[By Jeremy Lelek, M.A., LPC, President, Association of Biblical Counselors and Metroplex Counseling. He also is an adjunct professor with Redeemer Seminary and a council member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition. Jeremy is our blogger for the month of July and this is his first post.]
Have you ever sat with someone struggling with extreme issues; problems that would likely garner such diagnoses as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, or Pedophilia from a psychiatrist or psychologist? If you have had the opportunity to work with individuals struggling at such a severe level, then you likely know the process of counseling can be challenging, even confusing.
For individuals wrestling with such chronic issues, the hope of change can often feel profoundly out of reach. Take for example, a man struggling with what is known in our society as Pedophilia. I have worked with many such individuals, and the intensity of the battle in which they are daily besieged is something difficult for me to accurately understand. Gaining perspective on the labyrinth of lies, deceit, insecurities, evil ambitions, and sexual lusts that drive such a darkened heart is a task (for me at least) that is only possible through the discernment of the Holy Spirit as understood through His Word. While I want to comprehend their conceptualization of the issue as a means of wisely entering their world of ideas, I am also set forth with the task to love them and to assist them in making sense of their problem from the vantage point of Scripture. Yet, what I seek to do most of all (and this is indicative of the two tasks I mention in the previous sentence), is to expose such people to the unending, all-powerful, heart transforming, life-altering, sin-destroying, incomprehensibly loving, eternally committed person of Jesus Christ! As I embark upon what I hope will be a redemptive journey with counselees such as this, I want them to understand that our “bottom-line,” our crucial deciding factor in the process, is ultimately Christ alone!
In building this framework, I will often take counselees to Titus 2:11-14, where it is written, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” If he or she has any hope of change, it is found in this passage!
God’s Grace Is Present
First, the good news for such people is that God’s grace is present and visible (assuming the one struggling is a believer in Jesus Christ)! Obviously, discussing their faith in Jesus, what it means, and how it is relevant in their daily lives will be significant. We cannot fall prey to foolish assumptions about a person’s salvation. We must guard against forgone conclusions that simply because the person says he or she is a Christian that this is actually the case AND we must protect them from our own prideful judgments that simply because they wrestle with chronic sin that they must not possess genuine faith. Being patient, and prayerfully talking through this issue thoroughly is of utmost importance.
Now, assuming genuine faith is present, the good news of God’s grace in the battle must be proclaimed. For example, people with intense habitual sin patterns (especially those of a sexual nature) often fail to appreciate God’s grace in the process because all of their previous efforts towards “victory” have failed. They have resigned themselves to the despairing lie that change is not possible. Such desolation of hope is a prime opportunity to remind them of the Gospel.
Maybe the person has forgotten or has never realized, but as a believer, he or she has already experienced the greatest transformational miracle evidenced in the Bible! The apostle Paul had to remind the saints of Ephesus, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience…” (Ephesians 2:1-2). He continues later, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” (Ephesians 2:4-5). This is “God’s grace appearing” and it was an event over which the person had absolutely NO control! Having people recall this truth brings them face to face with the reality that God has already radically changed them (with no need of their assistance), and He continues to sovereignly reign over their hearts as they are divinely conformed to His image.
Radical Truth #1: “God has already brought me from death to life. I was powerless, yet he raised me from the dead! If, in His love, He so radically transformed my heart, how much more is He able to change me in and through my current struggle! He was faithful in my salvation, he will be faithful in my sanctification!”
God’s Grace Is Training Hearts
God’s grace is not merely a present reality it is a working reality. Paul, referring to God’s grace, reminded Titus (for the sake of the elect), “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age…” (Titus 2:12). The grace of God is agenda driven. It is being poured out upon the saints for a purpose: to continue in the work of transformation. And Paul doesn’t give us a “sweet by and by” type of hope regarding this change. He points to “the present age”. He points to NOW! For the person overwhelmed by the darkness of chronic sin, this truth serves as the bottom line! No matter how vivid and intense the presenting sin or temptation may be, God’s grace is committed to eradicating and destroying its influence so that His people will exhibit godly lives for His own glory! Regardless of the overwhelming sense (experientially) of temptation, God’s grace infinitely exceeds it in scope and power!
Radical Truth #2: “My heart still lusts. My soul continues to fear. I long to manipulate and control. Yet, as a redeemed one of Christ, I have been graciously thrust into a process wherein all such evils are now in the process of being undone. This is true in spite of me. My Savior will have it no other way! Lord, teach me by Your Word, and humble me by Your Spirit!
Jesus: Our Blessed Hope
All of the battles with sin are much more significant than the battles themselves! Counseling can often become so hyper-focused on the problem, that the most glorious reality is ignored! I will often ask counselees, “Why do you want to overcome this issue?” I’ll receive answers like, “I want better friendships” (in the case of someone who comes who identifies with the psychiatric diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder), “I don’t want to be so angry with my children (in the case of the man citing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), or “I don’t want to go back to jail or shame my family” (in the case of the man labeled as a Pedophile). While each of these answers warrants my attention, they will ultimately fall short of “the bottom line.” A person seeking to engage the process of transformation with such myopia will likely end up feeling as the author who laments, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). When Paul was discussing holiness, transformation, and godly living, he did so with a grand and anticipatory heart. The present reality of change (or the battle towards such change) rested in a greater reality: the coming of Jesus Christ! The moment when the Groom will be united with His Bride, and all that is wrong will be made perfectly right!
Radical Truth #3: “My change must be more than self-improvement. My hope to be different must rest in something far more eternal than convenience or comfort! Any efforts I make towards fighting the sins of my heart MUST be rooted in my love for Jesus, and the call He has placed upon me to love others. Change is centered in my becoming a creature who not only abides in the love of God, but whose very purpose is to extend such love to others around me. Make it be so Father, that I may bring glory to You!”
Jesus: The Bottom Line
The critical deciding factor (the bottom line) for the person steeped in dark patterns of sin is Jesus Christ! Paul makes the proclamation that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). This reality must undergird every word of counsel and every recommended method. Jesus Christ has already redeemed the one who has placed faith in Him AND He is faithfully committed to unleashing His grace in that person’s life so that he or she is not merely clinging to hold on in obedience, but whose very passions are completely reoriented for entirely new things!
Radical Truth #4: “I belong to One who gave His life not only to save me from sin, but to utterly rearrange my personality! While my commitment to His good and glory may falter, His commitment to these things will never be shaken. I can confidently stand with Paul and say, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us” (Romans 8:31)?”
When I sit with those whose lives exhibit chaos, confusion, and what appear to be unchangeable issues and patterns, I must often remind myself of the bottom line. My counselees’ destiny is not dependent on my skills or wisdom, nor does it ultimately reside in the ones I serve. Rather, the hope of change ultimately rests in a faithful God whose passion to transform hearts far exceeds my own. I can take comfort in the words He spoke when He walked among the brokenness of this world:
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:37-40).
May we believe in His faithfulness, and foster such belief in those we serve!