Saturday, October 24, 2009

Counseling and the Problem of the Past

What follows is a review/analysis of an article.

What relationship does the past play in a counselee’s current circumstances? Should the counselor seek to understand the past? Should the counselor use the past in counseling? What does Scripture say about how we should think about the past? These are all questions which John Bettler seeks to answer in “Counseling and the Problem of the Past.” The article, taken from a lecture, begins with comments regarding different methods of biblical counseling and the need for a Biblical Counselor’s Confession of Faith which would allow for differences among biblical counseling methods yet provide a line of demarcation between true biblical counseling and any other form of counseling. The need becomes apparent in the discussion of the past because there are differences of opinion regarding the role of the past in biblical counseling.

According to Bettler there are three main difficulties which the past presents to counselors. First, it is a counseling problem because counselees inevitably bring it up. Whether they are trying to make connections in their own mind or for other reasons they may bring up something out the blue from the distant past which may or may not have relevance to the situation at hand. As the counselor sitting and listening to this recollection, how do you respond? Do you pry for more information, ignore it altogether, or tuck it in the back of your mind for further reference? Secondly, the past is a cultural problem because of the culture’s preoccupation with the past. Nearly everyone is a victim of some form of abuse or dysfunction and that supposedly allows us to excuse current behaviors. Third, the past is a psychotherapeutic problem. Pop psychologies tend to come and go with the theories reaching limited acceptance. However psychoanalysis theories are comparatively old and abiding. Freud’s view of the person as a closed system, the idea of the unconscious, and catharsis are all significant foundations of psychology which have maintained a “persistent challenge to Christianity.” Biblical counseling must have a viable view of the past to answer these dominant secular worldviews of our day.

With these problems understood Bettler moves on to provide the biblical view of the past and how it plays a role in counseling. There is a significant emphasis in all of Scripture on the need for God’s people to remember God’s past and future works. Many of the feasts and ceremonies commanded in the Law of Moses were specifically for Israel to remember God’s redemption out of Egypt. The sacrifices were to cause them to look forward to God’s redemption in the future. In the New Testament believers have the Lord’s Supper to remember Christ’s sacrifice in the past and his return in the future. Negatively there is also an emphasis on remember the sins others in the past which serve as a warning for us (1 Cor 10:1-13).

Additionally, the past is relevant in counseling because it is the context in which the person lives. As Bettler correctly states, “That counselee in front of you wasn’t born yesterday.” Understanding the past is understanding what has lead the counselee to his current situation. The difficulty is that the counselee is a biased replayer of the past. Memories are active, selective, and creative meaning that we choose to remember certain things in certain ways which may or may not reflect reality. Therefore what happened is not as important as how the counselee reacted. The most significant application of the past, according to Bettler, is using the past to discover a person’s “manner of life,” namely, those patterns a person has developed over time which lie beneath the current situation.

Recognizing that in an article there is limited space and extensive treatment of the issue is constricted, there are other aspects of Scripture’s use of the past that are relevant to counseling which Bettler neglected to address. Bettler listed three things God wants us to remember: His past works of deliverance and provision, Christ’s death and future return, and the past sins of others. However none of these uses of the past relate to the counselee who brings up their distant past of either their own sin or sin perpetrated upon them.

There are at least three additional ways that God wants us to utilize the past in our own lives. First, God wants us to remember our former life. Second, He wants us to remember His transforming work and its basis. Third, in times of sin he wants us to remember the times we were faithful.

In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Paul reminds the Corinthians that those who practice sin will not enter God’s kingdom. The sole purpose for telling them that is to remind them, or cause them to remember, that is who they were. The sins which Paul listed were not randomly chosen for their severity or shock value. Paul specifically listed sins which the people in the church of Corinth had participated in prior to salvation. The purpose of this was to demonstrate how their actions (suing believers in courts of law) were irreconcilable with their new eternal status. This is made clear by Paul’s three-pronged argument against suing believers: 1) saints will just the world, 2) saints will judge angels, and 3) the unrighteous won’t be there. The conclusion is that since the saints have a prestigious eternal position (in contrast to the unrighteous), then why would they allow the unrighteous to judge them? However lest the Corinthians get prideful over their position, Paul reminds them that they too were at one time in the category of the unrighteous and it was God, not themselves, that took them out of that category. Therefore we can extract a general principle that God wants us to remember our past in order to keep us humble as believers.

Another passage which makes use of the past is Ephesians 2:1-10ff. In this familiar passage Paul first reminds his readers of the destitute state in which they once lived. The motivation for this recollection was not primarily humility, but to provide the foundation for God’s grace. Before Paul could emphasize the one-sidedness of their salvation he had to destroy any notion that any person is saved of their own merit. This universal destitution and gracious salvation is the basis for Paul’s next point (2:11-22) which is the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ. The broader principle we can extract from this text in terms of that past is anyone who has a low view of God’s grace has a high view of their life before Christ. In other words, if anyone thinks they contributed to their salvation in any way, they need to understand from God’s perspective who they were before Christ. The past, in this case, magnifies God’s grace.
A third use of the past is demonstrated in Revelation 2:1-7 where the Lord dictates a letter to Ephesus. The key verse is verse five where the Lord says, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first…” In this context the Lord is calling for the church to repent of “abandoning the love [they] had at first” (v. 4). The Ephesians have a history of faithfulness in this area so it is not as though they are unaware of what to do. They simply need to be reminded of their past faithfulness and called back to it.

Certainly these additional three uses of the past, together with those mentioned in the article are not exhaustive of potential biblical uses of the past in counseling. However it should be noted, as stated in the article, that the past is not a source of blame or excuse for current behavior.

Another issue which would require more time and research to develop is the different Greek and Hebrew terms which are translated “remember.” μιμνῄσκομαι has the emphasis of “recollect” and “remind oneself” whereas μνημονεύω emphasizes more “keep in mind” or “think about.” How these terms (and others) are used in their contexts would be a necessary study which was not examined in the article.