Answering God’s call beyond the walls of the Church


“We make a huge mistake when we define a person’s ‘call’ in terms of participation inside the church.” (Tullian Tchividjian)


While on a writing retreat in Brewster, Cape Cod one summer, I had a great time meeting different people. But I have this little problem in getting to know people when the dreaded question comes up. “So, what do you do?” they inevitably ask. If I want to continue the conversation, I have to be careful with my answer.

If I say, “I am a pastor” it immediately changes the conversation – or, more likely, ends it. It’s a real dilemma. One night, for example, a group of people doing a restaurant limousine tour saw me in the lobby of the resort working on my book. They asked what I was doing. “Writing a book,” I answered. “Really, what’s it about?” they asked. “It’s about how your upbringing affects your life.”

Immediately the three couples gathered around me to engaged in lively discussion about the subject.

In the middle of some rather deep conversation, one man blurted, “Who is this guy?!” “How do you know this stuff?” “Are you a psychiatrist, or something?” “No” I answered, “but I do a lot of counseling.” “You’re a counselor?” “Yes, I am.” He quickly tried to sign up his wife for a few sessions.

What I said about what I do was true even if I am not solely a counselor by occupation. I was doing what I could to avoid the conversation stopper: “I am a minister.”

Ten minutes after the group left for the dining room, a waiter told me one of the men who was talking with me would like to buy me a drink. Later in the evening, his wife came to tell me how exceptional it was for her husband to order a drink for someone. “You made a big impression on him” she assured me.

All of this to say that had I announced I was a pastor, the evening would have proceeded much differently. People recoil and become guarded when they learn that you’re a minister. After all, “What do you say to a pastor?!” It’s a real occupational liability for someone who works with people!

I thought about this encounter when I read a blog piece by Tullian Tchividjian.

Under the title, Our calling, Our Spheres, he shared thoughts about how leaders in the Church “need to help our people see that their calling is bigger than how much time they put into church matters.”

Of course, serving in your Church is important but it could be wrongly exalted over serving God in your career. Here are some good thoughts on glorifying God in all you do:

“As Christians, we can serve God in a variety of vocations. And we don’t need to justify that work, whatever it is, in terms of its ‘spiritual’ value or evangelistic usefulness. We simply exercise whatever our calling is with new God-glorifying motives, goals, and standards.”

“Outwardly there may be no discernible difference between a non-Christian’s work and that of a Christian. A transformational approach to culture doesn’t mean every human activity practiced by a Christian (designing computers, repairing cars, selling insurance, or driving a bus) must be obviously and externally different from the same activities practiced by non-Christians.”

“Rather, the difference is found in the motive, goal, and standard. John Frame writes, ‘The Christian seeks to change his tires to the glory of God and the non-Christian does not. But that’s a difference that couldn’t be captured in a photograph.’”

“So, while Christians are to separate from the self-glorifying motives and God-ignoring goals of the world (our spiritual separation), we’re not to separate from the peoples, places, and things in the world (a spatial separation). We’re to be morally and spiritually distinct without being culturally segregated. In the famous words of Abraham Kuyper, ‘There is not one square inch in the entire domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”

“For church leaders, this means that we make a huge mistake when we define a person’s ‘call’ in terms of participation inside the church—nursery work, Sunday school teacher, youth worker, music leader, and so on. We need to help our people see that their calling is bigger than how much time they put into church matters. By reducing the notion of calling to the exercise of spiritual gifts inside the church, we fail to help our people see that calling involves everything we are and everything we do—both inside and, more importantly, outside the church.”

“I once heard Os Guinness address a question about why the church in the late 20th century was not having a larger impact in our world when there were more people going to church than ever before. He said the main reason was not that Christians weren’t where they should be. There are plenty of artists, lawyers, doctors, and business owners that are Christians. Rather, the main reason is that Christians aren’t who they should be right where they are.”

“’Calling’, he said, ‘is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction.’ When we reduce the notion of ‘calling’ to work inside the church, we fail to equip our people to apply their Christian faith to everything they do, everywhere they are” (Tullian Tchividjian).

Steve Cornell

Your 18 Year Factor

I am convinced that most personal and relational problems have strong connections with what I call the eighteen-year factor. This refers to the time lived in your family of origin. These years have defining influence as in them we learn and experience many things that we carry with us for life. 

You had an increasingly rare experience if you grew up in a functionally healthy home.

If, on the other hand, your eighteen-year factor was disrupted by a significantly negative experience, you can be sure that it affected your security, identity and approach to relationships. The loss of a parent or sibling, the divorce of your parents, sexual abuse as a child are examples of life-altering experiences in an eighteen year factor. 

You must be honest about your past and the way it affected you if you hope to have a healthy future. 

Families plagued with severe dysfunctions are very damaging to children. If you lived under an alcoholic parent or in an atmosphere of physical or emotional abuse, or with significant neglect of nurture and discipline, your life has been deeply affected – usually beyond what you realize.

I’ve observed how emotionally aloof fathers or parents who withhold affirmation and acceptance leave deficits in the lives of their children. It’s not uncommon for men of all ages to battle issues related to bad father-son relationships. Women are especially vulnerable to future instability when their fathers withhold affection and affirmation. Many pursue unhealthy male relationships. Some battle deep feelings of inadequacy and a continual sense that something important is missing. Others struggle with anxiety, low self-esteem and depression.

Children in such homes tend to develop protective mechanisms to shield themselves from pain. When forced to deal with things that they lack the maturity to handle, they find a means to protect themselves. But they’re typically unaware of these protective instincts when they carry them into adulthood. They don’t understand how protective mechanisms no longer protect you in adult relationships.

A tendency to shut down emotionally may protect a child in an abusive home, but the same response is harmful to adult relationships. Children of alcoholic parents often become enablers and co-dependents — the need to be needed. Others find relief in anger or excessive efforts to control their lives. All of these protective responses are damaging to future relationships.

Those who carry protective mechanisms into adulthood usually don’t understand why they feel and act as they do. They remain unaware of the significance of their upbringing until they enter an intimate relationship like marriage. The walls used to shield them from hurtful experiences in childhood hinder them from enjoying meaningful and mature adult relationships.

The damages from an unhealthy eighteen-year factor must be identified for the path of healing and restoration to be effective. Although it seems easier to pretend that you have not been affected by your upbringing, denial always makes matters worse. Denial will likely assure that the next generation will experience the hurt and perpetuate the damage.

Overcoming a problem can only begin when we admit we have it and recognize what it is and how it’s affecting us and those around us.

Confront yourself with truth. Fight against the drift into an emotional state of loss, self-pity, self-hatred, anger or guilt by dealing honestly with the damage done to you. Do not hide behind superficial clichés no matter how noble or spiritual they might sound. Change is rarely an overnight accomplishment and rarely attainable alone. 

Overcoming a significantly dysfunctional past usually requires assistance from a wise counselor. But first you must allow those closest to help you see the walls and defense mechanisms you’ve allowed. Usually the hardest part of this is the vulnerability it requires. Fear and a desire to be in control are typical obstacles to true freedom.

Those who have lived with neglect or abuse find it difficult to trust others and often allow their fears sadly to hold them in defensive postures. Their loss is then multiplied as they never learn the joy of intimate relationships.

One of the biggest dangers in identifying the failures and neglect of one’s parents is a temptation toward a combination of self-pity and resentment. Resist the strong temptation to wallow your pain and allow the past to ruin your future.

Remember that the only thing we can change about the past is how we let it affect us in the future.

It’s sometimes hard to recognize that when we choose anger and bitterness, we double our loss and extend the effects of the evil done against us. I’ve observed far too many people who hold cherished resentments as a means of dealing with their painful experiences.

I encourage people to recognize that resentment at least indicates a level of emotional connection with the reality of one’s past and could become a catalyst to freedom. But resentment also offers a false feeling of control through a kind of emotional retaliation. Feelings of resentment can only lead to freedom and true control if processed in God-honoring ways. But this often requires assistance from a wise counselor.

Seek help before the years of damage accumulate and spread more misery to others.

Steve Cornell


Personal Update

My primary work is the role of senior pastor of a growing and thriving local Church. Over the years, however, I have had many opportunities for outreach beyond the Church. I am grateful for these ministries but they keep me on my toes.

This blog is one of the most recent extensions of ministry and I appreciate all those who read it or find helpful resources through it. I share this little personal update to ask you to continue to pray for me as I try to keep up with everything. 


I have been privileged for many years to produce daily and weekend radio programs for WJTL, a station with a very large listening audience.


For just as many years, I have been privileged to write for two newspapers that cover a combined readership of more than 400,000 people (266,000 for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania and over 200,000 for the Sunday News of Lancaster Pennsylvania). I write twice each month for the Sunday News and six to eight times a year for The Morning Call. 

As you might imagine, I get a lot of feedback from radio and newspaper outreach. We have given many free resources to people and churches through radio offers and the feedback has been encouraging. Although I get my share of angry letters from newspaper readers, I am often blessed by hand written letters from older readers who offer heartfelt encouragement for me to keep speaking the truth. I just submitted my next column for the Faith and Values section of The Morning Call.


Our Church offices (where the ministry began almost 30 years ago) are located across the street from a Sate University. We also have a student ministry center on our site. Since the beginning of our Church,  I have been involved in many kinds of student ministries. I recently returned to my involvement with athletics as a voluntary Chaplin for the football team. The opportunities for ministry in this town are endless! 


I will be looking for get-away time and place very soon to put the finishing touches on my book, Your 18 Year FactorHow your upbringing affected your life.This has been a project in the works for too long. 

Please pray for continued effectiveness in these extraordinary opportunities! The work is great but, like all others, I need to be encouraged through your partnership in prayer! 

Steve Cornell


6 step detox for a painful past

The early years of life are the most foundational to the formation of our identity and character. These years chart a direction for our future health and stability.  

If you’ve experienced a healthy and functionally stable upbringing, you’ve received a gift that has become increasingly rare. But if your 18-year factor was marked by a significant disruption or a serious dysfunction, it will have a definite effect on your identity, security, and relationship skills.

You had what I call a toxic background if there were significant disruptions – (like sexual abuse or your parents’ divorce) or serious dysfunctions (like a domineering father or mother, a parent who walks in and out of your life, abuse from a parent, an alcoholic parent or an emotionally distance one). The toxicity of your past must be addressed if you desire to have healthy adult relationships.

The protective mechanisms children practice to shield themselves from hurt do not protect them when carried into adult relationships. The walls, defensive postures, alternate realities, and over compensations potentially alienate people and typically hinder true intimacy in adult life.

If you identify with such an 18-year factor, may I suggest a six point detox plan for you? 

#1- Redemption:

Change begins with God. First we need God’s gift of salvation. God is the one who redeems us “…from the empty way of life handed down to you” (1 Peter 1:18). Many times God uses the pain of our past to make us see how much we need His love, forgiveness and help. But change and transformation is a process. It is described in Philippians 2:12-13-”…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

This transformation will cut deeply into the things that run deeply into our character– especially the 18-year factor stuff.

#2 – Respect:

Don’t minimize the significance of how your life was impacted by your 18-year factor. Sometimes it’s not a matter of “Just get over it!” or “Put it behind you!” To minimize these matters is to belittle God’s ordained role for family.  Denial or distortion of your past is not the way to gain true freedom. Failure to take seriously your 18-year factor is not good for you or those close to you. So often, generational sins continue because of a refusal to stop, listen and learn from the past.

#3 – Revisit:

Take a trip down memory lane — even if it is painful. Don’t allow suppressed feelings and buried memories to stay hidden. Talk about your father and mother and family of origin with people who have godly wisdom. Recognize and reflect on ways you were impacted by your upbringing. Do not do this to wallow in self-pity or anger toward your parents. Do this with humble honesty and with deeply reflective prayer (Psalm 62:8; Philippians 4:6-7).

Be honest about the trigger issues that set you off or close you up. Look closely at the walls and defense mechanisms you use. Why do you choose cynicism or use sarcastic humor? Self-perception is often distorted so let others help you. But avoid selective disclosure and remember that the only thing you can change about the past is the way it affects you in the future. Be balanced in your perspective by following my next point:

#4 – Reaffirm/reinforce

Try to think of some good things from your home of origin. Perhaps through your parents you’ve learned only a few good things but reaffirm them. It is unhealthy to be too one-sided in perspective. Even if you can only be grateful for food and shelter, find something to affirm. Perhaps you could rehearse ways you learned through the difficulties. This will help you think more clearly about other matters from your past.

The next step is more challenging:

#5 – Renounce/repent

Significantly disrupted or seriously dysfunctional 18-year factors leave deep tracks in our hearts and minds. Thought patterns and heart postures must be examined closely. We must clearly and directly renounce wrong and hurtful ways of thinking about ourselves, others, life and God.

Reject false perceptions, self-blame, guilt; the need to be in control, wrong ideas about all men or all women. Reject wrong thoughts about God by choosing to see how he has revealed Himself in Scripture. Give blame and responsibility to those to whom it belongs. Address your unwillingness to trust or determination to be self-sufficient–needing no one! (Life in this world is vulnerable)

Unhealthy fear of vulnerability keeps you from allowing your heart to love another person. A  fear of loss and betrayal can destroy your ability to enjoy loving relationships. Renouncing these things takes patience and resolve. Identifying destructive thought patterns is a process that usually requires the help of others. Don’t be threatened by learning painful truths about yourself. Repentance is a change of mind or outlook. It requires a new way of seeing things—God’s way. It begins the path to healthy and joyful living.

#6 – Renew

This is what God does in our lives. “Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will hold me close” (Psalm 27:10, NLT). He said to His people: “I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,” (Jeremiah 30:17). God is the one who can “….restore to you the years that the locust have eaten” (Joel 2:25). Like the Psalmist, we must pray, “Renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). Resolve to commit yourself to a renewed mind. Change the way you think by learning to think godly thoughts from Scripture. “Be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Ephesians 4:23).

Change comes through a disciplined practice of renunciation and renewal. 

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. 3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you (Romans 12:2-3).

This pattern of renunciation and renewal—“do not be conformed….but be transformed” is essential to overcoming one’s past. It’s also a daily practice that over time yields long-term benefits.

Notice that the mind is what must be renewed. The mind is the center of thought, perception, understanding, and consciousness itself. Change must begin with a new way of thinking. The word repentance refers to this change of mind that leads to other changes. God uses Scripture to effect this change in us: (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:1-3; Psalm 119:11;II Timothy 3:15-17; Hebrews 4:12; James 1:22-25).

The command is in the present tense indicating continuous action - “Continually renew your mind.” This means that we cannot accept defeat. Complacency, stagnation and pride of achievement must be viewed as threats to needed progress. We never arrive at a place where we no longer need to continually renew our minds.

Interestingly, one of the first changes in thought mentioned in Romans 12:3 is concerning self-perception (how we see ourselves): “Do not think of yourself ….rather think of yourself.”

Disrupted or dysfunctional 18-year factors can badly distort self-perception and hurt future relationships. God calls us to sober (and humble) judgment in how we view ourselves.

Take time to prayerfully work through each of the six steps. Engage a trusted friend in the process.

Steve Cornell

Get perspective!

It’s easy to lose perspective in a fallen world. Have you ever had a time when processing life became difficult? A time when you found it hard to keep a good and godly perspective?

There are many examples in Scripture of godly people who lost perspective about God and life.

Servants of God like Job (Job 3:10-13,16); Moses (Numbers 11:13-15); Elijah (I Kings 19:1-4), and Jonah (Jonah 4:1-10), all lost perspective so badly that they wanted to die.

Perspective (or how we choose to see things) can make a big difference in the quality of life.  We can’t always choose our circumstances but we can usually choose our perspective toward them.

Some life-controlling perspectives

1. Discouragement

Maybe you’re discouraged. Life has been hard and you’re having trouble seeing through your difficulties. Discouragement, at a deeper level, is a loss of perspective.

2. Negativity

Do you expect the worse to happen? Do tend to see the dark side of things first? Perhaps through setbacks or disappointments, you’ve even become very negative, cynical and sarcastic. You’re looking at life through the lens of pessimism but you feel like your just being realistic.

3. Anger

Are resentment and anger your primary lens for life? Perhaps you always have a slow burn under an outwardly pleasant veneer. Anger can erupt at any time and rule your life. Is anger an occasional disruption or the way you process most of life?

4. Complacency

Have you become complacent? Perhaps you’ve just stop caring because you feel that caring doesn’t help and often leads to hurt. Maybe you’ve drifted from God and you no longer take spiritual matters very seriously. 

5. Self-absorbed

Are you all about yourself? Is life about how you feel and what you want and you, you, you? Does it always have to be your way and about you?

All of these involve perspectives — ways of seeing things or construing life. What is your general outlook on life? Does you feel like your attitude is caught in a bad flight pattern? If you’re stuck in one of the perspectives above, you might need some counseling to help you move forward (some perspective sessions).

And please remember that your perspective not only affects you. All of those who must relate with you or who are under your influence are affected by your perspective.

How to keep a good and godly perspective

My recommendation for maintaining a good and godly perspective is as simple as it is profound. And it might change the way you approach the Bible and thus change your whole outlook on life in a way that conforms to God’s will.

We simply must recognize that all Scripture was given for perspective formation.

Consider what the Apostle Paul taught about the origin and role of Scripture: 

II Timothy 3:16-17

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to:

  1. teach us what is true and
  2. to make us realize what is wrong in our lives.
  3. It corrects us when we are wrong and
  4. teaches us to do what is right.

God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.” (NLT)

God’s Method

God’s method for changing you is that you “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Ephesians 4:23 describes it as being “made new in the attitude of your minds.” God is committed to changing your outlook, attitude or perspective! (cf. Philippians 2:3-5).

Romans 14:13 specifically challenges us regarding this:

“Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about (προνοιαν) how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” 

The italicized words in english come from a greek term which means “a pro-visionary way of thinking.” Another translation says, “make no provision for the flesh” (NASB). Another says, “don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires” (NLT)

To overcome sinful attitudes, perspectives and emotions, one must see things differently. One must “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” How does an appropriation of Christ to one’s life (clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ) offer a different pro-visionary thinking? How does it provide a gospel-based outlook that counter-veils the wrong way of thinking?

Two Provisions from God

Perspective is often closely associated with personality or temperment. Transformation in this area doesn’t mean that we all become the same personality type or temperament, but that we all yield our personalities and temperaments to the transforming influences of two divine provisions:

  1. The Spirit inspired Word - all Scripture.
  2. The Spirit indwell community - the reinforcement of godly perspective through connection with our local Church.

Notice that the Holy Spirit is the agent of spiritual transformation (see, II Corinthians 3:18) and His two primary instruments are the Word (Scripture) and the Church — the community of believers (see, Hebrews 3:12-13; 10:24-25).

We believe that Scripture is God’s revelation of Himself and His ways of dealing with His creatures. Apart from it, we’re reduced to subjective human opinion and speculation about God, life, suffering, death and eternity. We would have nothing that offers univocal and universal authority transcending human culture and opinion. We would have many human stories but no original story to shape perspective. The Bible provides this for us!

Of course, the Bible was not originally written to us – but it was all written for us. And it presents God’s dealings through different times of history — which means we do not apply all of it the same way. We must “rightly handle it” (II Timothy 2:15).

So when reading the Bible, some things relate specifically to the original recipients (and seem foreign and strange to us) —-but from the text emerges truths that transcend time and culture! (Examples: II Corinthians 1:3-5, 8-9; 4:16-18; 12:7-10; James 1:1-5).

When you enter the Bible, I am encouraging you to see it as a “perspective formation session with God.” Your personal devotions offer a time to get perspective or to maintain godly perspective. 

Again, all scripture is given for perspective formation.

Three unique perspectives 

What the Bible offers is different from positive thinking books or other material in that it confronts us with:

  1. Vertical truths for the horizontal issues of life
  2. Eternal truths for the temporal circumstances of life
  3. God-centered truths for the self-centered default mode of life.

The Bible also answers really important questions about origin, meaning, morality and destiny. 

Remember that behind actions, emotions, and attitudes are ways of thinking (perspectives) that fortify the actions, emotions, and attitudes.

Why do I do this? (you’re struggling with habits and actions). Why do I feel this way? (you’re struggling with emotions). What we need is counter-veiling ways of thinking (perspectives) to confront ways of thinking that hold us in destructive ways of life. This is the role the Bible fulfills.

Loss of perspective must be challenged by daily perspective forming sessions with God.                                        

Don’t try this alone

We cannot do this alone. God designed that we flourish in community not in isolation. We must allow others to speak into our lives to reinforce vertical, eternal, God-centered perspectives. The Church is God’s ordained place for this to happen. 

When we lose perspective, we’re tempted to travel in the company of those who share our outlook. “Misery likes company.” To maintain good and godly perspective, we need to travel with people who reinforce it (see: Hebrews 10:24). 

Steve Cornell

The advantage of Christian counseling

In conversation with a medical doctor, he expressed frustration about the number of times he diagnosed significant levels of anxiety or depression only to be told by a patient that her pastor or friend warned against medicine and suggested that her problem was spiritual.

“This kind of five Bible verses and you’ll be better approach is far more common than many realize.” The doctor said.

He’s right. And Christians lose credibility in this area when they actually have far more too offer. In my conversation with the doctor, I suggested the following perspective:

Perspective on Christian counseling

When I counsel others, I usually begin with an assumption that they have a full line of moral credit. I treat them as individuals who can accept and pay for their debts. Out of basic respect for their dignity as beings made in the image of God, I relate to them as responsible, capable, culpable and accountable.

Yet I realize that life is not so easily reduced to raw choosing. We must guard against a tendency within the Church to make all of life a matter of choice; of obedience or disobedience. We must apply compassionate consideration to how complex life can be. Far too often believers approach people one dimensionally, as if humans were only spiritual beings in need of salvation.

Yet, according to Scripture, there are four dimensions of human life. We are…

  1. physical beings with bodily needs.
  2. social beings with relationship needs.
  3. psychological beings with cognitive needs.
  4. spiritual beings with a need for God.

Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being able to approach issues holistically based on these dimensions. I use the word “advantage” because many other disciplines will not consider that spiritual dimension. If we find it inadequate to leave out this dimension (as we should), why do we do the same thing with the other dimensions?

A thorough biblical understanding of humanity protects us from simplistic reductions because we know that God has made humans as physical, social, psychological and spiritual beings. Each of these dimensions must be considered when understanding and counseling 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 more than human perspectives about life.

The mistake Christians often make is being overly zealous to offer quick answers for the issues that trouble people. “After all,” we’re told, “the Bible speaks to every issue of life.” “So,” it seems to many believers, “all I have to do is find a verse or two of Scripture that applies and share them with the person who asks for advice.”

This approach is typically based on careless listening. When we’re more interested in our answer than in understanding a person’s problem, we need to learn patience by listening more compassionately. We don’t want to be the fool who answers a matter before hearing it. And we should always try to ways that the four dimensions might relate.

Some clarification

I am not suggesting that we encourage people to avoid responsibility for their actions. Playing the victim only binds people to more destructive life-patterns. But superficial diagnoses typically lead to inadequate remedies.

When counseling others, for example, it would be horribly simplistic to overlook or  minimize the effects of a deeply troubled upbringing. When children (who are intended by God to be lovingly nurtured and brought to maturity under the responsible oversight of parents) are neglected, poorly guided or abused, it profoundly affects their personal lives and relationships.

In many cases, one must look back to better understand the influences that shaped their current approaches to life. Our story is not meant to be one formed in isolation but in a social context — for better or for worse. Each persons story has been significantly shaped by others.

We shouldn’t look back to blame, excuse or justify, but to understand and find a clearer plan for change.

What we’re saying is that one’s sociology (relationships and life circumstances) plays a significant role (by divine intent) in shaping one’s overall life. This must be considered by those who counsel the whole person holistically (based on a full biblical perspective of humanity).

Wisdom then calls us to consider a wider perspective of life as we help individuals address their deepest needs. When counseling deeper life issues that hold people in patterns that are not flourishing in God’s will, very often a person’s social history and context must be explored as part of the diagnosis. This is validated by the fact that a key component to flourishing in a blessed life is our associations or those we are in company with (Psalm 1:1-3).

Another example is the use of medicinal aids for behavior or moods. Many medicines are helpful for addressing actual physical needs but use of them should not preclude responsibility and accountability in seeking resolution to negative behaviors and moods. The need for medicines should temper our approach to people with large doses of compassion and mercy, but only in a context that preserves the dignity of an individual exercising as much responsibility as possible — in a context of truth.

I suggest that counselors and doctors should never view medicinal aids as a solution for neurologically based needs. We are more than bodies and brains with physical needs. Other dimensions of our being (spiritual, emotional, social) must receive thoughtful consideration in our battle for health.

There is a tendency among some Christian counselors to react with suspicion toward medicinal aids. This is sometimes a reaction to a common negative posture found in secular psychiatry and bio-psychiatry toward spiritual dimensions of personhood. But we must not allow misguided assumptions (no matter how condescending) to cause knee-jerk reactions among Christian counselors. Nor should we carelessly dismiss research and findings in these fields.

A biblically-based holistic approach to counseling respects all dimensions of personhood created by God in the full context of a narrative of creation, fall, redemption, sanctification and final restoration.

Christian counselors should use the widest possible lens for understanding and addressing human behavior. This provides counselors with a unique advantage for being holistically honest in dealing with human problems.

Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being holistically honest in dealing with human problems. A theologically grounded vision of humanity protects counselors from simplistic reductions. Each dimension of life must be considered when understanding human behavior. And we also take seriously the profound affects of sin on each dimension. Diagnosis and solution that does not take seriously this painful truth will be superficial at best and ultimately harmful.

Steve Cornell

Five essentials of life with God


The Old Testament book of Proverbs invites the reader to sit in on a conversation between a father and a son. The line, “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction…” (1:7), makes matters intensely personal. In Proverbs 1-7, we walk with a father as he prepares his son for life in the real world.

Apparently this young man was raised in a good family. His mother and father were careful to instruct him in the ways of God. Yet, as the son prepares to for life as an adult, the father makes no assumptions about his son’s strength to withstand dangers and temptations.

You won’t hear this father saying, “We raised him right, so he’ll do the right thing!” The father wisely recognized that the allurements of life’s pleasures have subtle and hidden dangers that tempt all of us. So he took one more opportunity to expose the dangers for what they are and to remind his son to adhere to the teaching he had received from his parents.

Some parents hold misguided notions that if they do their parenting “right,” it guarantees their children will turn out “right.” These are the parents who are inordinately surprised when their teenagers do normal teenage stuff. They lament, “We raised him the ‘right’ way, I just don’t understand?”

Parents who say things like this underestimate both the sin nature in their child and the pervasive power of evil in general. They also reveal the possibility of an unhealthy connection between their emotions and their child’s actions. Parenting is not about me or how I look to others but about molding and shaping the life of our children as stewards of God’s rightful ownership. See: 

In all that the father has to say to his son, he has one primary concern for him. “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7). The father pictures life as an encounter with competing voices clamoring for our devotion. Of all the voices, he implores his son to listen to the voice of wisdom. 

“Wisdom shouts in the street, she lifts her voice in the square, at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, at the entrance of the gates of the city, she utters her sayings.” (pr. 1:20-21)

“At the head of the noisy streets”, “at the entrance of the gates in the city”— in the city, wisdom is pictured “shouting”, “raising her voice”, “crying out”, and “uttering her sayings”, or “making her speech.”  Wisdom is not presenting herself in the quiet place of meditation.  She does not call out in the halls of academia.  “. . . the offer of wisdom is to the man in the street, and for the business of living, not to an elite for the pursuit of scholarship” (Derek Kidner, TOTC).

Wisdom “. . . strides from the ‘open squares’ (plazas used as markets) to the boulevards rumbling with the noise of traffic . . . to the several ‘gates’ where open spaces allowed people to assemble for trade or official business.  No behind-the-hand seductive whispering here; wisdom is a public figure, making her claims in the open and calling her disciples boldly to follow her” (David Hubbard, p. 55, Communicators Commentary).

Wisdom’s call and warning is forcefully presented in the language of choice. Wisdom, in essence says, “Decide now concerning your response to me! Make your choice and realize that your choice will deeply affect your life.” 

Wisdom cannot be attained where God is not honored. “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6).

This God-centerd focus is what distinguishes biblical proverb literature from other ancient proverbs. In Proverbs 3, the father described life with God using five verbs:

1. Trust in the Lord with all your heart (v.5)
2. Acknowledge Him in all your ways (v.6)
3. Fear the Lord (i.e. don’t be wise in your own eyes) (v.7)
4. Honor the Lord with your wealth (v.9)
5. Do not despise the Lord’s discipline (v.11). 
Here we have five action points for walking with God describing a relationship — not religion. These are essentials to a life of wisdom because the fear of the Lord is the ongoing prerequisite to a life of wisdom. 
  • “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).

A person who fears the Lord accepts wisdom and instruction; takes advice; trusts in the Lord with all his heart; and acknowledges the Lord in all his dealings. This person does not see himself and his own opinion as basis for what he believes and does. He recognizes his own inadequacies and God’s superiority.  Therefore he is teachable and accepts counsel.In contrast, fools despise wisdom and instruction; they scoff at rebuke; the fool’s way seems right to him; he is wise in his own eyes; he does not fear the Lord; and he does not accept advice and counsel unless it agrees with what he already concludes — he thinks he knows better.

The fear of the Lord being “the beginning” of wisdom does not mean it is the first step and after taken you move on to other matters. It is “the beginning” in that it is the primary and controlling factor in the pursuit of wisdom. To profit from proverbs and gain wisdom you must start with an attitude that recognizes God’s superiority, especially over your own opinions.

  • Proverbs 10:8 – “The wise in heart accepts commands”
  • Proverbs 12:15 – “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice.”
  • Proverbs 13:10- “Wisdom is found in those who take advice”
  • Proverbs 15:5- “A fool spurns his father’s discipline, but whoever heeds correction shows prudence.”
  • Proverbs 15:31-33- “He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. He who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever heeds correction gains understanding. The fear of the LORD teaches a man wisdom, and humility comes before honor.”
  • Proverbs 18:1- “He who separates himself seeks his own desire, He quarrels against all sound wisdom.”

Steve Cornell

Counseling the whole person


Humans are complex beings and our fall from God’s will for us has badly complicated our existence. We experience brokenness on every level of life. Our complexity involves deficiencies in every area of life and each area overlaps with the others. 

Just as we are social beings whose lives are formed in community, we are also physical beings with bodily needs. Yet we must acknowledge that our sociology and physiology have both been radically defaced by our fallen condition. We are not the way we were originally meant to be. We fell from the glory intended for us by our maker and our ingloriousness is evident in every dimension of our lives. 

Our social and physical existence have been corrupted in powerful and painful ways.

On the physical level, the human brain is no doubt the most complicated organ in the body. And as with other organs, the brain has been  marred with dysfunctions to various degrees. The fact that medicines have been discovered for neurological deficiencies should be understood along similar lines as medicinal aids for dysfunctions of hearts, lungs and other bodily organs. Consequently, those who benefit from medications for issues like depression or anxiety should never be made to feel embarrassed about their need. On one level, they are no different from those who take medicines for deficiencies in other organs. Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made but woefully and tragically fallen.

Yet there is warrant in  exercising caution before assigning moods and behaviors to neurologically based deficiencies. When counseling the whole person holistically, we should not allow counselees or patients to reduce challenges with moods and behaviors to medically based solutions. Medicines are often essential to their health, but other considerations are just as important.

People must be taught to look at their lives holistically by considering their social context and their spiritual needs along with bodily deficiencies. I’ve worked with counselees who have benefitted from depression or anxiety medications while working through circumstances and relationships to bring more stability to their lives. Once their lives reached better places of health and stability in other dimensions, they’ve progressively moved away from a need for medicinal supports.

We must understand that one’s neurological health can be altered by oppressive circumstances. These changes are typically chemical in nature. This should not be too surprising as the same truth applies to other organs of the human body. Stress, for example, is proven to be bad for the heart.

But this is not to say that everyone will experience the same beneficial physical changes with changes in their circumstances. Some people must accept medicinal aids as a permanent part of their lives. Yet, even in more severe cases, it’s wise to avoid simplistic reductions of persons to one dimension of personhood. It is naïve (and potentially harmful to those seeking help) when counselors or doctors treat them one-dimensionally. We must not treat people contrary to the way God made them or minimize the pervasive effects of our fallen condition.

Along similar lines, the conclusion that one needs medicinal aids for behavior or moods should not be used to preclude responsibility and accountability. For example, those with ADHD will have greater challenges with controlling certain impulses and a number of medicines are helpful with this. When working with those who battle ADHD we should exercise more compassion, but only in a context that preserves the dignity of encouraging as much responsibility as possible. We dishonor someone if we reduce their needs in these areas to taking their medications. 

In summary, counselors and doctors should never think one-dimensionally concerning medicinal aids for neurologically related needs.  We are more than bodies and brains with physical needs. Other dimensions of our being (spiritual, emotional, psychological and social) must receive balanced consideration in the battle for health.

Spiritual considerations must enter the picture for those who counsel the whole person based on truth. We are equally spiritual beings with a God-directed need for living in and under the will of our Creator. A holistic approach to counseling shaped by Scripture respects all dimensions of personhood in view of the image of God in humans and in the context of creation, fall, redemption and final restoration.


Three dimensions of human life and the effects of the fall

  1. Physical beings with bodily needs- Suffering
  2. Social beings with relationship needs- Selfishness
  3. Spiritual beings with a need for God- Separation

Three dimensions of personhood essential to transformation

  1. Your intellect (mind, thoughts, imagination)
  2. Your will (decision-making)
  3. Your emotions (affections or feelings)

 Steve Cornell

Wisdom for Counselors


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 BibleJoel 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.

Steve Cornell

 See: Counseling the whole person in the truth

What’s your story?

“Home is where the heart is.” Or, “Home is where the heart is formed”

The 18 year factor study is based on a belief in parental influence as the God-ordained means for character formation. The foundation and formation of our identity and character, future health and stability occurs in the first 18 years of life.  

If you’ve experienced a healthy and stable upbringing, you’ve received a gift that has become increasingly rare. Many do not enjoy such a legacy. For these people, I believe that some times you have to look back to move ahead.

This is an invitation to honestly assess the underlying influences that have shaped your life and to view these influences as primary points of access for spiritual transformation.

But even if you had a good home, when you get married, two 18 Year Factors converge and become a source of potential conflict or strength. Maturity is the essential characteristic for peacefully navigating these adjustments. 

As you look at your upbringing, identify and discuss:

  • The good
  • The bad (or, not so good)
  • The ugly

How has your life been affected by the influences from your 18 Year Factor?

  • I tend to…. or default toward….
  • I react to …..
  • I resent …. 
  • I need to work on ….

Path to restoration:

Some people are not able to function well in healthy relationships because they are too unresolved. They have deep issues that hinder them from being vulnerable, transparent and trusting — essential ingredients for a good marriage.

We cannot do well in our relationships (as God intended) unless we address the deeper issues of our hearts. In a marriage, it’s wise to leverage the involvement of your mate in overcoming a difficult background. This is the person with the closest access to you.

For additional help: 

Steve Cornell