Ways a Love-Based Psychotherapy Resonates with Oord’s View of a Loving God

By Dave Tenney

A love-based psychotherapy applies love in ways that affirms within a psychological context what Thomas Oord promotes in his theological one.

Greetings beloved reader. I am intentionally welcoming you in this manner as I want to relate to you in a personally loving way in my role as the writer of this essay on these matters of love. I intend to share a lot of interesting information about love and psychotherapy in ways I hope will be both enjoyable and beneficial for you. I suggest a loving God would want those acting in the role of a pastoral counselor, psychotherapist, or other similar counseling roles, to also relate with the person intentionally in therapy in a loving way within those contexts.

So, you might ask what does it mean to intentionally act lovingly toward another, including in a therapeutic context? The Christian theologian Thomas Jay Oord, in his writings that emphasize a theology of love, makes the point that Jesus masterfully provided a clear example of what it means to lovingly act through the loving way he lived his own life. Both his living example and his teachings greatly inform Oord’s definition of love for his own field of theology: “To love is to act intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.” Oord also provides a more concise, simple, and generally serviceable meaning for love as “aiming to do good.” He writes that the inherently loving nature of God is unchanging and yet how it is manifested in relation to all of creation is “pluriform,” that it can take many forms depending on any given context. Pastoral counseling, psychotherapy, and related counseling fields likewise have a plurality of forms and approaches for facilitating greater self-acceptance, personal growth, fulfillment, positive change, capacity to love oneself and others, and well-being, etc.

Some therapists may fully embrace Oord’s initial definition, whereas others such as those serving people in a strictly secular setting or those therapists having a non-theistic personal orientation may only partially concur. I’ll assert that Oord’s more concise meaning of love as “aiming to do good” would resonate with nearly every therapist in a way that would enable them to “act lovingly” in their particular professional context.

The question now is: What might psychotherapy look like if informed by love of the un-controlling type that Oord describes God as having?

I’ll begin to share my view by providing a serviceable definition of a “love-based psychotherapy” derived from an extensive literature review of several philosophical, religious, and psychological perspectives of love. Love-based psychotherapy is an approach that can be defined as a process predominantly guided by the principle, power, and presence of a compassionate and benevolent intention to foster the client’s fullest well-being, and that involves the cultivation of that intention in both the psychotherapist and the client. In other words, a love-based psychotherapist can set the intention to ground his or her interventions through the principle of love, use the power of love to facilitate positive changes, and or share the presence of love with the client in a manner allowing love to inform and co-create the entire process of psychotherapy. I believe the meaning I am conveying by using the phrases “compassionate beneficial intention,” and “fullest well-being” are quite resonant with Oord’s “aiming to do good,” and his phrase “overall wellbeing.” I would like to clarify that “fullest well-being” encompasses the optimal “flourishing” of the individual interrelatedly with all others and life as a whole,—a holistic view consistent with Oord’s own.

A love-based approach can be characterized as a co-creative relational process, compassionately responsive to both the person and to the guidance experienced when engaging the principle, power, or presence of love (or of “God’s love,” if you prefer). I wish to be inclusive for the general reader so I offer both understandings as viable meanings in therapy, given that either way the intent to respond to love’s guidance is essentially the same in spirit.

The nature of a love-based approach is “pluriform” in application, involves unconditional loving, encourages the person’s free will unfolding of an open future, is inclusive of nurturing love for oneself as well as others, and fosters a wholly integrated form of well-being.

I’ll share some interesting ways that various therapists address these concerns that relate to Oord’s theological view of an un-controlling God of love. First, however, I want to briefly clarify what kind of “love” is meant (and what is not) within a psychotherapeutic context.

Ellen Berscheid’s taxonomy of love has relevance for clarifying the type of love most appropriate for a love-based psychotherapy. She identified “four varieties of love” (attachment, compassionate, companionate, and romantic) with compassionate love involving “concern for another’s welfare and taking actions to promote it, regardless of whether those actions are perceived to result in future benefits to the self.” That seems wholly fitting for a psychotherapeutic context, and it’s also consonant with Oord’s emphasis on promoting wellbeing. The fourth type, “romantic love,” given its association with sexual desire, is generally understood in the field of psychotherapy as unhelpful, inappropriate, and ethically unacceptable.

In the history of psychology, there have been numerous psychotherapists of various theoretical perspectives who considered some form of love to be a key factor in psychotherapy. I’ll now review a few of the views and methods of therapists who I would consider essentially love-based that speak to the key points related to Oord’s view of an un-controlling God of love.

First, I’ll say that love is the base upon which the rest of the therapy rests, just as it’s the base of Oord’s theology. Joseph Natterson, a Neo-Freudian therapist, asserted that “love is a fundamental element of the therapeutic process itself,” and that “the therapeutic relationship becomes a loving relationship, and the therapeutic dialogue is basically about love and the expansion of its role in a person’s life.” Erich Fromm combined both Freudian and Jungian perspectives and similarly viewed the therapeutic process as “essentially an attempt to help the patient gain or regain his capacity for love.”

The intention to love is the essence of a love-based approach, but the forms through which it can be applied are many, as Oord similarly says about God’s love being changeless in essence yet “pluriform” in expression. A “love-based therapist” brings whatever forms of therapeutic training, orientation, or skills they might have to the love-based process of therapy.

Oord emphasizes in his writings that God is “un-controlling,” and thus cannot predetermine mortal creatures’ lives, interfere with free will, or act “singlehandedly” to prevent unloving behaviors by others. However, Oord also believes that as a universal spirit, God does rely on us to act locally as living agents of love on God’s behalf.

Rollo May, a leading voice of Existential and Humanistic Psychology, valued an open-ended therapeutic process and wrote that “the reuniting of will and love” is an important therapeutic task and saw it as rooted in intentionality. He sought to unify three parts of a client’s conscious process: wish, will, and decision. The therapist helps persons identify their deepest unconscious yearning, (or what love is calling forth from within), so the person can consciously nurture its manifestation in unity with his or her will, decision-making, and behavior, as a whole integrated being. May’s open-ended exploration is an example of nurturing free will vs. being directive or having a predetermined outcome simply based on adjusting to social norms.

Carl Rogers, a pivotal figure in humanistic psychotherapy, developed Person Centered Psychotherapy and emphasized the inherent capacity of the person to discover the best way toward healthy functioning. He valued the therapist-client relationship and directly experiencing people just as they are. “Unconditional positive regard” was a core principle that emphasized the therapist providing a caring, empathic response regardless of the client’s attitude or behavior. I see Rogers’ unconditional positive regard in a therapy context as roughly equivalent to the unconditional love taught by Jesus, and to Oord’s unconditionally loving God.

There are numerous therapists including Assagioli, Wellwood, and Vaughn, who could be considered love-based in what is known as Transpersonal Psychology, wherein the mostly secular field of psychotherapy meets the spiritual to lovingly foster well-being. The transpersonal dimension is “a spiritual reality intrinsic to all that is,” and “transpersonal psychotherapy views all psychological processes against the backdrop of spiritual unfolding” (Cortright). This perspective often involves ways of being present with love’s presence so it has particular relevance for love-based psychotherapy in relation to a God of love. It opens the therapy door to what author and psychologist Jean Houston calls “sacred psychology,” in which the therapist can serve as a “mediator of love” or living “instrument of grace” to “transmit the light of love to another,” an example of what Oord refers to as being an active “agent” of love.

It may interest you to know there are many love-based therapists that incorporate various practical methods and techniques before, during, or between sessions that can actually cultivate greater love and well-being in one or both persons of the therapy relationship. A few examples are two evidence-based ones “Lovingkindness Meditation” (Frederickson) and Self-Compassion Meditation (Neff), as well as heart centered creative visualizations (Ladner, Roland), “Loving Presence” (Kurtz), and “Love Centered Meditation” (Tenney). Love-based therapists and the persons in therapy can also regularly practice asking themselves “how can I be most loving” or prayerfully seek the same within. This could cultivate greater synchrony between the prefrontal lobes and other parts of the brain associated with higher values, the “heart, love, compassion, empathy, and understanding” (Pearce), and one’s higher or “superconscious” mind involved with much of the same (Assagioli).

There is also a growing body of research showing that one person can favorably influence, through their own psychological and physiological well-being, another person’s psychological and physiological well-being and their capacity to experience love! A few examples include via: “limbic resonance” and “limbic revision,” (Lewis, et.al) “empathic resonance” (Goleman), and by increasing synchrony of brain wave activity and heart EKG rhythms with heartfelt thoughts (McCraty, et. al). Many love-based therapists are informed by this relevant research that is also pertinent to Oord’s views and love-based living in general.

A love-based psychotherapy applies love in ways that make Oord’s type of loving God’s love come alive in its relational interaction. I’ve described numerous ways that such a therapy approach resonates with and affirms within a psychological context what Oord promotes in his theological one. It asserts the primacy of love, is “pluriform” in application, involves unconditional loving, encourages persons’ free will unfolding of an open future, is inclusive of nurturing love for oneself as well as others, lets the therapist act as an agent of love, fosters an optimal wholly integrated form of well-being, and cultivates greater love-based living.

David S. Tenney, Ph.D., is a retired clinical psychotherapist having over forty years of experience practicing in New Hampshire. Dave completed his doctoral dissertation in 2013 at Saybrook University on “The Theoretical Parameters and Practical Value of a Love-Based Psychotherapy.” It informs both his own approach to psychotherapy and this essay. Dave enjoys being in nature and learning to love.

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