Benner’s goal of counseling is wrapped up in his definition of repentance and conversion. For Benner (2015), repentance is turning away from the world and simultaneously turning to Jesus; while conversion is “the lifelong transformational process of being remade into the image of God” (pp. 71-73). It is the ongoing process of conversion that sums up Benner’s goal of counseling, which is spiritual transformation that results in being more like Christ. Benner (2015) explains that spiritual transformation goes far beyond sin avoidance via willpower, and instead, it is a life completely transformed by the extravagant love of God (p. 73).
Development of Problems and Personal Need
According to Benner (2015), mankind’s problem rests on the fact that “humans spurned God’s love in favor of what was perceived to be freedom” (p. 27). The result of humanity’s quest for freedom was bondage, alienation, self-love, and “egocentricity and estrangement from our deepest self, God and others” (Benner, 2015, p. 27). Due to the relational breach with God, humanity lives in an environment of tainted love where love from others is finite, and love is given to selfishly receive it (Benner, 2015, p. 27). Accordingly, mankind’s greatest personal need is an unfulfilled longing for relational connections and belongingness (Benner, 2015, p. 15).
Benner focuses more on the power of God’s transforming love, rather than God’s Word. Benner certainly believes in the Word of God, and Scripture reveals God’s love. However, for Benner, belief alone does not solve humanity’s problem. The relationship between God and man must go beyond belief. Benner (2015) quotes A. W. Tozer to support his assertion, Christians have “substituted theological ideas for an arresting encounter; we are full of religious notions, but our great weakness is that for our hearts there is no one there” (p. 30). Benner (2015) asserts that mankind must move beyond belief and objectively knowing about God and move toward personally knowing God through experience (pp. 30-31).
Formula for Change
According to Johnny Baker (Liberty University, Spirituality), Benner builds his formula for change upon the three classic stages of spiritual formation: purgation, illumination, and union. The first stage, purgation, means repenting and surrendering to God’s love (Liberty University, Spirituality). The second stage, illumination, often involves sadness where the recognition of sin leads to a deep appreciation of grace and passionate love for Jesus (Liberty University, Spirituality). The final stage, union, involves the recognition that believers are eternally united with Christ and walk with God (Liberty University, Spirituality). Importantly, Benner (2015) explains that the three-stage transformation process is neither linear nor achievable, but instead, transformation is gift of love received from God (p. 95).
Balance of Theology and Spirituality
Theologically, Benner (2015) recognizes that God, as the creator of the universe, loves His created beings just as a parent loves a newborn child (p. 26). However, the rebellion in the Garden separated man from God’s love, thus God sent Jesus Christ to reveal God’s character by personifying His love and bringing humanity “back to the Father – back to love” (Benner, 2015, p. 28). However, Benner’s theology is not the driving force behind his methodology. It is not understanding the theology of love that transforms lives, it is experiencing God’s love that transforms lives (Benner, 2015, p. 29). Without question, Benner leans more on spirituality than theology in his methodology of counseling.
Benner (2015) suggests that the absence of God’s love results in fear (pp. 37-38). Individuals attempt to eliminate fear by avoiding failure and criticism, while engaging in self-protection by controlling other people (Benner, 2015, p. 39). The process of avoidance and control is all part of the shadow self that hides behind a mask and attempts to maintain the appearance of security to eliminate underlying guilt (Benner, 2015, pp. 42-43). In other words, the structure and development of human personality run deeper than the observable self and exist within the heart of an individual that must be filled with God’s love to overcome the shadow self.
Counselor’s Function and Role
According to Benner (2015), when individuals lack God’s love, they attempt to fill the void of connection and belonging by focusing on self, which suffocates both the individual and others (p. 89). Alternatively, God’s love moves individuals beyond self and into community with others (Benner, 2015, p. 89). Thus, Baker (Liberty University, Spirituality) explains that for Benner the role of the counselor is to reflect the divine presence of God’s love to the counselee, which creates a safe environment for vulnerability. Furthermore, as the counselor extends unconditional, positive regard to the client within an environment of love, the counselor makes it possible for the client to believe in God’s unconditional love (Liberty University, Spirituality).
Major Contribution to Counseling
Baker (Liberty University, Christian) notes that research supports the idea that spirituality can produce positive effects on counseling. Benner’s major contribution to Christian counseling is the assertion that the appropriation of God’s love, which is the heart of Christian spirituality, provides emotional health. In direct opposition to a theology of self-improvement that manipulates God to love believers, Benner (2015) asserts that accepting God’s unconditional love not only transforms the believer, but also allows the believer to love others by removing the need to selfishly manipulate others to fill the void of love (p. 75). By accepting God’s love as the agent of transformation, rather than resorting to self-improvement to gain God’s acceptance, the focus remains on God rather than self.
Limitations of This Counseling Theory
Two specific limitations exist within Benner’s counseling theory. First, syncretism is a potential risk when an emphasis on spirituality trumps theology, especially if followers of the methodology decide to rely on experiences that do not align with orthodoxy. The second limitation is the reductionistic tendencies of Benner’s methodology. Without question, God’s love is crucial for spiritual transformation, but to suggest that spiritual transformation hinges solely on God’s love goes too far. God’s gift of righteousness and mind renewal are examples of other aspects of spiritual transformation that need integrated.
Benner’s methodology is classified as a form of Christian counseling. Benner does lean somewhat on Jungian psychological constructs. However, most of Benner’s (2015) work is built on the experience of God’s love rather than classical or modern forms of psychology, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (p. 29). The emphasis on Christian spiritual experience is the basis for Benner’s methodology, thus the most appropriate classification may simply be Christian.
Counseling Utility and Specific Potential Influence
Although Benner’s methodology appears simple, the utilitarian benefit to the overall discipline of Christian counseling must not be underestimated. The paradoxical reality that an individual cannot extend love without first receiving love must be acknowledged and integrated into all counseling labeled as Christian. Since the very nature of God is love, and the Greatest Commandment hinges on loving, it is difficult to imagine any form of legitimate Christian counseling that would intentionally ignore the focus of God’s love.
As a recovering performance addict who finds his worth in his work, Benner’s methodology has the potential of influencing my life in two ways. First, as I experience the reality of God’s unconditional love, the need to meet certain standards to feel loved diminishes. Second, as I appropriate God’s unconditional love, I no longer need to control others to fill a love void in my life, which allows me to take my eyes off myself and extend love to others. Similar lessons can also be integrated into the counseling ministry I am involved with in Indiana.
Counseling Moment Example
An acquaintance recommended that Heather talk with me about a very difficult marital situation she faced. Heather’s husband was a pastor at one of the largest churches in the Midwest. After twenty-five years of marriage, he announced that he was a homosexual, and he left her and two adolescent daughters for another man. Heather felt worthless. She explained that she thought she did everything right in her marriage and now her husband was gone. Heather asked how it was possible that God could love her. I asked if she could remember the day her daughters were born. She remembered that day she held them in her arms. I asked her if she loved her infant daughters that day. She looked at me like that was a stupid question. I then asked Heather what her daughters did to make her love them. She said nothing. I then asked if it was possible for God to love her even if she had nothing to offer God, not even a marriage. Heather agreed that it was possible. I asked Heather whether she would love her daughters less if one of their boyfriends left them for another man. She explained that would be ridiculous. I agreed. At that moment she realized that it was possible for God to love her, and if she had God’s love in her life then maybe she did not need the love of a man who chose to live a homosexual lifestyle.
Benner, D. G. (2015). Surrender to love: Discovering the heart of Christian spirituality. Downers Grove: InterVarsity.
Liberty University (Producer). Presentation: Christian spirituality [Video]. Available from http://www.apple.com/itunes/download.
Liberty University (Producer). Presentation: Spirituality in counseling [Video]. Available from http://www.apple.com/itunes/download.