves learn to have more grace for ourselves and be more accepting of our limitations. In my own life, I’m going to go back to that example of how I came to know my true self more in changing careers, as I began to understand who God had really made me to be, I began to forgive myself more for not being more successful. I began to be less hard on myself for not being that hard charging ladder climbing Engineering Corporate leader that my false self said I needed to be.
THIRDLY: BAD EMOTIONS CAN GET STUCK, OR WE PUSH THEM AWAY
Thirdly, one of the things that happens is that sometimes life does not happen in a way that allows us to deal with our emotions in a healthy manner, and they kind of get stuck and show up as anxiety or depression or bad habits and so on. For me it was the emotion of grief. I wasn’t even aware of how much grief I was holding. One time my siblings decided to get together and share about our memories of being kids during the Lebanese civil war in the mid 70’s. All of them were in tears except me. I thought everyone was being soooo melodramatic. Well it turns out they were not being melodramatic, I was the one who was out of touch. God did not let that go too long though, he wanted to bring healing to me, because the way I had blocked off the sadness of loss and not grieved it was not good for me. I had blocked off sadness, but in doing so, I had also blocked out areas of joy God wanted to restore.
CHURCH AND THERAPY WEEKEND
I was attending a church where the pastor wanted to encourage all the leaders to attend this counseling marathon weekend. It was a bit expensive, I think it was over 500 dollars at the time and I didn’t really feel the need or desire to go and spend that much money. At the same time I put out a feeler with God and said “God if you want me to go, can you provide the money?”, well a few days later the pastor called me and said “hey I noticed you didn’t sign up, the church is willing to pay 200 dollars for you to go if that helps”. I thought well close enough, so I went.
At the retreat, I think I shed more tears than my entire life to that point. I was so surprised at how much grief I had been holding in my life that I had not processed with anyone. As I processed that grief I began to experience more joy in my life than I had before. It’s interesting to me that the word joy appears 63 times in the New Testament. The apostle Paul talks about joy being something that naturally comes out of our relationship with God. He calls it a fruit of the Holy Spirit if you’re familiar with that terminology.
COUNSELING AS DEEP COMMUNITY
Sometimes I think that counseling is God’s way of getting us to experience really deep and strong community, because he knows that community, which can be a group or one on one, can be a very healing force. In many ways counseling relationships can have more depth and openness than other relationships, and that gives it the potential to be more healing and transformative than other types of relationships.
ISSUES IN RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD
As I was preparing this talk, the idea came to me that maybe there are people in this church who may be stuck in their relationship with God because of an emotional or cognitive roadblock. An example could be a distant parent, which then translates into feeling God is far away. Or it could be an angry parent, making us feel like God is always angry with us. Or maybe there is unprocessed grief that is keeping you from experiencing the joy God has for you. Or it could be any number of things… For me for example, I find it difficult to trust God, because my experience of the world as a child was chaotic, and it didn’t seem like things were under control.
So I talked with Kyle and Vince about doing a group counseling exercise around those types of issues here at church.
If you have an issue in your relationship with God that may benefit from some counseling, we are going to be offering a group that will meet for about 10 hours total. It will either be on a weekend or meet on a weekday evening for five weeks. We will choose the time based on the interest level and availability. We will need a minimum of 5 people and will have a maximum we can take as well.
The cost will be 250 dollars for all five sessions to cover the cost of an additional therapist that will be working with me. Kyle and Vince have also come up with an extra incentive, that is if you complete all five sessions BLV will cover 50 dollars of the cost. You’ll have a chance to get on our list for this group today, using a connect card later in the service, OR there will also be a chance next month, during our Community Fair Sundays. You won’t be committed to the cost yet, but because there will be a maximum number of people we can take, we encourage you to submit your name if you have any interest at all.
I’m not going to promise that your experience will be like mine, each person is different, and certainly this will be structured very differently than the weekend I went to, but I am going to trust that God will meet you where he knows it is best for you. Each of our journeys is different, and what I needed is probably not what you need.
HOW TO TELL IF GOD IS LEADING YOU TO COUNSELING
But if you sense God is leading you towards a season of Counseling, one of the ways you can discern that is whether you have been stuck in a pattern of thinking or behavior that you know is not God’s desire for you. If you’ve tried to change it on your own and were not able to, it may be time to consider working with someone else to make the change. God’s preference much of the time is for us to change and heal in community, not by ourselves. If you’re having a hard time breaking out of cycles of thinking or behavior that you can tell are not what God wants for you, I encourage you to seriously consider counseling, or consider joining the group we are about to launch.
IF NOT COUNSELING, ASK GOD, GET PRAYER, TALK VULNERABLY, SPIR DIR
Now it may not be that God is leading you in the direction of counseling, but some of these things we talked about today resonated with you, if that’s you, and you find you have a desire for more truth, or areas where you need to forgive yourself, or you know your life can have more joy in it. One first step you can do is to ask God today to show you how to proceed, you can ask him to meet you right now, or to get prayer from our prayer team here today. Another possibility is to choose to be vulnerable about that with someone else you trust and respect in your life. A third possibility is to see a Spiritual Director, who can listen with you to what God may be saying to you in those areas.
PRAY FOR THOSE THINKING OF COUNSELING OR GROUP
So let’s stand and pray, I’m going to pause for just a couple of minutes here to give us a chance to ask God if this is a time in your life where God is inviting you to go for some counseling, or if God is pointing out the group I am going to lead and see if that is something he wants for you ...