Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Self and Soul: Exploring the Boundary between Psychotherapy and Spiritual Formation

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Self and Soul: Exploring the Boundary between Psychotherapy and Spiritual Formation

Article excerpt

As the field of mental health increasingly turns its attention to spirituality, Christian counseling is busily investigating how spiritual formation relates to psychotherapy. At the heart of these concerns is the topic of the human soul. This article explores the meaning of "soul" in Scripture, in Greek philosophy, and in medieval spirituality as it impacts the present practice of psychotherapy, an enterprise that primarily deals with the self. Particular attention is given to the knowledge competencies regarding the soul that Christian counselors will need as they re-tool for adding spiritual formation to their counseling practices.


As the twenty-first century gets underway, we are observing two overarching trends in the American mental health field. First, psychotherapy professions are engaged in an impressive effort to humanize their work more broadly by paying unprecedented attention to spirituality and in some cases to religion. This trend was unanticipated as recently as ten years ago, but its presence in journals, conferences, institutes, and training programs is now obvious to all. Interest in things spiritual is indeed remarkable given the fact that the secular psychotherapy field in America has most often touted its antipathy to the spiritual side of humans during most of its twentieth century history. Second, efforts to de-pathologize the mental health field have continued to grow and prosper. Rather than focus so intently on mental illness, therapists everywhere are paying more attention to brief interventions and to preventive strategies. The subtitle to Egan's Skilled Helper (2002) refers now to problem-management and opport unity-development as its approach to the helping task. Counselors are cross training in a new field known generally as "coaching." Clearly, psychotherapists want to expand their sphere of influence beyond the boundaries of serious psychopathology.

Christian psychology is not immune from trends in the larger mental health arena. Christian counselors will argue, however, that we have been interested in the spiritual side of human functioning from the very beginning. Our biblical convictions tell us that we cannot be effective in our work without attending to the spiritual ramifications inherent in human suffering, psychopathology and the struggles of our clients. We can only affirm our secular colleagues for their efforts to understand the human person more completely. The second broad trend, however, also finds expression among Christian counselors in the renewed interest that now exists in spiritual formation, spiritual direction, and contemplative psychology. The need to develop deeper and more mature levels of spirituality is a challenge for all believers not just those who struggle with abnormal problems. Hence, we can observe the mega-trend of de-pathologization making inroads into the specialty of Christian counseling.

Spiritual direction has not been a major interest of evangelical piety until recently. Seminaries and graduate schools of psychology are now demonstrating interest in providing training in spiritual formation as part of their regular curricular offerings. And Christian counselors everywhere are exploring how they can creatively and sensitively incorporate the exercise of spiritual formation into their practice of counseling and psychotherapy. Bringing psychotherapy and spiritual direction together makes good conceptual sense given the fact that the two approaches of working with individuals share so many common concerns: growth, change, development, mind, consciousness, insight, and self-experience (deWit, 1991, 1999). Clients come for help with both their suffering and their yearning for a closer connection with God (Bronheim, 1998). Christian counselors ought to be about the business of helping them in both areas.

In a relatively short span of ten years, the literature in evangelical circles dealing with this new trend has exploded. …

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