The primary goal of counseling is for a life to be transformed into the image of God by recognizing and appropriating his or her identity in Christ through the renewal of the mind. The goal of counseling is based on the Gospel. Jay Adams’s goal of counseling is righteousness that focuses on behavior change (Powlison, 2010, p. 102). However, Timothy Keller (2012) asserts that the gospel “has nothing to do with developing a righteousness we give God,” but is “God’s developing and giving us righteousness through Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21)” (p. 63).
The goal of counseling completely depends on the believer’s “in Christ” status that results from justification through God’s gift of righteousness. James Samra (2008) asserts that the stative nature of being in Christ has ethical implications; the believer’s attitudes and actions must align with the realm within which they belong (pp. 74-75). The alignment of attitudes and actions with the believer’s status occurs by letting God’s truth transform him into the image of Christ by actively renewing the mind (See Rom 12:2). The stative and dynamic aspects of transformation are not contradictions. Paul often parallels the indicative and imperative, and thus “can both declare that believers are spiritual and exhort them to be spiritual” (Samra, 2008, p. 82).
David Benner’s (2015) goal focuses on transformation (p. 73). However, Benner (2015) limits the solution to God’s love and misses the importance of the believer’s new identity (p. 73). Sandra Wilson’s (2001) goal focuses on understanding and overcoming the hurt and shame of the past (pp. 15-16). However, the goal of counseling is not primarily about recovering from the past, but instead being freed from the past by appropriating a new identity in Christ.
Development of Problems and Personal Need
Agreeing with Larry Crabb (2013), the primary need of humanity is a sense of worth (pp. 62-63). Prior to the Fall, mankind had a sense of worth united with God in the Garden. However, Brian Rosner (2017) explains that Adam and Eve’s transgression was an identity crisis where Satan tempted them to establish their “identity independent of God” (p. 86). The problem is a separation of identity from God, which results in mankind looking elsewhere for worth.
Keller (2008) astutely notes, “Our need for worth is so powerful that whatever we base our identity and value on we essentially ‘deify'” (p. 163). Keller (2008) continues by explaining that humans often find their identity and worth in spouses, family, children, work, career, money, possessions, relationships, and approval (pp. 275-276). Deification of worldly objects completely undermines spiritual and psychological maturity. For example, when a wife is deified, the result is co-dependence, where the husband attempts to manipulate and control his wife to feel better about himself since his identity is wrapped up in his wife’s attitudes and actions. Divorce is often the result. Alternatively, if one’s identity is wrapped in Christ, then the disastrous results are avoided. In sum, problems arise when individuals attempt to find value and worth outside of Christ in such areas as people’s opinions, performance, and circumstances.
For Adams, humanity’s problem is sinful behavior (Powlison, 2010, p. 102). Sinful behavior is not the problem; it is the result of the problem that an individual’s identity is separated from God. Johnny Baker explains that for Wilson problems develop from childhood (Liberty University, Healing). If Wilson is correct, then children from functional family environments would be healthy, but these children also require a new identity in Christ to solve the problem of worth. For Benner (2015), a separation of God’s love is the problem (p. 27). Benner is correct, but a new identity in Christ is necessary to unite the believer with God’s love.
The entire counseling methodology relies on biblical integration, which is essential to the goal of counseling’s three components: (1) God’s image, (2) identity in Christ, and (3) the renewal of the mind. First, Scripture declares that humans are made “in the image of God” (see Gen. 1:26, 27; 5:1, 9:6). Michael Heiser (2015) explains that the meaning of the phrase hinges on properly translating the Hebrew preposition “in” as a verb or function, “We are created to image God, to be his imagers. It is what we are…not an ability we have, but a status” (pp. 42-43). In other words, as God’s representatives, believers are His imagers.
Second, Rosner (2017) concludes that being made in God’s image is tied directly to a new identity as God’s children (p. 84). Believers made in God’s image are adopted as sons and daughters “in Christ” with the rights of heirs (Rosner, 2017, pp. 84-85). Harold Hoehner (2002) explains that the “in Christ” formula indicates a believer’s union with Christ, thus the believer is no longer separated from God (p. 171). In other words, a new identity has been forged, for anyone who is “in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17, English Standard Version). The believer’s new identity in Christ takes on Christ’s attribute of righteousness that is declared to the believer as a gift (Crabb, 2013, p. 24). Although these spiritual benefits are given to the believer, Hoehner (2002) explains that “believers still need to appropriate them” (p. 172).
Third, although humanity was created as God’s divine image bearers, and believers have a new identity in Christ, Scripture asserts that for believers to be transformed into who they already are requires “the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). In other words, the process of appropriating the spiritual benefits that God has already given to the believer occurs by renewing the mind upon God’s truth. It is upon these three biblical constructs, divine imaging, new identity, and mind renewal that Christian counseling rests.
Formula for Change
The methodology’s formula for change rests on the acronym B-T-E-A, which needs to be taught to the counselee prior to using the four-step formula for change. It is first necessary for the client to understand that Beliefs inform Thoughts that lead to Emotions, which, in turn, result in Actions. In other words, healthy inner beliefs ultimately lead to healthy outward behavior, “For no good tree bears bad fruit…the good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good” (Luke 6:43-45).
The four-step formula for change begins by having the client identify the unhealthy emotion (Crabb, 2013, p. 146). According to Michelle Pearce (2016), the unhealthy feeling is often more noticeable and easier to identify than the underlying thought or belief (p. 72). Furthermore, focusing on the unhealthy emotion allows the client to take her spiritual temperature by juxtaposing the emotions with the fruit of the Spirit (see Gal 5:19-26).
The second step is to assist the client in identifying the underlying thoughts or beliefs that automatically entered her mind when feeling the unhealthy emotion (Pearce, 2016, p. 72). The unhealthy thoughts will often align with one of the ten distortions identified in cognitive behavioral therapy. The unhealthy beliefs will often relate to identity issues whereby the client is finding her worth in an object of the world, rather than in Christ.
The third step is to assist the client in replacing the unhealthy thoughts or beliefs by first disputing it and then moving toward a new thought or belief that more accurately portrays the situation (Pearce, 2016, p. 74). The new thoughts or beliefs should be supported with specific biblical verses or concepts that align with God’s truth in Scripture (Pearce, 2016, p. 74). The fourth step is to assist the client in letting God’s truth transform her by preparing a plan of mind renewal by meditating daily on the replacement thoughts or beliefs.
Balance of Theology and Spirituality
The counseling methodology assumes theology and spirituality are equally important, but functionally different. The solution to mankind’s problem is justification by faith where infinite eternal worth is procured through the declaration of righteousness via Christ’s death and resurrection (Crabb, 2013, p. 25). Without objectively understanding justification, Richard Lovelace (1979) explains that believers risk relying on “their sanctification for their justification” and attempt to procure God’s acceptance through sincerity, experience, religious performance, and sin management (p. 101). In other words, when spiritual experience trumps sound theology, the Gospel is undermined. However, the absence of spiritual experience undermines maturity.
Gordon Fee (1994) explains that Paul’s insight into the Gospel came via the revelation of the Holy Spirit (p. 851). A theologically sound, objective historical reality of a believer’s position in Christ is necessary, but for Paul “this reality also involves a clearly subjective, experiential appropriation that results in some radical change in the believer; and the Spirit is the absolutely crucial element for this dimension of conversion” (Fee, 1994, p. 854). In other words, the four-step formula for change requires the counselee to meditate on God’s truth to appropriate the positional reality into an experiential reality. When an objective understanding of the Gospel is absent from a spiritual awakening, the Gospel is rendered impotent.
In the proposed counseling methodology, the objective reality and subjective experience work in tandem. As clients cognitively identify false beliefs, the Holy Spirit reveals the truth that sets the client free. As clients objectively understand their position in Christ, the Spirit experientially reveals aspects of life not yet healed. As clients open their minds to the objective reality of God’s acceptance, the Spirit opens the client’s heart to hidden defects in character. In sum, the incarnate Christ and Holy Spirit of truth collaborate to mature believers.
Like Crabb, Adams, Wilson, and Benner, the proposed counseling methodology assumes the structure of human personality is finite, made in God’s image, and fallen. David Entwistle (2010) summarizes the three components by suggesting that a biblical anthropology grounds humanity’s worth in the divine image bearing status, which depends on God due to the damaging effects of the Fall (p. 131). Humanity’s finite, fallen state and capacity for divine image bearing provide the need for the counseling solution of a new identity in Christ.
A distinctive structural feature of the proposed counseling methodology is the acceptance of the a trichotomist perspective of the human constitution. Millard Erickson (1998) explains that trichotomism asserts that individuals are composed of a body that is physical, a soul that consists of reason and emotion, and a spirit that responds to spiritual stimuli (p. 539). Specifically, the soul houses the mental capacities for mind renewal. The spirit houses the Holy Spirit who forges a new identity as sons and daughters of God who inherit the spiritual benefits of Christ. Paul succinctly summarizes, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:16-17).
Developmentally, the proposed counseling methodology aligns with Crabb and Adams who strongly oppose personality theories that undermine personal responsibility and humanity’s capacity to choose. First, Crabb (2013) points out that an individual’s behavioral choices are bound to the individual’s understanding (p. 101). An individual’s history, circumstances, and disposition does not cause behavior; instead, the individual’s understanding of his history, circumstances, and disposition results in the chosen behavior. Second, Neil Anderson (2003) suggests that “God will not do for us what He has instructed us to do” (p. 99). Individuals must choose to renew the mind (Rom 12:2), take captive every thought (2 Cor 10:5), and put on the armor of God (Eph 6:11). Humanity is completely responsible for choices made.
Counselor’s Function and Role
The role of the counselor is to create an environment of trust and safety using the acronym TEACH. First, with a belligerent client, the counselor disarms with Truth. David Burns (2008) explains that by finding some truth in criticisms, instead of defending, the counselor can disarm the client (pp. 100-101). Second, the counselor extends Empathy. Carl Rogers (1959) defines empathy as the ability “to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy…as if one were the person” (pp. 210-211). Third, the counselor Asks questions. The power of inquiry has been known since the time of Socrates, and Christ used inquiry dozens of times in the New Testament to further understanding (e.g. Luke 10:23). Fourth, the counselor Communicates assertively. If enough trust exists, assertive communication can assist clients in taking responsibility. Finally, the counselor provides Hope. The counselor extends words of encouragement, which gives the client courage to change. Jesus encouraged Simon when He changed his name to Peter, the rock (Matt 16:18).
The function of the counselor is to facilitate the discovery of God’s truth. Along with creating trust and safety, the TEACH method can also facilitate the discovery of truth. However, many other techniques are available to the counselor as well. For example, David Burns (2006) provides several options such as the uncovering technique, which asks the counselee what it would mean about him if the belief was true (pp. 101-102). Uncovering techniques are especially helpful in uncovering misplaced identities. Other techniques include role-playing, defining terms, and acceptance paradox (Burns, 2006, pp. 182-185, 209-220). The key to using these techniques is to facilitate new beliefs that align with identity formation in Christ, and new thoughts that align with the Word of God.
Major Contribution to Counseling
The major contribution of the proposed counseling methodology is the integration of techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with the client’s objective understanding and subjective appropriation of his or her new identity in Christ. Pearce (2016) observes that CBT develops skills in clients that have been scientifically proven to change the function of the brain to impact emotions and behaviors (p. 47). Accordingly, within the realm of thought distortions, CBT is a proven method for assisting counselees.
Various forms of CBT also recognize that individuals struggle with self-defeating beliefs that pertain to identity, such as the challenges that occur when finding worth in achievement, approval, love, perfectionism, and pleasing others (Burn, 2006, p. 106). However, no form of CBT provides an adequate answer to the primary need of humanity – a sense of worth. In fact, CBT often encourages clients to replace the thought distortions, and then overcome the self-defeating beliefs by finding a sense of value in the very things that cause the dysfunction: family, career, friends, hobbies, and even self. Unfortunately, any worldly object of identity will inevitably fail. The only viable solution to humanity’s need for worth is a complete identity replacement, where the individual takes on the worth and value of Jesus Christ through faith.
Various forms of Christian CBT are currently available. For example, Michelle Pearce (2016) recently published Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Christians with Depression. Pearce utilizes several CBT techniques and appropriately integrates them with mind renewal, meditation, and prayer. However, Pearce ultimately falls short by ignoring the importance of identity formation. In sum, CBT without the integration of the new creation status in Christ results in placing a band-aid on a wound that is temporary, and it ultimately has no power to heal the client’s most fundamental need.
Limitations of This Counseling Theory
Several potential limitations exist for this counseling theory. First, as with all integrationist models, the risk of syncretism exists. Adams opposes integrationists by asserting that “Scripture contains all information relevant to psychological health” (Entwistle, 2010, p. 166). Although Adams goes too far, anytime secular concepts commingle with biblical principles, users must be aware of the risks. A second limitation is that the methodology focuses primarily on cognition, thus it risks minimizing the importance of emotions and personal history. Third, a limitation of all counseling theories is the willingness of the participant. Accordingly, the proposed counseling methodology requires a method of assessing and encouraging willingness, which could include motivational interviewing. According to Miller and Rollnick (2009), motivational interviewing is “a collaborative person-centered form of guiding to elicit and strengthen motivation for change” (p. 137). However, regardless of the skill of the counselor, the Holy Spirit is ultimately responsible for prompting believers toward willingness.
The most significant limitation of the proposed counseling theory pertains to identification of unhealthy thoughts and beliefs and the application of the replacement truth. During the four-step process, the counselor facilitates the client’s recognition of unhealthy thoughts and beliefs. However, if the client does not trust the counselor or is not feeling safe, then the client may not disclose the real underlying thought or belief supporting the unhealthy emotion. Furthermore, the client may simply not be self-aware enough to claim the cognition. Finally, even if the client identifies the relevant cognition, the replacement thoughts or beliefs must be identified and applied directly to the distorted cognition. The client must renew his or her mind with truth from God that directly and completely undermines the false belief. An inexperienced counselor may not recognize the distortions or potential ambiguity.
As previously mentioned, the proposed counseling methodology integrates techniques from CBT with the client’s objective understanding and subjective appropriation of his or her new identity in Christ. Accordingly, the most appropriate classification is integrational, which has certain affinities with and distinctions from other counseling methods. For example, according to Baker, Adams’s nouthetic counseling asserts the Bible is completely sufficient for counseling, thus the integration of psychological constructs is unnecessary (Liberty University, Nouthetic). The proposed theory agrees that the Bible is sufficient for counseling. However, just as the Holy Spirit’s sufficiency to reveal God’s truth does not negate the benefits of hermeneutics, neither does the sufficiency of Scripture negate the benefits of human psychology.
An alternative to Adams is Benner’s (2015) Christian counseling, which suggests that believers must move beyond objectively knowing God toward experience (pp. 30-31). The proposed methodology recognizes the importance of a subjective appropriation that experiences Christ but eschews the idea that believers should ever “move beyond” objective knowledge. The objective and subjective are in constant collaboration.
Crabb’s (2013) method of counseling suggests that integrating psychological constructs into counseling is appropriate if they do not undermine the Word of God because Scripture always supersedes psychology (pp. 50-51). The proposed methodology aligns with Crabb’s integrational perspective, but it goes further by asserting that for the psychology to be useful it must enhance the client’s understanding of God’s truth. Wilson’s (2001) method is also an integrational form of Christian counseling, but it is built on family of origin psychology supported with various biblical concepts (see p. 88). Alternatively, the proposed methodology is built on a theology of justification by faith supported by psychological constructs.
Counseling Utility and Specific Potential Influence
The utility of the proposed methodology for the overall discipline of counseling rests primarily in its ability to assist client’s in meeting their greatest need – a sense of worth. A sense of worth that cannot come from self, other people, or performance because everything outside of Christ will inevitably fall short. A sense of worth that can come only from a new identity formed in Christ because the believer is justified by faith and the recipient of Christ’s righteousness through the inhabitation of the Holy Spirit.
The potential influence upon my life is the continued experience of the fruit of the Spirit as I appropriate the objective knowledge of Christ through subjective experience by renewing my mind of God’s truth. Specifically, peace and joy can overcome anxiety and depression as I meditate on the truth that my value is in Christ, and not based on my business failures, relationship lapses, or performance mishaps. Furthermore, the potential influence for my counseling ministry is the opportunity to share the Good News with counselees that they are no longer defined by the worldly influences of other people’s opinions and performance standards that often manifest into emotional distress.
Counseling Moment Example
My phone rang, and Bob was on the other end of the line asking if we could meet. When Bob walked into my office, he slouched down in a chair. Bob had attended church all his life, but now alcohol was his way of life. I asked Bob if he wanted to tell me what was going on. He snapped and told me I probably would not care. I began TEACH by finding some truth and let Bob know that he was right, people often do not care (T). Bob explained that his wife left him for another man about a year ago. I responded by stating that his wife leaving must have been very difficult (E). I asked if he wanted to talk about it (A). Bob explained that work had become too important, and he lost his priorities. I explained that when priorities get skewed, pain is often involved (C). Bob told me he was ready to be done. I told Bob that I thought he might just be getting his second wind (H). I then assessed willingness by asking whether he would press a big red button, if he thought it would make the problem go away. He said he would press the button.
I explained B-T-E-A to Bob, and then used the four-step formula for change by first asking Bob to identify his unhealthy emotion. Bob quickly told me he had been fighting depression. I asked him to identify his thought. Bob’s thought was that his depression would never go away. I explained that never and always are words that cause a feeling of hopelessness, and then I asked Bob to try and change his thought to something more real, more truthful. Bob decided that his depression might go away, but it might not. He could not predict the future.
I then used a technique to uncover beliefs by asking Bob what his wife leaving meant about him. Bob quickly retorted that it meant he was worthless. I asked Bob how he might feel if what his wife thought about him had nothing to do with whether he was good enough. Bob thought that would help, but he had no idea how he could believe it. I had Bob read Romans 3:21-23 out loud. I asked Bob what that verse said about where his worth comes from. Bob realized that he was already righteous, already full of worth, because he has Christ’s righteousness through faith. I asked Bob whether his wife’s opinion of him trumps God’s opinion of him. Bob started to cry. He had never thought about the practical application of Gospel. Bob explained he would no longer need to feel worthless if his worth did not depend on his wife. I then asked Bob whether he would need alcohol to mask pain. Bob smiled. He said that if the pain was gone, then the alcohol was no longer needed. Bob and I took a few minutes to prepare a daily plan of mind renewal using Roman 3:21-23 and set a time to meet again.
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