Metaphors in Christian Counseling: Helping Clients Succeed
Counseling work is accomplished through conversations, so much so that many people refer to it as “Talk Therapy.” As clients talk, you may notice that they use similes, metaphors, and analogies when they are trying to convey their perceptions about their situation and make sense of reality. Perhaps you may have heard your clients say, “My life is a roller-coaster,” “Our marriage is a dead-end street,” and “We fight like cats and dogs.” Thus, paying attention to the figures of speech your clients use is essential to understand what is happening in their world. For the purpose of this article, we will use the words metaphors, similes, and analogies interchangeably.
In your work as a counselor, you may have used metaphors unintentionally or intentionally. In general, counselors use metaphors to help clients understand mental health concepts, to process their issues and problems, and to bring about therapeutic change. Thus, metaphors can help clients “find familiar patterns and build bridges between what is new and what is unknown by absorbing new ideas into already familiar concepts” (Killick, Curry, & Myles, 2016, p. 2).
Client-Generated and Counselors-Generated Metaphors
From a counseling perspective, metaphors can be generated either by the client or by the counselor.
Client-Generated metaphors “provide a lens into the internal world of clients that combines their emotional reactions and experiences in an understandable manner and creates a bridge so clients’ internal worlds can be shared with the counselor” (Wagener, 2017, p. 153). Clients may describe their problems by using metaphors such as “I’m hitting my head against a wall,” “I’ve been crying like a baby lately,” or “I’m trapped.” Thus, a metaphor is a window that allows us to see into the client’s world (notice the metaphor used intentionally here).
Counselor-Generated metaphors “provide a tool to further guide and support clients in the pursuit of their goals” (Wagener, 2017, p. 153). Many approaches including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) use metaphors to help clients experience therapeutic changes (Stoddard & Afari, 2014; Killick, Curry, & Myles, 2016). Furthermore, counselors can introduce metaphors to explain complex psychological concepts, to help clients gain insight into their situation, or to facilitate change.
Biblical Metaphors and Analogies
Biblical metaphors and analogies can be easily integrated when counseling Christian clients. First, Christian counselors and Christian clients often share a common Christian worldview. Second, Christian clients are usually open and receptive to Scriptures and biblical concepts. Third, Christian clients may be familiar with biblical metaphors and their meaning. Additionally, Christian clients may already use biblical metaphors as part of their regular conversation.
As you probably know, the Bible is rich in metaphors. For example, the New Testament describes the church as the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, and the Family of God. Jesus also used multiple metaphors and analogies in the gospels, including “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6 NKJV). Here are a few more biblical examples of metaphors:
- “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer” (Psalm 18: 2 NIV)
- “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105 NIV)
- “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13 NKJV)
- “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14 NIV)
- “Be born again” (John 3:3 NKJV)
An example of using metaphors in Christian counseling is helping a client strengthen his or her self-concept or self-image. For instance, you may guide your client to reflect on the following biblical metaphors: I am a child of God (1 John 3:1); I am a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17); I am God’s masterpiece (Eph. 2:10); and I am more than a conqueror (Rom. 8:37). These biblical truths in the form of metaphors can help your client gain confidence and strengthen his or her self-concept or self-image.
Universal and Culture-Specific Metaphors
Metaphors can have universal themes that may appeal to clients of all cultures (Ladd, 2016). For example, wounds, scars, a journey, storms, and seasons are metaphors that can be easily used with people from various backgrounds. However, counselors must be mindful that metaphors may also be culturally-bound. Therefore, using culture-specific metaphors in a multicultural counseling setting takes skills and knowledge about a client’s culture.
Exploring a Metaphor in the Counseling Process
Here is a brief example of using a client-generated metaphor. A client may use the metaphor of “I am in a hole” to describe his feelings of depression. Therefore, the counselor may ask open-ended questions to gain a greater understanding of the client’s conceptualization of his situation and to aid in the assessment and interventions.
What is it like to be in the hole? Client: It’s dark, lonely, scary.
How long have you been in the hole? Client: For about 6 months.
How do you think you ended up in the hole? Client: Hmm, I’m not sure, I think everything started when I lost my job back in January . . .
How do you feel in the hole? Client: I feel trapped, alone, forgotten, miserable.
What have you tried to do to get out of the hole? Client: Well, sometimes I drink to forget that I’m in a hole, hmm . . . I got into a relationship . . .
How did these attempts help you? Client: It seems like things are getting worse . . . the hole is deeper . . .
What would your next option or attempt be? Client: Well, I’m here . . .
The counselor can use the client-generated metaphor throughout the counseling process to monitor the client’s progress or setbacks. The metaphor may evolve in a positive way, which would show progress. For example, the client might say, “I feel that I finally climbing out of the hole” or “the hole doesn’t feel as deep or as dark as before.”
Metaphors can be helpful for clients whose struggles are due to traumatic experiences. Using metaphors to talk about trauma can be less anxiety provoking. That is because metaphors allow clients to look at their situation from a different angle. They help clients feel less anxious since they are mostly focusing on the metaphor and not on the traumatic event itself. In a sense it shields them from reliving the trauma (Wirtztum, Van der Hart, & Friedman, 1988).
Metaphors is one of the many tools in a Christian counselor’s toolbox that when used intentionally and skillfully can produce significant results. So, we hope this concise introduction to the use of metaphors in Christian counseling has been helpful to you and has triggered your desire to explore the use of metaphors in your counseling work.
Elias Moitinho, PhD, LPC-S, LPC, LMFT, Professor of Counseling, Department Chair in the Department of Counselor Education, in the School of Behavioral Sciences, at Liberty University. Dr. Moitinho has many years of work experience in various roles including pastor, counselor, seminary professor, and director of a Christian counseling center. Prior to joining Liberty University, he was the Hope for the Heart Chair of Biblical Counseling at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Dr. Moitinho has taught as guest professor in seminaries in Mexico, Cuba, and Spain.
Denise Moitinho, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Care & Counseling, in the School of Behavioral Sciences, at Liberty University. Dr. Moitinho also has an MA in Human Services. She is currently working on a second doctorate degree. She has over 9 years of experience as an adjunct professor teaching both residential and online courses at Liberty University prior to becoming an Assistant professor. She has taught in the field of human services and pastoral ministry. Previously, she worked on a church staff and managed children’s programs, supervised, and trained teachers.
They are the authors of the book The Dream Home: How to Create an Intimate Christian Marriage.
Killick, S., Curry, V. & Myles, P. (2016). The mighty metaphor: a collection of therapists’
favourite metaphors and analogies. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist 9(37), 1-13.
Ladd, P. D.(2016). A scar is not a wound: A metaphor for counseling. Retrieved from
Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The Big Book of ACT Metaphors: A Practitioner’s Guide to
Experiential Exercises and Metaphors in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Wagener, A. E. (2017). Metaphor in professional counseling. The Professional Counselor
7(2): 144–154. doi:10.15241/aew.7.2.144
Witzum, E., Van der Hart, O., & Friedman, B. (1988). The Use of Metaphors in Psychotherapy.
Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy.
Young J. S. & Borders, L. D. (1999). The intentional use of metaphor in counseling supervision.
The Clinical Supervisor 18(1), 137-149.