The “Abide and Abound” Approach: A Brief Overview

Most of my clients are Christians who struggle with depression, anxiety, anger, often in addition to suffering from trauma, physical pain, marital conflict, or some combination of those difficult issues. My clients typically share two things in common: 1) they love Jesus, and 2) they desperately want to experience more of what the Bible calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, and peace (see Gal 5:22).

Notice this immediately: love, joy, and peace are directly OPPOSITE to the feelings of anger, depression, and anxiety for which most people seek counseling. That means that if you are a Christian experiencing truckloads of depression, anxiety, and anger — no matter what the cause — then you are most certainly NOT experiencing the fruit of the Spirit  in abundance.

Don’t misunderstand me on this. Depression, anxiety and anger are NOT sins.  For example, Psalm 4:4 says: “Be angry but sin not.” In fact, it’s quite normal for Christians to experience bouts of depression, anxiety and anger at times. The book of Psalms — providing a geography the Christian’s heart, a map of your soul — is  full of expressions of these dark emotions as an encouragement for us to express them to God.

But when sadness, fear, and anger become prolonged, intense, and cause problems in your daily functioning and relationships, you may want to ask yourself: “Am I really ‘walking in the Spirit’ and ‘abiding in Christ’ in a way that produces spiritual fruit that abounds? Am I experiencing God’s comfort and power in far greater measures than my pain and weakness?

My counseling practice specializes in helping those Christians who can say: “I am NOT experiencing God in a way that causes me to experience love, joy and peace and other fruit of the Spirit in my suffering . . . but I desperately want to!”

Such individuals are my pleasure to serve. Not only because they are so humble, but because they are so highly motivated to experience love, joy, and peace in spite of the extreme hardships they often suffer: trauma, loss, grief, sexual, physical and verbal abuse, and severe problems in their marriages, and the list goes on and on. Many of my clients are Christians who are clinically diagnosed with a mood or anxiety disorder, experience hormonal imbalances in their bodies and neurotransmitter imbalances in their brains.  Some are in daily excruciating physical pain.

In such hardships, they often have find themselves caught up and entangled in some addiction or unwanted habit just to feel some comfort or relief from the emotional pain that often simmer below the surface, if but a few moments, in order to to distract themselves from their suffering.  Their addictions only make them feel worse — adding guilt and shame to their suffering — causing them to feel worse, which often fuels a downward spiral cycle.

In order to meet the unusually high expectations of this special breed of  clients — remember: my clients are Christians who will NOT settle for anything less than love, joy and peace in abundance and on a moment-by-moment basis, in spite of their hardships —  I have developed a highly specialized counseling approach for them.  I call it “Abide and Abound.”

In this approach my depressed, anxious, angry, and addicted Christian clients discover and practice what Jesus really means when He says: “I am the Vine and you are the branches. Every branch of mine that abide in Me bears fruit. Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Abiding in Christ is basically learning how to practice the presence of God — at place, at any time, under any set of conditions — in such a way that  you are genuinely experiencing the life of God (the “sap” of the Vine, the Holy Spirit) flow through you, as proven by the spiritual fruit of love, joy, and peace, especially in very difficult circumstances.

For example, when I counsel couples, I meet with them together in traditional marital therapy, but most of the real work is in meeting with each of them separately, to help each of them experience the fruit of the Spirit in the presence of their spouse, who so often triggers dark emotions of hurt, anxiety, and often tons of anger.

My unique counseling approach blends the Biblical worldview with recent advances in 21st psychology — empirically-based, clinically proven therapies — to help depressed, anxious, angry, and addicted Christians re-discover the ancient art of practicing the presence of God with the help of advanced cognitive therapy and mindfulness techniques. With these tools, the Abide and Abound approach helps Christians not only develop deeper awareness of their own unique internal experience —  which is what any good therapy does — but also to accept these dark experiences in the presence of God, so as to grow closer to Him, become more fruitful, and no longer feel so compelled to run away from them by taking flight into their addictions, defensive behaviors, and distractions.

You may have heard of cognitive therapy and mindfulness. I have plenty of professional training from world-renown experts in both of these scientific methods that in my view, are, by far, the best therapies that 21st century psychology has to offer.

One key element of my approach, consistent with these cutting edge psychologies, is in helping my clients break their bad habits rooted in what we therapists call experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is the mindless practice of short-term strategies — like addictions and distractions —  to avoid unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and memories. Experiential avoidance puts us at risk for developing long term problems with mood, anxiety, anger and addictions. Many mental health professionals — including myself — believe that experiential avoidance is at the very root of almost all psychological problems, relational conflicts, addictions and psychiatric disorders.

In my approach, my clients discontinue experiential avoidance by learning how to welcome and accept dark experiences as opportunities to feel more intimately engaged with God. Over time, my clients develope a proven track record of experiencing God’s response to those dark experiences — His grace, comfort and strength in Christ –until the fruit of the Spirit abound. In many cases, after the course of treatment, they no longer meet the criteria of clinical depression, an anxiety disorder, or an addiction. Follow-up and maintenance sessions continue but with less frequency in order to gain traction in continued and more abundant fruitfulness and prevent or process relapses.

In the Abide and Abound approach, cognitive therapy and mindfulness techniques are blended with four basic “spiritual disciplines” — “be still, behold, be filled, and be fruitful” — to help clients gain access to God’s response to their  triggers, dark emotions, unpleasant memories, and negative beliefs that are often at the very root of emotional distress, addictions, and unwanted behavior patterns through what I call meaningful engagement with God.

Meaningful engagement with God is an important part of abiding in Christ. It involves both conversational prayer —  an interactive dialogue with God — and interaction with God’s Word in an authentic and emotionally honest way, until you experience God’s response to your distress — grace, comfort, and empowerment — as proven by you “abounding” in the fruit of the Spirit.

The fruit of the Spirit is produced is one of two ways: either by directly experiencing God in a special way — either by hearing His voice, or by feeling His spiritual promptings, or experiencing coinciding events that cannot make sense without God’s grace — or by the exercise of sheer raw faith without any special feeling or what I call God’s “special effects.”

In either case, special effects or sheer raw faith, we can know you that have actually experienced God by the indisputable, self-evident proof: the fruit of the Spirit! And the more you experience love, joy, and peace, the more your depression, anxiety, and anger go into remission, until love, joy, and peace become the norm, not the exception. God often helps new believers by the training wheels of turning on the “special effects” (hearing His voice, spiritual promptings, coincidences after your pray), but expects more mature believers to walk by faith, not by feeling.

Does this make sense so far? Do you think this approach is a good fit for you? If so, you can join many of my Christian clients who have learned how to abide in Christ and experience the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy and peace — in such a consistent way, even under hardship, pain, and medical conditions — that over time, they no longer meet the criteria for a mood, anxiety, or addictive disorder.

In the Abide and Abound approach, we have three sequential goals, achieved progressively, in stages: 1) psychological transformation; 2) spiritual formation; 3) Fruitfulness in our calling, our relationships, and in service.

  1. The first stage of therapy is psychological transformation. This is achieved in the here and now, when we immediately experience the fruit of the Spirit in our given set of condition. Psychological transformation is not the elimination of unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Instead it is the mindful practice of the presence of God in one’s current set of difficult conditions until love, joy, peace and other spiritual fruit become the daily norm, no matter what dark thoughts and emotions are experienced, and no matter what set of physical or environmental circumstances we are in.
  2. The second stage of therapy is spiritual formation, in which daily adversity is fully welcomes and accepted as as opportunity for spiritual growth and becoming more conformed to the image of Christ. Ongoing psychological transformation is the foundation for spiritual formation, and here’s why: as we abide in Christ we become more and more like Jesus. Not by “imitating” Him, as a chimp might imitate a man, but by experiencing the life of God flow through us in such an intimate and meaningful way that we 1) love as Jesus loves, 2) think as Jesus thinks, and 3) do as He would have us do.
  3. The third stage, building upon the first two, is being fruitful in our calling, our relationships, and in our service to others. Many of my former clients are fulfilling their callings, and comforting others in similar affliction with the comfort they received while in counseling (2 Cor 1:3-4).

So in sum, the Abide and Abound approach capitalizes upon 21st century psychology in helping Christians practice the ancient art of practicing the presence of God — abiding in Christ — through a set of spiritual disciplines that enable them to genuinely experience God’s grace, comfort and strength as responses to their distress.

Abiding in Christ in a way that bears spiritual fruit is a process that requires patience, practice and focus over time. While unabashedly spiritual in its approach, in that it builds upon the client’s Christian faith as the greatest resource in the therapy, the Abide and Abound approach is robustly scientific in its use of empirical-based tailor-made designed for Christians and in its use of empirical measurement in clinical settings. Progress in therapy is tracked week-by-week along the following three dimensions:

1) Psychological transformation: how much the client is reporting spiritual fruit love, joy, and peace on a week— is reported by the client and observed by others.

2) Spiritual formation: How much the client, therapist and others – such as spouse and family members — are noticing the development of Christ-like behavior and attitudes. Many times, the spouses of my clients say “It’s like being married to Jesus.”

3) Clinical measures: to what degree symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger, addictions, and unwanted behaviors are going into remission according to clinical observation and psychological testing, which includes QPASS, the 10-minute instrument I developed for therapists in assessing mental health issues in clinical settings.

If you are a new client, this is all you need to know for now about the Abide and Abound Approach. If you are interested in learning more on this approach, please read the article below. Otherwise, you may now return to the homepage and set your first appointment!

 

How Languishing Christians Become Flourishing Branches on the Vine:
The “Abide and Abound” Approach to Christian Counseling 

Dr. Scott Lownsdale, Ed.D., LCPC

“When Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean simply something mental or moral. When they speak of being ‘in Christ’ or of Christ being ‘in them’, this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them . . . ”   –C.S. Lewis, from his book Mere Christianity

As a licensed clinical counselor specialized in Christian counseling, I see a wide variety of people for a wide variety of problems. But most of my clients are Christians, and most of them are the real deal: born-again believers. Yet even as true branches of Jesus-the-Vine, they are often — as many 21st century Christians in America — unskilled in the ancient art of practicing the presence of God. Although their salvation is secure in Christ, and they will certainly go to Heaven when they die, they are often not living in a way that bears much spiritual fruit. Or, in the words of C. S. Lewis, quoted above, they are not fully experiencing the “Christ-life . . . operating through them.”

When Christians are accessing the life of God flowing through them — like the sap of a tree flowing into its branches — they experience the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy and peace. When they are not, Christians, like anyone else, suffer from the polar opposite three emotions — anger, depression, and anxiety — especially when under the weight of psychological strain.

So it never surprises me when Christians who seek my services describe problems with depression, anxiety and anger.

When Depression, Anxiety and Anger Require Counseling

And by depression, anxiety, and anger, I don’t mean that my Christian clients feel just a little sad, jittery, or irritable now and then. Some of my Christian clients are so depressed that they’ve either planned or attempted suicide, or can be so tearful, hopeless and unmotivated that they can hardly get out of bed.  Others can experience anxiety so intensely that they describe life as a living hell, constantly tormented by panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, or perhaps flashbacks to traumatic events they suffered earlier in their lives.  And when it comes to anger, few of my Christian clients have acted out in any violent way, but many struggle with constant resentment in ways that seriously hurt their marriages, jobs, physical health. And because they know they should be loving and forgiving instead of so angry and bitter, their bitterness tortures their consciences, robs them of sleep, and hurts their Christian witness and ministries.

Addictions: Our Fruitless Ways to Reduce Emotional Distress

And to make a bad situation worse — in their attempts to reduce their distress, numb the pain, or to simply distract themselves from it  — many emotionally distressed Christians get trapped in what the Church used to call the “deadly sins:” gluttony (eating disorders), lust (sex addiction and extramarital affairs), wrath (explosive anger) and sloth (oversleeping; avoiding pressing responsibilities).

Experiential Avoidance: Fleeing from Our Emotional Distress

Other Christians who are not skilled in practicing the presence of God in their distress get trapped in abusing pot, drugs, alcohol or pain medication. Some go on spending sprees, get addicted to social media, or become workaholics, or become phobic, that is, they avoid exposing themselves to any situation that stirs up their anxiety. Psychologists view these fruitless coping strategies as examples of experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is the process of trying to avoid one’s own unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and memories.  In a nutshell, it means simply not being at peace with being in your own skin, in the present time, place, and set of conditions.

The Unfruitful Christian’s Self-Image: W.A.R.P.E.D.

Experiential avoidance fuels every addiction and psychiatric problem I treat in my practice, causing distressed Christians to develop habits that do not produce spiritual fruit — love, joy, and peace — and character traits that are not Christ-like.  So on top of their depression, anxiety and anger, these addictions  — which they know are sins  — simply cause Christians to feel truckloads of guilt and shame. And when they see the lack of fruit in their lives in addition to their un-Christ-like behavior,  it drops their self-image in the toilet.

In fact, languishing Christians have used the same words, over and over,  to educate me as to how they feel when they come in,  just to convey an accurate picture of how they see themselves.  I have heard these words so often over the last years that I now how six category heading for them: Worthless, Alienated, Restless, Powerless, Empty, and Defective. It forms an acronym: That’s right: W.A.R.P.ED. And that pretty much sums up how we Christian feel when we are not fulfilling God’s design for us, and the “Christ-life” is not flowing through us like sap into branches from Jesus-the-Vine.

So by the time they arrive at my office for the first visit, these languishing branches of Jesus-the-Vine — appointed by God to live the abundant life and abound in the spiritual fruit of love, joy, and peace — are just plain miserable. Like a caged eagle not fulfilling it’s calling to soar the skies, there is probably no creature more miserable than a born-again Christian that is not consistently becoming more Christ-like in character while producing spiritual fruit — starting with love, joy, and peace in abundance.

From Being a Languishing Christian to A Flourishing Branch of Jesus-the-Vine

As a Christian counselor, God’s calling upon me — my life mission — is simple: to help “languishing” branches of Jesus-the-Vine become abundantly fruitful. Or, in the words of C.S. Lewis, quoted above,  to help them discover what it means to have the “Christ-life” in them, and to know what it means to have Jesus “actually operating through them.”

When languishing Christians start building a track record of abiding in Christ, they start to produce the fruit of the Spirit on a daily basis. After love, joy and peace become daily experiences, they want to abide in Christ on an hour-by-hour basis and then, minute-by-minute basis.  Like a positive addiction, they eventually become so fixed as branches of Jesus-the-Vine that they flourish, instead of languish, on the Vine.

Over time, their anger, depression, and anxiety diminish as they produce the fruit of love, joy, and peace, to the degree to which they habitually abide in Christ. And as they experience God’s grace, comfort and power — in greater measures than their sin, pain, weaknesses — they will no longer be trapped in their addictions to food, sex, alcohol, pot, drugs, and other sinful behaviors.

Abiding in Christ: The Only Way to Produce Spiritual Fruit and Christ-like Character

Abiding in Christ is the key to breaking the habit of experiential avoidance. It produces not only love, joy and peace, but other spiritual fruit as well, for which every Christian yearns: Christ-like character, spiritual prosperity with our gifts, talents, and resources; answered prayer (John 15:8) and making other disciples (Mt 28:19-20).

In a nutshell, I help Christians learn how to “abide in Christ” until they “abound” in spiritual fruit. Many of my clients with mood, anxiety, and anger disorders who persevere in developing Christ-abiding habit until love, joy and peace are the daily norm no longer even meet the criteria of a mental disorder. Some are now either mentors or counselors themselves.

Depression, Anxiety and Anger Are Not Sins

The first thing I teach languishing Christians is that depression, anxiety and anger are NOT sins. I prove this to them in five ways:

  1. God has great compassion and empathy for our emotional distress (Heb 4:15);
  2. Jesus Himself experienced deep emotional distress during His earthly ministry, such as at Gethsemane and on the cross;
  3. Scriptures such as “Fear not!” (Isaiah 41:10). “Rejoice always” (Phil 4:4; 1 Thess 5:16) and “Have no anxiety about anything” (Phil 4:6) are written as exhortations for encouragement, not as additions to the Ten Commandments;
  4. The psalms of David are full of open expressions of fear, anxiety, depression, anger, and despair, helping us know how to pray when depressed, anxious, and angry;
  5. Anger in itself is not a sin (“Be angry but sin not,” Eph 4:26) but hate is murder (1 Jn 3:15) and resentment is disobedience to God’s command to forgive which has consequences (Mt 18:35).

How The “Abide and Abound” Counseling Process Works

Although depression, anxiety and anger are not sins, when intense and prolonged, I view (through the lens of Galatians 5:22-23 and John 15:8) these dark emotional states, when they linger on and on, as indicators that the Christian is not presently abiding in Christ in a fruitful way in his or her suffering. Often, the severity of depression, anxiety, and angry in a Christian is a pretty good measure of how much more “sap” the languishing branch is needing in his or her psychological distress. The sap, of course,  is the life of God — the Holy Spirit — who produces fruit — love, joy, and peace in weak and suffering Christians.

So over the years, I have developed a user-friendly, clinically effective counseling approach for depressed, anxious, and angry Christians called “Abide and Abound.” In this approach — which integrates the Christian disciplines with sound clinical practice (specifically the principles and techniques of 21st century cognitive therapy and mindfulness, in which I have advanced training) —  I help Christian clients learn how to “abide in Christ” until they “abound in the fruit of the Spirit.”

My therapy sessions focus on helping Christian clients break the habit of experiential avoidance. Specifically, I help them gain access to two things:

  1. Their immediate (or most recent) emotional distress, and
  2. The presence of God, through the exercise of their faith, and the employment of the most appropriate Christian response for the need of the moment, until love, joy, and peace are profoundly experienced.

For example, if the client is restless, we might employ the spiritual discipline of “Being still.” If the client feels guilt, we employ what I call the Guilt Flush (confession of sin) until guilt is gone, and the client feels loved and forgiven. If feeling anger and resentful, we employ what I call the Resentment Flush (forgiving offenders), until resentment is placed by love, compassion, and empathy for the offender. If in pain or distress, we employ the discipline called “Fruitful Suffering” until the client describes feeling God’s comfort in far greater measures than the pain or distress they feel.

Homework assignments are geared towards helping the languishing Christian develop these new Christ-abiding habits throughout the week in their emotional distress, often with the help of devotional materials such as “The Practice of the Presence of God” — the book by Brother Lawrence — and other resources for “spiritual disciplines toolkit” I provide my clients. Then we review how these habits worked and make modifications until love, joy, and peace are more consistently experienced.

Basically, I walk side-by-side with each languishing Christian client until love, joy, and peace become the daily norm, no matter what difficult sets of circumstances they suffer, whether it might be psychological conflicts, stress at work, hardship in a marriage. Physical pain and medical issues — such as hormonal imbalances in the body and chemical imbalances in the brain — are viewed through the lens of the Bible, and what Jesus said to Paul, in regards to the apostle’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:9): “My grace is sufficient, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, we do not view pain or chemical imbalances in the brain as presenting any obstacle whatsoever for experiencing God’s grace, comfort and power, and abounding in spiritual fruit. In fact, physical pain and weaknesses are often the very avenues through which God’s grace, comfort and power  can pour into my clients, who often can say, like Paul does in 2 Cor 12:9-10), that they can now boast of their pain and weaknesses so that the life of Christ may flow through them more fruitfully.

How We Track Progress

Over the course of therapy, my Christian clients and I monitor their progress in spiritual formation (becoming conformed to the image of Christ; Rom 8:29) and psychological transformation (the fruit of the Spirit; Gal 5:22-23) through self-reports, interviews with family members when appropriate, and my clinical interviews with the client. Progress is also scientifically measured along the way with a psychological test I developed called QPASS, which quickly and accurately measures depression, anxiety and anger.

Session Frequency

Sessions usually start off 1-2 times a week, depending upon how much distress the client is in. After the client is making progress in bearing spiritual fruit, we may drop back to every other week. Then, after abiding in Christ becomes more habitual, we meet every 3-4 weeks, once a month, and so on.

In order to reduce the risk of relapse and to build on the client’s positive momentum, I never advise discontinuing therapy abruptly, no matter how well the client appears to be doing. Almost all of my clients do better after six weeks of therapy, at which time we may modify the treatment plan and goals accordingly.

The Four Phases of the Abide and Abound Counseling

In Phase 1, the primary goal is psychological transformation: experiencing the spiritual fruit of love, joy, and peace as the proven, daily norm. Clients slowly but gradually built a track record of experiencing love, joy, and peace, no matter how great the weight of their psychological, social, and biological stress. (Biological stress refers to neurological chemical imbalances and hormonal issues that contribute to emotional distress). Typically, Phase 1 consists of about 6-12 weeks of intensive therapy (1-3 visits per week).

In Phase 2, as symptoms of depression, anxiety and anger go into remission, we focus on spiritual formation, that is, becoming more conformed to the image of Christ and getting free of character defects. In Phase 2, clients learn how to abide in Christ more fruitfully in their most challenging circumstances, as they “burn their bridges” to acting out on their addictions and defensive behavior.

In Phase 3, my clients build on the positive momentum of the the season of change in their lives, and as Christ-abiding disciplines become solid habits in their daily lives. In Phase 3, in which we meet less frequently, with less of the training wheels of therapy, my clients usually discover until how fruitful they are becoming in their spiritual gifts, talents, and vocational calling.

In Phase 4, we meet once a month or so, maintaining the new level of fruitfulness, with sessions spread farther apart. A discharge plan always includes the coming in for tuneups as needed. In Phase 4, many of my clients pass on what they have learned from the abide and abound approach and often mentor or “disciple” others.

Abide and Abound Counseling As A Collaboration

In sum, the only sure cure for the languishing Christian is this: learning how to abide in Christ-the-Vine, at all times, even in suffering, until we abound in spiritual fruit. My job is to help languishing Christians until they flourish as branches of Jesus-the Vine to flourish.

As you will discover, if you become my client, the weeks and months ahead will not be a solo project on your part. It will be our collaboration.  Progress depends upon you and I working very closely together. It’s not all up to you for all these big changes to happen. Nor is it all up to me.  It’s up to us — you and I working together — with Jesus in our midst (Mt 18:20),  until the life of God – the Holy Spirit – is flowing through you as fruitfully as tree-sap flows through the branches of the tree.

So I will be at your side as your counselor, coach, teacher, cheer-leader, therapist, and friend. Think of me also as your “flight instructor” until you can finally fly on your own wings. And then, when you can fly on your own without my support — after a period of time in which our sessions are fewer and spread farther apart — I will cheer you on as you soar. As scripture says: Those who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles (Isaiah 40:31).

One request: Please pray before each of our sessions asking God to help me counsel you with His wisdom, grace and the help of the Holy Spirit, who is our true Counselor (John 14:16).

May God richly reward you for your decision to seek Christian counseling, and cause you to flourish: bearing fruit “thirty-fold, sixty-fold or a hundred-fold” (Mark 4:20)!

This concludes your introduction to my counseling approach. I trust that the “Abide/Abound Counseling Approach” is consistent with what you are looking for in your Christian counseling experience.  If so simply return to the HOMEPAGE, download and print the five PDF forms, and call me (815/229-8750) to set your first appointment!

 

Copyright 2018 Scott Lownsdale. The material of this website may be quoted provided that a clear reference to is made to both the author and this website.