I ended my first post to young leaders by emphasizing that Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being holistically honest in dealing with human problems. We know that God has made us physical, social, psychological and spiritual beings. We also recognize important connections between three dimensions of personhood: emotion, intellect and volition (will).
In counseling others, we don’t have to discount any part or dimension of humanity and this protects us from simplistic reductions of behavior to one-dimensional sources and solutions.
We also know (from Scripture and pervasive empirical evidence) that the most corrupting and alienating force in the world (sin) has affected each dimension of life. As a result, we know that any one of these dimensions can profoundly affect the others and that each one should be considered in resolving the problems of life in a fallen world. The Christian counselor should use the widest lens for understanding human behavior.
Yet my concern in this series of posts is a tendency among young Christian leaders (and some approaches to Christian counseling) to reduce life to the spiritual dimension by applying overly simplistic spiritual formulas to more complicated, multi-dimensional issues.
My personal journey
Most of my early training in counseling fit a model sometimes called behaviorism. This theory tends to reduce people’s problems to behavioral choices. On this view, life is about the human will. People must make better choices. They must choose to obey God. When faced with decisions about right and wrong, they simply must do what is right and best.
My Type A personality fit well with this model. No excuses! No blame games! Get with it and do the right thing! This also seemed to be the only way to sincerely take God at His word. “Why” I asked, “would God command certain things if it wasn’t possible for some people to do them?” It’s all quite simple and straight-forward! Right?
Not exactly. Through many years of experience, both as a pastor and as a parent (faced with special challenges), I’ve learned that life isn’t always easily reduced to simple formulas. In fact, ironically (as I will later develop), my superficial understanding of the Bible supported my simplistic notions about life were behind my misdirected thinking.
Allow me to use five counseling cases as examples of this approach. Each case represents issues I’ve repeatedly counseled. I’ll present each problem as described by a counselee and then present the kind of pastoral responses that illustrate the potential dangers of overly simplistic reduction of life issues.
At first glance (for many readers), the pastoral responses might sound appropriate — even faithful to Scripture. But, as I will demonstrate later, the responses (although using applicable Scriptures), risk oversimplification of life by dealing with people as if they were one dimensional.
Please be patient as I develop my concerns. In presenting each counseling case, I am not trying to take away the appropriate use and application of the Bible to life. Instead, I am advocating a more thorough and accurate application of Scripture based on the multidimensional way God created us.
Let’s look at each scenario:
1. The anxious counselee – “Lately I can’t find a way to control my anxiety. Unexpected waves of anxiety come over me for what seems like no reason at all! Sometimes it is so debilitating that I can’t even do the normal things of the day. Fear and worry seem to control my life.”
Pastoral response: “The fact is that you’re feeling the way you do because you’re choosing to feel that way. The solution is to choose to feel differently by obeying God when he says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). If you want to experience His peace, you must follow this formula. Obey God! You must stop trying to be in control of your life. This is a matter of Lordship. Who will be in charge — you or the Lord?”
What does the old hymn say? “O what peace we often forfeit all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!” Have you been praying faithfully about this? Make sure you’re really trusting God to do what He says because Scripture says, “when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-7). Remember the command and promise in I Peter 5:7, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” Are you really doing that and trusting Him?
2. The depressed counselee – “I am not sure why I feel so discouraged. I feel like a dark cloud just follows me wherever I go.” Sometimes I find it hard to even do the basic things of life because I feel too depressed.”
Pastoral response: “You’re feeling the way you do because you’re choosing to feel that way and the solution is to choose to feel differently by obeying God when he says, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). God even tells us to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” (James 1:2).
Counselee: “The thing is, pastor, I know all of those verses and I try really hard to apply them, but the dark cloud won’t go away. Then I just add guilt to my depression for not obeying Scripture. I don’t know what to do.”
Pastoral response: “Are you sure you’re not just using your ‘dark cloud’ as an excuse? Surely God didn’t mean, “Count it all joy unless you have a dark cloud that won’t go away!” You need to search your heart about your motives. You know, ‘the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’ (Hebrews 4:12).”
3. The confused counselee – “Our son just won’t obey us. We discipline him diligently and he just returns to the same behavior. It’s driving us crazy and discouraging him. Someone recommended that he might have ADHD or something. He does seem to have way too much energy. We don’t know what to do.”
Pastoral response: “Remember that Scripture says, ‘Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him’ (Proverbs 22:15). Our sin nature shows itself in rebellion. You have to deal firmly with rebellion. And watch out for people who blame sin on things like ADHD. We should probably change ADD to BAD. Let’s put responsibility where it belongs. The blame it on the brain psychobabble of the world contradicts the Word of God. Parenting is hard work. You have to keep with it and trust God for the results. You didn’t think it was supposed to be easy did you?”
4. The angry counselee – “Pastor, my husband has a severe anger problem. He can go a week or two without blowing up but then he explodes and sometimes it scares me.” “She’s telling the truth” the husband admits. “Sometimes,” he says, “I am blindsided by my own anger. I want to control it but is seems to take over my life and control me.”
Pastoral response: “Well the first step to overcoming sin is admitting you have it in your life. The Bible clearly teaches that, ‘human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires’ (James 1:20). In fact, it says, ‘In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold’ (Ephesians 4:26-27). By letting anger control your life, you’re giving the devil and opportunity to ruin your relationships. You have a choice to make here. Will you listen to your anger or listen to God?”
Counselee: “You’re right, pastor, I know that I just have to tray harder. But to be honest, sometimes, I think there’s something wrong with me at some deeper level. I feel like I can’t get control of my life. I just need to see it as sin and try harder.”
Pastor: “Yes, you do need to name your anger as sin. The Bible says, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’ (I John 1:9). It doesn’t say, ‘If we make excuses…’ does it? But it’s not all about you being in control. You must admit that you don’t have the strength and ask God for the strength. The Bible says to ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding’ (Proverbs 3:5). You can’t please God in the strength of your flesh. Only the Holy Spirit can give you the strength you need. When you begin to feel angry pray for strength at that momentto overcome it. God will help you. I’ll pray for you too.”
5. The betrayed counselee – “Pastor, when my wife and I met, neither one of us were walking with God. Our relationship was very physical when we were dating. In fact, my wife was very aggressive in this area. But that didn’t last long into marriage. In fact, she seems to have no interest in sex. I almost feel betrayed. It feels like she used sex to get me to marry her, but now that we’re married, she isn’t interested in sex. I’ve told her how I feel but she doesn’t say much. It’s almost like there’s some deeper issue going on in her life.”
“I admit,” the wife responded, “I thought sex was how you got men to be interested in you. But that whole area of life is messed up for me. I really don’t like to talk about it.”
Pastoral response: “When you get married, you have a responsibility to meet each other’s physical needs for affection and fulfillment of sexual desires. Men and women approach sex differently but that can’t be used as an excuse for not meeting each other’s needs. The Bible is very clear about this and attaches a strong warning for those who fail, ‘The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control’ (I Corinthians 7:3-5).”
“Do you want to give Satan an opportunity to tempt your husband? You need to see this as a matter of obedience to God. If your husband is not putting unreasonable demands on you, you need to think about his needs in this area. Scripture says, ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others’ (Philippians 2:3-4). Your husband is responsible to love you as Christ loved the Church and you must see to it that you respect your husband. By withholding sex from him, you are disrespecting him and failing to meet your marital obligations according to God’s word.”
On the surface, the pastoral responses might appear to be appropriate. Certainly all of the Scriptures have some application to the issues. But, in my next post, I will explain why the pastoral responses are potentially superficial, inadequate and possibly even harmful.