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Traditional biblical counseling relies heavily on historical data as a way to find out about the person. The traditional biblical counselor uses assessments and other inventory style questions to gather information before meeting the counselee.
According to this conventional method of counseling, the counselor believes to have as much information before the person shows up for their counseling appointment is the best approach to care for them. The assumption is that understanding the person can be found in the history of the individual rather than the heart of the individual. That approach is different from the way Jesus practiced biblical counseling.
But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. – John 2:24-25
Jesus already knew what the problems were before He met the person. The person’s history, whatever that may be, did not alter what He already knew about him. If anything, it only affirmed what He already knew about the person because Jesus had inside information.
History and shaping influences were merely data points like a trail of breadcrumbs that allowed Jesus to show the person what He already knew. The difference between Jesus’ model of soul care and the traditional biblical counselor is between being historically-centered or heart-centered.
Knowing the history of a person does play a role. I am not throwing the baby out with its history. Understanding a person’s past provides the counselor with the information needed to paint a clearer picture to help the counselee see how he thinks and makes decisions.
The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. – Luke 6:44-45
Jesus taught that there is no discontinuity between who a person is and what a person does. The heart causes the behavior, and the behavior reveals the heart. The primary key for any discipler is to have a thorough working knowledge of a person’s heart. Christians do not need to be at a disadvantage in any counseling situation because, like Jesus, we know what is in man.
We understand the hearts of people—how they think, process, struggle, and respond to life’s issues. Why? All individuals are the same where it matters. What the Christian needs more than historical data is a sound biblical heart hermeneutic.
Twelve Universal Assumptions
Think of the preceding infographic like the letter “V.” At the top of the “V” are all people. Each one of them is a unique person with a unique story. They come from different places and are shaped by various things. Some of their main shaping influences are their DNA, parents, siblings, family dynamics, culture, education, religion, and friends. All of these things give them a one-of-a-kind story. It makes them who they are.
You’ll notice how their stories echo the condition of their hearts, which is a commonality we all share. We’re all cut from the same cloth. That cloth may have a unique behavioral history, but it still came from the same point of origin: Adam. We’re all in and from one man. In that way none of us are unique. While we can be radically different on the outside, we cannot be entirely different on the inside. That would be an impossible counseling conundrum: seven billion people who function seven billion different ways with seven billion different control centers (hearts).
The Bible does not talk that way about humanity. When the Bible talks about how people function in their hearts, it uses a universal language. (cf. Romans 3:10–12, 23). If you begin to gather our everyday struggles together, you’ll eventually have a list of themes that make up every person in the world.
As you move from our unique history to our shared problems, you will eventually cross a line (the dotted line in the infographic), which reveals a similar theme: your current disciple is like your last disciple. Our commonality is one of the many beautiful things about discipleship that gives any Christian a head start with the person he is discipling.
Our shared experiences are part of the explanation about Jesus’ temptations being like our temptations (Hebrews 4:14–15). His temptations were not necessarily behavioral temptations like ours, but He was tempted in His heart like us, e.g., fear, anxiety, anger, self-reliance, craving for comfort, and ambition.
Let’s pretend you are counseling Adam. Let’s put him on the couch and diagnose his real problems, the ones in his heart. In the infographic, you’ll notice there are two groups of heart problems. The first group begins with unbelief and moves vertically through self-reliance. The second group is on the left-hand side of the graphic and is more eclectic than sequential. Let’s take the first group.
Unbelief – If you work a person down to their most fundamental and foundational problem, it will be unbelief. Not trusting God was the first sin of Adam, and all of the other sins flow out of this common heart commitment.
If we believed God the way we should, we would not sin the way we do. Adam trusted God in Genesis 1 and 2, and everything was copacetic. In Genesis 3 he decided not to trust God, and the drift from God began.
An example of basic unbelief is when I choose to get angry at my wife. In such a situation I’m no longer trusting the Lord, choosing rather to rely on myself. Another example is when I become impatient at the traffic patterns in my city. I’m no longer resting (trusting) in God’s sovereign care for my life but demanding things go according to my plans. All sin, big or small, flows out of a heart of unbelief.
Shame – After Adam had chosen not to place his confidence (trust) in the Lord, he felt weird inside. His new condition is what we call biblical shame. It’s an internal awkwardness where we’re not entirely comfortable in our skins.
This uncomfortableness, if not satisfied by a redemptive relationship with the Lord, will motivate a person to find solace in other ways, through other means. Alternate approaches to feel good explain why so much unrest and discontentedness is in our lives.
Guilt – Born out of this shame comes the experience of guilt, which can be true or false guilt. Even unbelievers feel the guilt of their wrong actions (Romans 2:14–15). We’re set up to feel guilty because we know there is something fundamentally broken inside of us (Romans 1:20). We’re born in Adam. We have a sense of spiritual death (Romans 5:12).
Fear – The accumulative effect of the shame and guilt that stacks on top of our unbelief is fear. That is what Adam felt at the beginning of the fall. He said as much after the Lord questioned him about his unbelieving actions (Genesis 3:10). He intuitively knew he had done wrong. He felt the brokenness inside of him. Thus, he went for the leaf grab. Not being satisfied with just covering his shame, he bolted. He was running scared.
Comfort – Because his underlying sinful patterns were not rectified by the redemptive work of the cross through salvation and ongoing sanctification, he instinctively desired to find happiness through more man-centered means.
Rather than running back to God—the only solution for his problems—he continued to take matters into his hands (Ephesians 2:8–9). He became a comfort hoarder. Looking in the wrong places for what we want is our Adamic pattern, too. When things are going wonky, we find comfort outside of the Lord’s means.
Control – Adam was now in control of his life. In most cases, we do not realize how often we succumb to control as a tool to solve our problems. It is so habitual and subtle. To trust ourselves rather than the Lord seems to make sense (Proverbs 14:12).
Even when the Lord writes personal suffering into our story (2 Corinthians 1:8–9 and 12:7–10), we resist by redoubling our efforts to seize control. At the core of our being, we don’t want to rely on (trust) God. Unbelief is a problem that permeates all our relationships and contexts.
Self-Reliance – We can even feel justified in being self-reliant. The underlying fear is that we are not sure if the Lord has our backs. Or, maybe we know the Lord has our backs, but our intuition says that what He plans for us might not be what we want.
We know that if God was willing to put His Son to death (Isaiah 53:10), it is possible He could allow disappointing things in our lives too (Genesis 50:20). Our God is a radical God, who is not squeamish about giving us hard things for our good, His glory, and the benefit of others.
The most common themes you will find in people’s lives are what I’ve outlined from the unbelief to self-reliance list in the infographic. As you listen to people’s stories, you’ll pick up on those themes. Some of the indicators will be more accentuated than others. It depends on the person.
What you’ll see first is a self-reliant person who is having a hard time fully trusting the Lord in their unique situation. The process of self-reliance to unbelief is what their story will immediately tell you. And as you listen to them, you’ll pick up on other underlying and hidden themes—more assumptions, if you will.
The second constellation of sin patterns in the infographic is not necessarily related to the first group. These things are eclectic. It’s important to know these common patterns because you will interact with some or all of them every time you engage a person. Here’s a quick glance at them in no particular order.
Dislike Suffering – We have a weak theology of suffering because we have an aversion to suffering. If we can get out of pain, we will take the quickest exit. An exit strategy may not be God’s plan for our lives.
Self-Righteous – We all have a high view of ourselves. We are easily tempted to esteem ourselves more than others (Philippians 2:3–4).
Sinful Anger – The most common expression of self-righteousness is anger—a greater than/better than attitude that puts other people down. We live in a hostile world, and we’re easily tempted to be angry.
The Anger Spectrum
Fear of Man – We’re also insecure or have what the Bible calls fear of man (Proverbs 29:25). We are afraid of being hurt and rejected by others. The greater this fear is, the more other people will have control over our lives.
Fear of Man 03
Sexuality Issues – We are a sexually messed up lot. I’ll not make a case for this since I’ve written dozens of articles on the subject, e.g., Why men will always struggle with sexual temptation.
These twelve universal assumptions are part of every person’s life. Depending on your story, you will find them peeking out of your heart, too. These are some of the common themes in man (John 2:24–25). It is what was in Adam, and God cut you from the same cloth. The real question is whether you can see these things in your life. The more effectively you can counsel yourself, the more effectively you’ll be able to care for others.