Academic journal article Counseling and Values

Changes in Clients' Images of God over the Course of Outpatient Therapy

Academic journal article Counseling and Values

Changes in Clients' Images of God over the Course of Outpatient Therapy

Article excerpt

The authors examined the impact of outpatient counseling on clients' psychological symptoms and on their image of God. Thirty participants in a counseling treatment group and 68 participants in a no-treatment control group completed the Brief Symptom Inventory and the Adjective Checklist at 2 separate times. Counseled participants experienced significant reductions of psychological symptoms over the course of treatment whereas the control group showed no changes. Furthermore, ratings of God's agreeableness significantly increased (toward compassion) for clients in the treatment group, whereas no such changes were noted for the control group.


Theology and psychology have similar goals for human health and well-being. Both propose that a person live to her or his fullest potential by developing self-understanding. Theologians include understanding God as a part of this human development potential.

   Personal development of the self also constitutes development of
   the experience of God: loss of self-identity is also a loss of
   the experience of God. These are two aspects of one and the same
   history of experience. (E. Johnson, 1992, p. 65)

Historically, however, theology and psychology have been alienated from one another. Freud fueled this schism, maintaining that religion was the universal neurosis that relieved individuals' sense of helplessness by relying on an invented exalted father figure (Freud, 1913/1953). Theologians viewed psychology as anti-God, and psychologists viewed theologians as lacking in scientific understanding (Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 1996). Several theorists challenged Freud's views, resulting in the alienation of psychology and theology (Allport, 1950; Fairbairn, 1952; Guntrip, 1949, 1953, 1956; Rizzuto, 1979; Winnicott, 1958, 1971). Others continued to work toward understanding the integration of religion and psychology despite the diverse views regarding its importance (Hall, 1904; James, 1902/1985; Jung, 1938).

Recently, there has been a renewal of interest in recognizing the importance and impact of spirituality and religious faith on human development, mental disorders, and treatment. Both the American Psychological Association (1992) and the American Counseling Association (1995; Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs [CACREP], 2001) have embraced religion and spirituality as a diversity issue, thus requiring practitioners to attend to the significance of religious and spiritual concerns in understanding and treating clients. In 1994, the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV) included the diagnosis "Religious or Spiritual Problem" in its section on the conditions that may be a focus of clinical attention.

The research of mental health professionals has supported the view that counseling and psychotherapy reduce the symptoms of mental disorders (Grissom, 1994; Lambert & Cattani-Thompson, 1996; Lipsey & Wilson, 1993). Grissom's analysis indicated that, in general, therapy was much better than no treatment and better than a placebo. While some researchers were considering whether psychotherapy was effective, others were examining whether there are correlations between a person's image of self and his or her perceptions of God. Spilka (1964), an early pioneer in a factor-analytical approach to the study of God representations, provided evidence that linked levels of self-esteem with perceptions of God. Individuals with high levels of self-esteem and self-acceptance held images of God that were positive, close, personal, and accepting. Low levels of self-esteem were associated with more wrathful, controlling, and distant images of God (Benson & Spilka, 1973; Spilka, 1964). Other researchers also observed that a high self-valuation or self-acceptance was consistent with holding positive images of God or an accepting deity who is involved in human affairs (Chartier & Goehner, 1976; Ellzey, 1961; Jolley & Taulbee, 1986; Luther, 1980; Spilka, Addison, & Rosensohn, 1975). …

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