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My historical way of thinking about the culture’s language is to relax and not become the word police. It’s okay to talk like our world and even use their words in our counseling practices. If you don’t do this, your counselees may not understand what you’re communicating. For example, the name of our company is The Counseling Solutions Group, Inc., not The Discipleship Solutions Group, Inc.
Though the word discipleship is more accurate to what we do, the word counseling resonates with more people. Thus, folks come to us for counseling. Of course, many of them expect the culture’s assumptions and methods during the counseling process, but we provide them something different, albeit passively. Rarely do they discern how we deconstruct their worldviews, presuppositions, and expectations—a process that begins as soon as they enter the door.
We do not deconstruct their perspectives with a harsh attitude. It’s wrong to attack the counselee for their cultural or integrated ways of thinking about their problems. We’re not the word police, and we understand how their starting point is different from ours. Though we’re “okay” with them bringing cultural baggage to the session, we do not embrace their psychology, and we begin a careful process of giving them purer psychology—the word (Bible) concerning the soul.
A novice counselor is the “whack-a-mole” word police; as soon as the counselee says the wrong thing, the counselor hits their word cloud over the head with a mallet. They are “word police-ee” because they don’t have the discernment to know the difference between a person’s starting point versus teaching them a purer way to think about and respond to their issues.
Then you have the counselors who are not just okay with the culture’s terminology, but they don’t attempt to change their language. They permit the smuggling in of the world’s epistemology and presuppositions. It’s a futile attempt to simultaneously stand in the biblical and cultural camps. It never ends well for them or their fan base.
Leaven in the lump will not give you the result you desire. Biblical counselors must be biblicists without the harsh attitudes that marginalize the importance of what we’re trying to communicate. There is no place of rudeness in this discussion. Yet we must be patiently firm in our convictions. If not, we will compromise the integrity of the Word and its restorative force.
Christianity is such an amalgamated cultural, biblical soup that we don’t realize how much we’re hindering our efforts to help a hurting soul. Here is a shortlist of Christian, common-speak labels that are widely accepted. All of these labels are fraught with problems, and if you don’t press them through a biblical filter, it will be virtually impossible to solve the issues the words describe.
These words attempt to describe real problems. Sincere people use them because they see real issues that they want to resolve. Because they are not the right labels, the hope-filled problem-solvers can’t get to where they want to go. Their problem is not realizing that how you label something becomes the platform upon which you will stand to resolve it. For clarity’s sake, let me use two popular labels. Notice how the label sets the stage and trajectory for how you think and respond.
Words are ways to identify and describe a problem, which is why they matter. For example, mental illness is a label that points to something wrong with a person, specifically, inside the person—their soul. People have adopted the words “mental illness” to describe what they see. Unfortunately, the label takes on a life that runs from the Bible. It’s the problem of the “metaphor becoming the reality.” Let me explain.
Suppose your child was angry, and you said, “He barks like a dog.” Are you saying your child barks or he is a dog? You’re describing something by using metaphorical language. Everyone understands this, and we use language this way all the time. Another example is when we talk about the “hand of the Lord,” an anthropomorphism—using human words to describe a spiritual being.
A child might hear about the hand or eyes of the Lord and believe that God has those body parts. A careful parent would explain this contour of language and what they mean by hands and eyes. The problem in counseling is when we bring words from the culture and don’t deconstruct or retranslate them with biblical language. After a while, those descriptive words become the new reality, e.g., the boy becomes a barking dog.
Once the boy becomes a barking dog, you’re off the path, addressing problems that distract you from helping him with his destructive anger. You may call Animal Control. Perhaps he needs a rabies shot or an invisible fence so that he does not bite the neighbors. I’m sure you would change his diet because the puppy chow could be part of the problem. My point is that once the label becomes the new truth, you’re on a wild goose chase that will frustrate you, your child, your neighbors, and the dogs in the neighborhood.
The label is the “entry drug” that leads to an expanded and elasticized list of ideas, descriptors, and false solutions. This problem is what has happened with the word abuse. It’s a cultural word. Like all words, they become constructs that form the container that holds all sorts of ideas associated with the cultural label.
If you’re a Christian, you will mix biblical thoughts into your new integrated container. This admixture of the secular and the biblical creates a new worldview, making it difficult for the untrained eye to discern. Mental illness is an excellent illustration of the admixture. We have minds, which the Bible affirms. Our minds are fallen—the noetic effect of sin, but we describe it as an illness, a cultural term. The undiscerning will connect mental illness to a scientific, medical model that sends the troubled soul to false solutions.
Abuse is one of those cultural words that many sincere biblical counselors have adopted and brought into their soul-care practices. From that integrated mishmash, they attempt to help people with real problems. You will never hear me say that what folks are trying to communicate with the word abuse is not accurate. The struggle they are having is real and sometimes acute. The issue is how they label, define, and seek help for the problem.
Some victims are so beholding to the word abuse that if you attempt to deconstruct it while giving it a better label, they can only hear that you’re saying their problem is not real. It reminds me of the time I asked a counselee why she was taking medication. I was curious about it, so I asked.
She interpreted my curious question as a person who was going to take her medication from her, which was the farthest thing from my mind. I had no desire to do that to her. I merely wanted to know why she was taking meds. Victims of abuse can think similarly. Reframing the problem, which would put them in a better place for restoration, does not imply the issue does not exist. Only the worst kind of counselor would snatch a person’s meds from them or say that their reality was false.
The problem with the cultural term abuse is that it has come to mean virtually anything. I’ve heard biblical counselors talk about emotional abuse, verbal abuse, economic abuse, male privilege abuse, etc. From those points of departure, they fill the constructs with all sorts of ideas, infractions, and false solutions. Let’s take emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse is like the “mental illness problem.” The Bible is clear that we have emotions. The Bible never talks about abusing emotions. However, you can have corrupting speech that will impact a victim’s thought life, which will cause corresponding emotions to flow from the person’s thoughts. Let me give you an example.
Suppose you walked around a street corner, and you ran upon a man standing there with a gun pointed toward your face. According to the “emotional abuse model,” he is abusing your emotions. According to the Bible, the man with the firearm is causing you to fear (thoughts), and you emote according to those fears. There is nothing wrong with your emotions, and the gunman is not abusing them. Your emotions are a means of grace that affirm what should be going on in your mind.
Perhaps afterward, you need to meet with a biblical counselor to address any strongholds that have created false arguments in your mind, which keep you in bondage to fear (2 Corinthians 10:3-6; James 1:5-7). The point of focus would be your mind, specifically, your thought life, not your emotions. Your emotions will eventually change to the degree that you change your thoughts. For the record, if you want to use cultural language, what you have is “thought abuse,” not emotional abuse.
The best definition of abuse is sin or un-Christlikeness. I asked my friend Daniel Berger to define abuse, and that is what he told me. I prefer the word sin, but I like the word un-Christlikeness, too, because it’s synonymous with sin, and the redundant terms are good. At times it’s helpful to say the same thing in a different way to make things clearer.
The great news about this succinct definition for abuse is that it includes any transgression, but it gets better; you can parse out sins into an infinite number of biblical subcategories, which lead to varied solutions. For example, let’s take sinful communication (Ephesians 4:29). Sin is the construct, and the specific “strain of sin” from that construct is communication or the sins of the tongue. The psychologist or integrated biblical counselor would call it verbal abuse, a set-up to quickly and easily stray outside biblical parameters.
You have established the person is sinning—the construct—with his (or her) tongue—communication, which is the specific sin. Perhaps what we are talking about is anger, which would put you in James 4:1-3. James helps us to move deeper into a granular level of the problem by talking about motives, lusts, and desires while addressing the effect on the victim, which is murder. Do you see how accurate, clear, and practical the approach is to the tongue’s sins versus the mishmash term verbal abuse?
You can take any of the integrated “abuse terms,” e.g., economic abuse, male privilege, domestic violence, etc., and counsel anyone more effectively. Again, I’m not saying that the realities that these terms point to are untrue. I am saying the wise biblical counselor will slowly, patiently, compassionately, and competently bring any victim of sin into a more biblical way of thinking about what is happening to them. You can do this without invalidating their reality.
We’re not playing whack-a-mole here, but if you want to bring hope-filled restoration to the victims of sin while laying out a practical plan for repentance to the perpetrators, how you begin this process will determine where you end. For biblical counselors, we know that the Bible holds the answers for living a godly life. Our job is to help our brothers and sisters to see the purest psychology that there is, which is God’s Word applied to our souls.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).