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Biblical Counseling Case Study: When a Parent Fails

November 8, 2012

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The question asked by the two girls is a difficult one to answer with adults, let alone with children. After listening to each girl express her thoughts and questions, I asked them a question: “What would you want to say to your father?” One of the girls said she wanted to know why her father was acting contrary to what he had taught them in the past. She used the word “liar” a lot. The other girl, a precocious child who knew the Bible well, replied that she was pretty sure that Leviticus had something to say about how husbands are to stay with their wives. Inwardly, I was both surprised by her response and impressed with her biblical knowledge.

In my interactions with the girls that day and in the previous sessions, it was clear that they love God and their parents but that they also feel overwhelmed by the changes in their parents’ marriage. The girls are confused by their father’s actions but they love him. It hurts them that daddy claims not to love mommy anymore. They are struggling with “big” adult questions (1). The girls feel confused because their father has become a very different person from the person in their earlier memories. He used to tell the children that a husband is to love his wife.

Throughout their earlier childhood, their father would lead family devotions and teach them Scripture verses. He was their protector and provider, but now he has deserted the family. He still quotes Scripture but uses texts to justify his sinful decisions. He still desires to be their father but not in the same home with their mother; in fact, he is seeking full custody of his children. People who know this father are shocked by what has happened but it is a reminder that all of us are prone to wander. This man’s wayward life could happen to anyone. It is by God’s grace that believers are in Christ (Eph 2:8, 1 Cor 15:10). People could try to make sense of the situation, learning what happened in this man’s life, discovering what went wrong, but, in the end, sin never makes sense because it contradicts the very essence of God’s purpose for man—be holy for God is holy (1 Pet 1:16).

Contrary to what the girls may feel, God has not turned his back on these children (Deut 31:6, 1 Sam 12:22). He has allowed this situation to occur for a purpose that may never be known but is grounded in his love for them (Rom 8:28-29).

God Never Fails Us

One priority in the counseling process is to protect the children from preventable pain and to prepare them for coming changes (2). Another priority is to build them up spiritually by sharing biblical truths that will ground their faith. Their “why” questions cannot be separated from the One who knows why. They need biblical truth for knowledge and wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. The fear of the Lord also protects believers from unwise decisions (Prov 1:33; 14:26). Counseling is not only concerned with immedi- ate needs but also long-term needs.

The fear of the Lord involves trusting God because of who he is and his promises (Ps 91:2, Is 26:4). Believers can trust God because he never fails people. Trusting God means accepting what has happened and responding to situations in a manner pleasing to him (1 Thess 2:4). The girls wanted an answer for their why question but they had to learn the more important lesson in trusting God even when the “why” does not make sense. They also needed to know that daddy may never return home but things will be okay. At an early age, they are learning that not all problems in life can be fixed nor preventable. The girls might be tempted to have “if only” thoughts. If only I had been more obedient. If only I was better. Such thoughts place the source of control in their knowledge, skills, and abilities, leading them to believe that they are in control when God is the only sovereign one. By learning what it means to trust God, the girls gain valuable wisdom for the rest of their lives and learn the implications of the gospel.

Parents and leaders can use difficult situations to teach powerful truths about the gospel.

1. The gospel points to our need for a Savior (1 Thess 5:9). Without faith in Christ, we are sinners lost in our destructive ways. In this case, both of the two girls seem to understand the gospel and believe in Christ as their Savior. Either way, parents and leaders should help children understand the implications of the gospel and the need to share the good news with others. For these girls, they can learn to pray for their father’s repentance and salvation. Despite the father’s sins, he is still a person created in the image of God, a person who is spiritually lost and needs the gospel (3). The mother has also asked friends and church leaders to reach out to him.

2. The gospel means loving God and our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matt 22:36-40). When talking about the father, the children learn biblical love by how their mother and others speak of him and treat him. Though the father is acting contrary to God’s Word in word and deed, it is not only counterproductive but sinful to tear him down (Eph. 4:29). The girls will either learn that gossip is never acceptable or acceptable under certain circumstances. Leading by example is powerful, especially with children who do not possess the knowledge and life experience as adults.

3. The gospel involves a heart change (Ez 36:26). The father may be able to quote many Scripture passages but his heart has not been affected. It is fitting that one of the girls mentioned Leviticus because it points to God’s impossible standard of holiness and man’s inadequacy to perfectly fulfill them. Only Christ can deliver man from sin (Ps 39:8, Gal 1:4); only Christ can save this father from continuing his path of destruction.

4. The gospel means trusting God or placing faith in him. Believers trust God not only at the beginning of salvation (Rom 4:5) but throughout their salvation (sanctification) until glorification (Ps 37:5, Isa 12:2). The girls are taught to trust God as their father in heaven who loves them and knows what is best for them (Matt 7:11). While their earthly father has failed them, their heavenly father will never fail them (Ps 118:8). Trusting God involves knowing his character.

The next section briefly shows how God’s character was incorporated in one counseling session. It is relevant for different kinds of teaching opportunities with children and not just counseling sessions. It is only one practical idea and not the only way to teach God’s character.

YAHWEH-SHAMMAH, THE LORD IS THEIR God never changes (Mal 3:6) but circumstances do. Focusing on God’s character gives hope, which strengthens believers during trials. For this part of the counseling session, I used Sally Michael’s God’s Names (4). It’s a very thin book for parents “to present solid truth to their children and to encourage real-life application of the truth” (10) (5). The book’s structure reveals Sally Michael’s decades of experience in teaching children the Bible.

Each of the twenty-six chapters includes a short story followed by questions for comprehension and suggestions for application; seventeen of the chapters focus on the different names of God. Appropriately, the last few stories focus on Christ and his kingship. This book is highly recommended for its theological and understandable content. Children not only learn God’s names but also the gospel message throughout the book.

In one counseling session, I chose to talk about the meaning of Yahweh-Shammah—the LORD who is there. What a comforting and strengthening promise. God never breaks his promises and cannot lie, so believers can confidently cling to this truth. No, this promise alone does not solve the girls’ struggles, but it does teach them a valuable truth when experiencing fear or uncertainty of the future. Even though daddy is no longer at home, God is with them. When the girls are visiting their father and have a conflict with him, God is with them. Their mother can’t always be with them but God is with them. They are never alone.

At the end, the children could personalize this lesson in several ways. They could create a poster with Yahweh-Shammah written on it along with a picture that symbolizes this truth. They could also keep a jour- nal of their thoughts and reflect on how God is with them. Memorizing a Scripture verse, such as Joshua 1:9, is another suggestion. They were also encouraged to continue sharing their thoughts with their mother so that she would be aware of them and know how to best help them.

As parents reinforce these principles, children learn biblical wisdom, understand the gospel, and experi- ence the fruit of obedience. Much of the focus in this case study has been on the children but the principles apply to adults as well. Children are watching their parents, so they need examples of fathers and mothers who trust God.

Whenever I leave the girls’ home, I wonder if I had listened enough, taught enough, and done enough. There’s always a sense of wanting to do more but I am reminded that God cares for them more than I do and that he is Yahweh-Shammah—the LORD is there.

Endnotes

(1) In this case, the parents are in a custody battle, await- ing its finalization. The children were not adjusting well to the changes so the mother asked if I would meet with them as well. The mother participated in the counseling sessions to clarify points and to ensure consistency between the children’s words and what had actually happened.

(2) In addition to counseling, the mother made other provisions to protect the children. She had an attorney for legal counsel as well as other godly people for counsel. She tries to protect them from harmful sights and discussions. When the father picks up the children, the mother meets him in a public place to avoid arguing in front of the children. When the children return home, they talk to their mother of any problems that occurred during the weekend.

(3) The father claims to be a Christian but his responses indicate that he may not be a Christian, so he is treated as an unbeliever (Matt 18:17).

(4) This case study focuses on how one book was used in a counseling session. It does not include a full descrip- tion of the counseling session, so parents or leaders should not rely solely on this book but can modify it to suit their situation.

(5) Sally Michael, God’s Names (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011).

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NOTE: This article originally appeared in The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 2.2 and on SBTS.edu.