Persecuted for My Convictions

Wow, it’s been forever since I last wrote a post on here!  Where have I been?  Well, I was doing my internship for my Master’s in Counseling Psychology.  I was practicing at a small private counseling practice called Dayspring Counseling.  I have much to write about just regarding the internship experience itself.  It was an incredibly stressful year (from August 2014 through July 2015), from working full-time in my office job, working part-time as a youth pastor, and trying to complete 700 hours of internship at night and on weekends!

And then, near the end of June 2015, four weeks away from finishing my internship and then graduating, I received an email that changed everything.  If you have read my blog posts or just my About Me page, I’m sure you have noticed mention of my involvement in the field of helping men struggling with sexual issues, such as sexual/pornography addiction and homosexuality.  I have never kept this a secret, even throughout my admissions process at my university and in some class discussions.  And I shared it in my bio on the website of my internship site.

Well, at my now-former university, there had been some changes in administration since I was first accepted into the program in late 2011.  Just as I was gearing up to finish up, the head of master’s field placement read my bio and was alarmed.  Long story short, Chestnut Hill College, chose to terminate my internship because of my stance on clients’ rights to self-determination regarding how to address conflicts over same-sex attraction.  And though I had already earned enough credits to earn a lesser degree (we need in PA 48 credits for a Master’s in counseling, but 60 credits for licensure), I still had to transfer to a different university to finish up my academic requirements for licensure.  So, now I am taking three classes this Spring!  My plan to be working in the field professionally had to be postponed until May of this year instead of August of last year.  They may have delayed me to some extent, but they have definitely not stopped me!  For more details for now, please visit my Go Fund Me page: www.gofundme.com/SSAConvictions.

 

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You Feel Me?

“I just know that because I never dealt with the same issue myself, I would never be able to counsel this person!”

When I was in my last two years of high school, I seized an opportunity to take some discounted college courses at Lancaster Bible College.  Since I already knew the field I wanted to pursue, I took a couple psychology courses.  In one such course, one about group therapy, we got into some interesting class discussions that showed how much most of us still had to learn about psychological theory.  One day, we were talking about eating disorders, and one girl in the class made the above statement.

Immediately, in my gut, I disagreed with her argument.  But my disagreement also challenged some of my own previously held assumptions.  I was once likely to believe in the same way–that people who never experienced the same things as someone else really have no idea what they’re talking about.  And yet such an assumption carries some concerns.  If this sentiment is true, wouldn’t certain people be totally beyond our help?  For surely there are people who have experienced or committed such horrific things that we would be extremely hard-pressed to find a competent therapist who had the same experiences and is still functioning well enough now to offer sound counsel and support.

Our professor replied by asking if we had ever heard of Remuda Ranch, one of the most well-respected treatment facilities for eating disorders.  He then simply pointed out that (at least at the time) nearly all of the clinicians are middle-aged men who have never suffered from an eating disorder in their lives.  He did not need to say much else after that, except that what made these men effective in their work was their ability to show genuine care to hurting people.

That is when it dawned on me.  How did Jesus minister to so many people who struggled with issues he never had to?  Sure, we know that he was human like us and we know that he was tempted in every way and yet did not sin, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think that Jesus knew firsthand what the life of the woman with the issue of blood was like for all those years before he healed her.  Yes, he is God in the flesh and thus omniscient, but that does not negate the fact that he did not experience all the same troubles as everyone else before he began his ministry.  Of course, I do expect, however, that as God, because all sin is a personal offense toward God, that he has experienced all of the offenses ever committed in all of history as if they were against him.  And yet I suppose that his experience of these offenses is uniquely his own and perhaps our responses to sins against us only echo aspects of his own reactions to sin . . . such as righteous anger, sorrow, and jealousy.  I wonder, though, if certain responses we have to events in our lives are unique to humans . . . such as shame, greed, despair, and self-protection.

My point?  If Jesus did not experience exactly what the hurting and lost experienced, or at least not in the same way, how did he so effectively minister to hurting people?  And was the trait he demonstrated something he could do only because he is God, or did he demonstrate it to us as an example for us to follow?

I am fully convinced that when Jesus came to Earth, he did two things while ministering:

  1. Performed miracles and made statements that only he could make, to serve as signs that he is the promised Messiah.
  2. Set an example for us to follow for how best to love God and others.

Jesus showed us not just how he was able to reach others but also why he was motivated to do so.  The Gospels tell us clearly that Jesus was moved by compassion (Matt. 14:14, 15:32).

What is compassion?  In psychology circles, we don’t hear the word so often, likely because postmodern theorists believe it evokes the idea of an unequal relationship.  Instead, we like to use empathy, as popularized by Carl Rogers as the single greatest therapeutic factor in counseling.  Empathy certainly is powerful, and though it is very similar to compassion, I must clarify that they are distinct and empathy must never completely replace compassion.

  • Empathy – We have added a lot to our understanding and application of empathy, but by definition, it is to identify with and understand someone else’s situation, emotions, and motivations.  And this does not just mean painful emotions, but whatever the client emotes–whether sorrow or rejoicing, just as Paul admonishes us to to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15).  And clearly, in order to effectively empathize, it must be accurately communicated somehow.
  • Compassion – By the biblical definition, it is a form of love determined by the condition of those it is targeting–usually one of need and suffering as well as unworthiness (Unger, 1974). Literally, it means to feel with someone’s pain.  Therefore, compassion requires empathy.  But without compassion, empathy is pretty static.  For compassion does not just seek to develop a deep understanding of someone’s suffering, but it is followed by a desire to relieve it.

These biblically based definitions further show the difference between the worldly perspective and God’s perspective.

  • The humanistic viewpoint assumes that humans are basically good and thus deserve empathy, compassion, and mercy.  It teaches that we all have an innate drive and tendency to self-improve, and so all we really need to improve is for someone to feel with us and then our “self-actualizing tendency” will take care of the rest.
  • The biblical viewpoint, however, is that we are all basically broken and bad (to put it bluntly).  Therefore, compassion is not earned or deserved; it’s a gift.  And because we are broken, it assumes that we need more help in order to grow (though there are definitely people who have matured enough that empathy alone will suffice to help them change).  Most often this help comes in the form of someone in a position to help–not someone in the same boat as us.  Ultimately, this may sound like an unequal relationship, and that may offend you, but it would not be compassion if one party did not have something to offer that the other party lacked.

So, yes, the foundational factor that Jesus used in ministry was compassion–he empathized deeply and acted on a desire to relieve people’s suffering and build in them his character through the suffering.  Unfortunately, we tend to have a stoic view of Jesus, leaving us with a poor example to follow.  The disadvantage of Jesus’ account on Earth being solely literary and in a foreign language is that our translations might not perfectly capture the essence of what the Gospel authors wrote and the spirit in which Jesus said and did things.  Consequently, he can come off as very mechanical if we are not careful to read into the narrative some personality in Jesus.

For example, when Jesus is leaving Jericho, a huge crowd gathers to follow him out of the city (Matt. 20:29-34).  Meanwhile, two blind beggars are sitting on the side of the road and cry out to Jesus when they hear the crowd passing.  The people in the crowd tell them to shut up, but instead, they just shout louder.  Jesus stops and asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?”  At this point in the short story, I tend to read Jesus’ voice in an annoyed manner, as if he really did not want to stop and tend to their needs.  They tell him boldly that they want their sight.  And then the passage reads, “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes.  Immediately they received their sight and followed him.”  Because my interpretation of Jesus was first that he felt bothered, I finish reading the passage with the impression that the compassion he had was a change in his attitude, probably in response to the blind men’s answer to his question.  But what if we understood his compassion to be his attitude before they answered him?  What if compassion was the very reason why he stopped and even bothered to speak with these two blind men?  That’s a very different Jesus than I first imagined.  Now, his compassion is not reactionary, but proactive.

But still, even with this renewed outlook on this passage, I get the sense that Jesus’ compassion for us is most revealed when we examine who he had compassion for.  In this story, the blind men were relentless in seeking their healing.  Even when the rest of the world was telling them they cannot change or that it was wrong for them to ask for it, they persisted.  The compassion that Jesus demonstrates is helping people who earnestly want to change.  This description of compassion has particular relevance to me and the work I support with those dealing with sexual conflicts, such as homosexual recovery.  The world and a growing section of the “Church” is against their efforts to change, and yet they persist.  The world claims that clinicians who offer change efforts are unethical, and yet I see quite the opposite.

And to whom did Jesus not show compassion; to whom did he not effectively minister?  To people who did not believe they needed to change or that they could change, like those in his hometown who lacked faith (Matt. 13:54-58, Luke 4:14-30).

And so I see in Jesus an example of being proactive in his compassion, yet wisely reserving his greatest investments for those who sincerely wanted his help.  Furthermore, in his distribution of grace, he was careful to treat each person as an individual.  To some, he healed and gave miracles without condition.  To others, he required a process before they would receive their blessing (such as with the ten lepers who had to show themselves to the priest in Luke 17:11-19) or instructions about what to do afterward (such as when Jesus healed a man with leprosy in Mark 1:40-45, another example of Jesus’ compassion toward someone passionate).

Finally, how did Jesus develop this empathy and compassion, and how can we follow his example?  I’m glad you asked.  Here’s one of my favorite passages:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross!”

-Philippians 2:5-8

In order to feel with us, Jesus had to be one of us.  Long before the psychological concepts of phenomenology and joining, God the Son entered our world and modeled humility and being a “student of the client!”  We need to suspend our point of view–even if it may be more objective–in order to see the world from the client’s subjective perspective.  Only then can we appreciate how the client feels, thinks, and acts.  In doing so, we remind ourselves that we’re not perfect ourselves, and that if we had the same lot as the client, we might just feel the same way.  And then we can intervene compassionately and in a manner appropriate to that particular client–whether more direct or indirect, or firmer or gentler.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.  Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.  He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.

-Hebrews 4:15-5:2

 

References

Unger, M.F.  (1974).  Unger’s Bible dictionary.  Chicago, IL: Moody.

 

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Where Are You and Where Are You Going?

I recently had an interview at a local counseling center for my graduate-level internship, and the topic came up about my theoretical approach.  My graduate program is psychodynamic and family systems in orientation, and these are approaches I have grown to appreciate over the years.  But several years ago, I would have quickly claimed allegiance to cognitive behavioral therapy.  And so the director of the counseling center was trying to assess if she would assign me to herself, who practices CBT; or to another therapist at the practice who specializes in psychodynamic therapy.  After my years of experience in lay counseling and studying, I can see the merits in both, and I honestly hate how the two schools of thought appear to always be at odds.  And yet, theoretically, I must admit that they are quite opposed.  So how do I reconcile my affinity for both styles?

I can only answer that the appropriateness of one approach over another depends on where the client is at.  Precisely, I’m most interested in where the client is at developmentallyIdeally, people should be able to face the challenges of life with some social support, as they develop certain necessary skills attained by successfully meeting previous challenges.  Such is the basis of Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development (Erikson, 1980).  By God’s design and the necessity inherent with living in a fallen creation, people really need relationships and environmental support to fulfill their needs at each stage of life.  (One might argue that relationships themselves are the very needs we have to fulfill.)  And so if we look at the goal of counseling to make the client more self-sufficient (so far as our theology permits) and socially competent, then I would reason that the most appropriate theoretical approach depends on the client’s current developmental stage.

According to the psychosocial model, each stage of development is characterized by a certain crisis (usually interpersonal in nature) and the resolution of which will yield a particular strength needed in order to adequately deal with the next stage’s crisis.  Of course, the resulting strength lands on a continuum, making the degrees on the lower or higher ends possible liabilities, if not at least unique personality traits that contribute to a variety of interesting challenges in life.

  1. Infancy – Trust vs. Mistrust.  The target strength is hope, with too much causing gullibility and too little causing withdrawal from life.
  2. Early childhood – Autonomy vs. Shame.  The target strength is will, with too much causing impulsivity and too little causing compulsivity.
  3. Play age – Initiative vs. Guilt.  The target strength is purpose, with too much causing ruthlessness and too little causing inhibition.
  4. School age – Industry vs. Inferiority.  The target strength is competence, with too much causing virtuosity and too little causing inertia.
  5. Adolescence – Identity vs. Role Confusion.  The target strength is fidelity, with too much causing fanaticism and too little causing repudiation.
  6. Young adulthood – Intimacy vs. Isolation.  The target strength is love, with too much causing promiscuity (if that can even be called “love”) and too little causing exclusivity.
  7. Middle adulthood – Generativity vs. Stagnation.  The target strength is care (for the world and one’s legacy), with too much causing overextension and too little causing rejectivity and self-absorption.
  8. Old age – Integrity vs. Despair.  The target strength is wisdom, with “too much” causing presumption (which ceases to be wisdom) and too little causing disdain.

Obviously, this model (and especially this brief representation of it) is not exhaustive.  It omits or does not expound as much as it should on other areas of development, such as social skills, conflict resolution, cognitive, and moral development (we have Piaget and Kohlberg for some of those topics).  Although Erikson was a major proponent of self-definition (his very name was one he created himself in order to proudly say “Erik son of Erik”), he developed this model during an era in Western society that still had very clear social and occupational life roles, and even his proposed “strengths” betray a bias toward a life of industry and production.

Nevertheless, as a Christian, I find Erikson’s conclusions to be very significant, as they parallel guidance in Scripture and practices in Hebrew culture (Hegstrom, 2006).

  1. Birth to 13 – Age of Directives.  The immediate family teaches the child the foundations of their faith, responsibility, accountability, and respect.
  2. Adolescence – Age of Decision.  The young person is now responsible for the consequences of his/her own choices.
  3. Adolescence to 30 – Age of Parental Management.  The extended family mentors the young person in preparation for a trade and marriage.  Only until a man reaches age 30 is he considered “full stature.”  I find it fascinating how modern-day theorists continue to extend the age of adolescence and have introduced the idea of “emerging adulthood” (fueled by the discovery that the brain does not finish developing until about age 25, with the areas most involved in self-control and higher reasoning completing formation last) when all along God had a system in place to provide the necessary instruction and guidance in these difficult years.

If we understand that development is lifelong, then I argue that most psychological and relational problems are rooted in development.  Therefore, meeting people where they are means to meet them at their developmental level and to assess which strengths they need reinforced or tempered or acquired for the first time.  And depending on the task at hand, and the individuality of the client, either a cognitive-behavioral or psychodynamic approach may be most appropriate (or some other approach, like family systems, reality, gestalt, etc.).  Perhaps the individual never gained a sense of competence and self-efficacy.  I would reason that some form of skills training in an emotionally supportive relationship would best meet that developmental milestone that is long overdue.  Or maybe as a result of early childhood neglect or abuse the client has an unstable sense of trust in others and self.  No amount of cognitive restructuring could make up for the attachment loss the client suffers.  Instead, through a long-term, consistent, nurturing therapeutic relationship the client may finally gain a new object of trust to internalize and integrate into his/her sense of self and relationship patterns.

But even in my own conclusions, as rational and aligned with Scripture as they may be, I need to remind myself to be flexible.

God works with each person in different ways.  I’m reminded of this every now and then when I don’t get the response I was expecting when I reveal truths that were instrumental for my own breakthroughs from low self-esteem, depression, and compulsive behaviors.  As we adopt or integrate our favorite theories, it becomes very easy to deceive ourselves into thinking every person can fit a certain theory or treatment plan.  People are individuals and their goals (including the implicit ones we don’t discuss) and treatment techniques need to be individualized.  But that can be a lot of work.  And I’ll bet that it’s not just a dogmatic commitment to a theory that locks us into a certain model but also an unwillingness to be creative.  (And perhaps not even an unwillingness per se, but just a lack of creativity probably resulting from stress and burnout.)

Jesus certainly used variety when he touched people’s lives and healed them.  Sure, he had his staples (like healing people by touching them, and he did feed the 5000 and 4000 in similar ways), but he was not afraid to mix it up sometimes.  If he healed some blind people he might command them to see, spit in their faces, or put mud in the eyes.  Need to understand what the Kingdom of God is?  Jesus did not endlessly repeat the same analogy until people got the message; he used multiple parables for the same topic.  Jesus simply would not allow us to put him in a box.

Ian Jones (2014) makes the case that from the beginning, in his interactions and interventions with us, God has always met us where we are (rather than where we should be).  Precisely, God’s concern is our location in our relationship to him and then to others.  Even in dealing with Adam and Eve after they sinned for the first time (Gen. 3:9-11), God asks “Where are you?”  Why ask if he already knows?  God says he knows our needs before we even pray (Matt. 6:8) . . . but that doesn’t mean that we are not supposed to still pray for them.  Maybe he wants us to be able to articulate what we believe is our problem.  And for us human counselors who do not have the luxury of omniscience, he models to us the necessity of joining with the client and understanding (as first-hand as possible) the client’s perspective and subjective experience.

However, the appreciation of subjective experience is not denial of objective reality.  God does not ask where we are because he does not already know, nor does he ask us in an attempt to empower us to create our own truth.  God knows the reality of where the client is, even if the client does not, and of course even if the therapist doesn’t know.  Even more importantly, God knows where the client needs to go next.  And I do not believe God desires to keep the client’s location a mystery (in so far as it helps us know where to go next with the client).  The client may be on the right track already, or the client may need a serious detour.  In his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26), Jesus revealed exactly where she was in life.  And he knew exactly what she needed, though she did not appear to know it yet herself.  She thought she was going to get help to deal with thirst–and that issue certainly got resolved first–but the encounter did not end there.  Jesus knew that her deeper need was for his living water.

So, yes, we sincerely and respectfully ask clients where they are and where they are going.  We may even ask others in the client’s life these questions about the client (either directly or by asking the client what others say about them in these regards).  But we should never neglect our need to depend on God for the whole truthWe trust that God will reveal what we (counselor and client, but most importantly the client) need to know and in his time.  We need divine wisdom to guide our treatment plan and implementation.  Wisdom is not just a trait of the elderly, for even Erikson admitted (Hoare, 2002) what Proverbs makes very clear: we need wisdom in order to successfully meet each developmental crisis!

And even when we know where we need to go, I need to remind myself that there is more than one way to get there.  There is no cookie-cutter counseling.  I wouldn’t want there to be.  That would be boring!  My appreciation for this reality has evolved over my years of leading a support and recovery group for men at my old college.  At its incarnation, I designed the group to be very instructional, as I created psycho-spiritual-educational lessons for each topic I expected to address and I taught cognitive restructuring, behavioral, and social skills.  Today, I only occasionally use lessons.  I now savor the adventure of not knowing in advance exactly how each session will go.  Some of the best discussions have arisen out of me leaving it up to the group to choose the night’s topic.  And through our banter, God always weaves in a lesson.  As we just recently reflected on this past school year, one of the members commented how he most valued those sessions.  Now, am I discounting a structural, educational group model?  Of course not (I still incorporate that), for if I were, I would be contradicting my very premise!  Each client needs a different approach!  In each school year, the group needs something different, and even at different points in the school year what the group needs may change.  Perhaps this Spring, the group most needed freedom and the time to build cohesion over more open discussion, especially after doing so much hard work leading up to and including the sharing of their life timelines.

Where we are going with the client should be toward greater levels of maturity in relationship to self, others, and God.  What a disappointment I would consider the counseling if all I did was help meet a temporary need but not help the client attain or identify a strength needed for the next inevitable challenge!  Above all, I would hope that the client comes to a revelation of God as their greatest source of strength, for I measure true maturity by one’s acknowledgement of dependence on God.

Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

-James 1:4

 

References

Erikson, E.H.  (1980).  Identity and the life cycle.  New York, NY: Norton.

Hegstrom, P.  (2006).  Broken children, grown-up pain: Understanding the effects of your wounded past (2nd ed.).  Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill.

Hoare, C.H.  (2002).  Erikson on development in adulthood: New insights from the unpublished papers.  New York, NY: Oxford.

Jones, I.F.  (2014).  A theology of Christian counseling 2.0.  Forest, VA: American Association of Christian Counselors.

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How We Grow

Thus far we have established how our purpose in Christian counseling is to develop Christ-likeness in all areas of life.  But how does that happen?  How do people grow and change?

The psychoanalytic answer is that we need to make the unconscious conscious.  The modern psychodynamic response is that we essentially need to re-parent the client to help correct insecure attachment issues.  Cognitive and behavioral therapists would argue that people get better by training and practicing new mental and behavioral skills.  Existentialists might say that growth births out of the freedom from realizing one’s mortality and the power of one’s free will.  Family systems therapists argue that change can only occur when one’s relational context has changed.  And of course, Rogerians are convinced that growth occurs naturally because people have an inherent self-actualizing tendency.

There is at least some truth in each of these models.  But we must remember that these are secular theories.  A biblically based Christian psychology theory may end up matching one of these theories, but that must come as coincidence, for our path to any sort of conclusion must come by Scripture alone.

In traditional 12-step fellowships like AA, they get this.  The foundation of its philosophy is that salvation from their problem is in God alone.  Of course, the idea of absolute trust in God is repulsive to some people.  We need to accept the reality that the notion of faith and surrender to God is not acceptable to everyone.  But we must not change it to be more palatable to some people, as some AA chapters are apt to do, such as by allowing the “Higher Power” to be anything other than the God of the Bible–even substituting it for the group itself.  Even as a believer, I struggled for some time with accepting even the original, Christ-centric 12-step philosophy.  Total reliance on God to the point that they believed they were thoroughly powerless to do anything to better themselves . . .  I didn’t buy it.  To sincerely believe it, one would not do all the work the people in AA do to stay sober and continue in recovery: going to meetings, working the steps, checking in with the sponsor, etc..  I found the application of 12-step philosophy to be a contradiction to its beliefs . . . until I visited a local AA group one night.  This was a profound experience for me.  And I will never forget what one of the members told me:

“I’m responsible for the work; God’s responsible for the consequence.”

That reminds me of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:5-7.

What, after all, is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Only servants, through whom you came to believe–as the Lord has assigned to each his task.  I planted  the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters  is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

If we did not believe we had at least some responsibility in our growth and healing, we would just go around living life as usual, expecting ourselves to naturally change and improve.  But as Scott Peck so clearly argues in The Road Less Traveled (2003), spiritual growth is not natural.  The natural trajectory of our psyches is to decay.

Rogerian psychology would have us believe otherwise–the myth that we all have a self-actualizing tendency that leads us toward growth.  We just need to remove the other distractions and inhibitions blocking us from finding our own way, for we are basically good and if left on our own, we will progress.

This humanistic concept is not entirely new.  I consider it a reflection of the Gnostic heresies that permeated the settings of the New Testament authors.  The Gnostics taught that the material world was evil but that the spiritual is good, and that the only path to salvation lay in one’s ability to engage in higher levels of knowledge (gnosis), thus allowing one to transcend the physical to the spiritual.  This is not the salvation by grace through faith which the Bible teaches.  This is arrogance–hubris, for it’s plain to see that humanism and Gnosticism have always been about worshiping the “human spirit.”

God’s Word, however, tells us that we were all dead in our sins (Rom. 3:23, 6:23).  Physically, we are all dying after we reach a biological age of maturity, so yes, there is some truth to the idea that the physical is corrupt.  But this does not mean that our spirits are naturally any better.  And Jesus made it very clear that it is what comes out of a person’s body that makes it clean or unclean.

“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?  But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  These are what make a man ‘unclean;’ but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.'”

-Matthew 15:17-20

The human spirit is actually even more corrupt than the body.  For when God warned Adam and Eve that if they sinned they would surely die (Gen. 2:17), and yet they continued to live physically after they sinned, God was not made a liar; they indeed did die–spiritually.  (Tying into our discussion on Gnosticism, I find it interesting that the tree which God said would lead to death is the one of The Knowledge of Good and Evil, and yet the Gnostics claim that it is through “knowing” that one attains salvation.)  And so until God’s grace offers us a new spirit thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we have no “self-actualizing tendency.”  No, we have a self-worshiping tendency, which leads to death.  If anything, we choose to go against our human nature when we choose to grow.

And then, when we accept through faith the grace God offers us, we inherit a new tendency–an “Image of God-actualizing tendency.”  True self-actualization can only occur in right relationship with God through faith in Christ, for our true self is in Christ’s likeness.  All other forms of growth are shadows of the actualization God has for us.  As Believers, we now have a reborn spirit that desires to honor God and reflect his glory (John 3).  And though our new spirit man wants to grow, the flesh is weak and still vulnerable to old patterns (Mark 14:38).  Paul illustrates this struggle famously.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.  I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.  I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

-Romans 7:14-20

Before I go any further, I must address a possible complaint: “Why all this talk about spiritual growth?  Can’t people just grow psychologically or behaviorally without getting all spiritual or religious?”  I’m not going to deny that people can heal and change psychologically without changing spiritually, but to that I say that there is no point in changing psychologically if your spirit goes to Hell.  In fact, that would be a great tragedy!  Secondly, part of me questions the long-term stability of any psychological or behavioral growth without a true spiritual renewal.  So many things could impede growth . . . in the future, triggers may arise that set back someone’s treasured recovery . . . we need some sort of sure foundation on which to establish our growth and give us security when trials come.

And that security comes when we reflect on the character change we can observe so far.  And this character change does not come automatically, as we’ve already established.  No, the process of sanctification requires hard work, because the second your spirit wants to grow, your flesh and old mental patterns resist.  So, this is how we grow: through the struggleIf the change to our whole being that God promises us came all at once upon salvation, we would learn nothing, leaving us vulnerable to falling back into our old patterns and becoming embittered toward God.  Instead, God has designed a system by which he grows us, and it is not through one euphoric gnosis experience after another!  When the Israelites entered the Promised Land and scattered the inhabitants, God ordained that some enemies should remain so future generations of Israelites would learn how to fight (Judges 3:1-4).  In the same way, we each need to learn how to struggle against our flesh and other trials of life, and in persevering through them, our character changes and builds itself stronger so that when we reflect on this change we see evidence that our hope of eventual transformation will not disappoint us.  Only in God’s promises can we say that our hopes are more than wishful thinking.

Not only so, but we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

-Romans 5:3-5

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.

-2 Peter 1:5-9

Growth is never on a steady, upward trajectory.  It is dynamic.  If I were to chart my own growth, it would be a huge zig-zag!  At any one point I might have felt that my progress was stalled or that I went backwards, but when I keep at it I later see that my current low point is still higher than my low points in the past.  Even basic lifespan human development is marked by crises and the tasks we must complete in order to progress past each crisis (See Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.).  God has designed us in every way to grow through trials and tests.  And as we sufficiently pass each test, we acquire qualities required for the next.

And so the surest therapeutic factors that any clinician can employ are those that can foster the development of the qualities that the client lacks: compassion/empathy, love, training in self-control and social skills, and insight.  We’ll be exploring these and other therapeutic factors more, but it’s important to always keep in mind that in doing this work, the counselor and client are only planting and watering seeds.  It is always God who makes them grow.  God, the expert, is the author who is shaping us into his likeness.

References

Peck, M.S.  (2003.)  The road less traveled (25th anniversary ed.).  New York: Touchstone.

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The Real Expert

“I’m feeling sad and having depressing thoughts.  What should I do?”

The implication behind that question is that the therapist knows the best ways to treat the client’s depression.  Makes sense, right?  You go to a physician to get solid answers for how to treat medical problems, and yet despite the major push in the last decade to have mental disorders recognized in the same way as medical conditions we have a growing number of clinicians who would spurn the idea of being any sort of expert in how to help their clients.  Only in the world of psychology would that implication be so problematic!

Who’s the expert in the therapeutic relationship?  The therapist or the client?  The various therapeutic approaches vary on this issue.  Allow me to briefly summarize them:

  • Most concrete psychological theories, such as psychoanalysis and psychodynamic theories and cognitive-behavioral theories, are very comprehensive.  These theories have sophisticated explanations for the nature of humans and the causes of their psychological ailments.  And so these theories also predict solutions to problems, and the therapist must be learned in both theory and technique.  These types of therapists do not shy away from the idea that they know something that the client doesn’t know.  And they may be direct or indirect in how they choose to lead clients to such revelations and life changes, but nevertheless they would hardly say they do not know what the client’s problem is and what the best way is to address it.
  • And then there are more experiential and phenomenological theories, such as existential and reality therapies.  Their focus is not so much on fitting the client into pre-made categories.  They have some basic theoretical principles, but also view people as unique individuals.  And despite our challenges, we all have the capacity to grow and be more individuated and self-aware.  And though these theories are not very instructional, some of them (such as existential) posit that the therapist ought to have attained a significant level of experience, wisdom, and self-awareness which he/she can model to the client.
  • Finally, there are person-centered and postmodern theories.  These therapists would quickly deny being any sort of experts on their clients’ lives.  As humanists and relativists, they suppose that clients know what’s best for themselves and may even have an inherent drive toward growth.  Such therapists  are expected to be authentic and even transparent with their clients, but they would not likely admit to being more advanced or worthy to lead their clients.

So where does Christian counseling land?  Is it the therapist or client that knows best?  To any Christian, the answer should be obvious.  Neither.  The flaw of all secular approaches is that they are neglecting the third person in the therapeutic relationship: God!

As I have mentioned in The Spiritual Gift of Counseling, the role of the counselor is that of a pastor–literally, a shepherd.  And as John 10 says, Jesus is the true shepherd.  That’s why prayer is so important in our sessions.  And that’s why I’ll be looking at Jesus and his interactions with people as we explore the role of the Christian counselor.  He is The Counselor, and our best example.  It’s incredibly arrogant for us as humans to believe that either the client or therapist would know what’s best.  By nature, we are fallible; we have biases and blindspots; and we have a flesh that conflicts with the desires of our spirits.  But God has no blindspot, and his only bias is for himself (and if you have a problem with that, why are you a Christian?).

But what does that really mean?  Do we just sit there in the counseling room and expect Jesus to physically appear and start counseling the client for us?  I wish.  But that doesn’t mean God hasn’t already instructed us through his Word on various issues.  And Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and discernment for all situations.  He may not physically appear, but I know I’ve seen God show up in the counseling session.  And he always does a better job than I could without him.

If God is the true shepherd, we are his sub-shepherds, if you will.  We and our clients don’t expect to know all the answers ourselves.  But that’s no excuse to be lax in education and competency, for God holds to a greater standard those who care for his sheep.

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

-James 3:1

Sadly, I believe this warning scares many counselors from taking an authoritative or instructive stance with their clients when they should.  They acquiesce and say they’re only non-directive partners with the client on a journey.  Those who claim they have no right to educate or challenge clients at all are abandoning common sense.  The fact is if clients could just improve on their own, they wouldn’t be seeking counseling.  Yes, we can argue that the greatest therapeutic factor is simply an empathic therapeutic alliance, but when we’re dealing with genuine dysfunction and bondage to carnal desires and habits, we need more than just empathy.  We need real help to mature and training in how to help ourselves better in the future.

No, James 3:1 assumes (just as Paul assumed when he wrote his many letters) that people will need teaching.  This verse just reminds us that instructors need certain qualities.  Here I agree with existential psychology’s assertion that therapists should have significant life experience, wisdom, and reached a substantial level of self-awareness and healing in their own lives.  It’s natural and reasonable for clients to assume that their clinician has some level of expertise in living a healthy lifestyle.  As a client, I wouldn’t want someone in the same boat as me!  I’ve always believed that you can take someone only as far as you yourself have gone emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.  The world has enough of the blind leading the blind.  Let’s not bring that same dynamic into Christian counseling.

Let me also add that no matter how much experience and wisdom we have, we should never presume to know the client inside and out.  Only God does.  Instead, we must become students of the client first.  Allow them to teach us what they know of themselves before we begin making our own conclusions.  We do this keeping in mind that neither of us will be completely objective.  Only God has complete objectivity.  We pray for wisdom and discernment from God to lead us to what neither us nor the client now know, and for the peace we need in the meantime (understanding that we may never receive answers to certain questions until Heaven).

In addition to personal growth, we need training in clinical skills and theories.  A comprehensive theory gives us a way to conceptualize the client’s strengths and weakness and relate it to him/her in a useful way.  And no, that doesn’t take away from the role God plays in therapy.  When God has already made truth available to us–either through special revelation (the Bible) or general revelation–and we ignore it, we might actually limit how God may use us.  For he orders us to be equipped for every good work and be ready in all seasons.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. . . .  Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.

2 Timothy 3:16-17, 4:2

In fact, because Christianity is a religion all about relationship, it makes sense that the way God the True Shepherd would counsel is through sub-shepherds.  When the knowledge and skill we have is from his teaching and we operate under his call and anointing, we can be sure that the expertise we think we have is actually his.

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So What’s the Point?

Now with the foundations of a biblical psychology established, we can begin to see the therapeutic applications of this worldview.  But first, we need to delineate our purpose in providing and receiving counseling.

So, what’s the point of counseling?  Sounds like an easy-enough question.  To help ease people of psychological, emotional, or relational discomfort.  Right?  Not so fast.  The world has myriad ways of interpreting and going about accomplishing even this simple goal.  We can simply adopt one of the goals of any of the various psychological theories, try to assimilate it to our Christian faith, and then call ourselves Christian therapists.  Or we can (and should) look to Scripture to see if Christian counseling has its own purpose.   Is our goal to help people feel better?  Or help people be better?

Let’s see what Paul says about his own life’s goal.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  All of us who are mature should take such a view of things.

-Philippians 3:10-15a

Paul wants to know Jesus Christ.  And obviously not just know a lot about Christ.  Without even getting into the meaning of the original language used, we can see from the context that Paul is writing about an experiential knowledge.  But he does not even just want to know Jesus personally.  No, his passion is to know Christ so deeply that he identifies with him even to the point of attaining certain of his characteristics.  Namely, Paul earnestly strives to experience intimately the power of Christ’s resurrection.

As I mentioned in the post Imago Dei, the purpose of every human is to glorify God by seeing the image of God in him or her recreated.  Because we are born in sin and imperfection, that can only be accomplished by the resurrection power of Jesus Christ!  Paul is quick to acknowledge that he has not yet attained this resurrection power, but he also is not ashamed to boldly state that he will not relent in striving for this complete act of regeneration.  The key to Paul’s motivation is that he holds to an eternal perspective.  And he reminds us all that if we claim to be mature, we too should hold such a perspective.

Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

-2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Pain is temporaryTemptation is temporary.  Even if they were to last one’s entire life on earth, they would remain temporary, for this life is just a vapor compared to eternity.  We Christians must remember that we are living for the next life.  That is the real reason why the choices we make matter.  That is why we fight against sin and don’t just do what feels good or what’s easiest in response to pain or other feelings.  We have committed our lives to Christ, and though this life is difficult, we will keep this commitment so we can win the race set before us.

When we lose sight of eternity, then we find therapists so focused on easing the psychological pain or shame or temptation of their clients that they will endorse any form of treatment that just makes people feel better.  Have you lost all hope for alcohol addiction recovery or for any fulfillment in your last days of a terminal illness?  Die on your own terms by drinking yourself to death at a “wet house” or suicide.  Dissatisfied with your gender?  Then distort and do (oftentimes irreversible) harm to your body to match the gender of your choice, if that’s what will make you feel better!  Overwhelmed by the difficulty of addressing unwanted same-sex attraction?  Feel shame no more; just change your morals or interpretation of Scripture so that it’s no longer a problem!  Fell out of love with your spouse?  Don’t fight for your marriage; just end it!  The examples can go on and on.

That’s the world’s way.  Modern psychology and psychiatry have been increasingly moving away from healing the source of people’s problems to just alleviating symptoms.  Just look at the explosion of psychotropic medications to ease or just manage symptoms without the hard work of therapy.  We’ve largely abandoned long-term, insight-oriented therapy aimed at character transformation in favor of brief, solution-focused approaches to getting rid of presenting problems.  Now the latest trend (which really is long overdue, considering our society) is postmodern philosophy infiltrating psychology.  There are no objective problems–only what the client perceives to be the problem.  Therefore, we need only to help the client change his or her opinion on the issue.

On the other hand, a biblical, eternal perspective prescribes its own brand of approaches.  And yes, it may limit treatment options.  But it gives me a certainty I would never trade in.  The goals of Christian therapy are healing and transformation into the likeness of Jesus (Ephesians 5:1).  But being like Jesus does not necessarily mean absolute cessation of committing sins or having strugglesThe distinguishing characteristic of Jesus which we’re called to emulate is a humility that led him to surrender his own rights so as to honor the Father and to love others (Philippians 2:5-11).  We face pain and temptation to change our morals or do things our way.  And that’s where the “fear and trembling” belong in working out our salvation (Philippians 2:12).  When you have an eternal perspective you will place honoring and obeying God above your own ease.  A Christian counselor would never look for ways to ease a client’s pain or temptation that would compromise one’s transformation.  For there may be a way that seems right, but in the end it leads to death (Proverbs 14:12).

Before going further, let me also add that if our goal is to actually be better, then we see that counseling is for more than the sick and hurting.  Christian counseling supports the basic idea of positive psychology–that our field should not just be for treating problems, but to increase the quality of life in general!  And really, the Church has been doing this for centuries.  Just the concept of the weekly worship service and sermon (not to mention small groups/Bible studies and marriage enrichment seminars) is based on the idea that we all can improve in some way or another.

Nevertheless, one of the most difficult truths is that positive change is not easy.  And many–even well-intentioned–people do not see their full potential realized while on earth, maybe even despite great efforts.  Mental disorders, addictions, unwanted feelings or desires, and relational problems cause us all sorts of suffering.  And this suffering can hinder our growth or be a catalyst.  Paul (and James and Peter) tells us that he embraces the chance to suffer as Christ suffered, for he knows that in order to truly identify with Jesus he must identify with his suffering.  We may not be persecuted or crucified like Jesus, but we daily must choose to die to our desires to meet our needs our way and instead surrender to God.

But the difficulty of change does not preclude it from being a goal of therapy.  We pursue change not because it’s the easiest route all the time, but because it’s the right thing to pursue.  And as a holistic approach, Christian therapy should be open to the validity of various types of change: change in one’s heart, one’s motivation and attention to daily recovery, patterns of relating to others, one’s love for God, one’s self-control (over behaviors and thoughts), physical health, one’s response to suffering–not just elimination of undesirable feelings or other phenomena, though we should never rule out such a possibility.

So, as I always tell the men in my group dealing with sexual addiction or homosexuality, I believe that healing is possible.  But until that day–though the suffering may be great–we struggle against our pain and sin.  We do not give in.  And when we fall, God’s main concern is that we persevere.  So, I do not measure success by the complete elimination of the presenting problem as much as the person’s resolve to struggle against the problem no matter how difficult it gets.  (Of course, in doing so, such a man will root out the hidden core issues and find healing progressively.)  God guarantees that he will complete the work in us, provided we do not give up.  In fact, only in persevering through the suffering will our relationship with Christ yield any results.

His divine nature has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.  Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.

-2 Peter 1:3-9

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

-Romans 8:37

If we’re more than conquerors, then we must remind ourselves that if we fight, we will win.  The fight might just last our whole lives.  But that’s not that long.

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The People of Change

You ever see that bumper sticker that reads “Christians Aren’t Perfect . . . Just Forgiven“?  Really?  My issue is not so much with the first statement.  It’s a given that Christians–or anyone, for that matter–are not perfect (depending on our definition of “perfection,” for we must reconcile it with God’s command in Leviticus 19:2 and Matthew 5:48 to be holy and perfect as our Heavenly Father is . . . but that’s a blog post for another time).  I understand that Christians are attempting to rebut with a piece of plastic on their car the cultural sentiment that we’re all self-righteous.  But “Just Forgiven“?  Is that truly what defines and distinguishes us from all others?  Is being forgiven how people will know who we are?

The Bible calls us many things . . . a peculiar people, royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), saints (1 Cor. 1:2, 6:2), children of God (John 1:12).  Forgiveness is magnificent and I will be eternally grateful to God for it.  However, forgiveness alone does not make us any of those things.  There are many biblical ways we can and should identify ourselves.  Regarding ourselves as sinners who are just forgiven severely overlooks the full reason for Jesus Christ’s coming to Earth.  If we are seeking to boil Christians down to one thing, we need not look any further than the message of baptism.

What shall we say, then?  Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?  By no means!  We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?  Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

-Romans 6:1-4

When Jesus died on the cross, he became for everyone in all of time the sacrifice needed to pay for our sins.  That made our forgiveness possible.  But Jesus did not come just to die.  In fact, his disciples fell into despair at his death.  And even though he told them on several occasions that he must die and that he would rise again, they did not understand or believe him until he resurrected on the third day, forever solidifying Jesus as the baddest dude who ever walked the earth!  So not only did he provide us our forgiveness, but in his resurrection, he provided our ability to live a new life after forgiveness and escape (yes, even in this life) from the cycle of willful sin.  Therefore, Jesus’ death and resurrection are how we Christians ought to identify ourselves.  In baptism, when we submerge into the water, we identify with his death and hence the death of our sinful self.  And thank God we don’t stay submerged and dead!  When we rise out of the water, we identify with Jesus’ resurrection and the new life and self with which he imbues us!

If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.  For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin–because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.  Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.  The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.  In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

-Romans 6:5-10

Thank you, Paul.  I really cannot say it better myself.

Maybe you’re wondering, “What does all this talk about dying to sin have to do with mental health?”  Based on my previous post (The “S” Word), you can replace “sin” with any behavior, desire, emotion, or thought pattern that is against God’s design and intent.  And now you can easily see that God does not want us to live the same life we lived without Christ.  And just as the disciples did not believe until Jesus had new life, so many people will not believe the “Good News” we preach if they cannot observe new life in us.

In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

-John 3:3

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

-John 10:10

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

-1 Corinthians 5:17

Back in college, I got to talking with one of the maintenance men about the students on campus who came from Teen Challenge (a highly regarded international Christian drug and alcohol recovery program).  He made a comment that I just absolutely needed to correct: “People don’t really change, right?”  Unfortunately, I’ve heard this same sentiment from fellow Christian psychology students.  Excuse me, the very idea of Christianity is that people can change.  For that matter, the very idea of counseling is that people can change.  It disheartens me when I hear Christians or counselors (or specifically, Christian counselors) state so matter-of-factly that the most we can do is hope that people can learn to manage their addictions or eating disorders or trauma reactions or depression or anxiety, etc.  And of course, it bothers me when Christians are so shocked (or worse–skeptical) when they hear of people being healed of these very same disorders.  Now, certainly there may be a wide range of expectations for the process of healing, and these expectations may need correcting; but the very idea of healing should not be something “believers” doubt.

Has being born-again lost its meaning to us?  How can we be counselors if we don’t think people are actually capable of change?  How can we as Christians tell the world that God is good if we don’t believe we can provide any evidence of his miraculous goodness in our lives?  Yes, we must have faith when there is no evidence (hence its chief characteristic), but at one point we started having faith because of some evidence of God’s might in our lives.

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.

-1 Corinthians 2:4-5

We need Christians and Christian counselors who aren’t afraid or embarrassed to go out on a limb and boldly declare that change is possible.  That those with same-sex attraction and compulsions can find change in their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  That those with addictions can daily live free of the control of the addiction.  That those with depression can live life to the fullest again (or for the first time).  That the effects of childhood trauma can be overcome.  That abusive spouses can learn to love, respect, and protect.  That marriages can heal.

For now, I’ll make this single qualifier: Scripture teaches healing–not immunity.  At no point does the Bible say that once you have experienced healing in an area, you are invulnerable to temptation again (Galatians 6:1).

I’ll make this real simple: either genuinely believe that people can really change or get out of the Christian counseling and pastoring field!  Why not a bumper sticker that reads, “Christians aren’t perfect, but we are new creations“?  Do we not believe that to be true?

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