In professional counseling, it is said that the most important agent of change is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. In other words, the level of trust and safety provided by the relationship between the therapist and the client is more important than the therapeutic style or interventions.
This makes sense. We were created to be in relationship by a God who has lived eternally in relationship. We need a safe place where we can be known, where we can be real so that we can grow into wholeness. That side of you which most people don’t know about, that dark secret, that past painful experience, that part of you that brings you sorrow, anger, or shame… that needs to come out to the light in the safety of a non-judgmental and caring relationship.
This is what the church should be, namely, a safe place for one another. But we are paralyzed by fear of being known, just like we are paralyzed by the discomfort of hearing the deepest shame of others. And so quite often our only option becomes having to pay hourly for a professional to hear us without condemning us. They help us by walking with us through our story of pain and struggle without adding more shame onto us. Something that we, as brothers and sisters, should be doing for one another.
Now, as a psychotherapist, I believe in my profession and I know there are areas of struggles in which non-professionals would feel or be inadequate to help. Not everyone feels comfortable helping others through their neurodevelopmental, Psychotic, or even Trauma-related disorders. However, even in these categories the most important agent of change is still the safety of an understanding and empathetic relationship. Being unconditionally loved and accepted in light of the painful story behind our wrongdoings is what propels us towards change. Real change. From the inside out type of change.
The law in the Old Testament never changed anyone, it convicted us of our sin but it didn’t save us. The conviction and condemnation from the Law pointed us to the need of redemptive relationship, a Savior that would step off his higher place and walk with us in our mud. He rolled up his sleeves and felt our pain, He experienced our temptations, our frustrations, our sorrows, our hungers, our story. He, in his perfection not only walked with us, but then accepted and loved us right where we were. He loved us WHILE we were sinners (Read Romans 5:6-8). It was then that we were changed from the inside out.
The ones who experienced and accepted the redemptive relationship were transformed, while the ones who held on to the law remained the same or worse. What the law could not do, being loved and accepted in relationship did (Read Romans 8:1-11). Not only salvation, but also transformation. From that point on we changed not because we were commanded from afar, but because we were loved in close and present relationship while we were still struggling.
This is the Gospel, this is the good news. The bad news was that we were excluded because of our sin. The law only highlighted our exclusion, because no-one could keep the law. But the good news, no, the GREAT news, of the Gospel is that we are loved and accepted by the only One who could actually condemn us. And because of this love, then we can overcome our struggles. No longer do we try to grow in order to belong, now we grow because we know we belong.
And what Christ did, he calls us to do for others as well (Read Philippians 2:5-8). He wants us to leave our higher place and step into the mud of someone’s struggle. This should not be the exclusive task of a professional therapist, it is the call to the church. If you know someone who is hurting or failing, listen more and talk less. Don’t just look at the sin, but seek to learn their story of how such sin became their only escape. See the pain and shame that takes them back to it for a temporary sense of comfort.
And if you are one who needs help, find someone with whom you can be honest about your struggle. For as much as we try to hide our past and present story, God already knows who we are and He is simply waiting for us to open up. You already belong, so you are free to be honest about your struggle. There is much forgiveness, healing, and growth that awaits.
Safety and trust in relationships is the key for vulnerability. And vulnerability with one another is the key to mental, emotional, and spiritual growth and healing.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” James 5:16
Cesar Perez, M.S., RMFTI