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Biblical counseling is not for the squeamish. It takes much compassion, courage, and competency to care well for others. If you are weak in any of these areas, your counseling will be off, and you may add to the hurt of those within your care. Though a discussion about interpretative filters will alarm some and anger others, it is irresponsible not to discuss this potential problem within our counseling practices.
In addition to the alarmed and angry, the manipulating, abusive types would love to take what I’m saying and use it for their narcissistic advantage. These conflicting realities cause me to ask whether I should say the quiet part aloud, knowing it will rile some while weaponizing others. The answer is “yes” because there is truth here, and if I do not address it, this interpretative problem will only grow worse, and the victim list will continue to increase.
If you take what I’m saying and twist it for your selfish pleasure, may the Lord rebuke you harshly through the community of faith, as I pray they have the courage to confront you. Suppose my addressing a real issue about how interpretations may discolor our counseling applications makes you angry. In that case, I appeal to you to ask the Lord to help you hear what I am saying while casting out what I do not intend.
When talking to any victim of any sin, you cannot fall into the empathetic trap, which happens when the caregiver jumps into the victim’s quicksand and they both drown. Empathy listens with no parameters or guardrails, which is a considerable counseling problem. The empathetic listening counselor does not question anything that the victim may misconstrue as an accusation, even when they know there are two sides to every story.
If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge. The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him (Proverbs 18:13, 15, 17).
These counselors are novice individuals who do not know how to care for the hurting properly. All robust biblical counseling must include comprehensive research, data-gathering, and broad question-asking, including talking to all the people who can bring light to what is happening.
Biblical counseling sits well on this three-legged soul-care stool. The sympathetic caregiver stands outside the quicksand, always “with them,” but not so far in the problem that they cannot pull them out. Each of us must examine our call to see if there are weaknesses, e.g., fears, insecurities, or lack of training, that prohibit us from doing counseling well.
The reason I’m addressing this problem of how our filter may skew our interpretation and application is that I was listening to a podcast from a biblical counselor who made a case for divorce for abused victims, according to 1 Corinthians 7:15. He does not take Wayne Grudem’s path to the third category for divorce, but he agrees that there is a third reason for divorce based on his interpretative studies.
The biblical counselor said Paul “alludes” and “infers,” though he does not directly say you can divorce for abuse. The counselor adds that his position is an “argument from silence,” but he maintains you can do the divorce for abuse. He then uses Exodus 21 as “case law” to support his conclusion, though he admits that Paul does not mention this chapter in the Corinthian text.
He argues that Jesus used Deuteronomy 24 as His case law defense in Matthew 19 to permit divorce. The biblical counselor reasons that since Jesus used the Old Testament to support divorce, Paul could do it, too, though he admits that Paul was not explicit like Jesus was. Thus, he uses words like allude, infer, and arguments from silence. This kind of teaching is appalling; it’s interpretative eisegesis.
The biblical counselor concludes that “good people disagree” with his perspective, as though his footnote makes his eisegesis acceptable. When we provide our interpretations of what the Bible authors did not say, we are standing on heresy’s doorsteps. This illustration of reading into a text to build a case for your audience points to the problem of interpretative filters altering God’s Word. If this error in judgment and practice was a “one-off” situation, we could overlook it, but it’s systemic for too many counselors.
We can do better than this. We can make our cases for abuse without twisting Scripture to speak to our audiences. Once you go to this eisegetical misstep, you become blind to your biases, and you will hurt many souls. It’s easy to fall into the trap where this biblical counselor finds himself.
He hears the cries of legitimate victims. We’re all there: daily, we learn more stories about the victims of sin. Where he is making a devastating mistake is that the cries of the victims have created a filter through which he sees, reads, and interprets the Bible. Ultimately, he will not help the victims that he cares for and wants to serve.
It’s vital that all Christians—particularly those in horrific situations—have biblical discernment about those who bring care to them. The next three sub-sections provide hurting individuals with a few ideas to consider as they think about the people to whom they want to speak in their lives. These thoughts represent a counselee’s vulnerabilities. It’s incumbent for counselors to understand these ideas, or they may lead those within their care to some wrong places.
One of the things that make these inferior counselors so popular is that they can describe what is happening to legitimate abuse victims. We call this process descriptive psychology, where you observe and explain what is happening to the person. The DSM-5, for example, is a book full of descriptive psychology.
Illustration – When an unsuspecting parent hears a counselor describe their child’s behavior to a tee, they are overwhelmed with exuberant appreciation because someone finally understands what is happening to them. What did the counselor do? They explained what the parent and child are experiencing. The parent concludes, “If he understands what is happening to my kid, he can provide a solution.”
Whoever can explain what is happening to a person will be given the authority and leeway to provide the answer. Any hurting soul is vulnerable to this process because they long for anyone to understand them. Being understood is a powerful way that we connect to others, and when you can clearly explain a person’s life experience, the victim is willing to give you power over them. Any person can be this vulnerable.
The process works like this:
It all began because someone understood the victim. Descriptive psychology is not hard to articulate. All you have to do is observe behavior. If you see enough of the “behavior,” the better you will explain what you see. In time the hearers will give you authority over their lives. From your authoritative platform, you can prescribe anything to them, even from a sincere heart.
In many cases, the counselee is hearing half-truths. The first part—the assessment—is accurate: the victim’s abuse. It’s the second part that is the issue: the solution to the problem. Again, nobody would say the abused person is not experiencing something real. The trouble comes when winsome and personable people can describe what is going on, but they do not have the competency or courage to give you a fuller range of biblical answers.
You take this descriptive psychology problem and then toss in a pinch of idealism; you will have a fanbase ready for your suggestions. People are hurting, and they know what is happening to them is not how things are supposed to be. They are absolutely right! We live in a fallen world. What is ideal was in the Garden of Eden, and there will be a better version in heaven. But idealism does not work well in this fallen world.
I’m not suggesting that you have to accept your life if it’s horrible or does not match your desires. I know as well as anyone what an appalling experience can be for a victim. My list is extensive: abusive, drunk dad, adulterous mother, two murdered brothers, and a wife who committed adultery. I understand what life is like in a fallen world. I also know that when you hold your troubling narrative up to the mirror of idealism, you can be susceptible to all sorts of temptations.
Yes, our call is to suffer, and it would be best if you always looked for ways to alleviate your painful circumstances. I’m not an advocate of “take up your cross to be like Jesus and shut your mouth.” I’m also not a proponent of “you must have your best life now.” There is a middle point between a cross and idealism. When sincere biblical counselors blur those lines, they confuse hurting souls by presenting an ideal that may not be this person’s reality.
Part of the action plan for the counselor is to listen to the hurting individual with wisdom. Do not deny the pain. To discount a person’s reality is gaslighting them. You don’t invalidate. You listen to them. You hear what they have to say. You also appropriately talk to others. You want to gain the full scope of what is happening.
Secondly, you guard your heart, too. You must know the difference between empathy and sympathy. If not, you will jump into the victim’s story, leaving the Bible behind. You may filter your Bible through an “abuse lens,” which will give you an eisegetical tint to all that you learn about this person and their problems. If you don’t have reasonable self-suspicion about your biblical solutions, you may drift from a sufficiency of the Scripture worldview.
Thirdly, you surround yourself with folks who will not rubber-stamp all that you believe about abuse. You need competent and courageous Christians who are willing to speak into your life. If you build an echo chamber of like-minded folks, you will drown in your shared belief system.
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).