ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
May 16, 2011

Spirituality in Counseling: How Can We Know the Unknowable?

So, if a client says ‘Yes, of course, I believe in God,’ how do I as a counselor respond? First, I must be clear that I do not know what significance the word ‘God’ has for him or her. I do find it useful to consider the word ‘God’ as a hypothetical construct that gets its meaning from the faith community that uses it. For a counselor (who is not a pastoral counselor), it can only be defined operationally in the client’s life; that is, it can only be dealt with in a counseling situation by determining what effect belief in God has on the client—note that this neither affirms nor denies the reality of something called ‘God’.

What might be more useful, however, it to ask, what does the whole statement itself mean? That approach is how a lot of psychologists deal with religious and spiritual issues in their theories. For me, however, it is even more helpful to ask, ‘What is the client trying to do to me by making this statement?’ Every time anyone makes a statement, whether in a counseling situation or elsewhere, their intention is to somehow change the one they are talking to. We as counselors must never forget this in a counseling session. What kind of response are they hoping for or expecting from me?

I think that is one main reason why incorporating spirituality into counseling is so difficult—since we don’t know what the referent ‘God’ means to the client, we don’t know what the client is expecting from us.

At the very least, that client is referring to something beyond themselves and they may be checking to see how I will respond to something that is critically important to them. The problem and danger is that that which is beyond cannot be accurately accessed by a second person, here the counselor—only by the person for whom it is meaningful. I as a counselor can only see the ‘finger pointing to the moon’ and never the moon that is exerting a kind of gravitation pull on the client.

Indeed other forces (seeming to be ‘beyond’ like ghosts) often affect a client’s feelings, thinking and behavior. Experiences, events and relationships earlier in a client’s life can cause the ‘rubber band’ effect whereby a client is pulled back to an earlier event their life and responds to me as if we were back there at that earlier time.

That situation could be considered to be referring to something that is ‘beyond’ the client and beyond the counseling session. But the difference is that an event earlier in a client’s life is something in ‘this world’ which can be described. Thus it can be identified by the counselor and rationally dealt with. However something that is spiritual is, by definition, something that the counselor can never have access to. That is what makes it so powerful whether for good or evil.

We as counselors must never to presume to be able to understand that which is beyond (i.e., spiritual) for any client. If fact I would suggest that a presumption would be a desecration of the holy. All we as counselors can do and must do is assess the impact such an experience or belief on our client’s feelings, thinking and acting and deal with that impact.

Many psychologists deny any such reality ‘exists’ and try to explain (away) the impact of that which is beyond through their own theories so that they can deal with those effects in their psychological system. I suggest that no psychological theory can be so comprehensive to explain everything a person experiences. A counselor must always respect the forces and processes a client is experiencing and if that involves realities the client experiences that are out of our reach as counselors, we must be extremely sensitive to the role they play in the client’s life. How much brutal damage to individuals has been done in the past when psychiatrists tried to deny the real experiences of, for example, gays and lesbians and transgender individuals because the experiences of these individuals did not fit into the then current theories of personality or the psychiatrists own experiences! This is one of the observations that scares me about using techniques of ‘cognitive restructuring’—such techniques can easily drive someone crazy. A client’s relationship to that which is beyond must always be respected.

I realize that elaborate theories of spiritual energy, spiritual forces, etc. often try to describe these forces by vaguely referring to theories of physical forces or even quantum theory! I think a better description for counselors to follow is that ‘the spirit blows where it will; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going.’

The spiritual realm, that is forces and influences that are beyond, will always be a part of the lives of individual human beings and I as a counselor must be ready to acknowledge and respect them. And unless we are omniscient, as counselors, we can only work with the effect such a realm has on the client sitting in front of us. What is spiritual is above the clouds. What we must work with as counselors is the effects of the spiritual on the client below the clouds in front of us.

Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at

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