Five Core Themes from an Open and Relational Informed Psychotherapy

by Mark Gregory Karris

Five core themes emerge from an open and relationally informed psychotherapy.

God, who is thoroughly relational, whose love is uncontrolling, and whose compassions are endless, has co-created life to be open and full of vast potentials. God’s faithful relationality, uncontrolling love, unceasing compassion, and unscripted dance with humanity has profound implications for me as a licensed marriage and family therapist. In this short essay, I briefly explore five themes as to how an open and relational theological lens shapes me as a clinician and powerfully informs my work with my clients.

Compassionate Wit(h)nessing

The prophet Jeremiah was a mystic and a prophet—one who cherished a deep experience with the Divine and gave voice to God’s inner nudges to his community. Jeremiah wrote from his experience that God’s compassion never fails and that God’s compassion is new every morning. I go a step further. I believe God’s compassion is new every moment. God values relationality so much that in each moment God cannot help but be compassionate. Holding to a compassionate and relational view of God inspires me as a therapist to embody the same qualities with my clients.

Compassion is comprised of two fundamental aspects. Compassion involves: (1) a profound sensitivity and awareness of suffering and (2) the motivation to alleviate that suffering. Jesus beautifully modeled a compassionate way of life. In his first sermon ever preached in the synagogue, Jesus stated that his primary mission and the very reason that the Spirit was upon him was to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, open the eyes of those who are blind, release the oppressed, and proclaim the year of God’s favor for all (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus was wide-eyed to the suffering all around him, and he felt that his primary calling—the very reason the Spirit anointed him—was to alleviate that suffering.

As a therapist, I am inspired by the “Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3). I see myself as an ambassador of compassion. I intend to be a wit(h)ness— a person who seeks to be compassionately and wholeheartedly present with those who feel emotionally poor, inwardly oppressed, and imprisoned by maladaptive habits that cause them to feel blind to the reality of their worth and lovableness. It is the compassionate Spirit who has comforted me in all my troubles, which moves me to comfort those who venture into my office, and collaboratively seeks to alleviate my clients’ suffering.

Invitational vs Control or Coercion

I am amazed how God can be so powerful, but God chooses to use that power with me, instead of over me. Contrary to believing in a more deterministic worldview and God who is in control of everything type of theology, I believe that God does not dictate every action, reaction, or happening in this world. The Apostle Paul says that the “weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25). God’s empowering and healing presence, which always invites us toward greater measures of wholeness, is stronger than the forceful, controlling, manipulating, and narcissistic love that human beings can demonstrate.

God’s uncontrolling love has impacted how I use my power in sessions with my clients. I am sensitive to issues of race, heteronormativity, class, and cultural dynamics. Working with many clients who are healing from religious trauma, I am sensitive to not becoming another coercive guru or authoritarian pastor in people’s lives. I intend to be like God in God’s uncontrolling love, and not impose my will on my clients. I do not engage in coercion, try to force clients to see from my perspective, or give them moral demands that I expect them to follow.

I consider their will and freedom to choose to be sacred. I dare not usurp what they want and disregard how they want to get there. I want to know what their goals are and what approach they are looking for. When a client is experiencing emotion and I can see it non-verbally, it is common for me to say, “Is it okay to make room for what is coming up for you?” If I feel like a particular intervention may be helpful for a client, I might ask, “There is an intervention that may be helpful to work through your ambivalence, are you up for a brief exercise?” Invariably, when working with couples, some partners ask me, “Should we stay together? Or should we just get divorced?” I never tell clients what they should do. I invite them to look at different perspectives and options, which is what I believe God does for us. I seek to lead with uncontrolling love that is collaborative and honors their freedom. Following the creed of the wise Mandalorians: This is the way.

Trauma is Not Predetermined

Lurking within the psyche of many of the clients who come into my office are conflictual beliefs about God. Some have lingering cognitive dissonance and spiritual disorientation due to tragically losing a loved one, being abused, living through war, or witnessing and/or experiencing other evils and traumas. They may wonder how God can allow such pain in one’s life. Our beliefs not only draw us closer or farther away from God, but they also have powerful effects on our psychological health and relationship with ourselves and others.

Secular researchers have found a correlation between a person’s mental health and inner struggles about God—what they call divine struggle. Researchers have shown that “divine struggle” can be linked to many forms of psychopathology including anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsiveness. Divine struggle is also related to lower levels of self-esteem, life purpose, problem-solving skills, and life satisfaction and may also impact physical health.

I have found it beneficial to introduce clients to a new perspective on theodicy. Theodicy refers to the attempt by humans to make sense of how a good, loving, and omnipotent God promotes harsh evils and suffering in the world. Of course, this introduction is by invitation only. I always approach these conversations cautiously so as not to place my biases upon them. However, after a client has talked about how they are angry at a God, who they believe is sovereignly in control of all things, for scripting some kind of traumatic suffering or evil in their lives, I might share “Would you be open to hearing another perspective on God’s love and God’s manner of interacting in the world?” Some say, “No,” and with the utmost care and respect I follow their lead. Some say, “Yes.” Then, I present them with an open and relational view of God’s uncontrolling love; we often have the richest of conversations. It is always a joy to witness a client’s decrease in divine struggle and cognitive dissonance as they begin to embrace a fresh, liberating, and more coherent view of God for themselves.

God Relates to Our Whole Family

The greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. In many Christian traditions, there has been more of a focus on the mind, above anything else. It seems like as long as you have the right propositions about God, then what awaits is the pearly, golden gates in the eternal heavenly future. The problem is that we are more than just our thoughts. We have emotions, we have bodies, we have a spirit, and we have many sub-personalities or an internal family as it is commonly known in psychotherapy circles. God also wants to relate to these aspects of ourselves.

We have many sub-personalities within us, commonly experienced as different parts of us. They all make an inner family. It is understood that our parts have their own thoughts, emotional experiences, motivations, and personality. You may remember a time when you may have had to make a complex decision and heard one part of yourself saying, “This would be great!” and another part saying, “I am not sure it is a good idea.”

We have secure parts of ourselves and insecure parts. We have adventurous parts and parts that enjoy familiar comforts. We have very young parts and older parts. We have apathetic parts and parts that are deeply sympathetic. Some parts are healed, and others are wounded. We have parts that want to be close to and connected with people, and we have parts that just want to be alone. An Open and Relationally Informed Therapy inspires me to value relating to my clients’ different parts, especially the exiles and marginalized within them. God’s interrelatedness extends not just to my clients’ minds, as if just relaying information alone will bring transformation. God’s uncontrolling loving relationality and an open future extends to all my clients’ internal family. God desires for me to extend compassion to my clients’ precious parts so that they can become integrated and experience themselves as more whole human beings, not just for their sake but for those they encounter.

Each Moment is a New Moment

The idea that moment-to-moment, in every creature’s life, God is seeking to maximize goodness, beauty, truth, love, and healing, while minimizing evil has been a profound truth for me and my work with clients. Addiction, hopelessness, debilitating anxiety, entrenched negative cycles of couple distress, constricting emotions, and fortified defense mechanisms that do more harm than good, do not have to have the last word. Each moment is ripe with healing potential.

The power of choice and moment-to-moment experiencing is paramount in my work. My clients know me well. Just as I am about to say my pithy pearl of wisdom, they say, “I know Mark. Each moment is a new moment to experience something novel and do something different.” I love to continually inspire them with such a statement. Why? Because it infuses them with hope. While one minute they may feel hopeless, they know they can accept the painful thoughts and emotions rising to the surface, tune into their bodies, realign their hearts to their truest intentions, and move forward and live according to their values.

In couples therapy, I used to become startled like a deer in the headlights when a client escalated and yelled at their partner. Now, keeping in mind the principle that each moment is a new moment to experience something novel and do something different, I do not fear reactivity will have the last word. I have a firm belief that love, and healing can pulsate forth from each new moment. I can now center myself and help the partner who just snapped at their wife to slow down, feel the anger pulsating in their bodies, help them remember the value of respectful communication, and assist them to move toward repairing the relational injury with their partner. Each moment is a new moment to trust that love wins!


Death in all its forms never has the last word. As a therapist I can drop the ball and misattune to the Spirit of love and to my clients. There are times when my clients can choose pain, reactivity, and maladaptive patterns. However, each moment is infused with hope. God, who is thoroughly relational, whose love is uncontrolling, and whose compassions are endless, has co-created life to be open and full of new opportunities. Each moment with my clients is a new moment for us to be invited into the Divine’s healing love in all its kaleidoscopic forms.

Dr. Mark Gregory Karris is a licensed marriage and family therapist in full-time private practice in San Diego, California. He is a husband, father, and recording artist. He’s a voracious reader, researcher, and all around biophilic. Mark is the author of the best-selling books Religious Refugees: (De)Constructing Toward Spiritual and Emotional Healing (Quoir, 2020).

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love