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Counseling in a Warzone

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What is your mentality when you sit down to counsel someone? Do you seek to be kind, loving, compassionate, merciful, quick to confront, ready to offer solutions, or eager to give the answers you know are in the Bible? Do you place pressure on yourself to have it all figured out within an hour so you will appear to know what you are doing? What tends to consume your thinking when you enter the counseling context? 

Has it ever occurred to you that when you counsel you enter one of the most rabid war zones in the human experience. Are you aware that when you sit with others to discuss the issues of their hearts, you actually engage in warfare? Would you say this a prominent aspect of your counseling mindset? Consider the apostle Peter’s words for a moment, ”Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (I Peter 2:11, ESV). This is very interesting language to the modern culture where behavior is so heavily attributed to sociological, cultural, and physiological dynamics.  With such pervasive messages, it is important for us to ask, “What was Peter getting to when he penned these words that has application to the life of the modern counselee?”  It is from verses like this that the biblical counseling community has developed a theology of the heart (or psyche) as being something “active” (Powlison, 1995; Tripp, 2000; Welch, 2003). Peter’s words reflect the idea that the hypothesis of a “blank slate” of human nature misses the dynamic, intentional, and active nature of the human soul as revealed by God.  He tells us that humans are in a perpetual war, and the active nature of this war is profoundly evident in what he calls “the passions of the flesh”.

Bringing this reality into our conceptualization of the counseling process is significant because it exposes a profoundly influential variable.  It shapes our methodological approach by helping us realize the true nature of the issues at hand.  As we sit down to discuss a person’s disintegrating marriage, or paralyzing anxiety, or relentless craving for meth, we do so with an awareness that we enter an unseen war zone of cosmic proportions.  Many Christians have exercised a tragic disservice to others by ignoring this reality, and diminishing sin to being exclusively behavioral. As such, mistakes in counseling have been made in that counselors have often focused on fixing sinful or unhealthy communication (a symptom of the war), offering relaxation techniques for anxious feelings (a symptom of the war), stopping drug use (a symptom of the war), or legalistically applying Scripture rather than addressing the vortex from which these outward issues emerge.  From a medical standpoint, this would be akin to trying to eradicate terrorism by tending to the physical wounds inflicted in battle. Setting a soldier’s broken leg is certainly important, but it will not (in itself) conquer terrorism. The wound is a symptom of the war, not the war itself.  Therefore, mindfulness of the war is significant.  As a sojourner in a hostile land, do you strategically help others fight this battle, or do you get caught up in the enormity of the explosions of war?  When a husband and wife are yelling at each other, are you caught off guard by this behavior or do you ask probing questions that might help you understand “the passions of the flesh” “waging war” against their souls (Powlison, 1999)? When someone is having panic attacks, do you stop with helping her calm down through breathing and relaxation or do you also proceed and go deeper in considering the desires of her heart produced and shaped by the flesh? If someone feels bound by obsessive thoughts of contamination, do you exclusively revert to behavioral techniques to help him become desensitized to his fears or are you mindful of the war within that is raging with ferocity, even driving much of the obsessions and fear?  Do you ever become so overwhelmed by these symptoms that you revert to a mechanical mode of counseling to ease your sense of limitedness as a counselor?

To counsel biblically means we must approach people biblically. Our counselees are in a war zone. Quite frankly, so are we. And the object of this war is not nebulous. The Person against whom the war is raging is quite clear. Paul helps us understand this when he writes, “For the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot (Romans 8:7-8, ESV). The passions at war against the soul (as mentioned by Peter) are in hostile revolt against God (as explained by Paul). Not only that, but to try and contain them in our own strength or with simplistic methods will guarantee ultimate defeat. Paul tells us we cannot submit to the law of God in our own flesh. He also rages against the idea that methods can ever free us from the yoke of slavery called sin (Galatians 5).  This is why we are desperate for a Redeemer.  Techniques are important. Practical methods to assist others in their struggles with sin and suffering are a significant part of people-helping. Medical assistance for the person addicted to a chemical substance is wise and good (to protect him or her from dangerous, even fatal complications from withdrawal).  However, we must always remember we are not applying such techniques and services to a neutral being, therefore specific techniques will not always be equally effective for everyone. We are applying these methods to a person (just like ourselves) who is daily visited by dark, deceptive, convincing, luring, forceful passions that shape the visible components of the battle. So, while methods are a vital part of what we do, we must be careful that it is not in them that we foster faith (either as counselors or in those we serve). Methods will never change the heart. Methods are impotent to overthrow the passions that wage against us. It is on this point that we have the glorious opportunity to visit and revisit the Gospel narrative and consider how it applies to even the most complex of situations or intimidating diagnoses.

As counselors, we must be careful not to insult the work of Jesus Christ by seeking to combat the flesh with a Gospel subsitute. We are in a war, and we have a King whose “power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:3-4, ESV), and this power comes through His finished work upon the cross.

May we seek to be diligent students of God’s Word that we may effectively employ and teach these truths to our fellow soldiers of battle. If it is indeed true that in Christ and by his power we have everything we need, then we want to be careful never to relegate this truth of truths to the dark corners of our counseling philosophy and methods.  May God help us to always be mindful of Him!


Powlison, D. (2003). Idols of the heart and “vanity fair”. The Journal of Biblical Counseling, 13(2), 35-­ 50.

Powlison, D. (1999). X-­‐ray questions: Drawing out the whys and wherefores of human behavior. The Journal of Biblical Counseling, 18(1), pp. 2-­9.

Tripp, P.D. (2000). War of words: Getting to the heart of your communication struggles. Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.  

Welch, E. (2003). Why do I do the things I do? The Journal of Biblical Counseling, pp. 48-­56.

Posted on March 12, 2014