Monday, July 9, 2012

How God Contributes to our Therapeutic Change

We’ve all heard the old counselor “light bulb” joke: Q: “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? A: Just one, but the light bulb really has to want to change.” But have you heard this one? Q: “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? A: None. God either has or has not ordained the light bulb’s change.” I think the joke is funny even though it is a bit unfair to Presbyterians. It does, nevertheless, raise an interesting question about God’s role in people’s therapeutic change (in contrast to other changes, such as growing up, growing out, and growing old). Christian psychology cares about this question, as do dedicated Christian counselors. Here is one brief, introductory answer.

Who Is Responsible for Our Therapeutic Change?
There is an important distinction to be made between the notion that “God changes us,” and the idea that “God contributes to our change.”  In the former case, as it is worded, responsibility for change falls squarely on the shoulders of God, because responsibility follows control and it is assumed, as it is worded, that God is completely in control of the person. Therefore, if someone does not change, they can properly and finally attribute that lack of transformation to God alone.  They would have changed if God willed it.

In the latter case, effectual change is ultimately attributed to us, though we may rightly credit God with divine contributions that enabled our success, and without which we would have often—not necessarily always—failed (Isa. 26:12; Col. 1:29; 1 Pe. 4:11).  So, acknowledging the crucial role God plays in some of our changes (and all of our major spiritual transformations), how might we describe His contribution to our efforts without constantly resorting to supernaturalism as an explanation, in violation of the law of parsimony (e.g. some questionable notions of divine grace that require more complex accounting than does merciful assistance through natural means)? It may be seen that God powerfully and conclusively contributes to many of our changes or transformations in the following ways familiar to anyone who conscientiously parents, coaches, or counsels.

Ten Recognizable Ways that God Can Contribute to Our Therapeutic Change
1.      God can help make us aware of the need for change.  Prompted confrontations by others, self-generated problems that seize our attention, and stirring our consciences are three of several ways God may accomplish this (Ps. 139:23-24).
2.      God may help stimulate our desire to change.  He may do so in many ways, including
showing us why change would be good and why not changing would be bad (Jn. 16:8).
3.      God can encourage us to change. To encourage means to foster courage toward some attitude or action. Through comfort, conviction, support, vision, empowerment, and positive
      reinforcement, God can contribute to our change efforts (Acts 28:15; Phil. 1:14; 2 Cor. 1:37).
4.      God can provide us with the information we need to change.  It has often been said that
      knowledge is power. When God arranges for us to have access to the information necessary
      for change, such knowledge can help facilitate our transformation.  Part of providing us with
      such insight may be removing whatever mental, emotional, or physical blocks there are to
      our understanding of such information (Luke 24:16-32). One way God can accomplish this is
      to influence a shift in our attention, perspective, assumptions, or expectations—often by
      supplying us with other information first (Jn. 16:13).
5.      God can provide us opportunity to learn the skills necessary for change.  Who in our lives currently might be in a position to teach and coach us in the development of life-changing skills? God may superintend the trajectories of people’s lives so that their paths cross, creating opportunities for assistance (Esther 4:14).
6.   God can provide us with the emotional support and cooperative companionship of others.
      That is one major purpose of the Church (Ezra 10:4; Hebr. 10: 24-25).
7.      God can empower us by providing the resources we need to change. Do we need money, time, talent, knowledge, encouragement, wisdom, opportunity, perspective, understanding, divine direction, leadership, or support? Whatever we might need, including supernatural power if necessary (Eph. 1:19-20), God can arrange for us to get it, enabling us to experience transformation as we make effort in His strength (Mark 13:11; Col. 1:29; 2 Thes. 1:11; Phil. 4:13; Jms. 1:5).
8.      God can help us to be physically and emotionally healthy enough to change.  Change is often more difficult when our bodies and souls are inharmonious.  By giving us what we need to be healthy (all the above and more), God prepares us for successful action.  He may even miraculously heal us, if necessary (Isa. 38:16; Matt. 9:4-6).  Divine contributions toward health may include laughter (Ps. 126:2), hope (Prov. 13:12), peace (Jn. 14:27), comfort
(2 Cor. 1:4), reason to trust (Jn. 14:1), joy (Ps. 126:2), kind words (Prov. 15:4a), rest (Matt. 11:28-29), and physical provisions (Matt. 6:28-34).
9.      God can provide us the freedom to change.  By offering forgiveness in Christ (1 Jn.1:9) and release from the bondage of sin through the revelation of redemptive and sanctifying truth to us (Rom.6:18-22, 8:2; Jn. 8:32), God cognitively, emotionally, socially, practically, and spiritually frees us to pursue change successfully. In other words, by restoring our relationship with Himself, God provides us with all His “riches in glory,” which we would not otherwise have (Eph. 1:18; Phil. 4:19).
10.     God can help us focus enough to change.  One way He can do this is by providing us
      meaning and purpose for transformation (Phil. 2:13).  Purpose tends to concentrate
      attention because we have reason to act toward a particular end result. Furthermore, meaning
      invests activity with psychological flavor and color, creating emotional and cognitive appeal,
       which also promotes focus.  In addition, God can help us to focus on change by providing us
       with the fellowship of people who support and encourage our change efforts (Phil. 2:2).
      With the assistance of God and others, we can attend to our transformation goals with less
      drift, discouragement, or distraction (Hebr. 2:1).

Concluding Thoughts
We must always remember that God can at any time use healthy and godly people to provide us with life-changing comfort, advocacy, teaching, direction, exhortation, admonishment, consolation, encouragement, advice, training, testimony, reminders, material care, emotional support, affirmation, praise, correction, nurture, physical care, forgiveness, forbearance, good news, example, and prayer.  The Body of Christ, dynamically animated and directed by the Spirit of God, is God’s primary vehicle on earth for helping people to therapeutically and spiritually change. Most of what God does for us individually and collectively He intends to do through us individually and collectively. Hence, all the “one another” passages of Scripture.

While it is always within God’s prerogative to supernaturally change us, there is only one (possible) clear mention of such exceptional divine transformation in the Bible—King Saul (1 Sam. 10:6-11). All others appear familiar in their psychological process. Even the case with Saul seems limited both in duration and extent.  God quickly allowed Saul to revert to his former self, and Saul’s change “into another person” may have simply meant a particular surge of new desire (v. 9) and specific behavior (v. 10). Verse 22 suggests an otherwise unchanged man. God’s movements often touch people’s hearts (v. 26), but such influence seems transient without sustained human effort to pursue and honor God. To make and maintain significant therapeutic change, people must not only be committed to that end, but also invite, even implore, God to compensate for what they cannot otherwise achieve without His divine cooperation and assistance. Only then God can truly—and honestly—receive glory.

Rick Sholette, M.Div., Th.M.
Paraclete Ministries

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