Psychotherapy and Spiritual Direction: Were They Ever Separate?

It’s hard to squeeze God under a microscope. The same is true for the air he breathes, spirituality. How can behavioral scientists lower the lens on something so vast? How to describe that which is most deeply experienced in the realm beyond words? It shouldn’t surprise me that there were unexpected turns in my itinerary for becoming a psychologist who could apply God to life. I function mostly in a twilight zone between spiritually-sensitive psychotherapy1 and psychologically-informed spiritual direction. Three events impacted my understanding of Christian spirituality.

Three Stories

Cave and the Kingdom
Several years ago Forest Baird, a visiting professor in the School of Theology, screened an animated film based on the Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic. In the flickering lights I observed a dark grotto where prisoners sat chained so that they could see only the back wall of the cave. Behind them men paraded in front of a fire carrying wooden cutouts of the world’s objects. All the prisoners saw was an unending play of shadows.

Suddenly a prisoner was released to the outside world of real objects, illuminated by a blinding sun. He adapted to the light and began to run and play, like an excited child. He put his feet in real water and inhaled the fragrance of real flowers. He was filled with joy and went back to set the other prisoners free. They laughed at this would-be therapist, deciding they would put him to death if only their chains would allow them.

After the film I was lost in thought. The life and mission of Christ made new sense to me. How could I have missed the cave and kingdom language in Scripture? Jesus did not come to earth to tell stories and sell fire insurance. He entered our cave to set captives free, to restore sight to the blind, to proclaim the good news of the real world—the kingdom of God. We are put here to learn how to live there.

From that day I wondered what it would be like to truly live in the kingdom, and whether or not it would be possible for me—during the course of psychotherapy with Christian clients—to foster what Thomas Merton refers to as a more “vital relation with realities outside and above us?”2

Crumbs and Bubbles
Something had changed deep within me. I began to read spiritual classics about life in the kingdom and embrace the spiritual disciplines as a methodology for transformation. My initial experience was not very rewarding. I wanted to be transformed in the way a microwave transforms unpopped corn. To be honest, I wanted to make God reward my diligence. The result was that I began to experience the disciplines as—to use the words of John Ortberg—twelve more things to not do and feel guilty about.

Then I read a strange parable written by William E. Barton, a preeminent clergyman of the early 1900s who sometimes wrote under the pen name Safed the Sage. In the story, a grandfather, Safed, plays outside with his granddaughter as snow begins to fall. Safed is amused by her descriptions of the snowflakes as “crumbs” and “bubbles.” She calls the flakes that land on the old man’s overcoat, “crumbs” because they remain dry and are easily brushed away. “Bubbles” of snow land on his skin and melt.

The next morning Safed awakes to an eerily quiet world where “crumbs” and “bubbles” have piled up in such drifts that they have stopped cars and trains. Safed observes, “I considered that it is even so with many things in life that are small in themselves, but when multiplied they become habits that people cannot break, or grievances that rend friendship asunder, even as great drifts are made of bubbles and crumbs of snow.”3

A second light bulb went on: I began to experience the Christian disciplines as little things that slowly pile up, gradually making me more open to God’s loving presence, gradually stopping the traffic of a runaway ego.

Listen to All the Voices
I arrived at Fuller in the fall of 1979 with the baggage of a recovering legalist who had spent his entire life swimming in only two (holiness and Pentecostal) of what Richard Foster describes as the six tributaries of Christian spirituality. And, worse than that, I assumed that all other approaches to God were competitors to truth and therefore inferior.

During my years at Fuller, this changed. Instead of thinking that theology was something to be systematized and defended, I began to view it as a story to be stepped into and experienced. I wanted to swim in all the rivers. I wanted to hear all the voices—including those with contemplative, liturgical, evangelical, and social justice accents.

Stepping outside denominational boundaries—while appreciating each as an important expression of faith—opened a treasure trove of unconsidered spiritual resources. My view of one of the most fundamental doctrines in Christian theology was neither complete nor inerrant.

My desire to hear all the voices brought me to the melodious sounds of classic Christianity where I began to see that the most prominent view of the atonement during the earliest centuries of Christianity was more like a relationship (conversation, communion, consummation, and union) than a courtroom (justice and appeasement of wrath).

These three ideas—the availability of the kingdom as an accessible realm of the “really real,” the practice of spiritual disciplines as “crumbs” and “bubbles” of transformation, and a relational understanding of salvation—caused me to desire a transforming relationship with God and gave me professional permission to work with clients in a spiritually sensitive way.

Theoretical Implications

In his book, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ,4 Dallas Willard describes how Christian spiritual formation takes place. Willard posits six basic and inseparable aspects in human life: thought (images, concepts, judgments), feeling (sensation, emotion), choice (will, decision, character), body (behavior, action), social context (relation to God and others), and soul (the factor that integrates all of the dimensions to form one life).

To him Christian spiritual formation is the process of allowing the word and spirit of Christ to enter into the depths of one’s person for the purpose of transforming each component of the human being to Christlikeness—under the direction of a regenerate will and with constant overtures of grace from God.5 Willard acknowledges that such transformation cannot be accomplished by direct human effort. It requires grace and the desire to have Jesus live his life through me—one “crumb” and “bubble” at a time.

Willard’s model illustrates the inadequacy of psychologies that devote themselves to one dimension of the person (e.g., the primacy of cognition, emotion, existential choice, behavior, key relationships, etc.). Too often attempts have been made to understand the complexities of humans by examining singular dimensions. While some schools have posited deeper levels, the absence of the concept of a unifying soul has left the field of psychology compartmentalized. Contemporary reductionism squeezes the person under a microscope and sees only a single dimension of that person.

Spiritual direction—with its soul talk and holistic view of the person—is a refreshing alternative to this compartmentalization.6 As Thomas Merton says, “You don’t go to a spiritual director to take care of your spirit the way you go to a dentist to have him take care of your teeth. The spiritual director is concerned with the whole person” in a transforming relationship with God.7 As Willard notes, the transformational goal is “full participation in the life of God’s Kingdom and in the vivid companionship of Christ . . . through appropriate exercise in the disciplines for life in the spirit.”8

Defining Questions

What is Spirituality?
Spirituality is awareness of and response to the divine and the integration of life through self-transcendence and surrender to whatever is perceived to be Ultimate.9 Christian spirituality is more specific, involving an awareness of and response to the Trinity as a community of mutual love, best envisioned as a journey of transformation through union with God. In Willard’s model, Christian spirituality becomes dynamic and personal through growing openness to the transforming presence of Christ who is welcomed to the center of our person.

What Is Christian Spiritual Direction?
It is a process in which one individual facilitates another’s awakening to true identity and God’s presence by increasing conversation and communion with God10 and promoting surrender to God’s will and love.11 While spiritual direction does not involve the pursuit of “mental health goals,” the process of awakening to God may have indirect mental health implications, potentially impacting each component of the person.

In distinction from spiritual direction, psychotherapy is the treatment of mental and emotional disorders using psychological methods which usually involve an intentional program for producing change of behavior, thought, emotional response, or relationship from maladaptive to “normal.”

What Is Psycho-spirituality?
The term refers to the interdependence of psychological and spiritual processes in health, pathology, and growth.12 A positive change in any area (see Willard’s model of the person) may have profound impact in other areas as well—because of the interconnectedness of the person, it seems unlikely to be otherwise.

What are the contributions of spirituality to the counseling process? If healthy spirituality results in enhanced awareness of God, improved connectedness to love, hopeful openness to the power and presence of God, and transcendent meaningfulness, then spiritual development should enhance the process of counseling and psychotherapy, potentially impacting each component of the person in a helpful way.13

What Are Spiritual Disciplines?
Spiritual disciplines enable us to do what we cannot by direct effort; they “bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and his Kingdom.”14 Spiritual disciplines provide a way for deep internal change that mere willpower can never bring about.15 They are the “crumbs” and “bubbles” of surrender to the presence, will, and love of God.

What Is Spiritual Pathology?
Anything that produces a lack of spiritual sensitivity, fear of surrender, or inadequate embrace of reality is detrimental to spiritual vitality. Spiritual pathology is a hardening of the heart, a closing off of the center of our person to God.

Practical Implications

Ethical Considerations
In a chapter titled, “Spiritual Direction and Psycho-therapy: Ethical Issues,”16 Siang-Yang Tan concludes that “the potential is great for deep blessing and greater wholeness and shalom for the client who freely chooses therapy that aims for psychological and spiritual growth as well as the reduction of psychological distress.”17

He also points out that the potential pitfalls of integrating spiritual direction into psychotherapy are numerous and potentially devastating, counseling that most concerns can be addressed through humility that leads to further education (intentionally developing dual competencies in psychotherapy and spiritual formation practices); respect (not imposing beliefs or values on the client); and meticulous use of informed consent (providing sufficient information to the client concerning the therapist’s approach to psychotherapy and the role given to spirituality and spiritual practices).

Intake and Assessment
An assessment is not complete without a thorough spiritual history. P. Scott Richards and Allen E. Bergin present compelling reasons for conducting a religious-spiritual assessment.18 It provides the therapist with the client’s worldview; the health of the client’s religious-spiritual orientation; potential uses of the client’s spiritual beliefs and community as a resource for coping, healing, and growth; information on which spiritual interventions could be used in therapy; and what unresolved spiritual doubts, concerns, or needs the client brings to therapy.

Spiritual assessment can be conducted at varying levels. Often the variables that are considered are nominal—religious and denominational orientation, church attendance, etc. While this is useful, it must be stated that wearing the label “Christian” does not mean a person experiences connectedness to God and transcendent meaning. As Ron Sider observes, even those who identify with evangelical Christianity are often difficult to tell apart from the general population.19 Spiritual assessment should address important issues such as a person’s God view, awareness of connectedness to the divine, and barriers to experiencing God’s love.

Following are three broad strategies for integrating spiritual issues in therapy:

1. A psychotherapist working under constraints imposed by setting and third-party reimbursement criteria should strive to employ spiritual interventions with proven treatment effectiveness for the client’s specific presenting problem that is documented in the small but growing body of psychological outcome literature. If desired by the client, the therapist may also help the client explore how his/her religious and spiritual background impacts psychological functioning.

2. In situations with greater latitude, the therapist can increase use of spiritual practices to facilitate attention to spiritual awareness, deep longings for transcendence, and openness to connectivity to God. It may be beneficial for clients to explore the impact of psychological functioning on spiritual well-being.

3. All Christian psychotherapists should keep in mind Mark McMinn’s suggestion,

[those] best prepared to help people are . . . not only highly trained in counseling theory and techniques and in theology but also personally trained to reflect Christian character inside and outside the counseling office. This character cannot be credentialed with graduate degrees or learned in the classroom; it comes from years of faithful training in the spiritual disciplines—prayer, studying Scripture, solitude, fasting, corporate worship, and so on.20

The best spiritual interventions for increasing spiritual awareness and connectivity flow from the spiritually aware and connected psychotherapist.


We can easily miss the fact that the most essential integration occurs within the individual—a synthesis that is optimal when it is grounded in an ever-deepening and transforming experience of the divine.21 So, can professional psychotherapy ever embrace practices that seem more at home as spiritual direction? Were the two disciplines every really separate, or did it just appear that way during the time modern psychology had its lens too close to the glass?

1. I am indebted to David G. Benner for this term.
2. Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1956), 3.
3. This story is adapted from William E. Barton, “Crumbs and Bubbles,” in The Millionaire and the Scrublady and Other Parables, ed. Garth Rosell and Stan Flewellings (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 59–60.
4. See Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002); and Gary W. Moon, Renovation of the Heart Video Curriculum (Franklin Springs, GA: LifeSprings Resources, 2003).
5. Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 42.
6. Gary W. Moon and David G. Benner, eds., Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 2004).
7. Ibid., 14.
8. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 26.
9. David G. Benner, Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998).
10. See Gary W. Moon, Falling for God (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw, 2004), for a more detailed treatment of a relational approach to spiritual formation.
11.  Moon and Benner, Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls, 20.
12. David G. Benner, “Lecture notes from CPSY 7252: Counseling and Spirituality,” taught at the Psychological Studies Institute, Atlanta, GA.
13. Benner, Care of Souls.
14. Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, 156.
15. Mark R. McMinn, Psychology, Theology, and Spirituality in Christian Counseling (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1996).
16. Siang-Yang Tan, “Spiritual Direction and Psychotherapy: Ethical Considerations,” in Moon and Benner, Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls, 186–204.
17. Ibid., 197.
18. R. Scott Richards and Allen E. Bergin, A Spiritual Strategy for Counseling and Psychotherapy (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1997), 172–75.
19. Ron Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005).
20. Mark R. McMinn, Psychology, Theology, and Spirituality in Christian Counseling (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1996), 14.
21. Moon and Benner, Spiritual Direction, 7.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Winter 2006, “Psychology and Spirituality.”