Counseling the (Really) Hard Cases
Sexual abuse. Schizophrenia. Anorexia. Porn. Postpartum depression. Paralyzing fear. Bipolar disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Dissociative identity disorder. Addiction. Adultery. Homosexuality.
Soberingly, the list goes on.
Counseling the Hard Cases: True Stories Illustrating the Sufficiency of God's Resources in Scripture, edited by Stuart Scott and Heath Lambert, offers refreshing hope. From beginning to end, the contributors share real-life stories showing how the truths of Scripture have been unleashed to bring help, hope, and healing into the lives of those battling some of the most difficult situations our fallen world presents.
When facing the messiest issues, does God's Word contain adequate resources for hope and change? Is it sufficient for the hard stuff, too? The testimony of story after story in Counseling the Hard Cases shouts a resounding yes.
I corresponded with Lambert and Scott, professors of biblical counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, about their book, misunderstandings related to counseling, practical advice for ministering to those enslaved by various sins, and more.
What one thing do you want every reader to know when he or she finishes the book?
We want the readers of our book to put it down possessing a fresh sense of the glory and power of Christ. It is a glorious truth that Jesus came to die for our sins and seal us for the day of redemption. Too many Christians, however, minimize all the work that Jesus does in the lives of his people while they're awaiting his return. Jesus came to save us, not just fully and finally at his return, but also progressively as we live the Christian life. This salvation includes his power to help us overcome our most difficult problems. Our prayer is that those who read these stories of real change amid the deepest problems will be encouraged to trust Jesus to help them in areas they've never considered or have perhaps even discounted.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while editing this book?
The most surprising thing was how encouraged we were by the great work Christ is doing in biblical counseling ministries all across the world. We knew Jesus' grace is sufficient to change people diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder---to mention just a few case studies in the book. We knew because we believe the Bible's testimony about Christ's power in these issues, and because we've seen it in our own ministries. Even though we knew it, we were deeply thankful to see that power so mightily at work in the lives of the people in this book. There were times we wept with joy over the powerful grace of Jesus realized in the lives of those so full of sin, pain, and suffering. It was an amazing grace to participate in a project where we got to see the mercy of Jesus at work in the lives of others, and to share those stories with readers.
What is the most common misunderstanding you hear among evangelicals about biblical counseling?
We think the most common misunderstanding continues to be the widespread belief that the Bible simply isn't sufficient for the kinds of hard cases we share in the book. Most Christians tend to believe the Bible is helpful for garden-variety problems only. If you're having trouble with your prayer life, if your marriage is a bit rocky, if you have questions about the existence of God, or if you're a little sad, then the resources of Scripture can help. If, however, you've been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, are suicidal, or have been declared to have post-traumatic stress disorder after enduring sexual abuse from your father, then you need something more. We want to point people to the wonderful news that Scripture has the resources to help with all the counseling-related problems people face---from the garden variety to the extreme. The Bible has power to address these problems because Jesus Christ is alive and has resources to address them. When we reduce the contents of Scripture to addressing only easy problems, we reduce the power of Christ to addressing only easy problems. By his resurrection power, Jesus means to redeem us from every struggle we face. The Bible isn't limited to providing guidance for problems that are only mild in nature.
What are some helpful principles for counseling a believer struggling with pornography?
This is a massive question. In fact, it is so big that each of us has addressed it in more detail. Heath Lambert has a forthcoming book titled Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace (Zondervan, 2013) about how to overcome struggles with pornography. Stuart Scott has a booklet coming out this fall titled Killer Faith: Conquering Sin Habits. A huge issue like this one needs a fuller treatment, and we hope those resources help.
One passage we can point to here, however, for some initial guidance is Romans 13:13-14: "Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires." As Paul encourages Christians to flee sexual immorality (like pornography), he urges two things. First, make no provision for the flesh. This is an exhortation for believers to do everything they can to eliminate their access to pornography. Believers struggling with pornography make provision for the flesh whenever they do things like keep their problem a secret from Christian friends, look at tempting material that isn't "pornographic" but increases sinful sexual desire, leave the internet on their computer and phones unfiltered, and are unaccountable with their time alone. A believer isn't serious about pursuing change until he eliminates the provisions he makes to commit sin. Second, put on Jesus Christ. It isn't enough to fight to keep from looking at immoral pictures. We need to fight to look at Jesus. This means a successful fight against porn involves not only the things you aren't doing, but, more importantly, the things you are doing. John Owen says, "Be sure to get an interest in Christ; if you intend to mortify sin without it, it will never be done." When the battle becomes about seeing Jesus in all his beauty, grace, glory, power, mercy, and love, then there isn't room left in your heart for porn.
If a friend or family member approaches me and says he or she is attracted to persons of the same sex, how should I respond and proceed?
This question requires a much lengthier response than we can provide here. Still, we can make several comments by way of setting up some boundaries for a response. First, you need to find out if your friend is a believer or an unbeliever. You may already know, but since the gospel is God's power, understanding whether he or she is a believer is crucial in determining how you will do ministry. Second, be committed to help over the long-term. Overcoming same-sex attraction is often a lengthy battle that requires a long-term commitment. Your loved one will be vastly helped knowing he or she is not alone in the struggle. Third, listen well to the specifics of the struggle. Different people struggle with same-sex attraction for different reasons. You need to be sure you understand the dynamics of your friend's struggle so you can work on their actual problem---not just the one you think he or she has. Fourth, find someone who knows more than you who is able to help. As you seek to help there will be things you're unsure of, so find a wise and loving Christian who may have experience with these issues to give you guidance. Finally, don't freak out. Too many Christians react sinfully to such reports and perpetuate the impression that Christians don't have the resources to help. The reality is that folks with same-sex attraction aren't fundamentally different than anybody else, since we all know what it's like to have sexual desires that God says are sinful. We can speak to such strugglers with joy and hope because we all need the same Savior from sexual sin. That Savior powerfully cleanses and changes us from all our sexual struggles, including homosexual attraction (1 Cor 6:9-11).
In light of all of this, perhaps a helpful initial response would be something like, "I'm so glad you told me this. I love you and want to help. I may not have all the answers right now, but I know Jesus does and we'll figure out together what he says. Let's pray right now and ask him for his forgiveness, power to change, and wisdom to proceed." One of the case studies in our book concerns a man with homosexual struggles, so folks can turn there for more guidance.
The scandal at Penn State has brought the horrors of sexual abuse to the forefront of the public's mind. Why are authorities so tempted to cover up for the alleged abuser?
James 3:16 says, "For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice." This passage is incredibly illuminating. Wherever you find a practice that is vile and disorderly, jealousy and selfish ambition are at the root. The authorities at Penn State were more consumed with their reputations, jobs, financial packages, and football program than with caring for the vulnerable. Their jealousy and selfish ambition led to the judgment that a child's safety is expendable. We should condemn them sternly, yes, but also repentantly since we too possess selfish hearts and follow selfish pursuits.