In the wise providence of God, I was recently challenged to think through and articulate more clearly a biblical response to secular therapeutic ideas. The original catalyst for this was a Theology and Practice training class that I taught this past October at University Reformed Church.
At one point during the class we discussed psychodynamic theory and how a biblical counseling model contrasts with what psychodynamic theorists describe. I summarized by saying that the core problem in our hearts is not repressing consciousness of childhood conflicts with parents and others but rather suppressing consciousness of our conflict with God (Romans 1: 18-32). At this point a woman in the class shared some thoughts about how her adopted daughter has struggled severely with an obsession with food and how she as a mother has used secular therapeutic ideas to help her.
She said that while she agreed with everything I had just taught about heart issues related to God, she had found secular ideas (e.g. explaining to her daughter that she had not been fed regularly before she was adopted and that her parents would now always feed and care for her) more helpful than spiritual ones (e.g. talking to her about Jesus and praying). The obvious challenge for me was to respond sensitively to this woman (who is wise and godly) while still upholding a biblical model and practice. This led to a rich discussion with the class which helped me to talk about the comprehensiveness and nuances of the biblical model in response to secular ideas. Several questions capture our discussion and my reflections.
Question # 1
- How do we as biblical counselors process and explain how sometimes secular therapies seem to work without being defensive or dismissive?
This question raises issues of pragmatism and what it means to take all thoughts, including secular therapeutic thoughts, captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10: 5). It is true that sometimes secular therapies bring relief and a kind of help to people. Lots of things “work” for people: changing your self-talk, experiencing acceptance by a therapist or therapy group, exercising to raise your endorphins, learning different communication styles, EMDR, self-assertiveness training, helping an adopted daughter understand her past and present, etc.
Some of these are better than others, but none of them can fully deliver the goods. They don’t diagnose and cure deeply enough. The question is not ultimately, “Does this work?” but “Is this model or method fully biblical, Christ-honoring, gospel-centered, and heart and life-transforming?”
What “works” is relative to what your counseling goal is. Biblical counselors would say that the ultimate counseling goal is nothing less than being “conformed to the image of (God’s) Son” (Romans 8: 29). Only the gospel can accomplish this.
So what do I say to this woman who found secular ideas helpful? I say with Calvin that Scripture gives us “spectacles” to interact with everything in God’s world profitably, including secular psychology. The ideas of explaining and reassuring her daughter about food are common grace wisdom and can fit within a thoroughly biblical model of counseling.
This biblical model would include helping the daughter understand how past neglect has influenced (not determined) her as well as helping her see that Jesus makes all the difference: He has given her loving parents to adopt and care for her, He will provide the food and other necessities she needs, and He will teach her to appreciate that there is a more important and satisfying food than the merely physical. In other words, He will lead her to faith and repentance as He does with all of us.
Question # 2
- How does this mother deal compassionately with the suffering her daughter experienced without losing sight of heart and sin issues as she gets older?
This question arises out of the fact that a mother in her situation might think that you have to choose either ideas which target the influence of past suffering (i.e. “explain and reassure”) or ones that target present sin issues (i.e. “talk about Jesus and pray”). Fortunately, that’s not true.
It’s important to remember that this little girl is both a sufferer and a sinner. As a sufferer, God has great compassion on her and is angry about how she was treated. As a sinner, even though she has limited developmental capacities, her young heart still can interpret and respond to her suffering in ungodly ways. God’s grace in Christ addresses both her suffering and her sin.
So, she need not choose either “explain and reassure” or “talk about Jesus and pray.” She can do both, although one or the other might be emphasized at a certain age or even in a given moment. If, at 11: 30 in the morning, her daughter expresses anxious obsession about food, the mother might simply remind her that lunch is coming soon and that she doesn’t need to worry because she will be loved and cared for. Perhaps at bedtime the mother can then remind her that Jesus loves to give her everything she needs and that He wants to help her not worry so much about food. Praying together then would be wonderfully appropriate and natural.
As the daughter gets older other sanctifying truths can be shared in age-appropriate ways: e.g. how fear reveals what we desire and trust in (Matthew 6: 31-32), how God has promised to meet our needs as we seek Him first (Matthew 6: 33-34), how Jesus gives physical bread but is the living Bread (John 6), how His grace can forgive and set us free from wanting earthly things too much (Titus 2: 11-13), etc.
Question # 3
- How do presenting problems work as both barriers and bridges to gospel ministry?
The “presenting problem” of the adopted daughter with her mother was a food anxiety. I’m sure that one reason the mother gravitated toward the “explain and reassure” strategy was that the daughter was so concerned about food that Jesus didn’t seem very important at the moment. The mother did the natural thing to try and remove the food anxiety barrier first.
We see Jesus doing something similar in the Gospels. Dealing with “presenting problems” like the needs for food or healing were an integral part of His ministry (Acts 10: 38). A clear example of this is John 6 where Jesus first meets the need for food (6: 1-14) and then uses this to preach to them about how He is the true Bread of Life who alone can meet their deepest need for forgiveness and reconciliation (6: 25-59). Notice how food was both a barrier that needed to be removed (i.e. hungry people don’t listen to sermons very well) and a bridge to the gospel (physical bread pointing to living bread).
This is a helpful way for us to think about presenting problems our counselees bring. There is a problem that needs to be addressed. That is why they came to us. If we don’t attend to it and instead we move right to deeper heart issues (which I am sometimes tempted to do), it may create a barrier in our counseling. Once they know we understand and want to help them with their problem, that very problem can become a bridge to help them see how the gospel meets their deepest problem. God can use anything to point people to their need for Christ. He uses depression, OCD, infertility, grief, infidelity, marital and family conflict, and many other issues as openings for gospel ministry as we take these issues seriously and compassionately.
Question # 4
- How does living and counseling in community help us grow in wisdom and skill as we seek to minister to people in a thoroughly “psychologized” culture?
As I have recently wrestled with these issues, I have been significantly helped all the way through by others. First, I was challenged by this woman sharing her story and the ensuing class discussion to deal with counseling issues concretely and personally rather than abstractly and generally. This was very helpful.
Second, I was helped by interacting with two Biblical Counseling Coalition friends as I tried to capture this experience and my reflections on paper. They helped me to think and write more clearly. This also was a blessing. Two proverbs come to mind: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27: 17) and, “Where there is no guidance a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11: 14).
We are all lifelong learners as we continually seek to “take all thoughts captive to Christ.” As we learn and grow we are continually confronted with new people, situations, counseling issues, and modern psychological theories and therapies. In each new circumstance we must do two things:
- Guard and Protect
We must preserve precious gospel truth (Jude 3) as we interact with secular ideas because only Christ can deeply diagnose and eternally transform. Praise God we have a deposit of truth which radically reorients everything and offers hope to every person and situation!
- Expand and Apply
We need to continually seek “wisdom from above” (James 3: 17) to see new gospel applications which expand our passionate love for God and others. Praise God that we have not arrived and are always being “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3: 18) so we can grow in wisdom and skill to help people in a broken world.
Join the Conversation
How are you seeking to “take every thought captive to Christ” in your life, counseling, and assessment of secular thought? How are you experiencing community and “iron sharpening iron”?