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The original principles behind secular psychology were identifying, explaining, and changing abnormal behaviors. In doing so, psychology drew an invisible line, separating humanity into two groups: one that struggles with abnormal behaviors needing psychological therapies and the other that does not. Biblical counseling has rightly identified secular therapies as inadequate in ministering to the entire soul and thus dives underneath the behaviors to examine the heart’s motives and restore proper worship.
Therefore, struggling Christians receive discipleship (i.e., counseling) that focuses on discovering shaping influences, identifying heart motives, addressing unique soul issues, and working through areas of unbelief to help the individual repent of their self-reliance and embrace their new identity in Christ. New behaviors emerge, flowing out of a transformed heart. Unfortunately, the biblical counseling ministries have inherited the secular physiology baggage of dividing folks into groups.
There are those traveling down the path of sanctification who appear to be doing “well,” and then there are those who have found themselves off the path, are now “struggling,” and need biblical counsel. Thus, these ministries can become niche or safety-net ministries, very much needed to help those struggling with life-enslaving, destructive sin patterns, but not for most believers. This leads one to consider if there are any unintended consequences of this current view of biblical counseling ministries. Do those in the “doing well group” not need customized, encouraging, and intentional gospel-based discipleship?
Division based on behaviors is natural. The sins of struggling Christians are more public and destructive to themselves and their families. They violate God’s law and, in some cases, the laws of the land. On the other hand, Christians doing well appear to live within the box of morally accepted behaviors. Yet, we must remember the core tenet of the gospel: salvation is not earned but received.
Yes, discipleship must address sins, but the main focus of Christ’s teachings is the spiritual problem both groups face in obeying the 1st commandment, “You shall have no other Gods before me.” Despite our public baptism declaration, we all bring little gods into our Christianity. Our worship of God is not pure; we still search for security and significance in the world. Some may ask why focus on the first commandment when dealing with addiction or helping a young mom overcome anxiety: “Don’t they just need counseling?” My reply is that we have only four types of problems in life, and you must solve them in the order listed below.
It all starts with our worship—our theological problem with God. In Luther’s small catechism, he believed that if you obey the first commandment, you would naturally obey the rest. If your faith and trust are in God, you will respond correctly. In Life Over Coffee language, all of our problems originate from unbelief. When we lose our communion with God, our depravity leaves us with hearts looking to align themselves with whatever we believe is our source of significance and security. It is like our hearts constantly send tentacles, looking to attach themselves to created things where we find beauty or what we love the most.
The common ones are relationships, careers, appearance, security, family, pleasure, rest, etc. In the fallen state, we are blind to this process as if these tentacles are invisible. We fail to recognize that whatever our hearts attach themselves to, whatever we look to for our significance and security, we will obey and become enslaved (Romans 6:16). This leads to the other three of life’s problems listed above.
Those in the struggling Christian group have hearts attached to things that have resulted in destructive decisions. If not careful, those in the good Christian group will attach themselves to good things that stay within the accepted moral box. Yet, the Bible clearly shows a big difference between a morally constrained heart and a Holy Spirit-transformed heart. In a way, the good Christians are in more danger than those who have hit rock bottom and are at an end to themselves. Humility makes for better disciples.
Believers in the struggling group have responded in ways to our spiritual fallenness that are visible, destructive, and often immoral. These self-reliant responses tend to compound the spiritual problem, adding more shame and guilt and thus creating an unstable situation that leads to a train wreck. From a biblical perspective, overcoming these consequences of spiritual fallenness must go beyond replacing destructive behaviors with good. The Christian faith is much more than moving from struggling to good living.
Discipleship intentionally focuses on shining gospel light into the deep dark crevices of the individual’s heart and prayerfully helping the struggling Christian cooperate with the Holy Spirit to transform their heart. To recognize their great need for a Savior and to stop attempting to embrace self-reliant solutions (tentacles) that don’t address the core spiritual problem of our separation from God. Now, folks in the good group appear to have responded better to the in-Adam spiritual brokenness. Yet, moral living does not bring salvation.
Many Christians believe sanctification consists of recognizing our forgiveness through Christ and responding with increased obedience. Yet, the invisible tentacles of the heart remain active, and if the heart attaches itself to good, moral things, they will still worship little gods and will not become Christians. They are still boasting about something other than Christ. When we come to Christ, our minds are not open, alive, or spiritually wise enough to understand our hearts or the implications of our radical union with Christ. We do not know the magnitude of the changes God has in mind for us.
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Thus, those in the good Christian group need the same discipleship to intentionally focus gospel light into the deep dark crevices of their heart and prayerfully help the good Christians cooperate with the Holy Spirit to transform their heart. The sanctification process must continuously consist of intense self-examination and understanding of our hearts’ spiritual attractions, addictions, and enslavements.
We must identify these invisible tentacles with our new spiritual eyes, repent, and fix our hope and security in Christ. To understand our new ontological nature, we must better understand our radical union with Christ in His death and resurrection. We must repent of our evil and good works and accept the gift of free justification. Finally, we must strive daily to live out of this new, ontological, in-Christ identity.
One of the great strengths of the biblical counseling movement is the ability to speak gospel truths with clarity and depth from understanding the anxieties and hopes common to fallen humanity. To provide encouragement and direction by being able to articulate questions, fears, and objections with more clarity than they can. Should this care be confined to only a biblical counseling ministry? Do men’s, women’s, and couple’s groups have this level of sophistication to allow the Bible to seep into the unchallenged areas of the heart?
I am not advocating for or against biblical counseling ministries, and I recognize the benefit of niche ministries serving a particular group. However, churches must do better in discipleship. Identifying, discussing, and addressing our spiritual weaknesses must occur in all ministries. The prodigal son’s story teaches us that the same heart dynamics can be in play despite significant behavioral differences. The hearts of good or struggling Christians are more similar than different.
It is sobering to remember that the older brother in the good Jewish group refused to enter the banquet. All good works must come from hearts radically transformed through the understanding and application of gospel truths (Ezekiel 36:26-27). We must not view sin as just a violation of God’s laws. We must understand our spiritual attractions, addictions, and cures. We must grasp how our wandering hearts break the heart of God.
We must remember while salvation brings new potential to life, the line between good and evil runs down the middle of everyone’s heart. We all fight individual spiritual battles, and the enemy is crafty. I pray the work done in the biblical counsel movement seeps its way into all church ministries to increase the need and thrust for discipleship.
Mark Grant was raised in Columbus, Ohio, and attended Ohio State. He married Lesa as he finished his MA in Mechanical Engineering. He moved to Los Angeles to work in the Aerospace Industry. After 5 years of a difficult marriage, he and Lesa were saved. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Portland, Oregon and were blessed with a daughter. He currently works for the Navy as a civilian engineer. He lives outside Philadelphia.