What is the nature of Biblical change and how do we help those we counsel gain insight?
As Christians who counsel, we need to understand the distinction between Biblical change and insight. Christians who seek counseling will have some degree of insight into their lives, enough to know that something is amiss, either in their interactions with others or how they react to daily life. They might not know what is going wrong or why it’s going wrong, but they know something is not right.
Aside from those who seek counseling for overt abuse by others (sexual abuse or domestic violence), the majority of Christians who seek counseling typically assume they need to either change their circumstances or change the situation they believe is contributing to what is amiss in their lives. They are unable to readily see their own contribution to their presenting problems so it’s easy to assume it’s the circumstance or situation they are in that is making them feel as though something is wrong.
Counselors will often feel uncertain with how to address circumstantial factors, especially if those circumstances are not easy to change. Counselors will then specifically hone in on helping change the behavior of those they counsel or they will affirm them in ways that do not encourage insight to develop. It is important to understand the circumstances that have contributed to presenting problems but it is equally important to know one’s circumstance is not the sole source of culpability. Helping another implement behavioral changes in a person’s life is helpful but it often doesn’t change their inward orientation, meaning behavioral changes are often short lived and act as band-aids in a person’s life.
So how do we reconcile their desire to change their circumstances, helping them see that their own behavior might need to change but also how to help them gain insight of their inward orientation for further lasting Biblical change.
Counselors need to learn how to think thematically about why people behave a certain way, what they believe about their behavior and how a person interprets the behavior of others in relation to their presenting problems. Presenting problems often point to themes in a person’s life. For example, if a person struggles with a certain personality characteristic like anger, impatience, insecurity, fear, etc., that characteristic will often show up in many areas of their lives. These themes are evident in all humanity and often result as “problems”.
Scripture points to Biblical themes. Biblical themes reveal the heart/mind connection, meaning how feelings and emotions (heart) are informed and tied to what one thinks or believes (mind), and vise versa. Biblical themes are also evident in all of humanity, saved or not. Just because a person is not a professing believer doesn’t mean a Biblical theme is not evident in their lives. Understanding Biblical themes will help counselors interpret difficult circumstances, which can help understand presenting problems.
Some examples of Biblical themes are:
*Pride – evident in both men and women, both rich and poor, educated and non-educated,
healthy and mentally well and those who are physically ill or mentally unwell / pride manifests universally, regardless of culture, ethnicity, skin color or gender, and takes many forms
*Fear of Man – evident in narcissistic personality disorders, as well as co-dependency or other deficits in personality
*Mammon – the desire to obtain wealth / falls under a false object of worship/devotion tied to gaining resources; affects those who lack wealth as well as those who have various degrees of wealth as defined by a person’s immediate culture
*Desires of the flesh – promiscuity, adultery, lust, porn, homosexuality, immorality; can include lack of desire for sexual intimacy in marriage if there is a history of sexual abuse or violence
*Idolatry – good things can become idols, like family, spouse, children, politics, job position or titles, ideas
When we understand a person’s circumstances, contributing behavior (theirs and how they interpret the behavior of others), presenting problem and Biblical theme, we can understand the full story of why someone shows up in counseling.
However, it is also important to realize that those we counsel will often only share with us one side of every scenario, event, or situation, theirs. Their perspective tends to view themselves as the suffering-hero-protagonist of their own history. Their perspective doesn’t often include “responsible party”, not in the sense that they are responsible for being sinned against, but responsible for how they respond to suffering or being sinned against. We have to be able to see those we counsel as both sufferers and responsible parties. One of the aspects of being made in God’s image is having the characteristic of agency directed by conscious that is either motivated by God’s Word and Holy Spirit or not. If they claim to belong to the body of Christ, being sinned against or having to endure suffering or trials of various kinds doesn’t exempt them from being responsible for their actions, responses, and behavior (James 1)
Those we counsel, as well as ourselves, are all products of environment, past relationships, past hurts, past suffering, but we are not fixed to any of those past circumstances that contribute to presenting problems. For those in Christ, Scripture is clear that past circumstances are not deterministic to present or future outcomes.
Romans 6:1-7 tells us
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.
Being a Christian who counsels, we have to believe Scripture as truth, not just as a good idea or a hopeful possibility. Secular counseling methodology has created all kinds of organized systems (the DSM, personality disorders, personality analysis tests, social theories, etc) to explain or rationalize behavior by making people chronic victims of circumstances, social theories, diagnostic labels or personality explanations. These are examples of determinism that make no room for personal change or further insight. These explanatory systems will often dictate behavior or assume behavior that is fixed according to someone’s past exposure to sin and suffering. These systems will strip away the God image bearing characteristic of agency and consciousness and deny Romans 6 or make it irrelevant.
Being sinned against by parents, peers, strangers, or those in the community, having poor models of behavior, having unmet needs, biological deficits, hormone imbalances due to chronic stress or pregnancy, or any number of mental health circumstantial deficiencies can help explain behavior but they don’t determine an imposed fixed response or reality to those circumstances. If that were true, Jesus entering humanity would not have been necessary and humanity would have been hopeless. At one point, it was, as revealed in the account of Noah and the purpose of the flood. After the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ there is hope for those who profess to be in Christ. Through him, there is repentance, redemption, salvation, justification and sanctification, giving newness of life. When there is newness of life, there is renewing of the mind (Romans 12:2), which leads to new ways of thinking, behaving, speaking, interacting, forgiving and living.
Asking those we counsel “what happened to you” helps us understand their circumstances. Expecting them to change by parking there is unhelpful and does not lead them to further insight, much less Biblical change. Change is impossible when they rationalize their behavior because of what happened to them. When they only see themselves as a victim to circumstances (personal, familial or in community) or they believe how they are coping with their problems is solely the result of somebody or something else, they are exhibiting the omnipresent rationalizing human tendency to blame shift or use being sinned-against as a scapegoat to respond unbiblically. For those who profess faith in Christ, letting others indefinitely sit in how they were sinned against strips them of a God-orientated Romans 6 kind of change, along with the many instances where Scripture tells us we are new in Christ.
Asking those we counsel to consider what they are doing with what happened to them leads them to gain insight. Acknowledging their suffering due to another sinning against them is helpful, wise and important but we must also help them see personal responsibility (what are they doing-thinking-believing and how they are behaving as a response to suffering) as an aspect of Biblical change, which is the crux of evidence of the Gospel.
Christ’s Gospel reminds us that we are all sufferers whom Christ redeems from sin, not just our own personal sin but the sin committed against us by another that often causes suffering. Biblical doctrine and the Gospel will continually point us all to Christ, who forgave (past) and forgives (present) sin, while making us all responsible for how we will respond in the future to the sin others commit against us, as well as our own.