The Image of God: A Base for Christian Counseling

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There are hundreds of models of counseling that exist today, ranging in their understandings of hundreds of topics all the way across the spectrum. Not only that, but there are also multiple different models of Christian counseling that exist, each standing by their own unique ideals as well. With that being said, the idea of Christian counseling is not a new idea, and yet there are still new ideas being added onto different models of Christian counseling to make new models of Christian counseling daily. The model discussed subsequently is yet another attempt to make a unique Christian model of counseling that can be used in a variety of different settings.

Humans have been created in the image of God. This does not mean that humans look one hundred percent like God physically. What this does mean is that God has given humans attributes of himself. Genesis 1:26 states, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’” Taking specific note of the use of ‘us’ in this passage, referencing the Trinity and the fact that God lives in perfect community within himself, humans have been created to live in community with one another and with God. This is simply another piece of what it means to be made in the image of God. The next important piece of this Scripture passage is that man was not only made in God’s image, but after his likeness as well. The image of God is what has been placed in each person upon their birth. The likeness of God is what man strives for. Being created in the image of God does not mean that humans are perfect. It does, however, mean that humans bear attributes of God and that they have the ability to strive to be like God. A person is born with sin, but still with attributes of God and the ability to strive to be more like God each and every day.

The fact that every person has been created in the image of God has huge implications as to how people are to be treated in counseling. There are two factors of the Christian faith that dictate how people are to be treated in counseling. The first is the fact that they have been born sinful. This belief is not far off from many models of therapy that view humans as broken and in need of someone to fix them. Many therapists would say that humans have an unhealthy nature to choose what is wrong for them and that further development is teaching them not to indulge this nature. Examples of counseling theories with this mentality are cognitive-behavioral therapy and existential therapy. Christian counseling does this similarly in regard to dealing with the sinful nature.

However, the second factor of the Christian faith that impacts how people are to be treated in counseling is the fact that they have been created in the image of God. Many models of therapy believe that human nature is good and that, when left to their own devices, they will choose the best and healthiest option. Examples of counseling theories with this mentality are person-centered therapy, solution-focused therapy, and Adlerian therapy. Therefore, the fact that every person is born with a sinful nature and yet has been created in the image of God places Christian counseling at a middle group between these two models of therapy. People are meant to be treated, therefore, in counseling as being capable of making healthy and unhealthy decisions based on their nature.

Statements made by Thomas Aquinas also further an understanding of how humans made in the image of God ought to be treated. Celia Deane-Drummond (2012), when discussing the views of Aquinas, states:

For Aquinas only the rational creature that has an intellect or mind is the resemblance sufficient to be termed true bearers of the image of God, and this is such that those areas of human life, such as spiritual, bodily, or imaginative ways of knowing, are only ever capable of bearing a “trace” of the image. (937)

Therefore, humans are to be treated respectfully in counseling as rational beings who, while their sinful nature directs them to make unhealthy decisions, are entirely capable of rational decisions as well.

These concepts of humans being made in the image of God and yet also being sinful are a part of what experts call the self. However, given the fact that experts very rarely define what the self is, no clear and concise definition of the self exists. Oxford Dictionaries defines self as, “A person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action” (Oxford Dictionaries). As it can be seen here, a person’s self is at the core of who they are. Every person has a different and unique self. That is not to say that some people’s selves cannot look similar to another person’s self, but they will never be exactly the same.

To press further, “Humanistic psychologists in the United States and existential psychologists in Europe have considered, following Adler, the self as the irreducible unit out of which the coherence and stability of the personality emerges” (Gomez, Gomez & O’Connell, 1994, 289). Any coherence and stability of a person’s personality emerges from the self. Therefore, understanding the image of God, sin, and self are central in the therapeutic process. In fact, part of Adler’s therapeutic process is dealing with false beliefs about self, others, and the world. With the image of God and sin being a part of a person’s self, dealing with the self is the central task of any therapeutic process.

John Ortberg presses deeper into the concept of the self by ascribing a second name to it: the soul. He further describes the soul as the inner world, or inner life, within each person. “My inner life is where my secret thoughts and hopes and wishes live. Because my inner life is invisible, it is easy to neglect. No one has direct access to it, so it wins no applause” (Ortberg, 2014). Dallas Willard builds onto this idea of the soul:

What is running your life at any given moment is your soul. Not external circumstances, not your thoughts, not your intentions, not even your feelings, but your soul. The soul is that aspect of your whole being that correlates, integrates, and enlivens everything going on in the various dimensions of the self. The soul is the life center of human beings. (Willard, 2002)

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Yet another aspect of the self is the debate between whether people are determined or free. This debate in Psychology points a back to the idea of development and when it takes place in a person’s life. The majority of development takes place early in life. It is at this point that the majority of development takes place as a result of one’s interactions with parents and family. It is also at this point that birth order comes in. This early in life, especially in the first six years of life, people are at their least rational point of development, often being completely unable to draw upon the image of God within themselves to make rational decisions and heavily relying upon the sinful nature to make unhealthy decisions. In fact, at this age, the majority of people are incapable of making decisions at all. It is for this reason that the majority of development is not by the doing of the person but by the doing of those closest to them, which is typically their family.

Because of this, people are essentially determined by family in early childhood. Their families decide their personality and develop them. However, this is not where development stops. Development still takes place later in life, even though the majority of development takes place in early childhood. It is in later life, when individuals are more capable of making rational decisions based on the image of God within them, that they are able to take a more proactive role in their own development. It is during this time that people become freer to decide upon the choices that play a role in their own development rather than have their development determined for them by others.

This brings up the level of responsibility that people have in their own behaviors. As mentioned previously, people have nearly no responsibility for their own behaviors in early childhood because at that point they are acting primarily out of the irrational sin nature and not out of the rational image of God and thus are merely being developed by those closest to them. However, later in life, people become much more responsible for their behaviors as they learn to act out of the rational image of God rather than the irrational sin nature. They are then able to act out of the rational image of God and thus are meant to be treated as people who, while developed by others previously, are able to now develop themselves and are responsible for their own actions.

It is important to note here that no person can be one hundred percent in control of his or her behavior, however. One reason behind this is the fact that no person, this side of heaven, will every completely conform to the image of God and completely forsake their sinful nature. For this reason, there will be times in which people make irrational decisions out of their sinful nature, no matter how conformed to the image of God they are. The second reason behind this is biology. Not all irrational decisions made by a person can immediately be attributed to his or her sinful nature. While biological issues came into the picture as a result of the Fall from the presence of God in the Garden of Eden, not all irrational behavior can be entirely dealt with by dealing with sin alone.

Throughout the Bible, it is made evident that it is important to care for the entirety of a person, including the spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental dimensions. David N. Entwistle (2009)of Malone University explains the need to care for the whole person in different words by stating, “A Christian conceptualization of human personhood as a holistic unity allows us to respect biopsychosocial and spiritual realities, and moreover, to see them as unified rather than bifurcated” (142). Entwistle’s use of the term “biopsychosocial” emphasizes that biology, psychology, and social realities need to be combined with spiritual realities in order to care for the whole reason. The sinful nature and the image of God is intertwined within each of these realities and to deal with any of these independent of one another and dealing only with turning away from the sinful nature would be to go about therapy in an un-holistic and impractical manner.

Recognizing all of this, there are times in which biological issues need to be dealt with before any of the other dimensions can be dealt with because some sort of imbalance is present that makes any attempts at any other dimension ineffective. Because of this, it can in some instances be beneficial to utilize drugs in order help in the process of counseling. This can be said in good conscience because drugs specifically prescribed by a professional cannot demolish the image of God in a person. For this reason, the use of drugs specifically prescribed by a professional can help a person to more readily depend upon the image of God to make rational decisions. If, at any point, the drugs become ineffective, however, or even begin to impact the person negatively, leading them to make irrational decisions, it is essential that he or she be taken off the drugs for the sake of effective counseling.

With all of this being said, there are clearly sub-populations in which this model of therapy is most effective. Because of the emphasis on the aspects of image of God and sinful nature in every person, people coming into therapy as Christians will be most impacted by this model of therapy. This is because they will already have a concept of the image of God within them, as well as of their sinful nature. This will, therefore, set up very few barriers between the person and the model of therapy that is being utilized in order to counsel them through whatever they are facing.

However, this does not completely discredit this model of therapy for non-Christians. Non-Christians still have an understanding of good and bad, rational and irrational, and their capacity to engage in both of them. Therefore, depending on the person’s level of opposition or openness to Christianity, even the language of the model can be adapted to discuss the image of God as an inherently good nature and sin as an inherently bad nature and the goal of counseling to transition from making irrational decisions based on bad nature to making ration decisions based on the good nature. In fact, one research experiment done to test a client’s willingness to see a therapist based on the therapist’s religious preference showed that clients were more comfortable going through counseling with a therapist who was affiliated with a major religion as opposed to one who had no religious affiliation (Gregory, Pomerantz, Pettibone & Segrist, 2008).

On top of this, therapies that have included a religious aspect have also been found to be very effective in counseling aimed at fighting addiction. A large portion of these types of therapy include an aspect of acknowledging a higher power. These therapies typically emphasize the fact that on their own, people are incapable of breaking powerful addictions and they need a higher power in order to overcome their addiction. The most obvious example of this is Alcoholics Anonymous and the inclusion of this step in their twelve steps to defeat the addictions these people are facing.

As a result of this, spiritual disciplines fit very neatly into this model of counseling. Spiritual disciplines such as silence and solitude are especially important for this model of counseling. These are incredibly important for a multitude of reasons. The first of these reasons is to listen to God. “Without silence there is no solitude. Though silence sometimes involves the absence of speech, it always involves the act of listening” (Jones, 2005). Because an emphasis of this model of counseling is conforming the person into the image of God, it is important to point the person to listen to God in order to hear from the one in whose image he or she is striving to be more like. Other spiritual disciplines that can easily fit into this technique include meditation and different types of prayer.

To conclude, while the idea of introducing a Christian aspect into counseling can bring difficulties, it is also something that can make counseling more effective. Certain research has shown that people are more willing to go through counseling with Christian counselors. Not only that, but while every model of counseling has goals for people to reach, this model of Christian counseling introduces the aspect of the goalto become more like the God who placed the capacity for growth within them by placing his own image in them. Therefore, this specific model of Christian counseling introduces an aspect that makes the goal of therapy more personal and attainable, as it is not all about their own work, but by the grace of God he helps people through counseling.

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