What Biblical Counseling is NOT: Sin-Obsessed

I have been looking at some of the characterizations of Biblical Counseling over the last several weeks. There are many to consider, but I have limited myself to the most serious and most common. This critique today argues that Biblical Counseling is just focused on sin, or “sin-hunting” as some say. In truth, a multi-paradigm approach directs the individual-specific counsel that we seek to give.

“Counselors don’t treat problems; they care for people.” That’s my hyperbolic way of communicating to myself, and my students, that Biblical Counseling isn’t formulaic. We don’t just place a formula onto a problem, walk through the usual steps and bring it to a resolution. Rather, we care for individual people, with unique struggles and unique personalities. We tailor our counsel, then, to individuals. It’s for this reason that I have found two distinct paradigms useful for thinking about counseling situations. A responsibility paradigm and a suffering paradigm allow me to think carefully about the unique needs of each person I seek to help.

There are many counselors that have communicated this type of case-sensitive counseling, but Brad Hambrick has been the most helpful in providing the vocabulary I needed. Brad’s work in Biblical counseling has been a tremendous help to me, and he is doing some of the best work in the field right now, in my opinion. His model of dual paradigms for counseling has been refining my ministry to others for the last several years. A quick introduction to each paradigm and then an articulation of their usefulness will be helpful.

A suffering paradigm recognizes the reality of living in a fallen world. In such a paradigm we believe in and appreciate the ways in which sin has affected our whole being: mind, body, emotions, and sociability. There are times in our lives where our struggles emerge from areas of life for which we are not morally responsible. Think about the nature of intrusive thoughts – these are unwanted thoughts for which a person is not morally culpable. Think about grief, or manic episodes, sexual assault, or betrayal by a spouse. No compassionate counselor of any kind would, in seeking to help such individuals, blame them for their plight. In a suffering paradigm, counselors are seeking to do several key things for those who suffer:

  • Care for their physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological self.
  • Help them understand their suffering and grieve it appropriately.
  • Help them to reframe their suffering story in light of God’s redemptive story.
  • Help them to establish clear and healthy goals.
  • Help them to learn to trust God over our feelings.
  • Connect them with solid support networks.

Among the many other tasks, we will want to do in such counseling cases these will be priorities. Biblical counselors most assuredly believe in the brokenness of our world and as such recognize the ways in which we suffer apart from our responsibility. We want to, then, offer comfort, encouragement, hope, and point people to God.

A responsibility paradigm recognizes that sometimes we suffer because of our choices, irresponsibility, and sin. Sometimes our anxiety is a result of our attempts to control our world. Sometimes we become anxious because we refuse to deal with the guilt and shame of our sins. Our marriage falls apart because of our selfishness. Our depression too may stem from idolatrous desires that cannot bear the weight of our hope. There are all kinds of scenarios where we are responsible, and our problems are directly related to that responsibility. In such cases, we will want to help people to:

  • Identify their sin.
  • Understand its origin, motive, and triggers.
  • Encourage repentance.
  • Help them restructure their lives to fight temptation.

Each paradigm has its place and value in counseling. But Biblical counselors are ready to admit that both are relevant models of care for individuals.

The truth, of course, is that we are all both sufferers and sinners. So, in many cases, there will be a place for both paradigms with a single individual. Counselors will need to carefully gather data, ask good questions, and understand the individual they are caring for to determine the best starting place or dominant paradigm, but it is likely that both will be relevant at some point in the process. While a person may largely be suffering from uncontrollable circumstances, nonetheless how they respond in those circumstances is their responsibility. We can speak then of their role even while we work most directly with their suffering. Likewise, while a person may have made terrible choices that brought them to a life of addiction, they are nonetheless now feeling as sufferers. So, we may speak of comfort and hope even while we focus on responsibility. There is a place for both in most types of cases, but there will likely be a dominant paradigm that depends on the individual and their most pressing needs.

This is what the Bible teaches us, counselors. One important verse I urge all my students to memorize is 1 Thessalonians 5:14. Here Paul outlines case-sensitive counseling. He says:

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.

Good counselors approach each individual differently, depending on the nature of their struggle. You don’t admonish the fainthearted; you encourage them. But you don’t encourage the idle; you admonish them. You help the weak. Each struggle needs an appropriate interaction and response. Paul models for us what it means to care about people truly, it means to be sensitive enough to the uniqueness of their struggle that we interact with them where they are, even as we seek to take them forward.

It saddens me greatly to think that so many people believe biblical counselors don’t care about suffering. I care deeply for my friends who hurt. I wept with the two men I counseled last year who were dying of cancer. I pray regularly for the mom whose husband molested their children, for the guys who fight all day to stay sober, for the men who wrestle with intrusive thoughts and compulsions. I am brokenhearted for them and desirous to see them change and grow. I believe in both suffering and responsibility, and I want to be sensitive to use both paradigms appropriately in counseling, and this is true of the Biblical Counseling movement in general.

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