What tends to consume your thinking when you start counseling people? Are you aware that when you sit with others to discuss the issues of their hearts, you actually enter a war zone? Would you say this is a prominent aspect of your counseling mind-set?
Consider the Apostle Peter’s words for a moment, ”Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Pet. 2:11 ESV). This is very interesting language in modern culture where behavior is so heavily attributed to sociological, cultural, and physiological dynamics. With such a pervasive perspective, it is important for us to ask, “What was Peter getting at when he penned these words? How might it be applied in the life of the modern counselee?” It is from verses like this that the Christian counseling community has developed a theology of the “heart” or “soul” as being something “active.”1 Given Peter’s words, the hypothesis that human beings are “blank slates” misses the dynamic, intentional, and active nature of the human soul as revealed in God’s Word. According to the Bible, humans are in a perpetual war, and the active nature of this war is profoundly evident in “the passions of the flesh.”
The biblical conceptualization of the “heart” or “soul” shapes our methodology because it reveals the true nature of the issues at hand. As we sit down to discuss a person’s disintegrating marriage, or paralyzing anxiety, or relentless craving for meth, we do so with an awareness that we enter an unseen war where the passions of the flesh (sinful desires) are creating havoc.
Many Christians have made a tragic mistake by ignoring this reality; typically they diminish sin to behavior. Thus, counselors have often focused only on fixing sinful or unhealthy communication (a symptom of the war), or on offering relaxation techniques for anxious feelings (a symptom of the war), or stopping drug use (a symptom of the war), or legalistically applying Scripture rather than addressing the “heart” or “soul” from which these outward issues emerge. This would be akin to trying to eradicate terrorism by tending to the physical wounds inflicted in battle. Setting a soldier’s broken leg is certainly important, but it will not conquer terrorism.
The wound is a symptom of the war, not the war itself. Therefore, being mindful of the war is significant.
As a sojourner in a hostile world, do you strategically help others fight this battle, or do you get caught up in the results of the war? When a husband and wife are yelling at each other, are you caught off guard by this behavior, or do you ask probing questions that might help you understand the passions of the flesh waging war against their souls?2 When someone is having panic attacks, do you stop with helping her calm down through breathing and relaxation, or do you also proceed and go deeper in considering the desires of her heart produced and shaped by the flesh? If someone feels bound by obsessive thoughts of contamination, do you exclusively revert to behavioral techniques to help him become desensitized to his fears, or are you mindful of the war within that is raging with ferocity, driving the obsessions and fear? Do you ever become so overwhelmed by these symptoms that you revert to a mechanical mode of counseling to ease a sense of inadequacy as a counselor?
To counsel biblically means you must approach people biblically. Your counselees are in a war zone. And the object of this war is not nebulous. The Person against whom the war is raging is quite clear. Paul addresses this when he writes, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7 ESV). The passions at war against the soul (as mentioned by Peter) are in hostile revolt against God (as explained by Paul). Not only that, but trying to contain them in one’s own strength or with simplistic methods will guarantee ultimate defeat. Paul tells us no one can submit to the law of God in his or her own flesh. He also rages against the idea that methods can ever free us from the yoke of slavery called sin (Gal. 5). This is why we are desperate for a Redeemer.
This is not to say you should ignore appropriate techniques in counseling. For example, medical assistance for the person addicted to a chemical substance is wise and good (to protect him or her from dangerous, even fatal, complications from withdrawal). However, you must always remember that you are not applying such techniques and services to a neutral being. You are applying these methods to a person who is daily visited by dark, deceptive, convincing, luring, forceful passions that shape the visible components of the battle. So, while methods are a vital part of what you do, you must be careful that your faith is not in them. Methods apart from faith in Christ are impotent to overthrow the passions that wage war against the soul. Because of this, you have the glorious opportunity to visit and revisit the gospel and consider how it applies to even the most complex of situations or intimidating of diagnoses.
As counselors, we must be careful not to insult the work of Jesus Christ by seeking to combat the flesh with a gospel substitute. We are in a war, and we have a King whose “power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Pet. 1:3–4 ESV). This power comes through His Spirit, based on His finished work upon the cross.
May we seek to be diligent students of God’s Word that we may effectively employ and teach these truths to our fellow soldiers of battle. If it is indeed true that in Christ we have everything we need, then we want to be careful never to relegate this truth of truths to the dark corners of our counseling philosophy and methods. May God help us to always be mindful of Him!
- See David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair,’” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, 13:2 (2003), 35–50; Paul Tripp, War of Words: Getting to the Heart of Your Communication Struggles (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2000); and Edward Welch, “Why Do I Do the Things I Do?” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, 13:2 (2003), 48–56.
- See David Powlison, “X-Ray Questions: Drawing Out the Whys and Wherefores of Human Behavior,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, 18:1 (1999), 2–9.