Common Issues for Philosophical Counseling

Rationality of Existence

This issue is paramount because we are all rational beings; thus, we are rationally aware of ourselves as well as the people and things around us. Because of this state of rational awareness, we must make sense of everything we are experiencing. If we do not, then we are alienated from ourselves and the world in which we live.


“’Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18).

Meaning and Purpose in Life

Meaning and purpose in our lives are derived from coherent placement within the context of a larger whole.


Think, for example, that you are playing a game of chess. Within this context, if the other person moves a chess piece in accordance with the rules of a chess game, then this act has meaning. It has this meaning because it "fits" within the larger context of the game of chess.


If, however, the other person throws a chess piece across the room, then this act has no meaning. It has no meaning because it cannot be placed within the larger context of the game of chess. That is, it does not "fit."


The act may, of course, have meaning in a larger context. If we were to step back and look at things from a broader perspective, then possibly we would see that the other person was losing. He thus became frustrated, so he threw a chess piece across the room.


The important point is that, in order for anything to have meaning or purpose, it must have a coherent placement within the context of a larger whole. It must "fit." 


When we begin to think about meaning and purpose in relation to our lives, an unavoidable fact emerges, namely, the "larger whole" that is relevant for all of us is the metaphysical framework in which we exist. No personal meaning can be derived apart from this underlying structure in which we find ourselves. If I am a rat in a maze with cognitive functioning abilities, then I may think I have a meaningful life as I follow a trail of food or some other stimulus path. But if this trail leads to my being killed in a trap or falling over a precipice to my death, then my "meaning" or "purpose" in life was, in fact, very different than what I thought. 


In short: I was living in delusion. 


The important point is that the underlying structure of being (or "ontology") in which we exist will always matter, and no one is in a position where he or she can "manufacture" personal meaning apart from this larger metaphysical context (despite what our Existentialist friends might think). Any meaningful purpose in our lives derives from how we accommodate ourselves to the larger context in which we exist. Again, we must "fit" into what is there.


This is why we see young people with almost pathological drives to be members of gangs or "in crowds." They have a deep need for a sense of belonging. They desire to be a part of it all. They yearn to "fit in."


This need in each of us goes deep - to our very core. And no participation in a certain gang or clique can remedy it on the level that it must be addressed. It is an ontological insecurity, an ontological dependence. Therefore, we need an ontological remedy - one that provides a sense of belonging and "fitting in" on the fundamental level of being. Nothing less will suffice.


I (or anyone) am ushered into this experience of belonging as I confess my desperate need of a Savior. My need of a Savior is made apparent to me as I honestly acknowledge that my natural tendency is not to treat others as I want to be treated myself. Rather, my natural tendency is to be grasping, acquisitive, self-absorbed, hard-hearted and arrogant (regardless of how I may posture myself to others). This natural bent toward conceited egoism - along with all the self-destructive tendencies that it entails - drives me to the unavoidable truth that I am "misaligned" with the source (or "ground") of being. The truth of this misalignment is also made apparent by the dissatisfaction, unrest, and "angst" of my authentic, everyday experience.


Whether this misalignment is referred to as "sin" (Judaeo-Christian context), "dukkha" (Buddhist context) or anything else, it undeniably exists. Therefore, there is a need for all to be brought into realignment with the source (or "ground") of being.


When I confess my need of Jesus Christ as my Savior, I experience a "new birth" (John 3:3), and I am born into the family of God. I experience a deep sense of belonging since I now have coherent placement in the larger context of God's creation. I am no longer alienated from my Father and my God. I am no longer "misaligned" with His essence. Rather, I now "fit" into what is there. My Father in Christ inspires me to walk in a path that is in alignment with His perfect will for me, and this brings increasing satisfaction, fulfillment and peace rather than dissatisfaction, non-fulfilment and unrest.


“Truly, our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full” (1 John 1:3, 4).


"By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit" (1 John 4:13).

Human Freedom

I remember thinking extensively about human freedom during one period in my life. Do you know what I came up with? Simply this: human freedom is the capacity to choose in accordance with the dictates of reason.


In other words, it is the capacity to choose what makes sense.


Think about it: Is a person genuinely free if he or she chooses something that makes no sense?


One might respond by saying, “Human freedom is the capacity to choose what we want. It has nothing to do with reason.”


It is tempting to think this way, but consider this: some of my greatest regrets are because I wanted things at certain times – and thus chose them – but I realized too late that this was not an expression of freedom at all but, rather, an expression of bondage.


Why would anyone choose something that makes no sense? And why would anyone consider such a choice to be an expression of freedom?


Surely, we are rational beings, and, as such, we must make sense of things. This is how we survive. If someone chooses something that is completely unreasonable, then, clearly, this person is in bondage to a dangerous irrational force.


In short: he is held fast by a power that makes no sense.


Let's look at a simple example: if I know that eating a meal consisting of two double cheeseburgers, large fries, a super-sized carbonated soft drink and a quart of ice cream is bad for my health - but I choose to eat this for lunch each day anyway - is this an expression of freedom?


I could say, "I chose to eat this meal for lunch each day because I wanted it – so, yes, it was an expression of freedom."


But as I look back on such experiences in the wisdom of later years, would I not rather say that these were experiences of bondage to appetites or impulses that made no sense?


I hope you see the relevant point. It is this: the bottom line is reason. The bottom line is what makes sense. This is why God says, “Come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). This is also why He places the facts of Christ’s life and death before us (as well as the facts of our sinful condition) prior to expecting any response of faith.


To summarize: there is an obvious rationality to existence, and this is the only context in which we can sensibly talk about freedom. Acts of volition (that is,  choices) do not spring from a vacuum. Rather, they spring from the content of our hearts. If our choices result from desires that overpower our beliefs regarding what makes sense, then, clearly, we are in bondage. These desires of our hearts may be rooted in all sorts of unconscious needs and insecurities (this, I take it, goes without saying). Nevertheless, the bottom line regarding human freedom is reason and reason alone.


This "bottom line" of reason with regard to human freedom points unavoidably to our need of a Savior. Why? Because we really are - all of us - in bondage to a power that makes no sense. Simple honesty brings us to the point where we are forced to acknowledge that we are self-centered egoists who are always in a functional mode of "me first." And this mode of "me first" leads to selfish, indulgent ways that put us on a path of self-destruction. But even if we are able to "contain" these self-destructive tendencies through rigid self-control or laser-focused busyness, we are still painfully aware of our need of redemption. Why? Because a conscience that is not hardened through continual violation bears witness to how our state of self-absorption keeps us from helping those in desperation and need as we would want them to help us were our roles reversed. ("Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" - Matthew 7:12.)


We may succeed in posturing ourselves as non-egocentric, but convincing others (and even ourselves) does not change us into something we are not. The desperate necessity in each of our lives is to confess our great need of Christ and be born into the family of God. Only the resultant regeneration that flows from this act leads to a caring heart that brings joy and fulfillment - and only this results in human freedom.


"A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you" (Ezekiel 36:26).


"You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32).


"If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36). 

Personal Identity

Issues such as free will (discussed above) require an examination of personal identity. This is so because the only way I can truly understand what it is to be free is to first understand what it is to be the person I am.


Have you ever thought about issues relating to personal identity? Have you ever thought about who you are on the deepest level? I’m sure you have. 


Many are forced to do this when they go through a painful ordeal such as a divorce or a mid-life crisis.


What each of us must realize when thinking about personal identity is that there is a level to our personhood that is more fundamental than the level of our desires - and this is the level of rational awareness. In other words, I am not merely a being who desires certain things. Rather, I am a being who is consciously aware of having such desires.


In short, I do not live at the level of stimulus and response – as, for example, a laboratory rat does. If a rat is stimulated, it will respond in predictable ways.  This is the level of a rat's existence - the level of stimulus and response.


But I do not live at this level of stimulus and response. Rather, I live at the level of conscious awareness. When I am stimulated, I do not merely respond in predictable ways. On the contrary, I am consciously aware of being stimulated, and I am consciously aware of whether or not I will respond. 


This level of conscious awareness is more fundamental to my identity than the level of desire. It is a "transcendent" level that allows me to "step back," so to speak, and critically evaluate my feelings, my desires, my fears, my insecurities - all of that.


The recognition of this truth is vital when considering areas such as human freedom, for an individual can make no sense of this freedom without first making sense of personal identity. This is so because acting with "free will" implies, at the very least, that a person is acting freely as the person he or she is with no external constraint or coercion. Therefore, to understand what it means to be a morally free person, one must first understand what it means to be a person.


If I asked you point blank, “Who are you?" - what would you say?


If someone had asked me this question at a time when I was very depressed, I could have truthfully responded by saying something like, “Well, I frequently desire to eat a lot of food, and I often act on this desire, so I guess I'm a glutton.”


Now it may be true that I frequently desire to eat more food than is healthful for me, and it may also be true that I frequently act on these desires. If I say, “I am a glutton,” however, then I am essentially identifying myself with these desires. This implies that I am “going with the flow” of them and welcoming their indulgent fulfillment whenever I experience them.


But this may not be the case. 


If I acknowledge these desires on the level of rational awareness and renounce them by saying something like, “Hey, I don’t want to do this; it doesn’t make sense – it’s killing me!” then, I am by no means a glutton (although I may be in bondage to gluttonous desires).


The point is this: conscious awareness comprises both a subject and an object level of awareness, and our identity is grounded – not at the object level of stimulation and response – but, rather, at the subject level of conscious awareness.


Since personal identity (the “I” or ego) is grounded at this transcendent subject level of conscious awareness, it is at this level that we must define human freedom. This is why I mentioned in the prior section that human freedom is the capacity to choose in accordance with the dictates of reason. In other words, human freedom is the capacity to choose in harmony with our rational awareness because this is the level that defines our being. This is the level where personal identity resides.


One’s core identity will never be found on the object level - that is, the level of feeling and desire. Furthermore, any identification on this level can drive a person to great discouragement - even to despair.


We all have feelings. We all have desires. These feelings and desires are grounded in our needs. And these needs are grounded in our state of non-self-sufficiency - that is, they are grounded in our state of "ontological deficiency."


In short, we are beings characterized by lack, not fullness. 


One of the problems of our “misaligned” (i.e., sinful) nature is that we are naturally prone to project our needs laterally to other people or things in an attempt to secure gratification rather than to direct them upward to the level of transcendence and sufficiency that is found only in God.


The acknowledgment of this tendency, I would say, brings us to the heart of the issue, and if we are honest with ourselves, then it will inevitably drive us to confess our need of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


"Our sufficiency is from God" (2 Corinthians 3:5). 


Fundamental Structure of Being

We must understand the rock-bottom level of being so we can align the direction of our lives to accommodate this foundational structure or "ontology." In short, we must "fit" into what is fundamentally there. We are a smaller part of a larger whole, and we must live accordingly. There is simply no way around this brute fact of existence, and any attempt to live in defiance of it will result in frustration, discontentmnet, unrest - and ultimately eternal loss.


Christian thought accepts the foundational reality of an infinite, personal God - the great I AM. For this reason, personality as well as our personal hopes and aspirations for experiences of love, intimacy and purposeful fulfillment have legitimate grounding in the metaphysical framework of our existence. These also have meaning because they "fit" into the reality of what is fundamentally there.


Buddhism and Hinduism (and other hybrid forms of westernized eastern thought) promote a completely different ontology. The ultimate reality in these schools of thought is impersonal mind. Proponents of these philosophies contend that the underlying cause of our frustrations and agitations in life are due to the fact that we consider ourselves to be personal entities that are separate and distinct from the ultimate impersonal reality. We thus fixate upon personality and the fulfillment of personal desire, but, according to these philosophies, fulfillment of personal desire is impossible since reality is ultimately impersonal, not personal.


All the multiplicity as well as the material nature that we observe in the universe is simply a delusion according to this line of thinking, and the experience of personality itself is, in many ways, the ultimate delusion.  


I do not think anyone can apply this philosophy in a consistent way and yet remain functionally sane in our world, yet threads of this eastern thought are rampant in western society. 


Western materialism promotes yet another ontology, namely, impersonal matter in motion. In other words. everything that exists (including ourselves) is simply the result of particles of matter (or quanta of energy) interacting according to the laws of the universe. As with eastern thought, there is no way that personal beings like ourselves can find a coherent "fit" within this metaphysical framework. All personal hopes and aspirations reduce to various forms of self-delusion, for we are ultimately eddies in the material stream of life with no true autonomy as self-conscious entities.


Truly, it is only a biblical framework that gives our lives authentic reality as well as purposeful meaning as personal beings. This is the only fundamental structure in which we coherently "fit."


"In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind in the day they were created" (Genesis 5:1, 2).

Additional Issues for Philosophical Counseling

The Problem of Evil

People often ask, “How can there be a God when there is so much evil in the world?” It should be noted that these same people would have no basis for calling anything in the world “evil” unless they had an objective basis for doing so. Without this objective basis, they would merely be expressing a subjective opinion – nothing more.


In short, without an objective basis for ethical judgment, we are lost in a sea of moral relativism.


So the mere statement of this problem presupposes an objective, agreed-upon set of values because, if this were not true, then there would be no basis for calling this issue a problem of  "evil."


Also, since any objective set of values requires some sort of metaphysical grounding, the mere statement of this problem implies an objective misalignment between the level at which we live (that is, the level at which there is perceived evil) and the level that is fundamentally there.  

 

Whether one refers to this misalignment as “sin” (Christianity), “dukkha” (Buddhism), or anything else, it is undeniably there. Any attempt to live life apart from an acknowledgment and accommodation of this truth will result in a flight from the self and reality. The end result will be a deep sense of unresolved guilt - a state in which one's misalignment of being becomes a true "rupture" of being.


The bottom line with regard to the “problem of evil” is this: Adam and Eve properly represented you and me in the sense that we all want to be the one calling the shots. We all want to be God. 


Anyone who inquires about the origin of evil does so because he or she refuses to acknowledge this, refuses to acknowledge that wickedness, immorality and iniquity flow from our hearts (Mark 7:21-23). Resolution comes when we honestly confess our central part in the drama rather than try to pass the blame by finding a causal account beyond ourselves. In short, we come out from behind a rigid wall of denial and confess that the real problem is with us.


From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mark 7:21-23)

Forgiveness

All of us have been wronged in one way or another, but clinging to the sense of injustice involved in these betrayals can destroy our lives. Surely we cannot live our lives in bondage to hurt, bitterness and resentment and expect to have healthy relationships with ourselves and with others. Nevertheless, all of us find it understandably difficult to provide a forgiving “release“ to those who have wronged us so deeply.


We will never be able to provide forgiveness in any sort of authentic way (and thus arrive at a place of healing) unless such a release is grounded in an understanding of the reality of God's sovereignty and how, through His atonement in Christ, God works all things together for good that He allows into the lives of His children (Romans 8:28) – even the deepest betrayals (Genesis 45:4-8).


“I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt … God  sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.  So now it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:4-8)

Love and Need

This area can easily cause problems for need-motivated beings like ourselves because love entails a doing for the other for the other's sake, while need entails a doing for the other for my sake. The resolution of this issue (both conceptually and emotionally) necessitates the acknowledgment of a transcendent  structure of being that provides the only legitimate grounding for other-regarding impulses and action. 


Falling in love is an "attunement" to this other-regarding reality, and this represents the means by which God attempts to intrude upon our endeavored autonomy - an autonomy that leads only to dissatisfaction and discontent.

  

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God …  In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:7, 10).

Reconciling Oneself to the Past

This can be a painful struggle for many of us, and the reason is obvious: none of us can change the past. For this reason, if we are not reconciled to the past, then this alienation will surely cause serious problems in our lives. The only way to truly resolve this issue is to understand the necessity of the ground of our being - the great I AM.


In short: given the nature of our hearts and the nature of the circumstances in which we have found ourselves, our lives could have unfolded NO differently than they did. This may seem untrue, but it’s not.


There is no contingency in God, and the key to being reconciled to our past is to understand that God will – not change our past – but, rather, redeem it.

  

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:18, 19).

Being unto Death

This is the reality of our existence in this world, and, at some point, this reality must be faced with honesty. A philosopher such as Heidegger strongly emphasizes this state of being, and any failure to acknowledge this personal reality results in a flight from the self as well as a failure to live life with genuine authenticity.


Truly, each of us desperately needs the hopeful "Being unto Life" that God provides for us in Christ.


 "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). 

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