In counseling others, I typically begin with an assumption that they have a full line of moral credit. Out of respect for their dignity as beings made in the image of God, I relate to them as those who are responsible, capable, culpable and accountable.
“After all, what could be more arrogant than treating other persons as if they were no more responsible than tiny children or the mentally maimed? What could be more patronizing than the refusal to blame people for their wrongdoing and to praise them for their right doing and to ground this refusal in our assumption that these people have not caused their own acts or had a hand in forming their own character?” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, Cornelius Plantinga Jr.)
Social order in general depends on assumptions about human volition and responsibility. Legal and judicial systems, for example, assume willful human agency. When juries reach guilty or innocent verdicts, they assume human rationality and culpability. Claims of insanity, to free one from willful responsibility, are treated as rare exceptions demanding special proof. All levels of life (e.g. parenting, education, athletics, employment, etc…) involve some application of how the human will functions in responsible decision-making.
“One of the most enduring and cherished elements of our experience of being human is our presumed capacity to decide. …this sense of self-determination—and with it, self-responsibility—is irrepressible. …. For many, a distinguishing characteristic of humanity is the capacity to decide. Earthworms, goldfish, and jaguars do not leaf through a register of options before acting; they simply do what they are genetically programmed and neurobiologically hardwired to do. They act on instinct. They are possessed by ‘animal desires.’ Humans, on the other hand, possess the capacity to step back from the precipice of innate desires or inborn patterns of behavior in order to elect for or against them, so that even when human action follows the path of instinct this is nonetheless the product of a decidedly human reasonableness” (Body, Soul, and Human, Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible, Joel B. Green).
The difficulty with this narrative of human responsibility is that life is not always reducible to raw choosing.
Almost everyday, for example, when I read our local newspaper, I learn about an endless stream of young people being convicted and sentenced for crimes. In most cases, I sense that there are stories behind their stories. Long before these young people landed in the legal system, the damage done in their lives by irresponsible adults played a huge role in carving the path that led them to a life of crime. I don’t say this to excuse them from taking responsibility for their actions but to recognize a reality that caring people cannot ignore.
I realize that we must take responsibility for our lives and that playing the victim card only binds us to destructive life patterns. But when counseling others, it would be arrogantly simplistic to overlook or to minimize the effects of a troubled upbringing. Those intended (by God’s plan) to be lovingly nurtured and brought to maturity under the responsible oversight of committed parents are profoundly affected when those parents fail to fulfill their role. How do we talk about the outcomes in the lives of such children? The tragic consequences seem to have a shared culpability. Does the behavior from children who come from such neglect and abuse warrant the full weight of the title sin? Consider this:
“When one observes the rifts and scars of children whose parents took turns slapping, deriding, ignoring, bullying, or, sometimes worse, simply abandoning them; when one observes the wholesale life mismanagement of grown-ups who have lived for years in the shadow of their bereft childhood and who have attempted with one addictor after another to fill up those empty places where love should have settled, only to discover that their addictor keeps enlarging the very void it was meant to fill — when one knows people of this kind and observes their largely predictable character pathology, one hesitates to call all this chaos sin. The label sounds smug and impertinent. In such cases, we want to appeal to some broader category, perhaps the category of tragedy.”
“‘Tragedy’, however, “implies the fall of someone who is responsible and significant. It refers to someone whose significance has been ‘compromised and crushed by a mix of forces, including personal agency, that work together for evil in a way that seems simultaneously surprising and predictable, preventable and inevitable.’ A tragic figure is, in some intricate combination, both weak and willful, both foolish and guilty.”
“Remarkably enough, at the end of the day, it might not matter very much how we classify damaging behavior. Whether these behaviors amount to sin or symptom, the prescription for dealing with them may turn out to be just about the same. Nobody, for example, is more insistent than Alcoholics Anonymous that alcoholism is a disease; nobody is more insistent than A.A. on the need for the alcoholic to take full responsibility for his disease and deal with it in brutal candor” (Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be).
What we’re saying is that one’s sociology (relationships and life circumstances) plays a huge role (by divine intent) in shaping one’s life. This must be considered by those who counsel the whole person holistically (based on a full theological perspective). While it is true that we are individuals who have been made in the image of God (and therefore to be treated accordingly), we are also individuals in community. This was God’s original plan when He stated that it was not good for the man to be alone.
Our story is not meant to be one formed in isolation but in a social context — for better or for worse.
Wisdom calls us to consider a wider perspective of life as we help individuals address their deepest needs. A person’s social history and context must be explored as part of this perspective. This is validated by the fact that a key component in turning life toward a godly and healthy direction includes changes of association (see: Psalm 1:1-3).
The effects of one’s sociology must be weighed with honesty and often resolved by faith in the mystery of God’s providential goodness.
My primary concern is that Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being holistically honest in dealing with human problems. A thorough Biblical theology protects us from simplistic reductions because we know that God has made humans as physical, psychological, social and spiritual beings. Each of these dimensions must be carefully considered when understanding behavior.
Unlike other disciplines, Christian counselors do not treat people as products of impersonal chance. Since we know that there is a personal creator, we call people to connect horizontal and vertical perspectives on life.
Counselors who do not respect this should not be counseling others.