In a world where the global “wellness” industry is worth $3.7 trillion, people are constantly searching for a healthier and more fulfilling life. Could it be that striving for this sense of wellness is actually a deeper, more unconscious search for wholeness? The World Health Organisation describes wholeness in terms of “physical, mental, and social well-being” and in 1984 a “spiritual dimension” was added to this definition. After completing her dissertation on “Biblical and Psychological Wholeness” for her MA in Applied Theology with the Irish Bible Institute, Helen Locke has distilled some of her key findings into this in-depth feature for VOX magazine.
By Helen Locke
(From the April - June 2018 issue of VOX)
Jesus Christ came to offer us life in all its fullness (John 10:10). He is our example of a whole, integrated person, who is open and genuine in His relationships with others while modelling an intimate, dependent relationship with His heavenly Father.
The word “wholeness” is not specifically used in the Bible but this concept is emphasised throughout the Scriptures, referring primarily to healthy relationships with God (Romans 6:23), our neighbour (Romans 12:9-13), ourselves (Galatians 5:22-23) and the environment (Genesis 1:28). The Bible maintains that when our relationship with God is broken, this subsequently disturbs all other relationships. The salvation Jesus offers is not just a decision to follow Him or an assurance of heaven after death but a transforming relationship, rooted in love, that brings healing and deliverance to the deepest parts of our being so that we become more Christ-like and whole (Romans 8:29).
The biblical concept of wholeness suggests it is possible for everyone to experience well-being and fulfilment through their relationship with God and one another in the context of a supportive community.
The apostle Paul wrote that one of the goals of his ministry was to present people as whole and mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28, Ephesians 4:12-13), suggesting that this is an important theme for church leaders and communities to pursue. Transformation into Christlikeness, or wholeness, is a journey involving the whole person, not just one’s thinking or belief system. This involves a radical change in our lifestyle, demonstrated by an integrity of heart and mind that is outworked in real life.
Church communities need an integrated, biblically-centred approach to wholeness that encourages not just spiritual growth but also growth in areas of physical, emotional, social and intellectual maturity. This could be facilitated by using the skills and gifting of church members, equipping others through their own areas of expertise, so that each member functions as God intends (1 Corinthians 12).
The church community would benefit from incorporating some of the understanding from psychology that facilitates growth in wholeness and maturity. Some people may regard psychology with suspicion but understanding people and how they function can provide valuable tools that enhance our ability to fulfil the commands to love God and to love others as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39).
Our churches need to develop communities that are healthy, authentic, accepting, empathic and self-aware as we work together to become whole in Christ.
A HEALTHY COMMUNITY
The journey of transformation into Christlikeness or wholeness (2 Corinthians 3:18) is not just an individual experience with God but a process that often involves other people. The author Jeannette Brown suggests that wholeness involves “communal well-being and equity” (shalom), along with personal integration and maturity, that may be observed in the authenticity of “who one is” with “what one does”. This maturity and wholeness does not imply an absence of pain or suffering, but can be observed in healthy, life-giving relationships that practice love, hospitality and generosity.
The theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Our relationship with each other is the criterion the world uses to judge whether our message is truthful - Christian community is the final apologetic”. This suggests that the church community has a significant role in the transformational journey as it seeks to make disciples that represent Christ to the world around them.
Unfortunately, not all faith communities are safe, healing, transformative communities as issues like competitiveness, defensiveness and fear of intimacy may result in superficial interactions. If the church community developed spiritually and psychologically healthy groups that were willing to go deeper with authentic sharing and support, perhaps they would be able to offer the relational connectedness and sense of belonging that people need.
These groups could facilitate the journey to wholeness by helping to heal wounds of the past and equip people with skills to resolve conflicts with one another. If the goal of these groups is to grow and mature people into Christlikeness, then the outward evidence of this transforming work would be revealed in the way others are treated with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness and love (Colossians 3:12-14).
Authentic community provides a sense of belonging, connection and safety where people feel they matter and have a contribution to make. The church community could grow in their capacity to love genuinely, as each person lives an authentic, honest life where the words that are spoken are matched by an integrity of heart and outworked in real life. The development of an authentic lifestyle guards against any inconsistencies, such as knowing and quoting substantial portions of Scripture, while not being aware of our own depression, anger or critical nature. It also protects against hypocrisy by aligning the inner, unseen world with that of the outer world (Matthew 23).
The church community could teach skills such as reflective practice - honestly questioning and critically examining inner beliefs, values, habits and assumptions and assessing subsequent experiences and behaviours. This reflective capacity develops insight and perspective, which facilitate growth in awareness and openness in our relationships with ourself and others. Other practices, like meditating on Scriptures, listening prayer and journaling can also aid in acknowledging difficult emotions like fear, guilt, shame, anger, loss or pain and undesirable thoughts like doubt, confusion, negativity, criticism and judgements. As we uncover inconsistencies in our inner lives, we allow for growth and change through the transformational work of the Holy Spirit.
The ability to accept another person without trying to fix or change them (that is God’s job), helps to build safety and trust in relationships and enables a person to face their conflicts, wounds and painful experiences. Paul exhorts the believers in Rome to accept one another as Christ accepted them (Romans 15:7).
Using personality measurement tools, like the Enneagram and the Myers-Briggs personality test, can be helpful in bringing personal and community understanding of the different personality types, while encouraging acceptance of differences and uniqueness rather than an expectation of conformity.
There may be a tendency for some Christians to focus more on the sinful nature of a person, even after conversion, rather than the potential of human goodness enhanced by the restorative work of the Holy Spirit. Accepting communities search for this goodness and envision people to see what they can be in Christ – forgiven, supernatural people with renewed natures and restored hearts that desire to follow God.
Empathy is one of the important characteristics that Jesus demonstrated in becoming human and fully identifying with the suffering and trials of humanity (Hebrews 4:15, Philippians 2:6-8). Paul mentions in Philippians 2:3-4 that an inflated view of our capabilities, value and rights, along with competitiveness and pride, negatively impact our ability to empathise with one another and look out for the needs of others. Instead, Paul encourages us to have an attitude of humility, similar to the mindset of Christ.
The church community would benefit from integrating a theological and psychological perspective on humility that ensures that the self is not shamed or lost but rather that people develop a healthy sense of self, which is God-centred in focus and identity.
Empathy involves experiencing, understanding and perceiving another’s feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Developing deeper understanding, sensitivity, sympathy and tolerance of our own emotions and difficulties, allows us to be more empathic first to ourselves and then towards others. To experience empathy, we must first be able to distinguish our own emotions from those that belong to the other person.
An example of this might be talking to a depressed person and beginning to feel depressed as well. Although we are experiencing the same feelings as the other person, the ability to consider the other person’s thoughts and perspectives is lost, as the listener becomes absorbed in their own thoughts and emotions. The Scriptures teach that “we love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19) and it is this love that empowers us to love others, by consoling and bearing one another’s burdens (2 Corinthians 1:4). A secure individual who has accurate and positive beliefs about themselves, rather than feelings of shame and self-negation, will be able to empathise and show compassion toward themselves and others with true humility.
Active listening is a key ingredient of empathy. This type of listening does not interrupt, give advice, make assumptions, judgments or corrections but clarifies by asking questions, attending to body language and feelings, not just words. Real listening requires full concentration, undivided attention and accurate reflection and feedback of what is said.
People sometimes drop “door openers” into conversations to test whether a person is safe to talk to. An attentive ear will respond by asking open-ended questions that show concern and interest, allowing the other person to share more deeply, if safe to do so. The gospels describe many accounts of Jesus listening and engaging with people such as the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-30) and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:17-20).
The author David Augsburger, summarised the importance of effective listening when he identified that “being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable”. This highlights the importance of teaching listening skills, so that the church community can grow in their ability to love one another.
Psychoanalytical theory maintains that the thoughts, feelings and motives that we are aware of are a small part of those hidden in the unconscious. It is these hidden parts that often influence our behaviour and motivations. These unconscious behaviours happen daily, particularly with familiar tasks like driving a car, where little thought is required to change gears, brake and accelerate unless one is a learner driver.
Another influence of the unconscious occurs in forming first impressions of people, where quick judgments and assessments are made based on our unconscious material. Perhaps, this inability to be aware of ourselves fully is one of the reasons why Jesus warned about judging others unless the log from our own eye is removed (Matthew 7:1-5).
The church community would benefit from understanding that lack of self-awareness hinders our ability to view others objectively and may inadvertently cause us to reject others. Time spent praying and reflecting about relational difficulties may reveal hidden issues within ourselves and enable greater insight and compassion for others.
Carl Jung identified that each person has a “shadow side”, that contains the unknown, shameful or weaker parts of the self that are more difficult to acknowledge. These negative, unacceptable parts may be ignored, rejected or suppressed and removed from conscious awareness, thereby increasing the danger of their expression in some unhealthy way. Wholeness does not involve the removal of the shadow side but involves acknowledging and integrating it into conscious awareness. The process of surrendering to an authentic relationship with Christ involves an inward journey that may reveal the deeper issues that are influencing our thoughts and behaviours.
Examples of the impact of the unconscious may be observed in those who struggle with hidden issues. It may also explain the high incidence of pornography usage among church members. A recent Barna Group survey of 2,770 participants revealed that 57% of pastors and 64% of youth pastors in the US have struggled with pornography at some point, of which 21% of youth pastors and 14% of pastors admitted they currently struggle with pornography.
The unconscious at work might be observed in the behaviour of King David when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and subsequently plotted to murder her husband. David’s response of repentance and prayer for God to create a pure heart within him (Psalm 51) is an example to all believers of the appropriate response when confronted with the shadow or fallen, sinful nature. Scripture confirms that God is the only One who knows the hidden motives of the heart (Jeremiah 17: 9-10) and the journey to wholeness requires cooperation with the Holy Spirit as He convicts and reveals these motives and issues.
TOWARDS GREATER WHOLENESS IN CHRIST
Jesus is the ultimate example of an integrated, thriving person who modelled what it is like to be whole. Wholeness is the process of becoming like Christ and clothing ourselves with love, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Romans 13:14). Genuine transformation involves the whole person as intellectual, emotional, spiritual, relational and physical functioning are inextricably connected.
The journey of becoming more Christ-like is best facilitated in caring, supportive community, where the focus is to see individuals grow and mature into disciples of Christ (Philippians 2). Wholeness as a goal may not be fully realised until we meet face-to-face with Christ but biblical understanding suggests it is attainable to a significant measure here on earth, as we learn to love God and others with our whole being. The Christian community could grow and help others in their journey to wholeness, by incorporating some of the insights from psychology around the self and relationships. Education and training in areas of self-awareness, listening, reflective capacity, emotional regulation and relational skills could also facilitate growth and relational harmony.
God desires to make people whole, individually, relationally and communally and He has made a way through Jesus, to restore individuals and the church community to His original design and purposes. The focus of the church needs to shift from an emphasis on a believer’s identity as a sinner, to God’s plan of a covenantal relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. With a renewed identity as God’s humble, authentic, accepting and loving children, the church community has significant potential to impact the world around them, as each person grows in maturity and is conformed to the image of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Helen Locke works as a Counsellor/Psychotherapist at Haven Counselling, Bray and co-leads the Bethel Sozo Ministry in Ireland. She has an MA in Applied Theology and a BSc. in Counselling and Psychotherapy.