Guest post by David Powlison

The following video is Bob Newhart’s spoof of a counseling moment. It is a sheer delight. I trust you will heartily enjoy the fictional Dr. Switzer’s interplay with the fictional Katherine Bigman, and will forward it to all your friends. It is, of course, a takeoff on the “Dr. Phil,” “Dr. Laura,” cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) that so dominates the American psychotherapy world.

Newhart’s wit also creates a perfect foil for understanding the contrast between what our world offers and the riches of biblical counseling. Here are a half dozen contrasts:

1. The Bible gives a vision for lifelong transformation and mutual aid—as well as for the 5-minute moment of insight, or the 5-week and 5-month seasons of change, or the 5-year unfolding movement of progressive transformation and deepening. “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” The encouragements of the gospel of grace meet us again and again. They are always new-to-you in some way. Yet they always embrace the Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

2. Our Father never simply says “Stop it!” to the Katherine Bigmans or anyone else. He knows we can’t change on our own. We have a living Savior, who died to give us mercy and lives to give us grace in times of need. The Word willingly became flesh and dwelt among us. We simply are not able to “Just say No.” If we happen to say No to one self-destructive behavior, our self-absorption will merely express itself in another, perhaps less obvious, form of self-destruction. Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses. He was tempted in all ways as we are, yet without sin. We need help from outside ourselves—and he helps. On our own, sins and miseries are fundamentally inescapable. The fear of being buried alive, the compulsion to self-induced vomiting, and the instinct to pursue destructive relationships are certainly first-order human miseries, confusions, and sins. Our Father’s “Stop” always comes with lots of ways, reasons, and help to “Go.”

3. Wisdom doesn’t speak in boilerplate. It’s never a one-size-fits-all formula. Or, contrary to the Christianese equivalent, it’s never 3-steps-to-Victory. So every psalm, every letter, every gospel, every prophet is different. The same redeemer God speaks and engages diverse people. And because the people face different problems and are prone to different struggles, his words and actions always come hand-crafted. Same with your words and actions. That’s what it means to counsel the living Christ to another. You might affirm one person, and challenge another, and teach another, and walk beside another, and listen to another, and weep with another . . . and do any or all of the above with the same person, depending. Such flexibility is not eclecticism. Wisdom from God is an appropriate, flexible, and timely wisdom. See 1 Thessalonians 5:14 and Ephesians 4:29 for starters.

4. Human responsibility is never by oneself and to oneself. It is always relational. For example, like all therapists, Dr. Phil meets with men and women whose lives are tragically wrong-headed and tragically alone. He, like Bob Newhart, sees the wrong-headedness. It’s easy to see that something’s wrong. But he doesn’t see—can’t see—that the person inhabits the barren-universe-of-self. The real world overflows with God and with opportunities to love others. But when you watch Dr. Phil counsel or when you meet with strugglers, that essential, desperate aloneness will break your heart. God awakens us first to see that we are not alone, drifting across an uncharted sea. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” now and always.

5. To bluntly confront such a frightened struggler violates the ABCs of biblical wisdom
: “comfort the faint-hearted, hold on to the weak, be patient with them all.” If Katherine Bigman were a conscienceless serial adulterer, filled with self-righteous bitterness, and aggressively blameshifing others for all her problems . . . then she’d be a candidate for “admonish the unruly.” But she presents herself as confused and needy. You’ll respond appropriately. Of course, warning and moral exhortation are facets of comprehensive wisdom. But biblical admonishment is premised on entirely different assumptions than the accusatory severities of a Dr. Phil. You hold out an entirely different hope for change. You are never hectoring. You never deliver personal threats. You never cast a person back on his or her own resources, as if flesh might tame unruly flesh. And you always hold out offers of mercy and hope to those who begin to take seriously what they look like to God. You always invite another person out of a life of futility and into a life positively worth living.

6. To counsel biblically is to fundamentally identify with the people with whom you converse. “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Cor. 10:12f). Katherine Bigman is a struggler, but she is not a nut. Which of us does not instinctually live in bondage to the fear of death? Or self-destructively worry about how we compare with other people and what they think about us? Or make a significant contribution to unfruitful relationships? To sympathetically identify with another is to become able to love. Only a man ignorant of our common humanity would ever lecture a struggler to shape up. The essential dynamic of biblical counseling is always tender and personal. “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:4). “He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness” (Heb. 5:2).

And so forth. Don’t ever think that biblical counseling is just CBT dolled up with some Bible verses. And “Stop it!” if you ever treat people that way! Wisdom is a wonderfully different creature. When our Father stops us from doing something wrong, he always starts us walking along a delightfully different path.

[I originally post this in 2007. One commenter thought that Dr. Powlison was building a straw-man and sought to defend cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT). For those interested in going a bit deeper, keep reading below the jump:

I can see how my post can be taken as a “straw man” argument. Perhaps the difficulty comes in my attempt to combine humor with seriousness. I intended the video to be purely humorous and enjoyable. Of course Bob Newhart does not give an adequate representation of any real therapy. It’s only a takeoff.

But like all good humor, it has a point. And that point was only my starting point for making positive points about biblical ministry. (And high-level criticisms of Dr. Phil and even the most sophisticated CBT. They have essential commonalities at the level of worldview and change dynamic, though they have many secondary differences.)

I do question several things in the second half of Elliot’s post. He raises points that many people raise, and I hope a careful answer can be helpful in clarifying some very important matters:

CBT has been proven to be decidedly successful in treating symptoms of anxiety and clinical depression, something for which Biblical counseling alone is unfortunately not very effective. However, I do think Biblical counseling can play a great role in addressing the causes of those disorders, an area that CBT specifically chooses not to enter into.

First, it’s important to recognize that any number of things can treat symptoms successfully. Give your life to some cause (any cause). Get better exercise. Cut out the caffeine. Hang out with more constructive friends. Volunteer to help needy people. Take a vacation in a beautiful place. Become a Hindu or Buddhist, and learn calming meditation techniques. Take psychoactive medications. Become schooled in ANY therapy. Any organized worldview and constructively purposeful lifestyle “works” better than a disorganized worldview that has no sense of bigger meaning and purpose. If I had to choose from that list of options for managing a fallen world in a psychologically-successful way, I’d pick Buddhism combined with finding a good cause. But God wants us to become part of his redemption of a fallen world, not simply to manage our reactions. And God calls us to give ourselves to the best cause. So wise biblical counseling will “treat symptoms” effectively, but on a more substantial foundation.

Second, symptom alleviation, per se, is never proof that something is right and true. For example, any and all therapies can teach you to manage your emotions and make better choices. They all tend to be “ascetic”—calling you to step back from the morass of experience and instinctive reactions. They teach you categories to reinterpret your life and experience. In other words, all therapies are theological and ministerial. CBT’s particular practical theology alleviates symptoms by teaching people Stoic philosophy. (Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire gives a wonderful scholarly treatment of the “discipleship” processes of the Stoics and other Greek philosophers.) The Stoic world view disciples you to be less upset by what’s happening to you. How? You become more internally centered on self-reliance, and retain a certain detachment from what happens to you. You become more “philosophical,” rather than becoming swallowed up in the disappointment, angst, anger, and fear caused by disappointed desires. That’s one kind of discipleship.

Christianity disciples you a different way. Christ teaches us to be more engaged with what’s going on, and with what’s wrong, but to view it and engage it through the eyes of redemptive love in Christ. We don’t quell our desires (the apatheia of Stoicism); we turn from the rule of our desires to the rule of God. Thus we redeem and retune our desires to function as they are meant to function. Wise biblical counseling also “successfully treats symptoms of anxiety and clinical depression,” but via a dynamic that generates faith and love, not a dynamic of self-reliance.

Third, CBT is certainly one option in the supermarket of ways to feel somewhat better and be less upset by life. It happens to be the option of choice currently, but if history is any guide (and it is!), that hegemony will eventually fade as the flaws in CBT become widely obvious to the culture, and something else appears more compelling. But, sticking with our cultural moment, what is the cash-value of a form of symptom-alleviation whose essential process is to inculcate a more psychologically-successful form of “leaning on your own understanding”? It does not teach a person to “trust in the Lord with all your heart,” to live in relationship to Him-with-whom-we-have-to-do. So it calms people down, but at the cost of becoming anesthetized to fundamental realities. By contrast, the psalms can be very upset – filled with anguish, anxiety, apprehension, pain—but it is an upset qualified and shaped by faith and love. So the psalms also know the peace-in-relationship of psalms 23 and 131, and the relational joys of the royal psalms and the hallulujah psalms. Psalms are far more “psychologically healthy” than a successful CBT patient, whose equanimity is successfully self-referential. And of course they are far more “psychologically healthy” than a prospective CBT client who is a nervous wreck, whose upset is unsuccessfully self-referential.

Fourth, I think it’s a mistake to think we can detach symptom alleviation from what any therapy/cure is doing at the level of the human heart. CBT in fact does “enter into the causes,” but in a way pointedly contrary to Christian faith. Any professed cure has implications for the heart’s loyalties and trusts. But a biblical gaze helps us see how Stoicism misdisciples the human heart into a false trust. False trust in a false message is why CBT “works.” No therapist of any kind can escape being an evangelist for what he or she believes is true. In CBT you feel better because you trust yourself more, and affirm your basic OKness more consistently. That’s entering into causes (unwittingly, while pretending that your answer is “objective/realistic,” and that you are theologically neutral). CBT carefully rewrites the inner script by making autonomy from God more successful and less frustrating.

Finally, I’m not sure what Elliot means by “biblical counseling alone.” I suspect he means citing Bible verses, doing Bible study, practicing the means of grace (prayer, preaching, sacrament, worship, small groups, accountability). (???) But to reduce wisdom to religious activities and theological words is exactly what actual biblical counseling aims to blow up and rebuild. Such spiritualizing is why the church usually lacks a vision for real counseling ministry, and thus is so vulnerable to things like CBT that pretend to operate in a different sphere (“symptoms,” not “causes”). If biblical counseling is a comprehensive wisdom, just as CBT is a comprehensive wisdom (founded on a different faith), then why can’t wise biblical counseling accomplish everything CBT accomplishes—and far more? It will do so on a sound rather than faulty basis, creating reliance on Christ rather than reliance on self. If something really deals with causes, it will also deal with symptoms, by definition. Morphine eases the pain of cancer; removing the tumor also eases the pain of cancer. If our worst cancers are operable by the means of mere words communicated in a relationship of trust, then why not skillfully employ the words of Christian faith rather than the words of Stoic faith?

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Comments:


48 thoughts on “Bob Newhart’s Counseling Method: A Terrific Spoof . . . and a Serious Comment”

  1. donsands says:

    I like when she says, “I wash my hands a lot.” And Newhart says, “That’s alright. I do that. ..Don’t worry about that one.”

    Great skit. And good post.

  2. Elliot Ravenwood says:

    Hi David,

    I appreciated it when you responded to my comment back when this post was originally published in 2007. Your clarification post was helpful.

    However, there were a couple very interesting comments that that subsequent post that I thought were decent responses.

    Would you be interested in addressing those comments as well?

    Best regards,
    Elliot

    [Old comments to follow]

  3. Elliot Ravenwood says:

    Comment 1
    [From original post: http://bit.ly/9FlypP

    Steve L. Porter
    November 8, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    Thanks for your response to Elliot. Very helpful. Your answer to the following question would clarify your position even further: do you think it is possible that a person could receive helpful treatment of symptoms through CBT (e.g. they have less anxiety about leaving their home) and find that this reduction of symptoms is part of what helps them to grow in deeper trust and intimacy with Christ? If so, it sounds as if your argument is simply that biblical counseling (of the type you espouse) is a much better form of treatment than CBT. If that is what you are claiming, then it remains the case that CBT could still be utilized in a manner that is consistent with biblical discipleship. That seems to be an important concession for those Christians who have experienced beneficial results from CBT and for those Christians (or non-Christians) who may not have a well-trained biblical counselor available to them but can avail themselves of the less-than-ideal help of a Cog-B therapist. Thoughts?

  4. Elliot Ravenwood says:

    Comment 2
    [From original post: http://bit.ly/9FlypP

    CBT tends to be practiced in many different ways. Very few clinicians actually practice strict CBT which tends to be manual based and very symptom focused. The goal of CBT is providing an accurate perspective on a person’s internal thoughts as well as an accurate interpretation of their feelings. Most clinicians tend to utilize these concepts to some degree in therapy.

    I think that much of the material from CCEF (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation)is about providing an accurate perspective on our true nature and our desperate need for a savior. God’s story of redemption provides the framework for our lives. The Gospel provides the ultimate correction to all of our distortions.

    I don’t find the concepts of CBT contradictory to any of CCEF’s material. However,The scope of CBT is limited since it never addresses our sin nature and it is certainly not Christ focused. I do believe CBT is helpful in helping people to cope with anxiety and depression.

    Practicing Psychiatrist

  5. Elliot Ravenwood says:

    Btw, for those interested in hearing multiple sides in the debate about Christian psychology and biblical counseling, Psychology & Christianity: Five Views is a good primer. (http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=2848)

    The book represents the different views of several faithful and thoughtful Christians, including Between Two World’s own favorite Biblical Counselor, David Powlinson.

  6. NFQ says:

    I’ve got to say, I’m baffled. There are very legitimate criticisms of pop counseling that this humorous video brings up, but to turn from it and segue into extolling the virtues of Biblical counseling seems beyond absurd. Of course the Bible has a boilerplate recipe for solving your problems and making your life — it’s called God’s commandments. At least, that’s what I’ve been told approximately one zillion times by people who want to “save” me. Have you decided that the specific teachings of the Bible aren’t important anymore? That all the times when God and/or Jesus says, walk this way, talk this way, think this way, be this way and that’s the only way to live OR ELSE — it’s all cancelled out by a verse or two about “wisdom” or something, and now it’s okay for different people to make different moral judgments about what’s best in their own lives? I just can’t figure you Christians out.

    1. Joy says:

      NFQ, I am a Christian and I don’t agree with Justin Taylor. There is a doctrine called Christian Liberty that says we are free as Christians to follow our consciences on matters not expressly ruled on in worship and faith.

      I personally believe the means of grace sanctify (a very specific set of practices), and psychology has much to offer us, if we choose to seek it outside of the church.

      Only some Christians practice this sort of counseling and they insist that their way is the most biblical… of course, all Christians should believe the approach they take to issues of wisdom is the most biblical and glorifying to God.

      1. NFQ says:

        Joy, there are over 38,000 denominations of Christians worldwide. And within each denomination, to be sure, there are particular Christians whose opinions deviate slightly from the official doctrine. There are blends of different denominations, and still other people who say that they are not “religious” but rather “have a personal relationship with Jesus.” All these people call themselves Christians.

        So, you’re absolutely right when you say that “all Christians should believe the approach they take to issues of wisdom is the most biblical and glorifying to God.” But what am I supposed to do when any one particular Christian tells me that I should be a Christian *their* way? How do I know whether or not any one particular Christian is a “true” Christian?

        1. Joy says:

          These are tough questions, Mr. NFQ. I can tell you that we can never be absolutely certain someone is a “true” Christian.

          You are always welcome at my church, Bethel OPC(www.bethelopc.org). We’d be happy to have you.

          1. NFQ says:

            Heh, what a strange non-answer that was. Would you be happy to have me convert to Christianity and join your church? Or would you be happy to have me enter your church building and ask your congregants if they have any good reason besides brainwashing to believe what they believe?

            I know those are tough questions, thanks for noticing, but I haven’t gotten a good answer yet. As long as the Bible teaches X in one place and not-X in another place, and different groups of Christians can say, “Well, there’s a doctrine that says…” to cover up the fact that they are just picking the verse they like better and ignoring the other, I know Christianity cannot be the belief system for me.

            Also, I’m female.

            1. Joy says:

              Haha. Whoops. I’m sorry, I was trying to show respect in an odd-internet sort of way, honest.

              A non-answer? Well, I thought you might not be serious, but I tried to be kind and give you the best answer I knew. But if you know the answer, you know the answer.

              A good day to you.

              1. NFQ says:

                No worries. Good day to you as well.

            2. Lots of Christians put together two biblical texts in tension in ways that seem to them to be the most likely way to fit together, even when it turns out not to be the way to put them together that they’d most like.

              For example, I might most like to find a way to put together the various teachings on the afterlife such that hell is temporary, and universalism is true. It would certainly be easier among my philosophical colleagues if I didn’t hold to an exclusivist doctrine with an actual eternal hell. But it seems to me that the best way to put together the Bible’s teachings is not the set of views that I would most like but the ones that seem to be the most plausible ways to take everything all together.

              Similarly, it would be a lot easier for me if I didn’t have to come up with some way to explain philosophically what’s so wrong with same-sex sexual behavior. It doesn’t affect me one way or the other in terms of my own life, but it makes life a lot more difficult for me as a philosopher to put together the biblical passages in the way that seems most faithful to their teachings.

              So I’d ask you please to refrain from trying to impugn Christians’ motives as simply attempting to justify what they’d like to justify when interpreting the scriptures. There are philosophical commitments that people have when doing hermeneutics, and often people will simply follow those even when they don’t happen to like the views it will lead to. As Socrates would say, you follow the argument where it leads, not where you’ve prearranged for it to go.

              Even if there may be instances where what you say happens, it doesn’t do to act as if every time someone considers two seemingly-at-odds statements and puts them together they’re just doing so in a way that leads them to believe what they’d like to believe. That’s simply not so, and it’s insulting to people who think very hard about their belief system to make the claim you’re making.

              1. NFQ says:

                I’m sorry, I did not mean to imply that Christians are selfishly leafing through the Bible until they find a verse they like, then engraving only that verse upon the walls of their own church. I think it’s a much more subconscious, collective process. When you go to church and listen to your pastor preach, you hear about the verses that confirm your denomination’s doctrine, and you don’t hear so much about the other verses. You end up memorizing the beginning of Psalm 137, but never seem to get to that last line, “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” I don’t think, for most Christians (excepting folks like Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps, Ted Haggard, et al.) it is a malicious thing. It’s an accidental thing, the way we all have to struggle against confirmation bias. We remember the things we agree with and ignore the things we didn’t like.

                I should say I’m talking from pretty extensive experience with Christians in philosophical conversations, not just making random personal attacks. For example — I’ve attended Bible study meetings many times with Christian friends, and raised questions about verses we read that didn’t match with their interpretations of Christianity. Every time they would essentially just try to ignore it by pointing out other scripture. We’d talk about it in circles for a while until I got tired of it and let it go.

                You might be interested to know that there are several places in the Bible that do appear to say that universalism is true. 1 Corinthians 15:22 says, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” 1 Timothy 4:10 says, “For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.” This says “specially” but not “exclusively,” implying that everyone, including nonbelievers, are saved but that believers are extra-double saved or something. 1 John 2:2 says that Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Yes, of course there is plenty elsewhere about “the lake of fire and brimstone,” “everlasting destruction” and all that, but — what makes you confident that the universalist verses are the ones which must be interpreted away, the ones that would be incorrect to read literally? Why is that the most “plausible” to you?

                Please don’t get me wrong. Perhaps you have read the entire Bible, remember the whole thing, and have found a way to reconcile all the internal contradictions in a way that is perfectly consistent. Perhaps you have a very compelling reason why you are the Christian denomination you are and not any other, and perhaps you also have a compelling reason about why you are a Christian in the first place — why you think the Bible is true and authoritative, as opposed to any other religion’s holy text, or as opposed to no religion at all.

                If so, that is great, and I would love to speak with you more. I have never met a Christian who could give me a good reason why they were Christian.

  7. David Murray says:

    Justin, whatever else this video presents, it is certainly not CBT. It does remind me of some “biblical counseling” I have come across though.

    This is a classic case of misrepresenting a position in order to make demolition of it easier. It’s the kind of thing that gets Christians a really bad name in the wider “caring” profession.

    I sympathize with NFQ!

    1. NFQ says:

      Thanks, David!

    2. Justin Taylor says:

      David,

      Did you read the whole post?

      1. Elliot Ravenwood says:

        Justin,

        Even if David didn’t read the whole post, I think his comment is still fair. I also don’t see how Newhart’s sketch, humorous though it is, has anything to do with CBT therapy.

        But Powlinson is using it as a starting point to criticize CBT. Doesn’t that seem a bit unfair?

        After the video, Powlinson writes: “Newhart’s wit also creates a perfect foil for understanding the contrast between what our world offers and the riches of biblical counseling.”

        Obviously biblical counseling will appear immeasurably better than the therapy of “Newhart’s wit”, which Powlinson associates with CBT that the beginning of his post.

      2. David Murray says:

        Justin: I am very surprised at you posting this video, and even more surprised at the way you introduce it. I’ve always admired your scholarly carefulness and this just seems so out of character. You are usually a beacon of moderation and restraint in a blogosphere of extremities.

        Yes, there are some helpful comments about CBT later on in the post, but why not just start the post with that.

        Imagine how we would feel if MSNBC began a blog post on the crucifixion with an SNL video that presented the cross as cosmic child abuse “as a take-off on the view of the atonement that so dominates American Christianity.” And then a respected liberal theologian is quoted as saying that this funny video presented a perfect foil to study the contrast between what evangelicals believe and the riches of God’s universal love. Here are half a dozen contrasts…

        Whatever words follow, the first and abiding impression has been made with the opening images and words. And we would protest loudly and justly at the gross misrepresentation.

        And the fact remains that the video bears no resemblance to CBT. Behavior therapy maybe, but not cognitive behavior therapy. By its very definition CBT is not “mind-less.”

        Are there problems with CBT as practiced by many? Of course there are. However, I presume part of our mission is not only to redeem our culture’s counseling methodologies, but also the counselors themselves. This kind of misrepresentation is not going to help that at all.

        There are a lot more parallels between CBT and biblical counseling than many will admit. In fact, I think it could be argued that Psalm 77 is simply God-centered CBT. But that’s for another day.

        1. Am I misreading things that badly? It looks to me as if this is a guest post by David Powlison, something he first posted a few years ago somewhere else and is now using here.

          1. Justin Taylor says:

            You’re right, Jeremy. I asked David Powlison to write this a few years ago, and I just reposted it.

  8. donsands says:

    “Of course the Bible has a boilerplate recipe for solving your problems and making your life — it’s called God’s commandments.”

    The commandments of God, and His law condmen us, and show us how dirty we are. The boilerplate recipe for Christians is Christ.

    As the Apsotle Paul said: ” Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Phil. 3:8

    1. Tyler says:

      Amen!

    2. pdgie says:

      The commands show us how dirty we are, but it is an error (a common error, but an error) to claim that that is all they are or are for

      Psalm 119 for instance

      Oh, how I love your law!
      I meditate on it all day long.
      Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,
      for they are ever with me.
      I have more insight than all my teachers,
      for I meditate on your statutes.
      I have more understanding than the elders,
      for I obey your precepts.
      I have kept my feet from every evil path
      so that I might obey your word.
      I have not departed from your laws,
      for you yourself have taught me.
      How sweet are your words to my taste,
      sweeter than honey to my mouth!
      I gain understanding from your precepts;
      therefore I hate every wrong path.

      The psalmist found great value in the commandments for solving his problems and making his life wise.

    3. NFQ says:

      I thought that Christ said to keep the commandments (the important ones, anyway). But it wouldn’t surprise me if you’d prefer to dodge that, too. It’s not like it’s important what it actually says in the Bible, is it?

      Tell me, how is “Follow Christ!” as a boilerplate solution for all problems any better, or even meaningfully different in any way, from “Stop it!”? In him all things are possible, right? So love Jesus, and poof, everything’s better! So simple.

      1. GV says:

        Dear NFQ,
        as an unbeliever, you must project yourself into a Christian’s shoes, so to speak, if you’re serious about wanting to “figure us out”. “Stop it!”, is telling a person to DO exactly that for which he sought help in the first place and which he is unable to do. In other words, it’s a non-solution.
        The Christian, on the other hand, has met the truly unique, all-able Creator of the universe, which you, I presume, don’t believe exists. The only way you can understand that “Follow Christ!” is fundamentally different from “Stop it!”, is by putting your non-belief on hold for a minute and imagining that Christ really is God, and it really is possible to know Him and tap into His personal care. Did you see the movie Contact? Jodie Foster went on a wondrous journey, met someone and learned some life-changing things from her experience; but when she got back, no one believed she’d been anywhere, and they had the photographic evidence to prove it. But she had actually gone somewhere, it was simply in some time-dimension about which humanity as yet knew nothing. Now, that’s a science-fiction story, but it aptly illustrates the dynamic between a believer in Christ and a non-believer. Of course, from your viewpoint, the Christian is imagining a Jesus. But there is the possibility that there really is a Jesus and He exists in a dimension called faith, a place to which you have not yet been.

        Christianity doesn’t offer a boilerplate solution, and any time a “Christian” has offered it to you as that, he was mistaken in doing so. What Christianity offers is a sort of boilerplate diagnosis – Sin – which explains millions of human maladies, and then offers the (only) solution for this Primary Cause. Like alcoholism counselors, who know that an active alcoholic’s primary problem is the drinking, and until that is stopped, all other “solutions” are just bandaids on a a festering wound, destined to eventually drop off because they don’t address the biggest of the problems involved, Christians know, or believe that, until the problem of sin and salvation is addressed, a sufferer of any type of problem will not be able to tap in to the help which alone can set his feet on a steady path to improvement and health. It’s not a boilerplate solution and then poof, everything’s better, rather it’s a “boilerplate” beginning point that could be named Meet the Counselor, and then a life of healing from then on.

        P.S. The ten commandments are an illustration of what pleases God, it’s true, but they were given to man so that he could become aware of his own total inability to follow them, because of his innate sin nature. In this way man could come to realize his need of mercy and a Savior. God is the ten commandments, yes, but Christianity is the Savior.

        - GV

      2. But you can’t be biblical and maintain that every single one of every single person’s problems are a result of that person’s sin. For example, you can’t tell someone with Down Syndrome to stop sinning so their Down Syndrome will go away. But their Down Syndrome might cause things that CBT could help with. So it’s a false dilemma to say that anyone who seeks CBT is eschewing the biblical solution of dealing with sin. Not all problems are caused by the sin problem in the way you have in mind.

        1. GV says:

          I agree with you, of course. Problems like Down’s Syndrome certainly aren’t caused by the person’s sin. Those types of problems were not included in my consideration, and I was not trying to give any opinion at all regarding CBT.

          In any case, I wouldn’t tell anyone to syop sinning so their problem will go away. That’s exactly our problem which requires none other that Jesus Christ; we CAN’T stop sinning.

          GV

  9. Jim says:

    As someone who has plenty of experience with CBT and Biblical counseling, I agree with NFQ that this skit in no way represents what happens with a trained therapist. It is so unfortunate that this kind of smear job is appearing here. It was only after years of Biblical counseling that I found my way to a secular, CBT counselor who has helped me change many destructive thought patterns.

    I think it’s time to address the very real problem of irresponsible Biblical “counseling” that is frequently nothing more than the opinions of some inadequately “trained” person without any profressional credentials whatsoever.

    They are leading so many people astray by advising them not to take anti-depressants and not to attend AA or NA meetings. I’ve been sober now for 16 years and can tell you that what is happening amongst addicts in far too many Reformed evangelical churches is an absolute scandal.

    Every single Christian addict I’ve known (and sponsored) who has quit attending 12 step meetings after receiving Christian counseling has ultimately gone back to using again.

    I urge you to take an honest look at what is really happening in Reformed churches, where the mentality seems to be that understanding “the gospel” will cure everything. Trust me, our doctrinally correct churches are full of active alcoholics, sex and drug addicts who “know the gospel” and are totally powerless to do anything about it.

    In 16 years, I’ve never once seen Biblical counseling lead anyone to sobriety.

    1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

      “In 16 years, I’ve never once seen Biblical counseling lead anyone to sobriety.”

      Have you ever spoken to someone who had biblical counseling and became sober?

      On a related note, have you ever spoken to someone who had biblical counseling and has ceased engaging in same-sex behavior?

    2. pdgie says:

      “I urge you to take an honest look at what is really happening in Reformed churches, where the mentality seems to be that understanding “the gospel” will cure everything. Trust me, our doctrinally correct churches are full of active alcoholics, sex and drug addicts who “know the gospel” and are totally powerless to do anything about it.”

      I think there is something here to this, and perhaps a pervasive antinomian tendency in the ‘know the gospel’ crowd.

      I wonder how much of it is related to a huddling the wagons around knowing the gospel because of a failure of nerve w.r.t. the rest of the bible (on science, ethics, history, etc).

      The preachers are ‘preaching what the know’ and what isn’t subject to ANY form of intellectual challenge (like even ethics is).

      Thanks for your comment.

  10. donsands says:

    “So love Jesus, and poof, everything’s better! So simple.” NFQ

    The Christian lives by faith. We are dead to the law. We are crucified with Christ. Christ was nailed to the Cross, and all true Christians have been nailed with Him, not literally as He was. We did not have to have spikes hammered through our wrists and feet, but by faith we are dead; and yet we live, but not us, but Christ in us.

    Now there is another portion to the Christian’s walk with Christ:

    “..the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Gal 5:17

    So we don’t always do what we want to do, and we do want we don’t want to do (Rom. 7).

    So, who can deliver me from this body of death and sinful desires?

    “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” Rom. 7:25

    I do love the law, in my born again spirit, but my flesh still fights against it.
    But when i live by faith, and also by love for Jesus Christ, It is proof of His grace in me, and His Spirit in me conforming me into the image of Christ.

    This life will be a struggle and at times down right painful. But, there’s a day coming when I will be set free forever! Christ said, “It is Finished!” whne He was on the Cross. He died, and then rose three days later, and now sits at the right hand of His Father, making all things new, in His time.
    One day there will be a new Earth where there will be no more need for counselers, for there will be only righteousness and love in the real new kingdom of God, and no more evil and sin.

    Sorry for the rambling, but one thing led to another.

  11. NFQ and Jim,

    You are certainly raising a legitimate point that both CBT and some forms of Biblical counselling/teaching share the same problem of human-centeredness. One is inherent and one is (hopefully) unintentional and incomplete (albeit regrettably and with loads of devastating consequences).

    In CBT (regardless of whether the practitioner is a Christian or not), the source of man’s problem is internal, but only partially so. Wrong thinking causes problems; wrong thinking fixes them. We have the power to fix ourselves by trading wrong thinking for right.

    In incomplete Biblical counselling, the source of man’s problem is internal, but at the behavioral level. We are sinners because we do, say and think bad things. Jesus lived and died for us to take the penalty for all the bad things we’ve done. Once we repent of our sins and believe in Jesus, the Bible becomes our manual to teach us how to stop doing/saying/thinking bad thing and start doing/saying/thinking good things. The goal is trading sinful behavior for godly behavior, and we have the power, with the Bible as our tool, to make that change.

    In more complete Biblical counselling, man’s problem is internal, but at the very deepest level. We are made in God’s image, but because of Adam’s sin, we are literally born spiritually dead. We are unable to know God (in His Word), see God (in creation or in His word), or reflect God’s image and nature. Our sinful deeds, words and thoughts are an expression of that deadness. No matter what level of surface change the shadow of being made in God’s image enables us to muster up, our inherent problem remains. Unless, that is, God opens our eyes to our state and reveals to us that Jesus, God in human flesh, lived on our behalf, took the curse of our sin on our behalf and was resurrected on our behalf, When we believe this – believe that we deserved it and believe that Jesus did it, for us – we are not just cleansed of our sinful deeds. We are given the nature we were originally created to have – we have eyes that see creation and God’s Word for what it is (the revelation of the One who made us), we have ears that receive God’s Word for what it is – life-giving spiritual food. Now the shadow that remains is the shadow of our old, dead self. The power to change is in the Holy Spirit, who lives in us and speaks to us through His Word, reminding us of who God is, and of who we are as His restored, redeemed children. The brighter that the light of that truth shines in our hearts, the smaller and weaker the shadow becomes. The goal of complete Biblical counselling is first determining which nature someone is living in, and letting God’s Word be the source of light and life it’s meant to be, even if that means in this life someone continues to struggle with the real shadows of difficult sin issues.

    Jim, what you’re describing is the medical equivalent of what happens when a cancer patient is given a badly-inserted I.V. The only results are excruciating pain and no cure. But the solution isn’t finding someone who knows how to administer an I.V. but only wants to use saline. The solution is to rip out the I.V., and find someone who knows both the difference between the real medicine and a placebo, and how to administer it.

    1. Joy says:

      “Jim, what you’re describing is the medical equivalent of what happens when a cancer patient is given a badly-inserted I.V. The only results are excruciating pain and no cure. But the solution isn’t finding someone who knows how to administer an I.V. but only wants to use saline. The solution is to rip out the I.V., and find someone who knows both the difference between the real medicine and a placebo, and how to administer it.”

      This, like JT’s post above, rests on a mind-body dualism.

      1. Now that’s certainly not true. I’m no fan of Powlison’s view or Rachael’s analogy, but it doesn’t depend on any particular metaphysical view of the mind. Powlison’s claim is that the solution CBT offers doesn’t solve the deepest problems, which are spiritual. You can think your mind is your brain but think sin doesn’t get solved with medication or CBT. The problem with Rachael’s analogy isn’t in her view of the mind but in her reductionism of all psychological and mental problems to the category of sin.

  12. donsands says:

    “The goal of complete Biblical counselling is first determining which nature someone is living in, and letting God’s Word be the source of light and life it’s meant to be, even if that means in this life someone continues to struggle with the real shadows of difficult sin issues.”

    Good word.

  13. This is a great article! Theological revelation is not always particularly practical, but Christian ministry, biblical counseling in particular, is always practical. That is, where an approach to counseling doesn’t yield results another approach much be considered that does yield results.

    And the results as a goal must be properly established. If the goal of the counselor is mere behavior modification or even helping someone feel good then the goal is short of the biblical goal. There may need to be a period of making someone feel better to prevent suicide, or modifying behavior to prevent murder, for example. However, the biblical goal is for spiritual growth. That sometimes requires periods of feeling bad as a matter of learning such things as endurance, trust or humility. Taking my kids to work in missions in third-world countries I knew that they would endure sickness and discomfort, but learn the joy of serving God meaningfully in the midst of suffering.

    I must also consider that too many Christians have the false ministry of complaining as though their complaining performed some important function and would result in some good end. They may complain about some pastor or church leader, some otherwise ordinary Christian or even a pre-Christian who didn’t fit the mold they think good Christians should fit. “He has tattoos,” “They are dirty and are messing up the church,” or “Doesn’t she know how to wear a dress?” Poor counsel like these comments tend not to produce much in the way of spiritual growth.

  14. I have a masters in Counseling, and Biblical Counseling, and over 30 years. Well I like it “Just stop it.” I just might try it. Charles Solomon said he could cure a person in one session. You don’t need six months. Don’t you think, a Christian can stop. If the Holy Spirit can’t help a person stop it, we are all in trouble. I am sort of kidding, but there is a lot of truth in this.

  15. It’s already been pointed out that this video has pretty much nothing to do with CBT. What no one has pointed out so far are the differences between CBT and Stoicism and the fact that much of Stoicism is not only unproblematic but actually well in keeping with Christianity.

    Stoicism, at least on the issues relevant here, involves one major claim. The Stoics thought that something outside your control is not worth worrying about. The reason is that your life is made worse off by your worrying, but you can do something about the worry. You can’t do anything about the fact that Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008 or the fact that lots of people died in China from landslides. You can do something to help those who remain, and you can do something to change people’s minds on policy issues, but there’s no point in worrying about something you can’t do anything about.

    That seems entirely reasonable to me. The Stoics do go on to say that we should remove emotions, but it’s important to be clear on what they meant. They defined emotions more or less as bad reasoning. Things we call feelings that aren’t bad reasoning and are compatible with good reasoning would not be emotions for the Stoic. So there’s no reason to complain about that view. We should eschew the things they called emotions. They had a false view about what we should call emotions, but the substance of their view is mostly right, as Augustine so deftly argued in his critique of the Stoics. Feelings of any sort should be submitted to reason.

    Where the Stoic goes wrong is in not submitting things to the lordship of Christ. I can’t even say that they don’t equate submission to reason with submission to God. They do. They just have a false view of what God is like. Does that affect the practical level? Not so much. Does it affect CBT? Not remotely.

    CBT corrects ABA therapy. ABA insists on treating only behavior without dealing with anything internal, e.g. unhealthy beliefs. CBT is an improvement. The trick is getting the beliefs right. Not all CBT therapists will, but some will, even if the ones who aren’t believers won’t be going fully deeply enough when the issues that come up are ones that Christians have deeper insight into (and not all issues are like that, e.g. dealing with an autistic child’s attachment to a hat, which isn’t really a sin issue primarily). The question isn’t whether CBT is all right. The answer to that depends on which beliefs you plug in. Plug the right ones in, and it’s perfectly fine.

    But is it a band-aid if there’s a deeper solution? As Powlison says near the end, it might be. But he also says it’s better than nothing. I would say that it may be just what you need. If my autistic son is having fits over losing his hat, and he’s not at a point where telling him to trust God will do a thing, then CBT may be the band-aid that helps him handle the symptoms and stop worrying about it. If that’s the best that’s neurologically possible at his developmental level, then I would argue that it’s unbiblical to insist that counseling not use CBT methods, because that would contradict more general biblical commands. (I would say, similarly, that ABA is wrong most of the time for ignoring the internal, but with a kid who is so impulsive and unable to communicate as my other autistic son it might actually be the only thing that will help him, because CBT doesn’t work if you can’t talk about your thoughts, just as so-called biblical counseling doesn’t work when you’ve got someone with severe disabilities in understanding what sin is. I sure hope no one tells me to tell my two-month old to stop crying because it’s sinful not to appreciate his parents.)

  16. James says:

    As a Reformed believer I’m familiar with straw men, but usually they’re being thrown up by those critiquing my theology rather than those with whom I share my beliefs.

    As a Reformed believer with a counseling background, I too am disappointed with this unfair critique of CBT. Yes, Christ heals ultimately, but throwing out-of-context Scripture at a wrong thought process sounds a bit like claiming our sins are literally washed away when the water is sprinkled over us at baptism–a bit too Harry-Potterish on the magic scale.

  17. HSK says:

    I’m afraid I’ve not been able to do more than skim-read the comments. But it seems that there is a significant feeling that CBT has been misunderstood in the article. I’m sure a lot of interesting discussion could come from this. Personally, I’m coming from the perspective of trying to decide whether or not to get CBT having had it recommended to me (at least as a short term solution). I’d like to research it a bit more but having done a minimal amount, I resonated a bit with the following sentences in the article:
    “What is the cash-value of a form of symptom-alleviation whose essential process is to inculcate a more psychologically-successful form of “leaning on your own understanding”? It does not teach a person to “trust in the Lord with all your heart,” to live in relationship to Him-with-whom-we-have-to-do. So it calms people down, but at the cost of becoming anesthetized to fundamental realities.”
    As well as the later comment about it easing symptoms rather than healing.
    (And I’m sorry to go against the seemingly popular opinion, but I loved the skit. Representative of CBT or not!)

    1. I think the point is that whether it’s a more psychologically-successful form of leaning on your own understanding depends entirely on what content you put into it. CBT is just a method. The counselor will help you choose certain content in your own mind that’s unhealthy, false, and harmful and then will help you choose certain content to replace it with that’s healthy, true, and beneficial. There is in fact a command in scripture that says to do exactly that. Whether it’s leaning on your own understanding depends entirely on whether the content chosen to be removed is in fact bad content by scriptural standards, and whether the content chosen to be added is in fact good depends on whether it concords with scripture.

      In my son’s group, the psychologist tried to get them to figure out which thoughts were poisonous that they were thinking and tried to get them to come up with healthier thoughts to replace them with. That can be bad if it does nothing but teach them to use their own fallen thought processes to think whatever makes them feel good. It can be healthy if it allows a Spirit-led person to think carefully with a renewed mind what sorts of beliefs they hold that are bad and what sort of beliefs they hold that are good. The difference between private meditation as a believer and a counselor-led CBT session is that the CBT counselor is professionally-trained to help people figure out what they’re really thinking and how that will affect them negatively.

  18. Jeremy,

    I’ve been following the discussion in between managing my three kids all starting at a new school yesterday, so this is the first chance I’ve had to respond. I’m going to do my best to try here, and then I’m happy for you to have the last word – for now ;).

    When I read your initial comments, I took the time to read your own blog and get your personal perspective – I had a feeling that, like everyone, you had some personal background that informs your perspective. (For the record, I do too – more on that in a minute.)

    I understood this clip and Powlison’s commentary on it to be commentary on the vast majority of counselling – that of relatively healthy people seeking help with regular problems – the crowd that looks to Drs. Phil, Laura et al for answers. People with genuine disabilities such as autism, Down’s syndrome, etc. are definitely a different and far more difficult category.

    But is divorcing or compartmentalizing the (very real) challenges within these categories from the sufficiency of Scripture the answer?

    I agree wholeheartedly that conditions such as autism are very much not just about sin. But they, like everything else in the world, are very much about the Fall. All people are born spiritually broken, and that brokenness manifests itself in myriad ways. The greatest and most serious manifestation is our sinfulness. But it’s not the only one. Others do include our bodies and our brains. (As I remind my children regularly – the Fall didn’t just make us sinful – it made us really, really stupid.)

    The kingdom that Jesus came to usher in was not just a kingdom of cleansing from sin

    1. I’m not advocating divorcing anything from a biblical mindset or from biblical commands and advice. I’m also not advocating seeing things like autism as isolated from the fallenness of the world. It’s very much a result of the fall (at least the deficiencies it results in are), just as broken arms and neurologically-caused hormone imbalances in the brain are a result of the fall.

      That doesn’t stop me from seeing a dermatologist if I get a serious skin condition, and it doesn’t stop me from seeing a specialist in child development conditions if my kids have autism and ADHD. Why should it stop me from involving my kids in programs that use techniques that aren’t contradictory to scripture such as CBT and when there’s a need to supplement it or counter anything that is bad as things go along, just as I might do with anything a doctor, occupational therapist, or educator might do?

      1. Oh Jeremy, I’m so sorry – I posted my previous comment accidentally before I finished it, then I had to bail on the second part when kid commitments of my own called. With your permission, I’m going to try again tomorrow, and then probably need to be done with this thread and wait until heaven for you and I to find out who was moer right :) . Believe me – I wrestle with these things also from a very personal perspective, and I want to be open to reason. In the meantime, JT just posted a very interesting piece from Fred Sanders’ new book on the Trinity that may speak to what I want to say tomorrow – that it’s mostly a failing of the (still) fleddgling Biblical counselling arena that compels battling families like yours and mine to look elsewhere for needed help.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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