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

Guarding cherished resentments

An unforgiving heart will keep you from experiencing the joy and fullness of life in Christ available to you.

I’ve lived long enough to know how easy it is to get hurt in this world. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of the hurts. I know people who have been hurt so badly that they feel buried under the pain from the past.

I read an account of a woman who was sexually abused and struggling to be free from anger and bitterness toward her abuser. In a powerful acknowledgment, she shared a key step toward freedom. “I had to get to the place,” she said, “where I refused to tie my soul to the one who hurt me.”

Wow! What a way of expressing it! She faced a decision about who would rule her life. Her abuser was a thief who took control of part of her life. But she decided that she would not allow him to extend his control by sending her into years of pain and anger. 

Double the loss?

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. Others spiral into a state of loss by never dealing honestly with the damage done to them. Or, they hold tightly to cherished resentments as a means of dealing with their pain through a kind of emotional retaliation. 

It can be even harder to see how these responses relate issues of ownership and Lordship. The wake up call comes when we recognize that we are actually giving control to our offender and extending the effects of his evil. We are tying our soul to the one who hurt us instead of the One who bought us (see: I Corinthians 6:19-20).

The warning of Scripture is potent

“See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15).

A little root of bitterness is personally troubling and poisonously infectious. When hurt, we become vulnerable to anger and angry people often turn to bitterness to deal with their pain. But bitterness is defiling and destructive to our relationships and our own lives. Bitter people are also difficult to help.

God pictured anger as a vicious animal looking to pounce its’ prey (Genesis 4:6-7). We must deal with our anger before it becomes bitterness (see: Hebrews 12:15; Ephesians 4:26-27). Bitterness is difficult to dislodge when it rules one’s hearts in place of God.

Path to freedom

To gain freedom from bitterness, we need to change the way we view it. We need to confess it as a protective mechanism used to guard our cherished resentments. We must see it as idolatry. If you’ve been significantly hurt, change is more than a one time decision. It’s often a season of repeated or reaffirmed decisions.

Part of this process is deeply connected to the way we view God. Those who understand God to be an all-powerful and loving Creator will struggle to understand how He relates to the evil things that happen to them. It’s important to work through this confusion to protect your heart from becoming resentful toward the greatest source of comfort in life’s trials (see: II Corinthians 1:3-4).

(See: When the sun stays hidden for years and If God is sovereign………)

A bad attitude toward God?

Sometimes resentments are subtly directed toward God. This often happens when we feel God could have changed things. Christians typically conceal their attitude toward God behind a veneer of expected Christian happiness. I encounter this often when I travel and teach on forgiveness. People approach me with general questions about “why God would allow…?” As I probe, I find out that the issue is often more personal.

The dangers of allowing our hearts to become resentful toward God are real. The father in the book of Proverbs warned his son about the danger of a bad attitude toward God. ”My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves” (Proverbs 3:11-12).

The father wisely offered advanced notice to his son that life will not always turn out the way you think it should. The father had already told his son to trust God with all of his heart and acknowledge God in all of his ways (proverbs 3:5-6). But when trials and hardships come, and one feels helpless to change his circumstances, God becomes an easy target of a resentful heart.

Many centuries later the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews quoted this father’s advice as God’s enduring word to first century believers (see Hebrews 12:1-15). These early Christians were in danger of misunderstanding their hardships (v. 7 -”hostile treatment from sinful men”) and becoming resentful and bitter toward God.

Meditate on the gospel

The teaching of Jesus delivers a sobering reminder that an unforgiving heart contradicts the gospel and disrupts spiritual progress (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:1ff; Philippians 2:12-13). The way out of unforgiveness, resentment and anger is to meditate continuously on the greatness of God’s forgiveness of our sins— mediate on the gospel of grace!

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Don’t confuse forgiveness and reconciliation. Some people struggle to forgive because they wrongly think forgiveness always requires immediate restoration to an offender. See: Forgiveness is one thing but…

Steve Cornell



Sexual abuse: hope for survivors

They suffer in silence and shame. Although outwardly they appear cheerful, they force themselves to do this as part of their struggle to survive. Life does not feel normal to them.

This was the case for a bright university student who attended our Church. She always appeared to be exceptionally cheerful and eager to participate in Church activities. Yet inwardly, she battled turmoil, fear, confusion and depression.

As she increasingly fought to maintain control of her life, those close to her knew she needed help. At the recommendation of a caring friend, she hesitantly agreed to meet with me to talk about her struggles. In this meeting, she gained the courage to reveal that she had been sexually molested by a family member when she was a young girl. I was the first person to hear her painful story. This began a challenging yet necessary path to healing. Today she is doing well and able to help others facing similar circumstances.

A time to learn:

Several years earlier, during a graduate course in pastoral psychology, I impatiently asked myself, “Why we had to have a whole section on sexual abuse?” We even had to read an entire book about it and listen to a guest lecturer. Although I knew little about the subject, I didn’t expect to encounter it often. I was very wrong— and very humbled by God’s grace in equipping an impatient pastor.

For more than a decade now, I’ve counseled many people dealing with a history of sexual abuse. I’ve also repeatedly recommended the book I was assigned in that class. I remain humbled by how kind God was to equip me to help those struggling to overcome the life-debilitating consequences of sexual abuse. During my graduate class, my eyes were opened to a world of darkness that holds victims in silent pain. The more we learned about the issue, the more my heart grew heavy for the many victims of this evil. More recently, I’ve teamed up with other counselors who are uniquely gifted to help victims of sexual abuse.

Most of my counseling has focused on those who were sexually abused as children by family members. They come to me as adults who are struggling to live normal lives. They battle feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Since their abuse included manipulation and force, they long to feel a sense of control. They often try to gain this feeling through excessive and controllable behaviors like exercise and dieting. Yet they easily spiral out of control. Inability to function and overall lack of motivation can inexplicably grip them.

It’s not unusual for survivors to experience profound loneliness, abnormally extended times of sleep and loss of appetite. Mood swings plague those battling the grip of sexual abuse. Unusual gregariousness can give way to unexplainable periods of depression and crying. Other unexpected waves of emotion include self-hatred, panic attacks, irrational phobias, guilt, shame, overall sense of humiliation, unexplainable anger and rage, lack of normality and feeling trapped.

Survivors of sexual abuse sometimes turn to other forms of abuse to escape their pain. Obsessive behaviors ranging from alcohol and drug abuse to sexual addictions and promiscuity become a way of escape. Sometimes victims engage in self-mutilation and entertain suicidal thoughts.

Without help from a caring friend, most victims do not recognize how badly they have been affected. They tend to suppress the past to survive the present. Victims often conceal their pain and keep others at a distance. Relationships don’t come easily to these adults. Trust, a main chord of healthy relating, feels out of reach because of their experience of betrayal. Yet they long for close relationships as much as they fear them. They fear that allowing someone to become a caring friend will cause suppressed feelings to emerge. Vulnerability is risky but necessary for gaining freedom.

Marriage and sexual abuse

Those who enter marriage relationships without first addressing their history of sexual abuse rarely do well in marriage. To flourish in marriage requires vulnerability, transparency and trust. These are painfully difficult qualities for victims of sexual abuse. Marriage can provide a helpful context for recovery and renewal but it requires large amounts of love and devotion from a spouse. It also requires assistance from a wise counselor.

The person who marries a victim of sexual abuse is often surprised by the effects of the abuse. It’s not uncommon for the mate of a victim to feel frustrated, confused and helpless. They typically interpret the behavior of the victim as a personal affront. When the walls come up or the emotions shut down, they interpret it as rejection or a failure on their part. The intimacy and closeness of marriage requires a level of vulnerability survivors feel unable to give. Adults who are victims of child sexual abuse must seek wise counsel if they want to enjoy healthy relationships.

Overcoming the past:

The only thing we can change about the past is how we allow it to effect us in the future. One victim of abuse expressed her pursuit of freedom as a refusal to tie her soul to her abuser any longer. As hard as it will be, victims must courageously acknowledge their pain and confront their past.

The path to freedom requires dealing with the past but the most formidable obstacle is often fear. Those who have been abused should remember that they have been victimized by the evil actions of others. They must reject self-blame and all blame that others try to project on to them. Although difficult, they must reject the powerful emotions of shame, guilt and fear that hold them in bondage.

The book I was assigned to read, “A Door of Hope: Recognizing and Resolving the pains of Your Past” by Jan Frank, emphasizes the importance of confronting your past. As Jan Frank explains, this must also involve some form of confrontation of the abuser. After counseling others through this painfully necessary process, I know for sure that the freedom awaiting the victim is worth the challenge of confronting the past.

Relating to God

Relating to God is another difficultly for victims of sexual abuse. “How can I trust God if He didn’t protect me when I was vulnerable?” they ask.  It is hard to fully understand how God’s control relates to the evil actions of people. And these kinds of questions mixed with feelings of worthlessness and anger combine to obstruct faith in God. Such hesitations and struggles must not be treated lightly. Scripture reminds us to “be merciful to those who doubt” (Jude 22).

Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse need a merciful and wise guide to help them in their struggle to trust God. They will especially need help to understand the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.

Many others (like the student who entered my office) have walked this path and have found faith and freedom. It is possible to know the joy of freedom from bondage to a painful past.

prayerfully offered,

Steve Cornell

See: Answering the “Why?” of life.