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Years ago, President Bush (the younger) was holding a press conference and a question was posed to illicit a response to our collective fear that Islam had become the enemy of the state. President Bush tactfully responded with a generalizing statement of all religious faiths saying something like, “All faiths have their place in society and each provides a unique contribution to the welfare of our nation.” It was the sort of response to which no one could disagree.  However my thoughts at that time moved towards seeking specificity in his comment about religion.  I did not contemplate the religion of his original question.  Instead, I contemplated on that which I have direct observation—that of the Evangelical Christian tradition. I asked myself, “What unique contributions does the Christian faith bring to society? And what unique contributions does the Christian faith bring to the professional disciplines of counseling and psychology?”

It is the question underneath one of our favorite movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  The question that George Bailey asks, the question that all of us ask is, “What if I had never existed, what effect have I had on the world—macro or micro? Remember Clarence’s line to George, “He was not there to save them, because you were not there to save him.”

So, separate from any other great philosophical question, if Christianity (or George Bailey) not existed … what would be different?

There are many ways to answer this question…and many have through works such as Thomas Cahill’s “How the Irish Saved Civilization” and the Christian classic by Francis Schaeffer, “How Should We Then Live.”  These and others have sweeping explanations which I find fascinating.

My answer to the question of life without Christianity was “there would be no grace.” Granted, there would be many other things missing without God Incarnate, particularly a way unto salvation. But I wasn’t trying to answer the question in a salvation sense but in a pragmatic, utilitarian sense. Literally, what unique offering to societies would be absent were it not for the presence of Christian thought.  My answer: existence would be grace-less.

An immediate thought was … none of my mental health colleagues know grace … not the theological experience, but the practical term as a behavioral construct. The disciplines of marriage and family counseling and psychology did not have grace as a behavior occurring in the human experience. That was confirmed when I conducted a PSYCHLIT search at that time using the search word “grace” and received only 40 hits. The point is: Mental health has been a graceless world.  And though grace abounds, we live where we know it not. Indeed, our world, both socio-political and professional understands precious little of Grace.         


The near exclusive understanding of grace, in all its contexts—be it common grace, special grace, prevenient grace, efficacious grace, irresistible grace, sacramental grace, continuing/strengthening grace or sufficient grace refers to blessings, favor or gift freely given by God to humanity.  In John chapter 1 grace is seen in the embodiment of Jesus as he is declared to be “full of grace and truth”. This “fullness” represents through both creative and salvific actions embodied as a gift to humanity.  That line is worth repeating.  The grace of Jesus is the embodiment of a creative and salvific gift from God.  Creative grace is seen in John 1:10 states that “the world was made through him”—a gift act of creation that was not merited.  We can contrast that creative grace with verse 13 declares a saving grace, in describing those who are “born of God”.  

Indeed, divine grace in all of its forms—the “God-centered Grace—creates a space for another grace to emerge.  One that is within the grasp of humanity. We can call it relational grace.  It is the justification or guiding theme that is to direct the Christian’s behavior towards all others. We can say that this grace doesn’t saves us…rather it reflects the God who is in us to others.

Relational grace emerges through the theology of Karl Barth as found in his classic work, Church Dogmatics.  There Barth establishes a theological anthropology. Theological anthropology concerns itself with the nature of the relationship between God and humanity, and how that relationship then influences intra-human engagements. The beginning of Barth’s theology is the Trinity—that God is engaged in “self-relationship”.  This relationship is characterized by a plurality of qualities such as unity, individuality, equality, love, collaboration, and creativity among others. To Barth, God is the ultimate demonstration of individuality and community.  The Trinity is the fusion of social psychology with individual psychology.  The capacity to act in an individual, equal, loving collaborative, creative manner implies a constant giving—that is God giving and receiving from God and to God.  Such gifts (grace) are done in a manner that does not relinquish the individuality, equality, love, collaboration or creativity, but rather enhances them. This “intra-personal” demonstration of grace dictates the “interpersonal” demonstration of grace, seen in the acts of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit towards creation, and particularly towards humanity.   The characteristics of God acting within the Godhead become the relational DNA that defines how we can receive God’s grace. . .and also how we are to live with one another in this grace.  I John 1: 9 reads: “We love each other because he loved us first.” (NLT)

 As psychologists and counselors we are looking for the progressive map that defines, describes and guides the parameters of successful life together.  Towards this end, James Torrance writes,

What we need today is a better understanding of the person not just as an individual but as someone who finds his or her true being-in-communion with God, and with others, the counterpart of a Trinitarian doctrine of God.  The God of the New Testament is the God who has his true being as the Father of the Son and as the Son of the Father in the Spirit.  God is love, and has his true being in communion, in the mutual indwelling of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—perichoresis, to use a patristic word.  This is the God who has created us male and female to find our true humanity in “perichoretic unity” with him and with another, and who renews us in his image in Christ.” (Torrance, 1989, p. 15) 

Perichoresis may be a term unfamiliar to us as non-theologians.  The Greek word was used by many early church fathers to describe the symbiosis of the god-head. Alister McGrath writes that it “allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two. An image often used to express this idea is that of a ‘community of being,’ in which each person, while maintaining its distinctive identity, penetrates the others and is penetrated by them.” Examples of this relationship are seen in John 16:14 and John 17:1 where one member of the trinity brings glory to another.


So far, not much of what I have said should catch anyone here by surprise.  That the theological mooring of grace is what secures the “good ship Integration” is not new to us.  However, I propose that the construct of grace is a behavioral variable that emerges from our theology. If the basis for God’s engagement with humanity is his grace exemplified through Trinitarian self-relationship, and if that grace relationship is the defining source for human to human interaction then three “ought to’s” are evident to me:

“Ought 1”) Relational grace ought to be a primary component in the definition of Christian relational behavior manifested first in intimate marital and family relationships, and emanating out to be the characteristics of how Christians should act with anyone.

“Ought 2”) Relational grace ought to be the sine qua non definition of marital ethic. It should be that which characterizes, defines, and provides meaning to the space existing between spouses—the Us as characterized by Hargrave in the Essential Humility of Marriage.

“Ought 3”) Relational grace ought to be researched as a behavioral variable and presented to the broader professional mental health culture as part as one of Christianity’s contributions to the understanding of relational success and marital intimacy.


Couples experiencing conflict are often able to describe the pains and reactions created by the circumstances, but are usually at a loss for how to step outside of the conflict cycle and offer insight into its process.  Even when couples can identify reciprocal patterns of conflict and express awareness that one’s actions frequently tie to their partner’s, each person is often reluctant to stop engaging in conflict-producing behaviors for fear of opening themselves to retaliation.  However, it may be this very ability to put one’s anger and defensiveness aside that can take the couple out of a damaging conflict cycle (Sells, Beckenbach, & Patrick, 2009). Twohey and James (2001) referred to this self-perpetuating conflict as a “gender-related impasse” and similarly described by Levant (1986) as a “crisis in connection.” A sense of despair and hopelessness is a common characteristic created because the couple comes to think in terms of a narrative such as “no matter what we do, it will get worse.”

Sells, Beckenbach, and Patrick (2009) have proposed the use of a clinical intervention that seeks to ameliorate the self-perpetuating conflict cycle.  Central to their model is the construct of grace.  Grace has varied definitions drawing from religious to secular literature, and its presence in mental health has been limited. Ortberg (1982) was one of the first to draw the religious idea of grace into the mental health dialogue.  He wrote of the human quality of loving others in spite of their faults. “This idea is talked about in therapy as unconditional acceptance, and in theology as unmerited grace …” (p. 45). Similar concepts, such as gratitude, have been discussed in the literature, and this type of process may contribute to emotional well-being and improvements in resiliency (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; McCullough, Emmons & Tsang, 2002).

Grace as a mental health construct is virtually non-existent in the professional mental health literature.  Rogers and Soyka (2004) wrote transparently about their “grace experiences” working with victims and rescue workers immediately following the September 11 crisis. 

Writing about grace at ground zero does not fit comfortably with our scientist-practitioner training.  In searching for words to describe our experiences, however, we tried out a number of alternatives to ‘grace’ including luck, chance, coincidence, and serendipity.  None of these alternatives quite captures our experiences and our sense that certain events may best be conceptualized as unsolicited ‘gifts’ that facilitated our work at the WTC site. (p. 27)

They attempted to find language for an experience that was clearly profound and significant, but outside of traditional psychological literature. I found the implications of this statement to be magnificent.  In essence they realized that they had no language to describe their observation. The Unsolicited Gift—the central theme to our understanding of how God works was not found in the psychological lexicon. Therefore they needed to borrow the term for the Christian faith to describe the phenomenon.

Within the Christian/Psychology integration literature, grace has a more salient presence. McMinn (2004) referred to its use in historical Christian writings: “The word grace is slippery.  It means many different things in different contexts.  In the thirteenth-century Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas described three meanings: being held in someone’s favor, a gift that is freely given or a response to a gift freely given” (p. 53).  In a clinical context, grace may also be viewed as similar to the Rogerian approach of unconditional acceptance, however there is a variance between the Rogerian view of acceptance with no disapproval of any action, which is assumed to result in growth, and the biblical view that grace comes in the context of humanity’s separation from God and included the individual’s need to accept God’s offer of acceptance (Ortberg, 1982).

Theoretically, grace becomes a means to break the pain-defense cycle that traps couples in a pattern of conflict (Sells, Beckenbach, & Patrick, 2009). The gracious response to a partner exhibiting pain avails an alternative to the natural progression toward defensiveness.  To quote “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Grace is intended to provide a relational solace that redirects the individuals from protective and defensive responses to pain.  A couple experiencing overly-familiar patterns of pain and defense may also have little experience with grace in their relationship, and/or may have become conditioned to ignore the moments when grace has been offered.  Couples with established patterns of conflict, boundary violation, and interpersonal disregard are more likely to have intentional acts of goodness remain unnoticed because they are not anticipated and because they are overshadowed by more frequent acts of self-protection or self-promotion.  In highly conflicted relationships, acts of grace are rare, and often are fleeting.  Having had acts of grace spurned in the past, a couple experiencing conflict may withhold grace for fear of incurring further pain. One partner’s action may warrant the protection that comes from retaliation, and the offering of grace would appear to create greater vulnerability. However, the application of a self-defensive act serves to invite additional self-defensive responses by the partner, thus creating a perpetual conflict cycle or a relational impasse. (Sells, Beckenbach & Patrick, 2009)

Efforts to operationalize grace as a personal disposition and as a relational construct have been previously considered in the psychology literature.  McMinn (2004) explored the presence of the grace construct in his clinical work writing, “…I am convinced that good therapy works because it is the place that emulates grace.  It is the place of acceptance and mercy, a place where sin and the consequences of sin can be openly explored without fear of judgment” (p.49). Kennedy (2007) sought to define grace as a psychological construct by conducting a qualitative investigation of the experience of individuals who have encountered the social construct of “disgrace” and have subsequently experienced the transformational influence of grace, defined as unmerited favor.  Kennedy (2007) found that grace experienced in community was similar to Buber’s (1958) construct of I-Thou. Subjects reported increases in the affective responses of hope, forgiveness, acceptance, affirmation, gratitude, and encouragement.

Spradlin (2001) developed an unpublished scale to measure grace as a contrast to shame.  She found that grace was negatively correlated with shame and positively correlated with spiritual well-being. While her findings supported her hypothesis, the nature of the relationship caused her to conclude that grace was likely a multidimensional construct that serves, in part, to off-set the painful effects of shame.

These prior studies offered some support for refining the grace construct, and also lent some insight into the difficulties in attempting to measure grace.  Sells, Beckenbach, and Patrick (2009) considered grace an essential construct in the process of conflict resolution and relational reconciliation.  However, they found that no suitable tool was available to measure characteristics of relational grace.  Therefore,         we sought to establish a reliable measure for relational grace with grace being operationally defined as the receiving of an unmerited gift experienced as an act of kindness toward others.  Grace was contrasted with the antithetical idea of competing against others for self-interest and self-service.   

Sells, Beckenbach & Patrick (2009) presented a model of marital conflict and a grace-centered intervention.  The model suggests that relational conflict and reconciliation can be understood as two behavioral alternatives that couples respond with during the experience of pain or other negative emotion. The presence of pain elicits a defensive reaction that encourages the perpetuation of the conflict process or a demonstration of grace and justice that can permit relationships to be a healing agent.

All couples fight. It is a characteristic of typical relationships (Wile, 1993).  We want to emphasize that our conception for this model is not dualistic—such as “bad couples” seek the conflict cycle and “good couples” pursue the restoration cycle. Rather, we believe that individuals in all relationships make decisions for how they will respond to pain. They will act defensively at times as they perceive relationships and environments calling for the need for protection, and they will act restoratively when it is believed that such actions will bring peace and safety.  The use of this model of complimentary cycles of conflict and restoration is to help couples identify their progressive steps in the relational dance, and for them to understand the processes that might be occurring beyond their initial recognition.  By allowing couples to demystify the process of creating “US,” couples can intentionally create their relationship foundation. This foundation can be used as a call to Grace, as Grace will aid couples in remembering the importance of “US” as developed by Hargrave (2001) as primary over the need for defense. Finally, the model is used within therapy to teach couples how they might utilize the restoration cycle, i.e., Justice, Empathy, Trust, and Forgiveness,  with greater frequency, and to become slower and more deliberate in utilizing their defenses to protect themselves from injury.


Grace is growing … It grows as an innovative area of research within Positive Psychology. Bufford, Sisemore, and Blackburn, (2017) see it as receiving or offering unmerited favor. Interventions to promote grace have been found to produce grace and self-forgiveness in church communities (Bufford, McMinn, Moody & Geczy-Haskins, 2018).

We grow it in the way we teach couples, parents. We are seeing it as a gateway construct from conflict resolution towards virtues (Beckenbach, Patrick, & Sells, 2010; Patrick, Beckenbach, Sells, & Reardon, 2013).  These studies suggest possible additional virtue interventions in a number of different contexts. Our first venture as a Charis Institute project (technically, a “pre-Charis Institute project—but it help to launch us) was to examine grace as a transition variable from conflict pain to the relational virtues, see Ripley et al (in press). We conducted the research with pastors and couples in Beijing, China with the support of the Templeton Foundation.  While there is much more to think and imagine regarding what makes for good marriage.  We think that grace will have a part.


Grenz, S. J. (2001). The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Image of God. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Barth, K. (1956-1975). Church Dogmatics. Ed. By G. W. Bromiley & T. F. Torrance, et al, Vol. I-IV, Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Hargrave, T.D. (2000). The Essential Humility of Marriage. Phoenix, AZ: Xeig, Tucker, & Theisen.

McGrath, A. (2001), Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. Blackwell.

Patrick, S., Beckenbach, J., Sells, J., & Reardon, R. F. (2013). An empirical investigation into justice, grace, and forgiveness: Paths to relationship satisfaction. The Family Journal, 21(2), 146-153.

Price, D. J. (2002). Karl Barth’s Anthropology in Light of Modern Thought.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Ripley, J. S, Sells, J. N., Miller, V., Wang, Q., Wen, L., Pui Ting, C. & Worthington, E. L. Jr.,  (in press)  Promoting healthy marriages in Chinese church communities: Survey of Chinese couples’ marriages, virtue-based training for leaders, and outcomes.  The Family Journal.

Sells, J. N., Beckenbach, J. & Patrick, S. (2009). Pain and Defense vs. Grace and Justice: The Relational Conflict and Restoration Model. The Family Journal, 17.  203-212.

Torrance, J. B. (1989) The Doctrine of the Trinity in our Contemporary Situation. In the Forgotten Trinity, ed. By Alasdair I. C. Heron Nondon: BCC/CCBI Interchurch House.

Wile, D. B. (1993). After the fight: A night in the life of a couple. New York: Guilford Press.