In God’s Image

By Greg Hoover

God can’t control others; if we want more positive relationships, neither should we.

In the words of Thomas Jay Oord, “Essential kenosis considers the self-giving, others-empowering love of God revealed in Jesus Christ to be logically primary in God’s eternal essence.” Oord also writes, “Essential kenosis says God cannot override, withdraw, or fail to provide the power of freedom, agency, or existence to creation. Consequently, God cannot control creatures or creation.” In this essay, we’ll unpack Essential Kenosis a little, and in the process, we’ll explore its relationship to mental and emotional health.

Simply put, God is a universal Spirit without a localized body whose essential nature is uncontrolling love. We see this theme running throughout the Scriptures. The two parts of this insight invite us to think about a few of its implications for psychological and emotional healing.

First, it suggests that God can’t stop suffering singlehandedly—whether physical, emotional, or psychological. But why not? It’s important to note that God is not constrained by any outside force or principle. Rather, God’s very nature is uncontrolling love; and in the words of the New Testament, “God cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13). This suggests that God needs our help to bring about what God wants, including the healing of our own emotional struggles and damaged relationships. This implies that we need to be actively involved in the pursuit of our own mental health, rather than passively waiting for God or others to “fix” us or a significant relationship.

Next, since God is Spirit and does not have a localized body (John 4:24), we realize that God does not have hands to reach out and stop someone from being abused, a physical shoulder to cry on during hard times, or arms to give a hug to a hurting child. As people of faith, we strive to become God’s metaphorical “hands.” This inspires us to partner with God for the healing of our bodies, our souls, and our world. Moreover, this active partnering with God is not only good for those we help, but it also provides meaning to our lives and increases our social interest in those around us. This practice in itself is psychologically healing and can assist in managing the “common colds” of mental health, including depression and anxiety. We see this idea elucidated in the work of psychiatrists Victor Frankl and Alfred Adler, respectively.

Finally, since we are made in God’s image (Gen 1:27), we also are called to imitate God’s uncontrolling love in our own lives and relationships. Practicing this principle is not only spiritually sound but is essential for our own psychological and emotional wellbeing. It is also an effective strategy to help maintain and nourish healthy relationships with the significant people in our lives, which contributes to our own mental health. This third point will be the major focus of this essay.

Before my ordination to the priesthood, I worked professionally in mental health for many years, and I continued that work through pastoral counseling and spiritual direction. Throughout this process, I’ve come to believe that many common mental health issues and emotional difficulties spring from our habit of trying to control the uncontrollable. This includes other people, especially those closest to us.

As we will soon see, this insight suggests that trying to control others is perhaps the single most damaging thing we can do to our relationships, as well as to our own psychological and emotional well-being. But if we follow God’s example of treating others with uncontrolling love, we will not only preserve and improve our significant relationships, but our own mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

The psychologist William Glasser founded a therapeutic system known as Choice Theory (the philosophy behind his system) and Reality Therapy (the practical application of Choice Theory). This essay will integrate elements of Choice Theory, the psychological idea that the only person’s behavior we can control is our own, with Essential Kenosis, the theological insight that God’s essential nature is uncontrolling love. Furthermore, it will give a spiritual foundation to the practical therapeutic principles of Reality Therapy, and a psychological application to the theological principles of Essential Kenosis.

Choice Theory is based on the basic idea that each one of us only has the power to control ourselves. Furthermore, it teaches us that trying to control others, especially the significant others in our lives, damages those relationships as well as our own emotional health.

According to Choice Theory, the source of much emotional struggle is failed or failing relationships with people important to us. These relationships may include spouses, children, parents, friends, and coworkers. Furthermore, Glasser encourages therapists to recognize that most emotional problems that bring someone to therapy stem from a current relationship that is not working. Although Glasser limits these relationships to human interactions, I believe that if our relationship with God is not “working,” we may experience similar emotional struggles.

Choice Theory provides ten axioms, of which the first five are most apropos to this essay. They are:

(1) The only person whose behavior we can control is our own.

(2) All we can give another person is information.

(3) All long-lasting psychological problems are relationship problems.

(4) The problem relationship is always part of our present life.

(5) What happened in the past has everything to do with what we are today, but we can only satisfy our basic needs right now and plan to continue satisfying them in the future.

Understanding these axioms of Choice Theory helps us to realize the distinction between external control psychology and internal control psychology. External control psychology is very common, and we might say it is the default way we tend to understand life and our relationships with others. It is the belief that our thoughts, behaviors, feelings, and experiences are determined by forces outside ourselves. This may include such forces and factors as other people, society, family history, a spouse, or other various external influences.

In contrast to this is internal control psychology, which according to Choice Theory is the more mentally healthy perspective. Internal control psychology is much less common, but can be learned and applied to our personal lives. Simply put, it is the insight that we are responsible for our own choices and the consequences that come from them. In the words of Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, “The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president [and I would add God to this list]. You realize that you control your own destiny.”

In theological language, we might say it is psychologically and emotionally healthy to follow God’s example of treating others with uncontrolling love. As Thomas Jay Oord has suggested, God’s essential nature is uncontrolling love, God loves everyone and everything thing, and so God can’t control anyone or anything. To this I would add: And neither should we.

Following the example of the God in whose image we are made, we can learn to love others, inspire others, support others, encourage others, and not try to control others. But how do we begin to do this, and reach our full potential in Christ? Perhaps Choice Theory may offer us a clue.

Glasser suggests that external control psychology tends to operate by seven destructive, unhealthy habits. They are the seven deadly habits: Criticizing, Blaming, Complaining, Nagging, Threatening, Punishing, Bribing or Rewarding to Control.

Fortunately, there is a way to break these unhealthy habits. That can be done by replacing them with their more constructive counterparts. They are the seven caring habits: Supporting, Encouraging, Listening, Accepting, Trusting, Respecting, Negotiating Differences.

By prayerfully and mindfully becoming aware of the Seven Deadly Habits and replacing them with the Seven Caring Habits, we can begin to live out our calling to treat others with the same uncontrolling love that God models so well for us. Doing so will not only improve our relationships—which are essential for our wellbeing—but also improve our own mental and emotional health.

To summarize: We learn in Genesis that humans are created in the image of God, and we learn in 1 John that God is love. By integrating Essential Kenosis with Choice Theory, we can discover a practical process of spiritual, mental, and emotional healing that is biblically grounded, psychologically cogent, and can preserve and restore the relationships we need for a full and meaningful life. From this, we learn a simple but powerful lesson: Because God’s essential nature is uncontrolling love, God can’t control others singlehandedly; and if we want to have less emotional struggles and more positive relationships, neither should we.

The Rev. Greg T. Hoover, an award-winning writer, is a professional actor, behavior therapist, and Episcopal priest. Greg loves his children, the outdoors, hiking, traveling, horseback riding, and playing guitar. He is the author of The Pain Killer (Black Rose Writing, 2022), which explores a famous series of unsolved murders from the perspective of Open and Relational Theology.

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