Tag Archives: Eric Johnson

What is the difference between a trial and a stressor?

Words matter. The words you use to describe an event really do shape how you will view it and how you will respond to it. For counselors, the words they use to conceptualize a client/case will shape how they see clients and how they will attempt to intervene. This is why I take considerable time in my Practicum class to practice case conceptualization.

Most beginning counselors are good at collecting information. But, for most, that data might well be a hopelessly knotted  ball of twine.  Where to start pulling? How do we make sense of the various pieces of data? And since data never comes to us uninterpreted, which “data” do we tend to gravitate to? Behaviors? Family history? Motivations? Biology? Environment? Client beliefs? But even more confusing are the words we use to describe these sectors of life–and the meaning they convey!

Stressor v. Trial?

Here’s how language influences case conceptualization. Your client experiences long-term family discord due to an adult child with schizophrenia. The family member routinely goes off medications and the police have to be called in order to transport him or her to the hospital after threatening self-harm. Your client comes to counseling to seek support for handling this difficult situation. As you can imagine, the client feels alone, worn down, and wondering how to keep going despite no sense that the situation will get better any time soon.

What do you imagine might be the impact of calling this family situation a trial? And how might you view it differently if you called it a stressor. Notice any differences? Benefits of each? Drawbacks of either? In your mind, are they equivalent? (See Eric Johnson’s brief discussion of these two words and their similarities/differences in regard to Christian psychology in his Foundations for Soul Care, p. 240)

Here is my thinking. Within Christian tradition, a “trial” signifies a difficult time or season but from a spiritual or divine perspective. It conveys a purpose–a testing or proofing of one’s faith. We tend to view trials (or desire to at least) from an eternal point of view, “testing of your faith produces perseverance…”  (Jas 1:3). Notice that while “trial” does signify difficulty, the focus is largely on the purpose it serves.

On the other hand, a “stressor” is something that causes stress or distress in a person’s life. Notice that this word carries no sense of eternity, divine value or purpose. It merely describes a facet of life that is troubling a person’s life.

Imagine with me a counselor who uses “trial” to describe the distress in the life of the client mentioned above. How do you expect that might shape the counselor’s view of the situation and thus response sets to that client? Would our counselor be more likely to view the trial as something to endure, more likely to engage in spiritual conversations so as to find comfort and peace in the middle of the storm? Would their conversations tend toward the hope of heaven? Is it possible that using the language of trials might cause a counselor to ignore the real-time experience of distress?

Now imagine the counselor who uses “stressor” to describe the same distress. Would this counselor be more likely to discuss in detail the physical, psychological impact of living with a mentally ill and unstable family member? Would this counselor then be more focused on finding ways to decrease the moment-by-moment stress levels? Is it possible that using the language of stressor might cause a counselor to ignore an eternal perspective?

Hopefully, you can see the value of both word meanings and the interventions described. It is possible to use the language of trials and focus in on the details of how that trial impacts the client. And it is possible to use the language of stressors and keep in mind an eternal perspective. Whatever language, the interventions off stress education and reduction and hope building are necessary interventions.

If you are a counselor or counseling student, observe the language you use to describe your clients and their lives. How does that language influence your view of them and the interventions you might use with them?


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A Christian Psychology 2

Chapter 2 of Eric Johnson’s book, Foundations for Soul Care(IVP, 2007) traces the use of the bible as soul healing agent throughout the history of the church. Eric explores the work of early church fathers, medieval church, reformation, and Puritanism as examples of soul care writings based on the biblical text.

The chapter then moves to consider the historical movement of the relationship between Christianity and science. While early scientists saw their field of study as something revealing evidence of God’s handiwork, a “fracture” begins with Enlightenment thinking.

Ironically, while Christianity contributed to the development of the scientific revolution, that revolution came to be increasingly linked to an alternative worldview: modernism (p. 63)

 Eric does a nice job summarizing the transition. One moves from the use of metaphysics, tradition, and revelation (Eric’s words) to a focus on the specific object of study and the use of observation. Thus, human reason and empiricism rule the day.

At core what distinguishes modernism and Christianity as ways of thinking about human life are their different ultimate commitments. Christianity assumes a God-centered worldview in which the individual self (with its submissive reason) is seen as relatively important in relation to the rest of creation but relatively unimportant in comparison to the infinite God. In such a framework, science is a noble task done first for the glory of God and second for the benefit of humanity, a good means to a greater end. Modernism inherited the self of Christianity, but without its God to keep things in proper perspective, the self became the center of the universe (an anti-Copernican revolution!), eventually regarding its own experience, together with its autonomous reason, as the foundations of truth and morality…Consequently, individualism–and not relationship–was established at the base of the modern worldview. (p. 65)

Eric goes on to talk about how Christianity imbibed the modernistic assumptions (either trying to use empiricism to defend fundamentalism or accepting that psychology is the best way to understand human functioning).

Eric does a good job summarizing the modern pastoral care movement and capitulation to psychotherapy models. Further, he shows how a Barthian model of soul care was not quite liberalism nor evangelicalism. Finally, he reviews the postmodern turn and “postliberal recovery.”

Johnson’s take on modern pastoral care movement? It doesn’t offer much to the evangelical in the way of thinking biblically about souls. The postliberal engagement with the Bible does two things: re-engages the text of Scripture as a real dialogue partner while not dismissing the helps within positivist psychology.

If you are unfamiliar with the modern history of Christian counseling and pastoral care, this is a great chapter to start with. You can get  a quick overview plus a bibliography to point you to original sources. The next chapters deal with evangelical and fundamentalist counseling models and how they dealt with Scripture (i.e., biblical counseling or integrationism).

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A Christian Psychology Proposal 1

This summer I’m choosing to read through Eric Johnson’s Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (IVP, 2007). Eric is the founding director of the Society for Christian Psychology. I’ve skimmed large portions of it before, had numerous, enjoyable conversations with Eric over the years, and am familiar (and mostly agree) with his ideas. But, I thought I might share of few tidbits now and again from what I’m reading. But realize the book is 700 plus pages (he tells me he had to cut 1/3 of his book to get it published!). So, I will not be blogging through it like I have done with others books.

What distinguishes this Christian Psychology?

The book attempts to lay out a framework of Christian psychology. Johnson says that a framework ought to include these core distinctives:

1. It is doxological. It should glorify God in all that it aims to do and understand.

2. It is semiodiscursive. Here, he uses this word to convey that any psychology is a use of words, descriptions, and interpretations that point to meaning. “…soul care is interested in the referential function of various aspects of human life: language, emotions, mental images, actions…”

3. It is dialogical/trialogical. It is relational and interactive rather than something that exists by itself.

4. It is canonical. The bible, Johnson says, is the Text of texts. There is a standard that is our guide for soul care.

5. It is psychological. It is interested in the “nature of human beings and their psychopathology and recovery….Christian soul-care providers study the bible not for its own sake but for the light it sheds on the nature of human beings and their well-being and improvement.” (p. 16) 

I encourage interested parties to read his first chapters. Chapter one, “The Place for the Bible in Christian Soul Care” acknowledges that “The entire canon shows a concern with human well-being with reference to God.” He goes on to explicate that by sampling from Old and New Testaments as well as to define “soul-healing to include both salvation and sanctification in both vertical and horizontal dimension. Soul healing is not merely for creating the right relationship with God but also for healing and strengthening human to human relationships.  Chapter 2 and 3 talk about the misuses of the Bible in both biblical counseling and Christian psychological venues.

This book is exceptionally focused on the foundations. So, we may not expect great focus on whether soul care will greatly reduce mental healthy symptoms. But, lest we only think pragmatic thoughts, we ought to step back and consider the basis of the practical–the theoretical and theological bases for our work.


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Dialog between Christian Psychology and Biblical Counseling

Yesterday Robert Kelleman made a comment on an old blog post of mine about my model of counseling. In that comment he said the following:

Your readers might find of interest my summary of last week’s symposium on biblical counseling where Eric Johnsons (SCP), myself (BCSFN), David Powlison (CCEF), and Steve Viars (NANC, FBCM) discussed with Jeremy Lelek (ABC) the state of biblical counseling/Christian psychology:


To me, true biblical counseling and true Christian psychology should be the same thing. They use biblical psychology (understanding people, diagnosing problems, and prescribing solutions) theory to guide their biblical counseling (sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding) practice.

Bob Kellemen

The link takes you to Bob’s own site and has links to christiancounseling.com where DVDs of the dialogue will be available. It is good to hear of the unity among these cousin models of counseling.


Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling skills, Psychology