Reflections on a Source of One’s Problems: Desires
I’ve done some group work with counselors who shared different opinions regarding their preferred clinical interventions. Reflecting after these discussions facilitated a next step of consideration, namely, that it is obviously important to be aware of one’s presuppositions regarding the potential source of problems as the most appropriate intervention is considered. Looking into the secular psychotherapeutic world, for example—which offers tools and strategies that could potentially be effectively used and adapted to working with Christians—it makes a difference whether one believes that cognitive content, attachments gone awry, incomplete emotional processing, or internal conflicts (just to name a few) is the fundamental issue driving an individual’s primary presenting difficulties. Christians would consider how idols of the heart, not realizing one’s full identity in Christ, not accessing Christ’s empowerment of the self, or suffering caused by sinners may be the roots of one’s psychospiritual problems.
One’s conviction of the likely source of the problem determines one’s interventions. Each of the above mentioned issues may lead a counselor to choose a different intervention, such as changing maladaptive thinking, recreating attachment bonds, focusing on troubling emotions, providing insight, asking about repentance of sin, appropriating Christian truths related to the self, experiential insight into (and removing of barriers that prevent one from) the power and affirmation Christ provides, or prayers (of all kinds) for one’s emotional healing.
I realize with these reflections, I need to go one step further and separate out the problem from the possible modality (emotions, thinking, relationships, biology, etc.) one can use to solve the problem. For example, a faulty understanding of one’s identity could potentially be corrected through changing cognitive patterns, through insight, through relational experiences, and so on.
Reflecting on all this, I realized after many years of counseling, that I needed to go back and get a fresh perspective on what I believe is at the core of one’s problems. And here, I’d like to zoom in on one aspect: desires. I will consider this from the metanarrative of Christianity: creation, fall, redemption.
Humanity was created with a reality of:
- Relationships [Gen 2:18]
- Love [God was concerned with the wellbeing of human beings (Gen 2:18), walked with them in the garden, marriage (Gen 2:24)]
- Honor, respect [created in God’s image Gen 1:26-27, Ps 8:1; Heb 2:7],
- Power [ruling over (gen 1:28; 2:19) and working (Gen 2:15) the earth]
- Happiness/satisfaction [(Gen 1:29-30; 2:9-14 ) every green plant and fruitbearing tree pleasing to the eye and mouth. Beautiful environment to enjoy]
- Security [Gen 1:25]
These aspects were part of creation and, therefore, present realities in the psychosociospiritual make-up of human beings. People are still created with a certain proclivity towards these things (as a part of the imago Dei). And pursuit of these elements in the context of an intimate loving and obedient relationship with God is good. Respect for these created aspects of human beings is important, for example, in raising children, in marital relationships and in counseling. The fulfillment of these desires (in the context of a relationship with God) is necessary, especially in the early years of development, for human beings in order to mature into a strong and healthy self that is, a self who is a responsible agent and has the capacity to “image” God.
When this proclivity is not expressed in the context of a loving and obedient relationship with God, it becomes self-centered. This self-centeredness is what happened when humanity fell into sin. Rather than imaging God, they wanted to be God. The desires for love, honor, and power, for example, are still present and in their created and intended essence ‘good’. However, a created self is now simultaneously a fallen self, which turns the proclivity ego-centric. The desires become demands for the self rather than that they are pursued in the context of God. Rather than seeing God as life-giving, fulfillment of these desires is considered life-giving.
Three aspects contribute to this intended healthy proclivity going awry. First is the inevitable expression of humans’ intrapsychic fallenness, which makes individuals pursue desires in the context of self, rather than in the context of submission to and out of the love of God. Second is the less than perfect, also fallen, environment that people grow up in, including less than perfect parenting and the unfortunate experiencing of traumatic events (relational, environmental, sociological, biological). And third are fallen biological issues that potentially contribute as well.
As a result of these influences, individuals fabricate a self that provides them with some type of self-serving love, honor, power, and happiness. The shaping of this fabricated self, furthermore, both comes about and is the result of efforts to defend the self against the realization and experience that in its now fallen essence (that is, without God), it is not fully worthy of love, honor, respect, power, happiness and satisfaction. A more specific treatment of this idea here:
|Proclivity of the created self||Fabrication of the fallen self in the defense against|
|Love, care||Feeling unloveable, uncared for|
|Honor, respect||Shame, feelings of unworthiness|
|Power||Feeling inadequate, incapable, incompetent|
|Happiness, satisfaction||Discontentment, unhappiness, sadness|
Christ died on the cross to redeem people fallen into sin. When individuals believe in and confess Jesus Christ, he declares them righteous, and liberates them from the power of death and sin. Liberated selves are free to acknowledge that they are created with good desires but that often the pursuit of the fulfillment of these desires is sinful. And as a result, they have become inauthentic, fabricating themselves into a pursuer primarily of the fulfillment of their desires but lacking the context of a love relationship with God. With this realization, believers are called to freely pursue desires in a godly way while learning to endure under and surrender to the reality of unfulfilled desires in a fallen world, in the knowledge of God’s present love and goodness and eventual eternal satisfaction. As they live their lives with this kind of faith and dependence on the Creator, they are being transformed into the image and likeness of Christ.
What to do in counseling
How do these reflections potentially help me in my counseling of Christians?
- Discern with the counselee what desires are frustrated (e.g., desire for respect from one’s spouse, relief from sadness, justice/punishment for an abuser, sufficient finances, confidence to self-assert).
- Discern the causes of frustrated desires, such as:
- Sinfulness (e.g., engaging in sinful activities, not wanting to surrender to God’s ways, not seeking God)
- Suffering (caused by traumatic experiences, sinfulness / imperfection of parents, personal limitations/inability for example)
- Biological issues (e.g., physical make-up contributing to depression)
- Discern how the individual deals with the frustrated desire (e.g., denial, anger, anxiety, sinful pursuit of the desire)
- Spend time acknowledging desires as part of God’s intention and validating the good of the desire.
- Empathize with and allow space to grieve the pain of unfulfilled desires
- Educate on the creation, fall, and liberation of the self and its desires.
- Discern the nature of the fabricated self and its manifestation in this individual’s life and present experience (in what ways have people fabricated a self to deal with the unfilled desires)
- Using a modality (focus on cognition, on emotions, on relationship, on insight for example) that fits for the counselor and counselee, help people:
- Acknowledge desires as part of God’s intention and validate the good of the desire
- Grieve unfulfilled desires
- Pursue desires in godly ways,
- Surrender to the reality of the present and potentially future unfulfillment of the desire,
- Live by faith
- Deconstruct the fabricated self
- Live pursuing the fulfillment of the two great commandments: loving God and others.
These reflections are obviously not meant to promote a “one size fits all” approach to individuals we counsel or their difficulties. But these reflections have helped me (and I hope will help you as well) gain some fresh perspective on my own approach to counseling and importantly reiterated the fact that God created people, including counselors, differently and that in his goodness he will use all of us to bring his people closer to him.
Lydia Kim is an assistant professor of Christian Psychology and Counseling at Urbana Theological Seminary.