Advantage of Christian counseling

In a conversation I had 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 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

When life hurts

Life is hard because evil is real. It hurts to live in this world.

If we’re not hurt by our own stupidity and sinful deeds, the evil committed against us by others can be deeply painful and damaging. And our hearts become particuarly vulnerable when we’re victims of the evil actions of others.

Beyond what happens to us, there is also a secondary kind of suffering we experience when those we love are either hurt by others or when they hurt themselves.

In all of this painful mess, the question will sooner or later be asked about how God relates to our pain. 

When bad things happen to us that we cannot directly control and that prayer will not immediately change, we might find ourselves wrestling through a few dark nights of the soul concerning how God relates to the hardships of life. 

But in such times, when we’ve been hurt badly by uncontrollable turns in life, we must guard our hearts from misguided conclusions about God. He is our source of comfort (II Corinthians 1:3-4) and we only add to the pain when we distance ourselves from God.

But the temptation to become disillusioned and bitter is real and Scripture warns against it. The possibility of developing “a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” is presented as a serious concern for the community of believers (see: Hebrews 3:12-13). According to this text, we are called to watch out for one another and to encourage one another — daily, if necessary.

Reflect on the example of Joseph

A man named Joseph suffered a series of “misfortunes” beyond his control (Genesis 37-50). There was little he could have done to stop the abrupt and sad change he experienced. As is often the case, it all began for Joseph with a dysfunctional family.

Joseph came from a large family. He had many brothers but his father loved him more than any of them. Joseph was the “victim” of parental favoritism that made him the object of sibling hatred born of jealousy (see: Genesis 37:11).

When only seventeen years old, “his brothers hated Joseph because their father loved him more than the rest of them. They couldn’t say a kind word to him” (Genesis 37:4). As the object of two opposite responses (parental favoritism and sibling hatred), Joseph became a victim of unimaginable circumstances.

After many years of forced separation from his family, Joseph reconnected with his brothers. His words to them are rich reflections of deep trust in God’s providential rule over the evil intentions and actions of man. 

“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:1-8a).

Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

Liberated to love

When we yield to God’s sovereign control in the ugliness of life (see: Daniel 3:16-18; 4:34-35; Proverbs 3:11-12; Romans 12:17-21; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-12), it liberates us to follow Jesus in radical kingdom obedience (see: I Peter 2:21-25). Jesus said,

“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).

We are free under God from the poison of bitterness and the evil of revenge. We are free to refuse to participate in the multiplication of evil. We can even choose to absorb the loss and return a blessing instead (see: I Peter 3:9). Even if we do choose to require restitution or other measures of accountability toward those who hurt us, we are free to do this without a vindictive or vengeful motives.

Steve Cornell 

Complex and Corrupt beings

Evangelicals have a significant stake in the volitional or willful nature of human beings. 

Terms like belief and unbelief; obedience and disobedience, are part of our grammar of responsibility. Accountability and culpability are essential concepts in relation to sin and final judgment.

The good news of God’s gift of salvation is a message joined with a call to repent and turn to the Lord. Only extreme cases of mental disability find exemption from willful human accountability.

The longstanding Christian view of human responsibility is one reason why evangelicals, (particularly in the field of counseling), have been reticent to accept findings of medical research that attribute moods and behaviors to neuro-physiological deficiencies.

As neuro-chemical deficiencies have become an explanation for a host of personal challenges ranging from depression and anxiety to learning deficiencies, suspicion of these findings has grown among many – not just evangelicals. But some evangelicals worry that the findings of neuroscience possibly contradict theological conclusions about humanity, sin, and even salvation.

We should all acknowledge with humility that life is not always easily reduced to raw choosing. If we treat people only as volitional beings, we fail to relate to them based on the full theological narrative of the image of God in man and our shared fall from the glory of our Maker. We simply must consider matters of nurture and nature when addressing complex issues of life in this world.

Sociology – the Context of Nurture

I think about these factors often when I read our local newspaper. Almost daily I learn about what seems like an endless stream of young people convicted and sentenced for crimes. In many cases, I sense there are important stories behind their stories that never reach the paper. Long before these young people landed in the legal system, irresponsible adults carved the path that lead them toward their moment in the court of law. 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 (even when there is truth to the claim) only binds us to destructive patterns of life. Yet when counseling others, it would be naively simplistic to overlook or to minimize the effects of a troubled upbringing. There is guilt to be shared when those intended (by God’s plan) to be lovingly nurtured and brought to maturity under the responsible oversight of committed parents are instead abused and neglected. How do we talk about the outcomes in the lives of such children? How do we teach them to process the culpability of negligent parents? Does the behavior from children who come from such neglect and abuse always warrant the label of sin?

The intended design for individuals in community was clearly stated when God said that it was not good for the first man to be alone. Our story is not meant to be one formed, for better or worse, in isolation but in a social context. Those who refuse to acknowledge how one’s sociology (relationships and life circumstances) plays a major role in shaping one’s life disrespect the Creator’s design. Compassionate counselors must consider the whole person holistically when guiding people into truth.

Physiology – the Context of Nature

Similar consideration must be given to the effects of physiology. Just as we are social beings formed in community, we are also physical beings with bodily needs. We are complex, and our fall from God’s will only complicated our existence with brokenness on every level of life. Our original fall from God’s will corrupted both our social and physical existence in powerful and painful ways. This is where 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.

Part of human complexity involves the brokenness of our bodies and minds. The brain is the most complicated organ in the body, and it is marred with dysfunctions to varying degrees in the same way as other human organs. Medicines that treat neurological conditions should be understood along similar lines as medicinal aids for dysfunctions of hearts, lungs, and other bodily organs. Consequently, those who benefit from depression medications should never be made to feel embarrassed about their need. Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made but woefully and tragically fallen.

Yet we need to exercise special caution in assigning moods and behaviors to neurologically based deficiencies. When counseling the whole person holistically, we should not allow counselees or patients to reduce their problems to medically based solutions. Perhaps the medicines are essential to their health, but other considerations are just as important. People must look at their social context and their spiritual needs along with bodily deficiencies.

I’ve worked with counselees who have benefited from depression or anxiety medication while working through circumstances and relationships to bring more stability to their lives. Once their lives reached greater levels of health and stability, they were able to progressively move away from the medicinal supports.

We must understand that our brains can become physically altered by our 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 can expect physical changes with changes in their circumstances. Some people must accept medicinal aids as a permanent part of their lives. But even in more severe cases, we must guard against simplistic reductions of persons to a single dimension of personhood.

Avoid misguided reduction

It is naive and potentially harmful to treat people as one-dimensional beings. It disrespects the way God made humans and the pervasive effects of our fallen condition.

But the need for medicinal aids for behavior or moods should not preclude responsibility and accountability. It should temper our approach with compassion and mercy, but only in a context that preserves the dignity of exercising as much responsibility as possible.

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

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

Steve Cornell

The anatomy of normal sadness

I have counseled many people who feel stuck in sadness. They feel like they cannot escape the dark cloud that looms over their minds.

Life is hard when you feel stuck in a flight pattern you can’t escape. Many of those who battle depression have given up hope of ever living a life of joy and contentment.

But the battle these folks face is compounded by a sense of guilt because they often feel they should be stronger and better able to deal with things. And there is always a well-intentioned person ready to remind them of how many people face worse circumstances.

Until rather recently those facing this kind of challenge did not have reliable medicinal solutions to help them get to a better place. Things are much different now.

Medicines for depression and anxiety are now the most prescribed drugs by family medical practitioners. I know people who have been greatly helped by some of these medicines. Yet the number of people requesting medication for depression has rightly alarmed some sociologists.

Without doubting or discouraging those who genuinely need and benefit from medicinal aids, we should ask some important questions about the significant increase in diagnoses of depression and quick prescription of medications.

Treatment of depression in outpatient services increased 300% by the end of the 20th century. Antidepressant medications have become the largest selling prescription drugs in America. During the 1990s, spending increased 600% exceeding 7 billion dollars annually by the year 2000. Estimates now indicate that major depression afflicts 10-12% of Americans. A disconcerting by-product has been an inability to distinguish biologically based depression from normal sadness.

One of the more important questions being raised is whether or not we have room in our lives for normal sadness. Do we now live in cultures that entertain unrealistic expectations for gregariousness? These are questions explored in the helpful book, “The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sadness Into Depressive Disorder,” by Alan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakelfield.

The authors suggest that a standard criteria for diagnosing depressive disorder does not adequately distinguish intense normal sadness from biologically disordered sadness. Their aim is to offer a critique of what they view as the “over-expansive psychiatric definitions of disorder.”

They offer extensive insight for distinguishing “sadness due to internal dysfunction” from “sadness that is a biologically designed response to external events.” The chapters exploring the anatomy of normal sadness and the failure of social sciences to distinguish this kind of sadness from depressive disorder should be required reading for all medical and psychiatric professionals — as well as all counselors.

But along with the work of these sociologists, one should consider the emotional aspect of depression in a spiritual context. Humans were created as physical, emotional, psychological, social and spiritual beings. Although doctors are primarily charged with caring for physical health, they should be advocates for holistic treatment. I realize that they face both time and professional constraints but medicinal aid must never be approached one-dimensionally.

We are more than bodies with physical needs. The other dimensions of our being (emotional, psychological, social and spiritual) must be given consideration in our battle for health. A holistic approach respects all the dimensions of personhood created by God.

I encourage doctors to be cautious about prescribing medicines for moods or behaviors without confidence that those receiving them are pursuing some form of counseling in a support system of caring people (see: Caring for the whole person).

For further help addressing the emotional and spiritual dimensions, see the following links:

Steve Cornell

Moving from anxiety to peace

ad_anxiety_topics_lg.png All of us experience moments of anxiety. We all get feelings of apprehension that lead to worry or fear. Take a few moments to look more closely at anxiety and consider some ways to respond to it.

Anxiety can trouble our minds and distract us from the normal flow of life. Anxiety can be anything from annoying to distracting to debilitating.  Anxiety can be caused by and produce physical conditions. Anxiety can make people sweat, increase heart rates, causes nausea, headaches and even changes in brain chemistry.

Interestingly, “… anxiety is a uniquely human experience. Other animals clearly know fear, but human anxiety involves an ability to use memory and imagination to move backward and forward in time that animals do not appear to have. The anxiety that occurs in post traumatic syndromes indicates that human memory is a much more complicated mental function than animal memory. Moreover, a large portion of human anxiety is produced by anticipation of future events. Without a sense of personal continuity over time, people would not have the ‘raw materials’ of anxiety” (Medical Dictionary)

Social considerations

“Anxiety often has a social dimension because humans are social creatures. People frequently report feelings of high anxiety when they anticipate and, therefore, fear the loss of social approval or love. Social phobia is a specific anxiety disorder that is marked by high levels of anxiety or fear of embarrassment in social situations” (Medical Dictionary).

Severe Anxiety

When anxiety becomes a disorienting and debilitating state of mind, it’s characterized as an “overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (as sweating, tension, and increased pulse), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it” (Webster).

For some people anxiety is more than an occasional disruption to the flow of life – it’s where they live their lives each day. This degree of anxiety can be paralyzing and spiral people into endless cycles of irrational fear and panic attacks. StressI know people who have been surprised by waves of anxiety that seem to have little rational cause.

Sometimes those who endure traumatic experiences or oppressive circumstances spiral into anxiety because their brain chemistry has been affected by their circumstances. When this happens it usually becomes more difficult to navigate out of fearful perspectives that lack rational cause.

People who experience this level of anxiety often feel stuck and unable to change. The sources of encouragement that help others seem unable to lift the cloud of anxiety over them.

Helping the whole person

Sometimes well-intentioned but unhelpful people will wrongly interpret biologically based anxiety as solely spiritual and volitional.

They tell those who struggle that they need to trust God more or stop fearing man. They assign Scriptures to memorize like Philippians 4:6-8 and I Peter 5:6-9. These are very helpful passages but until the physical matters are addressed application could be difficult to the point of discouragement. 

These counselors fail to respect the multi-dimensional way God has created us. Reducing all problems to spiritual causes, they fail to adequately assess the social and physical factors that could be involved in debilitating experiences of anxiety. Sadly, by treating severe anxiety as volitional based, they only heap more anxiety on those they sincerely desire to help.

This is not to say that spiritually based counsel shouldn’t be given but that such counsel will not reach someone with biologically based anxiety in the way it was intended. Instead, a process of elimination should be used to diagnose the cause or causes behind anxiety.

The path to restoration should also be multidimensional. Some counselors are too hasty to assess the needs of others by jumping right to the spiritual without adequately looking at the whole person. This is a failure to be faithful to all that Scripture teaches about the way God made people. It’s also often a simplistic reduction of the effects of the fall of man from God. The body’s chemistry can affect one’s mind and emotions. When assessing crippling emotions like anxiety or depression, we must respect the physical, social, spiritual and mental dimensions of personhood.

I encourage medical doctors not to give patients  prescriptions for medicines to help anxiety or depression without making sure that other means of support are in place. Similarly, I am certain doctors wouldn’t want me to point people to three bible verses to heal these challenges.

As Christians, we must honor the way our Creator fashioned us and the effects of the fall by evaluating the whole person not just one dimension. When Christian counselors become one-dimensional, they bring disrepute on the Church. Sometimes they think they’re just trying to be faithful to the Bible by putting spiritual things first.

This is where they’re being misled. Faithfulness to the Bible entails respect for the physical, social, spiritual and mental dimensions of personhood. It also considers paths to restoration involving intellectual, emotional and volitional changes.

Medication and Anxiety images-39

There are helpful medications people can benefit from if they are in the grip of life-controlling anxiety. Consultation with a family doctor is essential for this step. Efforts to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs are destructive in the long run.

They also reflect a kind of  stubborn pride that chooses  artificial control over the transparency necessary for true help.

If a doctor prescribes a medicine and it proves helpful, please do not see it as a problem solved. Rather, it’s wise to see it as a first step toward restoration of life on many levels. The medicine often enables a person to receive benefit from other sources of help. In most cases, social and spiritual areas of life need attention along with the physical. This usually requires the assistance of a wise counselor and some trusted friends. It sometimes requires a kind of restructuring of life and relationships to experience full restoration.

Steve Cornell

The girl who never measured up

Sometimes we have to look back to move ahead. 

This weekend, I am speaking at a retreat for a group of newly married couples from our Church. About 30 couples will join this event for rest and refreshment in their relationships with each other and God.

The theme they asked me to speak on is the topic of a book I am completing. My title is “Your 18 Year Factor: how your upbringing affected your life.

The premise is captured in the saying: “Home is where the heart is.” We might say, “Home is where the heart is formed” and this is not good news for those who experienced a difficult upbringing. 

The 18 year factor study is based on a strong belief in the power of parental influence as the God-ordained means for character formation in children.

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 functionally stable upbringing, you’ve received a gift that has become increasingly rare. 

Some people, however, are not able to function well in healthy relationships because they are too unresolved in relation to their 18 year factor. They have deep issues that hinder them from being vulnerable, transparent and trusting – three qualities especially essential to a good marriage.

We cannot do well in our relationships (as God intended) unless we address the deeper issues of our own hearts. 

My book will be an invitation to take an honest look at the underlying influences that have shaped your life and to view these influences as primary points of access for spiritual transformation. 

A number of people have graciously allowed me to use their stories in my book. I’ve also collected stories from other places.

In their book, The Blessing, Gary Smalley and John Trent,  tell a moving story that goes to the heart of the concerns I am writing about.

Consider Nancy:

“Nancy grew up in an affluent suburb outside a major city.  During Nancy’s early years, her mother loved to socialize with other women at the club and at frequent civic activities. In fact, with a marriage that was less than fulfilling, these social gatherings became of paramount importance to Nancy’s mother. 

When Nancy was very young, her mother would dress her up in elegant clothes (the kind you had to sit still in, not play in) and take her and her older sister to the club. But, as Nancy grew older, this practice began to change.

Unlike her mother and older sister, Nancy was not petite. In fact, she was quite large and big-boned. Neither was Nancy a model of tranquility. She was a tomboy who loved outdoor games, swinging on fences, and animals of all kinds.

As you might imagine, such behavior from a daughter who was being groomed to be a debutante caused real problems…

Nancy’s mother tried desperately to mend her daughter’s erring ways. Nancy was constantly scolded about being “awkward” and “clumsy.” During shopping sprees, Nancy was often subjected to verbal barbs designed to motivate her to lose weight. 

“All the really nice clothes are two sizes too small for you. They’re your sister’s size,” her mother would taunt. Nancy was finally forced on a strict diet to try to make her physically presentable to others. 

Nancy tried hard to stick to her diet and be all her mother wanted. However, more and more often Nancy’s mother and sister would go to social events and leave Nancy at home. Soon, all invitations to join these functions stopped. After all, her mother told her, “You don’t want to be embarrassed because of the way you look with all the other children around, do you?” 

When Nancy first came in for counseling, she was in her thirties, married, and the mother of two children. For years she had struggled with her weight and with feelings of inferiority. Her marriage had been a constant struggle for her as well.

Nancy’s husband loved her and was deeply committed to her, but her inability to feel acceptable left her constantly insecure and defensive. 

As a result of this hypersensitivity, every time she and her husband began to draw close, Nancy would feel threatened. Invariably, some small thing her husband did would set her off, and her marriage was back at arm’s length.

Frankly, because of her lack of acceptance in the past, being at arm’s length was the only place Nancy felt comfortable in a relationship

Nancy had two daughters. The older girl was big-boned and looked very much like Nancy, but the younger daughter was a beautiful, petite child. What was causing Nancy incredible pain was the relationship between her mother and this younger child and the effect of that relationship on Nancy’s feelings and behavior.

Just like in Nancy’s childhood, her mother catered to the younger “pretty” daughter, while the older daughter was left out and ignored. Old hurts and wounds that Nancy thought were hidden in her past were now being relived through watching her own children. The heartache and loneliness that her older daughter was feeling was an echo of Nancy’s unhappiness. 

Nancy was also angry at God. In spite of her prayers, she felt He had changed neither her relationship with her mother nor her present circumstances. She seemed doomed to repeat vicariously through her daughters her own painful past…

For Nancy, her relationship with her husband, her children, and God had all been affected by missing out on the blessing that she had tried for years to grasp, but that never quite came within reach….

Although Nancy had moved away from home physically, she still remained chained to the past emotionally.  Her lack of approval from her parent in the past kept a feeling of genuine acceptance from others in the present from taking root in her life. 

In Nancy’s case, this lack of approval even kept her from believing that her heavenly Father truly accepted her.

Some people are driven toward workaholism as they search for the blessing they never received at home. Always striving for acceptance, they never feel satisfied that they are measuring up.  Others get mired in withdrawal and apathy as they give up hope of ever truly being blessed. 

Unfortunately, this withdrawal can become so severe that it can lead to chronic depression and even suicide. For almost all children who miss out on their parents’ blessing, at some level this lack of acceptance sets off a lifelong search.

Steve Cornell

Total Depravity?

The word “TULIP“ has been used as an acronym for explaining a reformed doctrine of salvation for more than a century. Each of the five letters represents what many consider the five points of Calvinism.

  1. Total Depravity
  2. Irresistible Grace
  3. Limited Atonement
  4. Unconditional Election
  5. Perseverance of the Saints

“T” is for Total depravity.

The starting point is focused the extent of the sinful condition of mankind. Not surprisingly, therefore, the reformed tradition has been distinguished by a vigorous doctrine of sin.

In this post, I am raising concern about articulating a doctrine of human depravity from the wrong starting point. When we construct our understanding of sin by starting with sin, we risk a truncated theology of human depravity and a potentially misguided approach to some of the requirements of godly living.

To adequately understand and articulate what it means to be a fallen sinner and, for that matter, a human being, one must start with the Imago Dei (image of God). We must start where our story began – with glory. I think more weight must be given to the implications of the Imago Dei as a continual primary ontological reality for human beings — even after sin entered the world (see: Genesis 9:6;James 3:9).

Most agree that human depravity does not mean that we are always acting as badly as possible. Instead, it means that we are always as bad off as we can be apart from God’s grace in Christ. Most also agree that the reach of human depravity extends to every person and every part of every person. Sin is a pervasive reality — without borders among us and within us. You don’t need a telescope to see it — a mirror will suffice. Yet as pervasive as sin is, it doesn’t eradicate God’s image in humanity and this carries significant implications.

This truth leads us to speak of the dignity and depravity of humanity and exposes a potential problem with using the word “total” when speaking about depravity. The reason acts of benevolence and heroism are found outside the boundaries of redemption is because of the Imago Dei in humanity. The same can be said of human skills and creativity one would never find in any other being on earth.

The Imago Dei is how we address the problem of goodness in the world. By explaining depravity and sin from the right starting point, we are able to understand the problem of goodness and evil. Some wish to talk about the problem of evil: Why do people do such wicked things? Yet the problem of goodness must also be answered. Why do people do good things and strive toward (for example) measures of justice?

I realize that Jesus said, “No one is good — except God alone” (Luke 18:19) and that the apostle Paul wrote, “no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12). But these statements should not be used in violation of their contexts and the overall context of Scripture.

Certainly, we cannot speak of any acts of human beings as purely good or as good in a way that contributes to the righteousness provided in Christ alone (II Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 2:21;Ephesians 2:8-10;Titus 3:5). But we can place human deeds in a category of good because they conform to what we know to be God’s will. “It’s good that you told the truth.” “It’s good that you helped someone in need.” “It’s good ….” But we cannot attribute a heart-level of goodness regarding motivations to give glory to God alone.

This truncated vision of humanity under an inadequately framed doctrine of total depravity has led some to engage in over-renunciation. Can we celebrate (for example) skillful art and musical abilities outside of a context of redemption but under the Imago Dei? Obviously, celebrating evidences of the divine image will be tempered by sadness when the performer does not give glory to the One who gave the skill. And we rightly feel even more troubled when they seek glory for themselves. But this does not mean that some measure of positive affirmation could serve as a bridge-builder to the gospel as warranted under the Imago Dei

Perhaps we can best protect ourselves from misdirected perspective by thinking about the fall of humanity and the doctrine of sin as a falling short of glory — an unblemished glory, the glory of God that distinguished us in the original creation account. We were made in the Imago Dei and have fallen from it. Human depravity is not adequately understood if the image of God is not the starting point for how we think about humanity.

The Imago Dei continues as a shared reality of all people without exception or distinction. God singled out humans when He said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27;James 3:9).

At the beginning, God “saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Humans (by God’s intention) had a very good and noble beginning and we intuitively know it. But those intended for greatness have fallen. Sin is a tragic and culpable falling short of glory – “for all have sinned and fall short (ὑστερέω) (present/passive) of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This is the universal and continuous condition of humanity.

“Near the beginning of our history, we human beings broke the harmony of paradise and began to live against our ultimate good… As Genesis 3 and Genesis 4 reveal, we rebelled against God and then we fled from God. We once had a choice. We now have a near-compulsion—at least, that’s what we have without the grace of God to set us free (Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.).

When sin became part of our experience, it required the addition of prefixes and suffixes to for explaining by negation otherwise good qualities. Dis-obedience, dis-abled, dis-agree, dis-advantage, faith-less, hope-less, etc… Could we use terms like Dys-functional or broken with this backdrop?

When we build our doctrine of humanity where Scripture begins, we realize how we were meant for so much more. It should not be surprising than that most people feel like something significant is missing from their lives. Perhaps we experience moments when life feels whole and satisfying but, at a deeper level, we know that we’re not the way we’re supposed to be.

  • Something great has fallen from its greatness. 
  • Something amazing has lost its amazement.
  • Something beautiful has lost its beauty. 
  • Something whole is broken.
  • Something healthy is sick and in need of healing.
  • Something peaceful has been vandalized.

Working from this full theological perspective, a sad (yet realistic) set of terms is fitting to us. Humans can reasonably be described as: 

  • lost 
  • wayward 
  • drifting 
  • restless 
  • fallen 
  • broken 
  • fractured 
  • alienated 
  • separated 
  • partial 
  • dysfunctional 
  • incomplete 
  •  sinful 
  •  dead

A vocabulary of salvation is necessary. We need nothing less than intervention, rescue, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. This is exactly what our Maker provided for us in our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. 

Steve Cornell