Commentary
By Roy E. Barsness 2-14-2018

A recent tweet sent out by Dr. John Piper’s Desiring God ministries team sure sounded like an attack upon counseling and psychology.

On Feb. 6, Desiring God tweeted, “We will find mental health when we stop staring at the mirror and fix our eyes on the strength and beauty of God.

Outrage in the Twitterverse was appropriately swift and widespread. Hours later, Desiring God clarified that the quotation came from Piper’s mentor, Clyde Kilby and was expressed decades ago, in an era with a different understanding of mental health. Yet, I agree with this statement … sort of. Staring in the mirror won’t fix much, but fixing our eyes on the strength and beauty of God probably won’t either. I doubt God knows much about staring in a mirror, nor do I presume God is fond of being stared at, for to do so renders God’s covenantal-partner — you and me — stagnant and useless.

When we fix our eyes upon God, God bids us to turn away and turn toward the other. It is in our turn toward the other that we will stumble upon the transcendent Other. For God declares, “that whatever you do to the least of these, you do it unto to me.” God has chosen us for partnership in the healing and restoration of our lives. Well-being does not come through self-reflecting mirrors that are skewed and dishonest, or by fixing our eyes upon a god that we have mostly likely made in our own image. Rather God shows up and heals in our love for one another.

As a covenantal-partner with God, I believe that as a psychologist, what I do and how I do it matters. What we have been learning within the mental health field is that regardless of our methodologies — from the existential/psychoanalytic to the cognitive-behavioral — it is not our methods to which we ascribe, but it is the person of the therapist that is the primary agent of change (see the American Psychological Association’s 2006 statement on Evidence-Based Treatments). Current neurobiological research also supports this notion, where researcher C.C. Whitehead reports, “every time we make therapeutic contact with our patients we are engaging profound processes that tap into essential life forces in ourselves and in those we work with … emotions are deepened in intensity and sustained in time when they are inter-subjectively shared. This occurs at moments of deep contact.”

It is for these reasons that I have developed and ordered my own theories and practices inclined toward the authenticity and vulnerability of both the therapist and the patient. This is tricky, and many times I wish I could simply fix my eyes upon the images of God that I have created or the mirror of self-analysis. But I am always pulled back to the nature of God, a God of flesh, of sacrifice, and of identification. The reality is that beauty and strength are not handed down by God by fixing our eyes upon the Godself, but are made manifest in the grit of the human-to-human encounter. Our ethical spiritual and psychological question is: What is my responsibility to you — my other?

A parable once told by C.K. Chesterton gets at this in this way:

A man who was entirely careless of spiritual affairs died and went to hell. And he was much missed on earth by his old friends. His business agent went down to the gates of hell to see if there was any chance of bringing him back. But though he pleaded for the gates to be opened, the iron bars never yielded. His priest also went and argued: 'He was not really a bad fellow; given time he would have matured. Let him out, please!' The gate remained stubbornly shut against all their voices. Finally, his mother came; she did not beg for his release. Quietly, and with a strange catch in her voice, she said to Satan: 'Let me in.' Immediately the great doors swung open upon their hinges. For love goes down through the gates of hell and there redeems the dead.

It seems that we are all made well when we go down into the depths of the hell of our patients (and with others) and abide with, rather than observe from beyond. We are made well at our points of surrender, in those deconstructed moments when we fall upon our knees and cry holy, not in an illusory haze found in the mirrors of our self-reflections or in our constructed images of God isolated from the other, but in our solidarity with one another.

We find God when we enter into life of another where we are transfixed — that is, in awe and amazement in the strength and beauty in the other. It is for this reason that I pray to God to never be fully “fixed” for then there would be no struggle, no need of the other, and thus no glimpse of the Divine.

Recommended Retweet: We find God and mental health when we cry, “let me in.”

Roy E. Barsness is a professor at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, the Brookhaven Institute for Psychoanalysis and Christian Theology and the Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy Group in Seattle. His latest book is Core Competencies of Relational Psychoanalysis: A Guide to Practice, Study, and Research Routledge, 2018).

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Beyond the Mirror: On Desiring God's Mental Health Tweet"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines and acknowledge that my comment may be published in the Letters to the Editor section of Sojourners magazine.

Must Reads

Subscribe