Christian Character or Controlled Conduct?

Dr. Ab AbercrombieBible 10 Commandments

Many have a misunderstanding of what takes place in biblical counseling, seeing only part of the process while overlooking the larger objectives. Biblical care is often viewed as the administration of biblical imperatives only; directives to stop certain sinful expressions of behavior and replace them with godly conduct.

And while behavioral change should be one result of biblical intervention, it can be achieved as a secondary byproduct of transformative character change. Until there exists a “new self,” the “old self” has no hope of prolonged and consistent management of sin. Paul wrote:

…that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Eph 4:22-24).

In this passage Paul is not speaking of the exchange of one set of behaviors for another. He is not addressing a change in conduct. Rather the apostle is reminding the believer of the transformation that has occurred through the regenerative impact of salvation, while also stressing the pursuit of sanctification and the development of a character that reflects the “likeness of God.”

Truly this is a call to extinguish the former self and be made new. With that newness comes changed affections, kingdom orientation, distain for sin, and the desire for truth. As these new aspects are developed and purified, behavior must also change. Only the transformed heart can receive and practice the absolute imperatives of Scripture. which now have become relevant, alive, and achievable under the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, as He teaches and interprets God’s Word within the heart of God’s “new creature” (2 Cor 5:17).

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When God’s Counsel Is Rejected…

Dr. Ab AbercrombieTeen depressed fence

God’s Word is fully sufficient for the counseling task and it is superior to anything the world can offer a hurting individual. Scripture, along with the working of the Holy Spirit, is complete in its provision for all matters eternal and functional. Paul wrote:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).

It is the counselor’s responsibility and calling to render the Word rightly (2 Tim 2:15); to yield to the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:13); and to be spiritually prepared for the counseling encounter, connected and abiding in Christ, so that the care offered is given in “truth and love” (Eph 4:15). But while our resource (Scripture) is perfect and our spiritual response sound, some will not heed God’s truth nor yield to His counsel (1 Thess 4:8). What then should be our approach?

I have a student who recently said: “Biblical counseling is ugly…” In fact counseling is rarely a smooth process whereby the counselee is convicted of wrong, seeking assistance, and thereby sensitive and responsive to scriptural care. Rather biblical counselors are called servants entrusted with the difficult task of turning sinners away from their wayward path: often a path to which they have invested much affection and commitment. And yet sin is progressive and deadly. Without the provocation of God’s Word there is no hope of repentance, salvation, restoration, or sanctification. James pointed to the root and eventual outcome of sin:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death (Jas 1:13-15).

Biblical counselors are called to intervene somewhere and sometime before the rebellious heart confronts its own demise. However counselors must be reminded that biblical care is a process of repeated application that demands the counselor’s obedience to the task and perseverance with grief and anguish for the lost and fallen souls with whom we contend. Paul wrote:

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction (2 Tim 4:1-2).

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A Broken and Contrite Heart…

Dr. Ab AbercrombieSad man praying

Have you noticed that many of the most repentant prayers in the Bible come from God’s most faithful servants? Human logic would suggest otherwise. Most would assume that as one grows in his/her faith, sin would decrease, along with the need for confession and repentance.

But in truth it seems the closer one draws to God with a desire to obey and serve; the more grieved he/she becomes with sin. In the life of a growing Christian, the presence of sin becomes increasingly poignant and unacceptable and takes the individual more frequently to his/her knees, seeking out the purifying work of grace and the restorative impact of the Father’s discipline.

Repentance is the centerpiece of Christian growth and sanctification. Whenever one is dull to the stirring conviction of the Spirit, he/she is in true danger. Repentance is God’s gift that provokes the unbeliever unto salvation, and draws the Christian toward sanctification. A repentant lifestyle is brings life, vindication, joy, and development. It is a gift of God that simultaneously convicts the conscience, provokes confession, and heals the willful patterns of our lives.

Because of this we see the great characters of Scripture humbled, submitted, and burdened by the undoing of sin, seeking instead the freedom and provision of grace and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Paul described well the single remedy for his base depravity:

Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom 7:24-25).

The awareness of our plight as sinners deepens our dependency upon Christ while provoking praise, celebration, and thankfulness for God’s unmerited favor. A life that is sensitive and yielded grows to have no tolerance for sin and thereby develops an urgent pursuit of righteousness.

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A Little (Psychological) Leaven…Leavens the Whole Lump of Dough

Dr. Ab AbercrombiePsychology text

The Southern Baptist Convention seems compelled to adopt annual resolutions designed to shape and direct its nearly 16 million members toward informed opinions and appropriate conduct. Their latest offering is a Resolution on Mental Health Concerns and the Heart of God. On the surface the proclamation appears compassionate, but in full context it contradicts scriptural truth while sanctioning psychological explanations and psychiatric treatment for “mental illness.”

The resolution speaks out against prejudice and stigmatization, and encourages ministry outreach to suffering individuals and their families. Few could find argument with this intent. But the document goes far beyond the needed expression of compassion, promoting questionable and potentially harmful positions that will forever alter the church’s view of human suffering. In the resolution, Southern Baptists declare and affirm that:

  • Mental illness, as defined by psychology and psychiatry, is a valid medical condition needing specialized medical care.
  • Conditions like “autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, clinical depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, and eating disorders” are medical illnesses present in our world as a consequence of “the Fall.”
  • The “wise use of medical intervention for mental health concerns” is an “appropriate” remedy for such problems.

Why are preachers and theologians making these proclamations and what is their source of authority on the issues of depression, instability, anxiety, fear, anger, suicide, and madness? Clearly they have sacrificed the Bible and scriptural sufficiency in favor of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and the unscientific reasoning of man. Point in fact, the original resolution had two amendments attached which stated:

  • Scripture is the “final authority” on all mental health issues, and
  • Scripture is “sufficient for counseling all phases of the human condition.”

Both amendments were “overwhelmingly defeated” by those attending the convention and therefore were removed from the final resolution (Steffan, 2014). It is a fearful day when Southern Baptists publicly proclaim that Scripture is insufficient and lacking in authority for matters of “life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:2-3).

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The Danger Of Experiential Theology…

Dr. Ab AbercrombieHand on open Bible

Theology is the study of God and God’s relation to the world. Consequently, all believers are theologians in pursuit of truth pertaining to our Creator and His revelation of Himself to His creations. Our theology (knowledge and belief about God) must come from Scripture as there is no other reliable source by which believers can discern absolute truth. Paul stressed this point when addressing spiritual maturity:

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ…(Eph 4:14-15).

When we forsake the veracity of the Bible to search for truth, we are subject to chaos and vulnerable to the “waves” of opinion and experience that carry us astray. Believers often become deceived through the manipulation of truth by those advancing a personal agenda as a spiritual reality.

Case in point is the growing trend toward Experiential Theology, which defines God through personal experience, emotion, and the subjective discernment of reality. Experiential theologians are easy to spot because they rarely reference Scripture, and when they do, typically the presentation of the Word is misrepresented and contextually flawed.

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Asking The Right Questions…The Process of Biblical Counseling

Dr. Ab AbercrombieThe Right Question

Biblical Counseling, obviously involves the reading and study of Scripture. But often getting the Bible open, within the context of an emotional discussion, can be a challenge. However, the importance of using God’s Word cannot be overstated. After all, it is the Word that is powerful, superior, and sufficient in its scope and impact, not the counselor.

Biblical counselors must not rely upon the restating of scriptural themes and guidelines only. Rather the literal reading of Scripture is central to the process of salvation, repentance, sanctification, and discipleship. Statements like, “The Bible says…” or “God requires…” are valuable introductions; but they must be followed with specific, contextual digestion of Scripture, if transformation is to occur.

Asking Questions that Require a Biblical Response

Whether the counselor is involved in formal or informal counseling, the use of biblical questions is key to advancing a scriptural process. Questions that require a biblical response are effective in both matters of restoration and evangelism and provide a bridge to opening God’s Word.

Examples of this type of inquiry follow:

  • What does Scripture teach on the topic of divorce?
  • Where in the Bible are we encouraged to harbor anger and pursue revenge?
  • Do you remember any biblical characters who were fearful?
  • Have you ever examined the topic of suffering in Scripture?
  • How do your reconcile this decision with God’s Word?
  • According to the Bible, how does a person gain eternal life?
  • Do you remember the story of David and Bathsheba?
  • Are you familiar with God’s teaching on perseverance?

Clearly the potential questions are endless, but their selection must be Spirit led. Just as in the choice of Scripture, God must direct this method of inquiry. When He does, the question will always be pointed, penetrating, and revealing. These questions will invariably lead to one of three outcomes:

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“Say It Ain’t So…”

Dr. Ab AbercrombieSay it ain't so…photo

You may remember that oft-quoted plea that is a part of baseball lore, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” In 1919, famous baseball player “Shoeless Joe” Jackson was accused, with several teammates, of betraying the fans of the game by “fixing” the World Series, after the highly favored Chicago White Sox lost the championship to the Cincinnati Reds. After Jackson’s testimony before a grand jury in 1920, a young, faithful, and believing fan begged his hero to deny the charge of betrayal: “Say it ain’t so…”

I feel similarly as I write this article and plead… “Say it ain’t so…Al (Mohler)!” “Say it ain’t so…John (Piper)!” I am a fan of these leaders and highly value their teaching. But recently both have taken positions on the sin of pornography that are confusing and potentially dangerous for the Body of Christ. Both have offered endorsement of psychology and neuroscience, proclaiming this form of sexual immorality a biological addiction.

This may seem a minor thing; a frivolous matter of semantics; but it is far more insidious. This is especially true for teachers with  sizable platforms and influence. Bear with me as I discuss why this matters.

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“Do you wish to get well?”

Dr. Ab Abercrombie Sad man praying

As a biblical counselor, I sometimes encounter counselees who seem immobilized. They appear simply unable or unwilling to move forward, languishing in despair, relational struggle, and sin. Even when seeming to understand Scripture and claiming conviction, they remain unchanged.

In one such occasion I was helping Ron, a professing believer, evaluate his role as a husband and spiritual head of his home. Over three meetings we had examined his salvation and studied numerous scriptures pertaining to spiritual submission (Jas 4:5-8), authority (1 Cor 11:3), leadership (Eph 5:22-29), love (1 Cor 13:3-7), forgiveness (Matt 6:14-15), and accountability (Rom 14:11-12).

In each example the counselee expressed grief and claimed conviction to lead and love his wife as Scripture instructs. But near the end of the third meeting the discussion veered off course:

Ron: I know the Bible is true and God expects me to do these things. But how can I?

Counselor: What do you mean?

Ron: How can I lead when my wife will not cooperate? How can I love someone who is cold and distant?

Counselor: So you are unable to obey God’s teaching because of your wife’s condition?

Ron: I would be a better Christian if I were married to a godly woman. I just don’t see how I can do anything until she gets it together.

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Marital Abandonment

Dr. Ab AbercrombiePensive Woman

Don had been married thirty years to the wife of his youth. Together they raised three children, built two careers, and seemed headed for late-life contentment. Suddenly Don’s wife announced, “I don’t love you. This marriage has been a mistake from the beginning. I want a divorce.”

Janice had been married 19 years when her husband left her without explanation. Within weeks, he abandoned his job, relocated, and refuses to speak to his wife and children. As a stay-at-home mother, she is without financial support and terrified for her future. Her husband has “left the grid” and refuses to respond.

Both couples profess Christ and previously demonstrated evidence of salvation and fruit within their respective homes. Regrettably these stories are far too common within God’s Church, and the Body is facing an onslaught of spousal abandonment. There is increasing need for biblical counsel on this topic and we must examine God’s Word on the matter.

As a biblical counselor I have repeatedly heard that  “abandonment” is biblical grounds for divorce. I have heard it from pastors, leaders, and individuals who have been deserted. But does Scripture support this claim. Jesus said:

“It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE ‘; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt 5:31-32).

Jesus never wavered on this point. No other reference to an acceptable divorce appears in Scripture. And even the matter of sexual immorality is to first be addressed under the biblical themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, and obedience to the admonition that God hates divorce (Mal  2:16).

Often the victim of abandonment will have no choice. The spouse who leaves may initiate a divorce and refuse reconciliation. On this point, the rejected spouse has little recourse. Yet too frequently, the abandonment results in a prolonged separation, with the absent spouse taking no steps toward a permanent ending. What then should be our counsel?

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Me…An Evangelist?

Dr. Ab AbercrombieWoman dazed

Most Biblical Counselors do not define their work as evangelism. We are more familiar, and perhaps more comfortable, with the biblical roles of teaching, encouragement, discipleship, and restoration. We often assume that because a counselee has selected a counselor with a biblical orientation, he/she is already a believer. But beginning with that supposition can lead to ineffective treatment results that carry great eternal ramifications.

While it is certain that none of us can fully know the true spiritual condition of another person’s heart, we must be receptive to what the Holy Spirit reveals when we begin a counseling process. A thorough and ongoing spiritual assessment must be at the foundation of everything a counselor does.

Typically a counselor is consulted at a point of great distress and brokenness. God can, and will use this vulnerability to open the client’s heart to the gospel message. The fact that a non-believer has selected a biblical counselor may be evidence that God is working in that client’s life. Jesus said:

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him…” (Jn 6:44a).

When broken and tender, the heart of the client is searching for truth and peace that can only come through a personal relationship with Jesus. The Lord uses that pain and suffering to draw us into a situation where the truth can be spoken and received. Since there are no errors or accidents in the timing of God, the counseling session can be His appointed moment. Paul wrote:

…for He says, “AT THE ACCEPTABLE TIME I LISTENED TO YOU, AND ON THE DAY OF SALVATION I HELPED YOU.” Behold, now is “THE ACCEPTABLE TIME,” behold, now is “THE DAY OF SALVATION ” (2 Cor 6:2).

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