Do you know how to distinguish between the symptomatic problems of a person and the “root cause” issues? A person can become so irritated with the frustrating behaviors of someone that they miss the real cause, which keeps them from providing grace-motivated, Bible-centered solutions to the offender.
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This article is not intended for those who have gone through abuse or other kinds of violence. Nobody should ask the victim of a crime to help rehabilitate the person who committed the crime. This article is for “normal dysfunctional” relationships.
Biff has a drinking problem. Mable is mad at Biff because he has a drinking problem. Biff and Mable came to counseling because of his drinking problem.
I told Biff and Mable that his drinking problem is not the main problem, and if they do not address the main issue, his drinking problem will never go away.
To complicate matters, Mable’s sinful anger at Biff for his drinking problem is not helpful. Though she did not know it, her frustration with Biff compounded his drinking problem. Both of them fixated on the symptom–the drinking–rather than Biff’s heart–the cause.
It’s like when your child gets a cold, and you’re upset because his nose is running. No parent would spend excessive time and energy on a runny nose. The real issue is not what is on the outside, but the internal sickness that is causing the runny nose.
Mable wanted Biff to quit drinking, and he should. But that was the only thing that troubled her. She thinks if Biff stops drinking, there will be peace. If Biff stopped drinking, he would find another escape for the underlying sin that was causing the drinking. If the cause continues, it will seek another outlet to satisfy itself.
Symptom vs. Cause
How adept are you at distinguishing the cause of a problem from the symptom of a problem? How Mable understands these things will have a significant impact on her marriage. It will also determine her effectiveness in helping her wayward husband.
Here is a typical list of reasons people come to counseling. All of these issues are symptoms, not root cause. These sins are manifestations of the heart.
- Teen rebellion
These six are some of the most common things I deal with in counseling. There are others of course. The fundamental idea is that every behavioral problem a person brings to counseling is a secondary issue–not the primary or causal issue.
Imagine if your spouse committed one of these sins. If you can imagine it, you will get the sense for how hard it is to get the victim to look past the sin to help root out the real problem.
For example, if you’ve ever been on the victim end of adultery, you know what a challenge it is to recover from the blow. A counselor must be compassionate, careful, and patient as he directs the counseling to the causal issue so the couple can find transformative help.
If Mable can’t refocus on the real issue with her husband, it will be a challenge to restore this marriage. I’m going to take you through a case study with Biff and Mable. I want you to follow along so you can see how the “symptom versus the cause” are worlds apart but yet related to and dependent on each other to survive.
The Great Escape
The most obvious question to ask Biff is why does he enjoy drinking. What motivated him to drink to the point where he was wasting money and time while causing dysfunction in his family? What was it about drinking that propelled him to sin against God and his family?
The “why” question is always a relevant one because it will lead you to where you want to go. Whether you’re talking about porn, adultery, anger alcoholism, communication, or teen rebellion, you always begin with the why question.
Why questions are like steps that lead you to the basement of a person’s heart. On the upper level, he is drinking beer, getting drunk, and wreaking havoc in his family. On the lower level, you will find the command center that controls his behaviors.
Biff said he likes to drink with the boys because it was an escape for him. This piece of information is vital, and I’m sure you anticipated it. It’s not a surprise because Biff works long hours and drinking has become his habit, as a way to unwind.
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The Misplaced Community
As I explored more, Biff told me that he experienced a “sense of community” with his drinking buddies. They had camaraderie. This tidbit opened the door to more questions. The biggest one was why he did not seek fellowship with his wife, his family, or his church.
Initially, Biff did not know. I believed him. One of the things about Biff is that he was oblivious to the difference between community among pagan drinking buddies and community among believers who genuinely care for him.
When I explained the difference, the light seemed to go on, as Biff explained that he had rather hang with friends who would not challenge him on things that mattered (Proverbs 27:6). Their lack of biblical insight or confrontation made it easier for him to be transparent with his drinking buddies.
His mind was free to wander, without challenge, among his beer buddies. He could go to the bar, relax, talk about nothing, go home to sleep off his drunkenness, and wake up the next morning to hit the daily grind. It became apparent that Biff did not want anyone to challenge him. He did not want anyone probing into his heart.
His beer buddies provided him a “safe place.” I asked him why it was so imperative, and he began to explain how he lived in a high pressure, intense, deadline-oriented workplace.
Loving the Unlovable
There were high demands and exorbitant expectations that created a lot of pressure for Biff to perform. He was a successful man, but he worked longer and harder than he should have because work was a “god” for him.
His job was part of his worship structure. Unsurprisingly, his motivation for work was not to provide for his family, but to feed his ego. He loved success and all the accouterments of success. Work was an escape for a discontented man.
Through counseling, Biff began to see the light. He is a believer, and he knew he was in a trap, but after 20 years of trying, he gave up, choosing to escape from life. The effort required for heart change was too daunting, so he checked out.
It was easier for him to work hard during the day and drink hard at night. Those things were what he was good at doing. Figuring out the morass of spiritual dysfunction was not, but the good news was that he did want to change.
This prospect is why it’s imperative for Mable to set aside her hurt to help her husband. Her frustration with his drinking only obstructed the path forward in their marriage. I’m sure you understand. Have you ever been hurt by someone, to the point where you were not willing to help them?
Mable’s struggle is one of the most amazing things about the gospel. We all have hurt the Savior. We rejected Him, despised Him, and would not esteem Him. But that did not deter God from loving us, the unlovable.
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. – Isaiah 53:3
Unpacking the Worship Structure
If you are hurting because of the sin of another, it will help if you will reflect on the Isaiah verse. It’s amazing grace that He would persevere through what we did to Him to help us. Imitating the Lord for those who have hurt you is part of our calling as Christians (Ephesians 5:1; 1 Peter 2:18-25).
This concept is what I appealed to Mable to do. Loving those who persecute you is the height of gospel love. Believe it or not, there is grace for this kind of responsibility toward your offenders (James 4:6). You only have to be willing to want what God wants more than what you want.
Mercifully, Mable was able to set aside her hurt, roll up her sleeves, and get down to business to help her messed up husband. Together we began to unpack Biff’s worship structure.
We discovered that Biff did not have a biblical worldview for work. His views on his job were idolatrous, and as with all false worship structures, there is something to gain from the idol. Biff reaped a lot of “benefit” from his work idol. Here is the list:
- Envy from others
These were some of the insidious benefits that Biff craved and received from his work. His job was not a means to make God’s name great. It was a means to make Biff’s name great. His vocation fed the beast in his heart.
Enough Is Never Enough
These thirteen benefits were the things that kept him going. They were also the things that were killing him, which is why he needed to drink. It was not humanly possible to feed his beastly heart without help from his beer buddies.
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. – Ecclesiastes 1:8
Biff was trying to fill something that he could not fill–his wicked heart. You cannot satisfy an evil heart. If we could satisfy our sinful hearts, we would never need a Savior.
The wicked heart is insatiable. The eye can never see enough. The ear can never hear enough. The heart that is not seeking the Savior will never find satisfaction outside of God.
Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. – John 4:12-14
Christ Is Always Enough
Biff is no different than you and me. We all have holes in our hearts that motivate us toward something to fill it. Biff veered off course many years ago and began to get his itch scratched through his job. He did not realize the size of the trap or the harmful repercussions it would cause his family. Do any of us?
Satan does not place traps before us with big warning signs or a smack on the side of the face just before we step into them. That is not his strategy. We are lured away by our desires, and if our hopes are not lovingly interrupted by God or others, we will follow them all the way to our deaths.
Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. – James 1:14-15
Mable began to see the trap that Biff created. She started to see how drinking was a much lesser problem than she ever imagined. She began to see how her husband was a lifelong slave to the things of this world (1 John 2:15-16).
It began to make sense to her. It started to make sense to Biff too. He needed restoration from a person who was gentle. He also needed a new community context for continued support (Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 10:24-25).
In time, Biff began a process of repenting. And Mable began to change too. God was working in both their hearts. Here are some of the things that he did to get moving in the right direction:
- He quit drinking.
- He cut back on his work hours.
- He found himself a community of believers where he could do life.
- He began to pursue God daily through prayer and various devotional materials.
- He re-established his relationship with his wife and family.