What Biblical Counseling is NOT: Simply Spiritual

At some level all our problems are theological. A more controversial statement cannot be made in the realm of counseling, but it’s a statement that I truly believe. Since we live in God’s world everything about us, our lives and our struggles are related to God. That means everything has a theological or spiritual element to it. This truth is, in part, what drives the approach of Biblical counselors. Such a concept of people, problems, and life itself has led many to conclude that biblical counselors can only offer spiritual guidance, no real practical help for people in pain. While biblical counseling is spiritual, it is not “simply” spiritual.

The addition of words can make all the difference. In this case, the adverb “simply” changes the whole meaning of the phrase. It’s an intended denigration of the word “spiritual.” Those who accuse biblical counselors of practicing “simply spiritual” counseling believe that the spiritual counsel itself is insufficient to make any lasting difference in the lives of people. They speak of the “spiritual” realities of things as if they are small, insignificant, and largely quarantined to a very small subset of doctrinal concerns: God, prayer, demons, heaven, etc. In the view of many other counselors spirituality has little to do with the here and now of everyday struggles. Spirituality, however, covers far more than they give recognize.

To be a human is to be spiritual. To live in God’s world is to live spiritually. Spirituality is not just about prayer and demons. The Bible describes sexual ethics, emotional suffering, and attitudes of the heart. It connects our anger to our spirituality (Matt. 15:19; Eph. 4:26); it connects our fear to our spirituality (Matt. 8:26; Mark 4:40; 1 Peter 5:7). Paul even connects our marriage to spiritual realities (Eph. 5:22-33). There is nothing that is not spiritual. So, when other counseling models suggest that the Bible is fit to speak of only or “simply” spiritual things, they do not realize that such a qualifier encompasses all of life. There is nothing that is separate from relationship to God and therefore nothing that is not Spiritual.

This is not, however, the same as suggesting that biblical counseling does nothing to offer practical help. The Bible is not an academic textbook. It was not written by theologians in lofty towers debating the nuances of Greek verbs or the nature of angels. The Bible is theology on the run. It is theology in the grit and grind of real life. The authors of the Scriptures were empowered by the Holy Spirit, but they were writing not as academics and scholars. They were writing as everyday men, living hard lives, writing to churches in the throes of real life. As such the Bible speaks to practical living. It offers strategies for transformation and steps to change. It is highly practical, and so biblical counselors are always mindful of the practical application of important truths regarding change. A case study may be helpful to illustrate this emphasis among counselors.

Ezra and the Problem of Porn

Ezra came to me because he had struggled to break the hold pornography had on his life. He had been, by the time he came to see me, looking at porn weekly for nearly twenty years. The advancements in technology, particularly with his smartphone, had only made the problem worse. He wanted to be free, but he wasn’t sure he could be. My plan in meeting with him was to establish a Biblical vision of healthy sexuality, confront his own motives and triggers, and help him develop a plan to restructure his life for change.

We began by examining what makes sexual sin so sinful. He needed to grasp something of the seriousness of his sin. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he did not seem to be very repentant. His focus was more on his shame, but not on how he was sinning against God. So we explored some biblical passages to help establish a clear vision of God’s intent for sexuality and the sinfulness of pornography (1 Corinthians 6; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5; Col. 3:5). We spent a great deal of time examining Matthew 5:27-30. Here Jesus spells out that lust is the same as adultery. As Ezra began to see this, he began to feel more seriously the weight of his sin. This, however, would not be enough to help him when temptation came on strong.

In addition to lots of self-evaluation and studying his patterns of indulgence, we began to identify some of the common motives and triggers that were driving him to pornography. As he explored these areas of his life, he began to see how his sexual sin was actually manifesting because he was unwilling to address other areas of sinfulness in his life. In Ezra’s case, the indulgence in porn was a manifestation of a deeper root issue. In particular, Ezra ran to sexual sin to make himself feel powerful and desirable. His own insecurities and unhealthy need for affirmation caused him to find reassurance and power where he could, in his case in the fantasy world of pornography. As we began to address these issues, he saw some greater ability to confront the temptation to go to porn.

Practically speaking there was much that Ezra needed to do and it was part of the process of helping him grow and change from the very beginning. Jesus spells out in Matthew 5 that one way we must deal with lust is to “cut out” those things that tempt us to sin. He says:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (v. 29-30)

We began to look for those “right hands” and “right eyes” in Ezra’s life that needed to go. The most immediate and obvious problem was his smart phone. It was the primary means by which he assessed porn, and it needed to go. It was a battle to get Ezra to do this, but once he did his problem changed quite dramatically. Software on his other devices helped to hold him accountable to what he viewed. Other decisions to restructure his life made a big difference: he canceled his Netflix subscription (which became a means of finding things to motivate his desires), he had scheduled more time in the evenings with his family (which kept him occupied on healthy relationship building instead of searching for inappropriate pictures on the web), he also went to bed the same time as his wife (cutting down on alone time late at night, when he was most tempted). Each step played a role in his recovery.

Practically there were many things that Ezra did to help himself in the battle with sexual addiction, but the practical steps alone would not have made an impact without the theology to demonstrate their validity. Ezra loved his iPhone. It was immensely hard for him to give this device up as he had wrapped so much of his life around it. It was the theology of Matthew 5, and the Spirit of God working in Him, that ultimately convinced him to get rid of it. Practical advice can only go so far apart from the spiritual truths.

Yes, biblical counselors focus on spiritual realities. We do this because we are spiritual people living in a spiritual world. All our problems are theological at some level. We give practical counsel in our helping, but not simply practical help. Practical help apart from the spiritual will not lead to deep transformation. So yes, we are spiritual counselors within the biblical counseling movement. But we are not “simply” spiritual counselors. There is nothing “simple” about spiritual counseling, as it involves our whole being and our whole lives.

This post first appeared at Dave’s blog and is posted here with permission.

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