Everything you are is a result of interactions with others. It began with the physical interaction of your parents at conception. It continued with the loving care of parents, grandparents, and supportive caregivers.
The influence of interactions with others is life-long. The aroma of freshly baked bread and oatmeal raisin cookies stirs something deep within me that calls me to memories of my home that are far deeper than a satisfying meal.
Those interactions with my mother (and father) shaped me powerfully.
Dr. Don Joy referred to the family as “God’s First Curriculum.” It is within our physical family that we learn the most crucial elements of the faith.
We learn to feel loved, to know in our bones what trust and safety feel like, to experience the hopefulness and steadfastness that are found in promises fulfilled. The combined experiences of our families of origin have profound physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and social effects on our development…or the lack of that development.
In a supportive environment, a child learns to feel her of his own worth and value in a healthy, humble way. The child learns he or she is worthy of love because they are deeply and dearly loved, not only by the God who knit them together in their mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13), but also because they experienced that love from others.
Without that experiential knowledge of what love and acceptance feel like, the love of God, more often than not, remains a longing for hope, an abstract idea that we can accept mentally but only have fleeting glimpses of emotionally.
There is a vast difference between the smell of fresh baked oatmeal raisin cookies, and knowing those cookies were baked for me.
But what happens when patterns of interaction have a destructive element? Too many times as a professional counselor I listen to the stories of adults who still feel the sting of the harsh words of their parents.
In the mind of a small child, no one else has the authority of a parent. What that mother or father says and does has the thunderous authority of God speaking to Moses on Mt. Sinai. But when those words convey messages of disappointment with one’s performance, disapproval of one’s appearance, one’s actions, thoughts and emotions, the child’s sense of self is crushed.
In the mind of a child, it is a short step from hearing the words from the most important person in his or her life that their actions are wrong, to the belief that “I am wrong.”
Part of the joy of professional counseling is helping individuals discover the experience of health and wholeness. This is especially true when the pain of interactions, past or present, overshadows the joy of connection.
For those whom relationships have been marked by dread and sorrow restoration can be a slow, tedious, and challenging journey. Pastors and faith communities often work wonders with those who struggle.
But for some, the challenges of healing are deep and well entrenched. It is at those times that a professional Christian counselor can be of help.
What are the signs that it is time to seek professional help? Here are some indicators.
First, and most important, when individuals struggle with thoughts of suicide professional help is essential. When hope is lost, and problems persist, it is unfortunately not that uncommon for people to have thoughts of ending their lives.
There is an epidemic of suicide in the United States. Few are immune. From adolescents to senior adults, people are taking their own lives at an unprecedented rate. Military veterans are especially vulnerable.
If you have any concerns that a friend or loved one is considering suicide talk with them. It is a myth that asking about thoughts of suicide will introduce the thought into another’s person’s mind. It is far better to ask than to act as if nothing is wrong.
Medical personal and professional counselors are trained to ask the right questions to assess risk. Counselors can also facilitate the longer, challenging conversations about how to manage the difficult emotions that lead to thoughts of self-harm.
Second, counselors understand the dynamics involved in complicated relationships. Not every home and family is safe and nurturing. Harsh words, unrealistic expectations, and boundary violations involving physical and sexual touch occur too often. Those events work together to create an environment in which children learn the wrong lessons about themselves, relationships, and even about their relationship with God.
Look into a person’s eyes and ask this question:
“Who looked into your eyes when you were a child with a gleam and said, I love you and I am so glad you are part of my life?”
If the person does not have an answer in two to three seconds, there probably was no one to look at them in that loving supportive way. That question calls for an implicit response, a response from the heart.
Just as the smell of fresh baked oatmeal raisin cookies elicits an immediate response in my memory, the heartfelt sense of love, acceptance, and safety elicits a similar response to the question of the one who looked at that person with love and joy.
Unraveling the dynamics of hurtful relationships and learning, perhaps for the first time, to discover it is safe to trust, safe to have hope, and safe to actually believe that one is worthy of genuine love is the work many Christian counselors do on a daily basis.
Third, counselors have the ability to support the work of pastors in unique ways. The calling, training, and experience of pastors equip them to address the spiritual concerns of those they encounter in powerful ways.
Bringing God’s grace, the wisdom of Scripture, and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to bear on the needs of those they encounter is not to be underestimated.
However, when the needs of those they encounter include emotional issues such as depression, anxiety, emotions that swing widely, addiction, and interpersonal problems that threaten family relationships counselors can support the work of pastors in powerful ways.
The heart of the matter is that our interactions with others either give life or diminish the life God created us to live.
Thankfully the stigma associated with seeking counseling has lessened and many have discovered Christian counselors have a ministry that is Spirit-directed and Christ-centered. In particular, they have discovered counselors are often well suited to healing the hurts of relationships.
Tim Barber is co-owner of Counseling Alliance in Cincinnati, OH.
He served 22 years in pastoral ministry, and 13 years as Associate Professor in the Master of Arts in Counseling program at an accredited university.
Tim is a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist and also has advanced training in working with couples and trauma survivors.
He works with from a faith-based perspective to restore health, hope, and wholeness in lives and relationships.
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