Robert C. Palmer, D.Min., Ph.D.

What is a Therapist?

Mark Twain, the humorist of years old, once said something to the effect that the difference between the right word and the almost right word could be compared to the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Clearly, he was making a plea for accurate communication, and nowhere is that more necessary than when we turn attention to the nature of therapy, given the current confusion as to just what the entire enterprise is all about.

In this article, I hope to explore the essence of therapy, the difference between it and related endeavors, such as counseling, problem solving, advising, ministering and “fixing people,” and offer readers a more accurate understanding of, and appreciation for, the nature of the therapeutic process. Indeed, as a minister, therapist, and professor of graduate students themselves seeking to become therapists, I am continually reviewing these matters with my interns, many of whom assume “therapy” is nothing other than “telling people what to do,” “fixing people” or “straightening them out!” Sometimes I find my students defaulting to a kind of homespun, quasi-Freudian methodology, assuming their job is to look for hidden issues deep in the subconsciousness of the client, attaching sinister and/or symbolic meaning to those issues.  Others approach the process from a hodgepodge of perspectives, doling out personal advice woven together with a “this or that” psychological theory. Still, others believe therapy means getting people “in touch with their feelings” and, like well-trained parrots, preoccupy with such questions as, “… and how does that make you feel?”… as if a panacea to all human woes! Worse still are those who assume being a therapist means “analyzing people,” looking for “their core problems” as if bent on finding some “handle” of the soul, thus degrading the therapy process to nothing more than “fault finding” and “human intrusion.” Saddest of all are those who think therapy involves seeking out sin, confronting and rebuking it in its every form, as if “sin-management” leads to healing and abundance. All such approaches do little to endear people to the person or craft of the therapist and less when it comes to truly healing the brokenhearted. 

If, then, these notions fail to capture the essence of therapy, how should treatment be understood? What, really, is a therapist, and what skill or art does it involve? Let’s see if we can explore and clarify these important questions. 

In its purest form, “psychotherapy” is, as the word itself suggests, the healing or therapeuo of the psyche or soul, restoring it to its original state of wholeness. More precisely, and looking to the related term, psychoanalysis, we begin to better understand what lies at the heart of this ambition as we divide that word into its two, principal parts.

Psychoanalysis = Psyche + Analusis   

Since the Greeks viewed the soul as a butterfly, they named it after their goddess, Psyche, often portrayed as sporting butterfly wings.  Blending that word, “psyche,” with the term, “analusis,” which speaks of loosening or freeing something, we suggest therapy is that endeavor which seeks to loosen or free the butterfly of the soul by visiting “therapeuo” or soul-healing upon it, thus restoring that soul to its original, whole state. 

 Now, if we turn attention to Judeo-Christian Scripture, we are reminded that the original state of the persons is that of being full and flourishing images of God. As a result, therapy or restoring a person to his or her original wholeness is not merely a matter of giving advice, fixing or directing, but rather reconnecting a person to that state or identity which he/she was, is, and always will be—namely,  a fully realized image of God, released from constraints which inhibit or suppress that true identity. Another way to say it is therapy is the process of soul-restoration and soul-liberation (freeing the butterfly), which assists another in the embrace of that which they were, are, and always will be—replicas of Divinity. Therapy is the restoration of the person, in awareness and practice, to his or her God—image-ness and Godlike-ness. It is the increasing and releasing of Divinity!

Now, this concept, based on Genesis 1:27, does not imply that therapists and the therapeutic endeavor are trying to get people to become images of God, but rather it is that awakening process which assists them in being that which they have always been, that which God made them to be—namely miniature copies of divinity cast in human form. Given this grand ontology, therapy cannot simply be fixing people, giving them advice, straightening them out, etc., but rather true therapeuo (or the restoration of something to its original state)  is nothing short of soul healing and identity awakening, in that it is the restoration of the person, in his or her awareness, back to his or her original state of wholeness—that state which God, as Creator, had in mind when He crafted that person as His mirror image. Indeed, when human persons become that which they have always been (God’s images and likenesses), it is then that they experience greater levels of efficacy and dominion in addressing their issues and problems and ruling their world! 

How is this Best Accomplished? 

In my personal studies, I have appreciated the writings of Dr. Carroll A. Wise, particularly his book, Pastoral Psychotherapy and blending his definitions with my own,  I suggest the process of soul healing and soul freeing can also be described as the depth of one person speaking to the depth of another in such a way as to call forth more of his or her capacity as a person, thus   awakening more of his or her identity as an image of God. 

 Therapy, done well, is the calling forth of capacity and awakening of divinity or God-likeness! It is the calling forth of heroes and stirring up of the image of God within! The best therapists, therefore, do not provide advice or act as human repairmen, but rather serve as awakeners of strengths and illuminators of resources. If the therapy process “works,” the client effectively accesses his or her “buried best” and, in so doing, counsels, advises, directs or “fixes” him or herself. Now, anyone who develops the skills and abilities to help others do so is truly therapeutic (a soul healer) and practices a highly valuable craft. Indeed, in a world that tends to find fault, skim over greatness or tritely dole out advice, those who have intentionally mastered this art of helping others discover their “buried best” and inherent God-likeness, are worthy of the title “psychotherapist” or “soul healer!”  For while advice givers, counselors, problems solvers, and “fixers” are relatively easy to find, soul healers are a rare breed!

Therapists as Lamplighters

Now the question continues as to how one might best conduct such a process, mastering the art of beckoning forth inner heroes and God-likeness. While each therapist will do so in a fashion consonant with his or her personality, it is helpful to compare the endeavor to the casting or shining of a series of lights or lamps on the client’s world, particularly on three domains in that world.  First, therapy serves others well when it strives to illuminate their inner greatness, God-given “dominionizing” skills or inner nobilities. Second, it is helpful as it casts light on the client’s long forgotten resources, atrophied capabilities, neglected masteries or inner obscurities, seeking to resurrect sleeping or withered spirits and thereby putting the person back in touch with his or her heroic elements. Third, since humans are a blend of many features, included in this endeavor is careful illumination of the person’s “treacheries” or self-sabotaging ways, often referred to as “sin.” This is not so much to confront or rebuke, but instead help the person understand how those treacheries constrict and suppress his or her God-image. 

Additionally, the focus is placed on his or her “bridge of wounds,” showing how the woundedness of the heart often drives image and likeness into hiding (obscurity) and/or sabotage (treacheries), both of which keep the person from being all that God intended him or her to be. Therapy, then, is the illumination of all these things, with the pointed ambition of casting light on the inner hero,  and drawing from the knowledge of one’s past (Family of Origin, history, etc.) and present (Inner Nobilities + Inner Obscurities + Inner Treacheries + Wounds) becomes an effort to awaken God-likeness so the client can embrace his or her future mission as a fully released, fully embraced human replica of Divinity. 

visual representation of therapy

Therapists who bring light into the client’s darkness, do so by adopting a series of evolving positions or revolving illuminative postures concerning that client. First, they relate to him/her as if they (the therapist) are a “living room lamp” casting a warm, friendly light that joins and aligns with the person. This assures the client that he or she will find safety and warmth in the therapist’s presence. 

Second, as the process continues, the therapist slowly becomes another kind of light—a “floodlight”—casting an abundance of light on the client’s presenting problem, family history, personality, life dreams, abilities, heroic moments, etc. By so doing, the therapist will linger, explore, expose, and/or illuminate whatever particular issue must be investigated by delving-in with a depth of focus and dialogue far more intense than any living room lamp might offer. 

Third, the therapist must always look specifically for the client’s buried best, his or her image-of-Godness, seeking to restore the person to that which he or she has always been, namely human replicas of Divinity. Quite often, however, such explorations warrant yet further focus, so effective therapists will soon become “spotlights,” tightly zeroing in on some specific item of concern, ever-seeking special emphasis on the client’s greatness and skillfulness regarding his or her presenting problem. 

Fourth, in time, the therapist will become a “laser beam,” assuming a piercing, slicing posture that offers surgical focus and adjustment in an attempt to truly showcase the client’s issues and nobilities. Gone, now, are the warm, friendly living room lamp, the bright but wide-beamed floodlight, and the narrower spotlight. Therapy has now become a cutting-edge, finely-tuned, surgical, and penetrating enterprise as discussions are intricate, pinpointed, and detailed while the process of growth is explored and refined, as if by laser surgery. And so it will go, with therapists rotating recursively among these various types of illuminations, all in an effort to awaken within the client his or her buried best, restore him or her to an original state of God-likeness, and in that way release the butterfly of the soul as God intended it to be freed!

Finally, as the entire therapeutic experience comes to an end, the ultimate hope is that the therapist becomes to the client a “hurricane lantern” similar to the one travelers might carry into the wilderness and journey of life. By leaving clients with traces of the self, as they move forward on their mission, they will be illuminated by having been with the therapist intimately and profoundly.  

This, then, is how therapists illuminate resources and help clients access their identities as God’s human image, replica, and likeness, releasing the butterfly of the soul and restoring broken people to their original state of God-given wholeness. 


Robert C. Palmer, D.Min., Ph.D., is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a Clinical Member and Approved Supervisor (American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists), a Board Certified Pastoral Counselor (BCPC), a Professional Christian Counselor (BCPCC – International Board of Christian Counselors/AACC), and a Licensed Minister with the Evangelical Free Church of America. He serves as a professor of Marriage and Family Therapy in the M.A., MFT program at Evangelical Theological Seminary in Myerstown, Pennsylvania, and also maintains a part-time therapy practice in the Harrisburg area. Dr. Palmer is married, has three adult children, and enjoys motorcycles, photography, hiking, physical fitness (holding a Black Belt in Seibukan karate), and helping others become that which they have always been, Heroes! He can be reached at


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