Psychotherapy may be defined as a process by which one individual aligns himself with another individual or family in order to enhance the functioning, the well-being, and the emotional and spiritual growth of the latter. The practice of psychotherapy requires a knowledge base on the part of the practitioner in terms of personality theory, functional and dysfunctional coping mechanisms, mental disorder, bio-psycho-social effects of stress and trauma, and the nature and process of interpersonal relationships.  Furthermore, since growth and healing in psychotherapy take place within the context of an interpersonal relationship, the therapist must be capable of establishing an association where trust, respect, and intimacy are maintained within the ethical boundaries of a professional relationship. While there is normally a fee for service, psychotherapy is not a reciprocal relationship.

The philosophical basis of mainstream psychotherapy is secular humanism, an ethic grounded in moral relativism, promoting the care and development of the self.  While this framework is well suited to bringing about healing in the individual, its effectiveness is limited when it comes to interpersonal relationships and the communal welfare.  The philosophical basis of faith-based psychotherapy, on the other hand, suggests that care of the self be balanced with responsibility and commitment to the other.  However, avoidance of moral relativism does not presuppose a reflexive entanglement in moral absolutes. Faith-based psychotherapy proposes that a balance between individual rights and responsibilities is part of self-love, not inimical to it.  The commandment implies self-love, as we are not told to love our neighbor instead of ourselves.  Responsible psychotherapy should, however, enter into a ethical dialogue around the sometimes competing forces of expressive individualism, affiliation, justice and community.

Because of its contemporary scope not only as a profession but also as a worldview, psychotherapy should not only be clinically responsible, but also socially responsible.  When psychotherapists encourage people to see the problem as just inside of themselves, they put their clients at risk of being preempted by disruptive cultural forces and indifferent to injustice.  Societal factors such as rabid consumerism or regressive economics or racism not only have an impact on our clients but they in turn can have an impact on them.  Faith-based psychotherapy proposes to offer an antidote to the market-driven culture, and tries to teach families to not just let the popular culture happen to them.  Therapists can not only help their clients to critically evaluate current culture in terms of its effects on themselves and their families, but also to realize any potential they might have for communal involvement and social change.  The medical model, which underwrites most traditional modalities, must be understood as encompassing linear ways of thinking, with an emphasis on disease and pathology.  An alternative is found in more circular, systemic modes of thought, which take into account familial and societal factors, and which is not predominately deficits-based.

Psychology, the science of the self, encourages us to look inward, for the self-knowledge that will lead to personal growth.  Christianity wants us to look outward, focusing on others, and upward, for hope and sustenance.  In relationships, psychology reminds us not to neglect our own needs, as a way of enhancing the relationship itself.  Christianity asks us to forget about ourselves in relationships, to focus on the other, to opt for last place.  Rather than taking an either/or position, faith-based psychotherapy embraces the dialectic of both approaches.

The ethic of client self-determination is central to professional psychotherapy, which can therefore not coexist with any sort of coercive evangelization.  Issues of faith and spirituality are managed within the clinical context on an individual basis.  While for most people emotional and spiritual maturity tend to develop concurrently, an experienced therapist can ascertain those instances where faith may exert either a progressive or a regressive influence on character and personality.  A therapist should also be able to distinguish manifestations of organized religion at its prophetic and communal best, and at its exclusivist and dogmatic worst.  When appropriate, a client may be encouraged to balance consideration of transcendence and immanence, both individually and in his or her faith community.  

Faith-based psychotherapy also impacts the nature of the therapeutic relationship.  It maintains that healing is an emotional, physical, and spiritual process, and that belief in God, however conceptualized, is not antithetical to mental health.  While competent therapists possess a certain degree of expertise, it must be offered in a spirit of collaboration if clients are to be empowered rather than directed.  It acknowledges that psychotherapy so hinges on relational authenticity that a therapist cannot separate what he does from who he is.  The practice of psychotherapy requires professional and personal integrity.  Finally faith-based psychotherapy has the capacity to work within the frameworks of meaning and purpose, of suffering, and of eschatology.

There are three levels of receptive interaction in faith-based psychotherapy:

  • Understanding.  On a cognitive level, the therapist comes to know his clients and to understand the internal and external forces that impact them.
  • Empathy.  On an emotional level, the therapist comes to perceive and to resonate with his client’s feelings and to become conversant with their inner lives.
  • Compassion.  On a sacrificial level, the therapist affiliates with his client at the point of suffering where the burden might be shared.

Inclusion of compassion in the clinical relationship is unique to faith-based psychotherapy.  While the capacity for compassion can develop over time, it always requires a particular commitment and openness on the part of the therapist.  Compassion is transformative.  Compassion underwrites clinical miracles and participatory community. And a compassionate stance cannot be maintained over time without grace.

Christian psychotherapy acknowledges the possibility of grace for the therapeutic relationship.  There is a necessary but perilous degree of hubris involved in the notion that the presence of one person can bring about healing in the other.  The risk can be minimized and the process transformed with the acknowledgment of a Presence greater than the sum of clinical interventions.