Five Phrases to Strike from Your Counseling Repertoire

Five-Phrases-to-Strike-from-Your-Counseling-Repertoire

by Marie Notcheva

Platitudes & Christian Clichés

In biblical counseling, as in all forms of Christian ministry, we are called to exhort and encourage; listen and learn; love and give hope. Sometimes, however, words can hurt rather than heal. Although a counselor, friend, small-group leader or pastor may say something with the best of intentions, falling back on a platitude or Christian cliché can sometimes cause more harm than good to the listener.

Based on my experience as a biblical counselor and conversations with other women, I have identified five of the most damaging phrases that have made their way into the counseling room. Over the years, I have heard all of these used, and while I understand the intent behind them, they make me cringe.

Let’s look at the five phrases you should eliminate immediately from your counsel, and why.

  • “In order to feel good, you must DO good.” This is an old maxim of biblical counseling, often said to depressed counselees who find themselves in a rut. The problem is that it’s often not true, and usually adds to the counselee’s guilt and self-recrimination. A better approach? Get to the source of her depression. A woman who is depressed because of a verbally abusive husband will not be helped by this phrase; she very likely is already “doing good things” to the point of burnout, to no avail. Is the client depressed because of a death? Telling her to get her act together and wash the dishes will not help. The phrase implies that laziness is partially responsible for the depression, which is a dangerous assumption to make.
  • “How can I/we come alongside you?” This is a Christian cliché that is so vague it is usually impossible to answer. Say what you mean. Perhaps make a suggestion: “I’ll show up at your place at 11:00 am, do your laundry, and take you out to lunch. You could use a break!” Or, “Now that I know your family is struggling financially, let’s talk to the elders about getting a scholarship for your son to go to youth camp. By the way, there’s a fund in place to help pay heating bills for folks going through a rough patch.” The “coming alongside” offer can also be a thinly-veiled but heavy-handed way of saying, “I’m going to interfere in this very private matter you’ve divulged to me, whether you consent or not.” Don’t spiritualize your offer of involvement. Spell it out, and respectfully ask the counselee, friend, or parishioner for permission.
  • You have a very low view of Scripture (or Christ; or God).” This is usually a callous way of dismissing what the other person is saying, simply because you don’t agree with it. It is presumptuous in the extreme to assume you know her heart on such matters, and it is lazy counseling. If a counselee or member is attending an evangelical church of any stripe, and especially if she is seeking out counseling, it is safe to take her at her word that she believes in the inerrancy of Scripture. It is doubtful that she has a low view of Christ, and to tell her this is confusing and hurtful.

One woman I counseled several years ago had been told at her prior church that she had a low view of God, because she had taken a tough-love approach to her son’s drug addiction. Although I don’t know the woman’s pastor, I have counseled addicts enough to know that she took appropriate steps – and indeed had a very high view of God. If you don’t agree that the individual’s conclusion is biblical, do some research. It’s probably a matter of interpretation and you, as the biblical counselor, probably have the benefit of exegetical training. Engage the question; look at different angles and commentaries; reason together. Never dismiss her by telling her she has a low view of Scripture/God/Christ. Such sweeping statements are designed to be conversation-stoppers, and have no place in the counseling room.

  • “Stop carrying around a root of bitterness/bitter spirit.” This one is tricky, because it’s clearly a biblical warning. Bitterness is a sin, which ultimately destroys a person spiritually. The author of Hebrews cautions against letting such a spirit grow up within the Body, because it “corrupts many” (Hebrews 12:15). We see this all the time in the fallout of church splits, in the gossip and hard feelings that are left in its wake. The problem here is being careful not to lump every angry emotion into this category, and gloss over it with this verse. This approach is what has given nouthetic counselors the reputation of “throwing the Bible at people” or a “take one verse and call me in the morning” attitude.Having hurt feelings or struggling to forgive someone who has seriously wronged you is not bitterness. Often, counselors and pastors make the mistake of rebuking wounded believers for “bitterness” before they’ve even had a chance to start healing. At that point, what hurting people need is to be listened to; have their experience validated; have the wrong of what was done to them validated. Then you can begin to help them work through the process of forgiveness. Bitterness is a heart attitude that comes about when one sees all others as enemies; deliberately refuses to forgive; and usually is a result of a non-existent prayer life. Please do not forget that in some serious circumstances (such as sexual abuse, fraud, injury or murder of one’s relative), forgiveness may be a long, extremely painful process. Be very careful of bringing out the “root of bitterness” trump card.
  • “Thank you for sharing your heart.” Usually said with the best of intentions, this is the single most meaningless, cringe-worthy, condescending, cliché-sounding phrase in the ecclesiastical lexicon, according to women I’ve spoken to. It is meaningless because it is a non-answer, offering no resolve. It is condescending because it dismisses whatever the counselee (or parishioner) has said to the level of emotionalism. It is insensitive at best; insulting at worst. And rank-and-file church members know that.

One woman told me that this sounded like a pat-phrase taught in biblical counseling courses as a buffer; something to pull out when one doesn’t know what else to say. I know of another incident where a woman carefully documented details of incidents – with dates, names, witnesses and details – to give credence to a serious situation of abuse she had brought to her pastor’s attention. She was thanked for sharing her heart. “My heart had nothing to do with it,” she said. “They wanted facts? I gave them very specific facts. I’ve never felt so dismissed and unheard in my life.”

A better alternative to thank you for sharing your heart might be to thank the person for the trust they demonstrate in you by sharing this information with you; and then ask what action steps she would like you to take. This not only validates that the issue they’re addressing is important; it puts feet to the faith we profess to have. Faith and love both lead to action – there’s usually a reason they’re telling you something, and unless it’s over a coffee in Starbucks, it’s rarely just for the sake of sharing [their] heart.

As Christians, whether in the counseling room or out in the world, we’re called to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Although certainly none of us does this perfectly, thinking about how to make our words more meaningful (and edifying) might mean changing some of the ways we phrase things. Always try to consider how the listener will receive what you say, in her personal experience and situation. Frame your words accordingly, and in this way you will be demonstrating the love of Christ.

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Russia is Again in Chains for the Gospel. The Lesson to Americans

Blog-Russia-in-Chains

by Marie Notcheva

Earlier this month, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law some of the most repressive restrictions on religion since the days of Stalin. Known as the “Yarovaya” laws, the pretext for this crackdown is an anti-terrorism stance that supposedly restricts “extremism”.

Here is some of what the new laws cover:

  1. Foreign guests are not permitted to speak in churches unless they have a “work permit” from Russian authorities.
  2. If a friend or relative from outside Russia wishes to share his/her faith in your home the guest will be fined and expelled from Russia.
  3. Any discussion of God with non-believers is considered missionary activity and will be punishable.
  4. Missionary activity will be permitted by special government permission. Example: If one traveling on a train shares his faith without written permission the offender will be taken into police custody for the duration of the journey and will be fined 50,000 rubles ($1,000). Offenders from the age of 14-years-old will be subject to prosecution.
  5. Religious activity is no longer permitted in private homes. (Most churches in Russia are, in fact, home churches).
  6. Every citizen is obligated to report religious activity of neighbors to the authorities. Failure to be an informant is punishable by law.
  7. One may pray and read the Bible at home but not in the presence of a non-believing person. You will be breaking the law and be punished.
  8. If the church has purchased property it cannot be converted into a place of worship.
  9. In church buildings, it is not permitted to invite people to turn to God. Worship services are permitted but making a non-believer a follower of Christ is against the law.

Why does this matter to Americans?

Ironically enough, the atheist Putin has been seen as a conservative ally by some evangelicals because of his anti-gay policies and lip-service to “family values”. (Considering the abortion rate in Russia is three times the live birth rate, I doubt the preaching of “family values” is much of a priority to the government). More significantly, however, the Western media has been largely silent about this draconian step backward. While everyone was out chasing imaginary Pokemons last week, Russian believers are threatened with arrest for reading the Bible in their own homes, or preaching Christ in their own churches.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The Church in the largest nation on earth is being forced back underground – a full generation after the fall of Communism.

Over 7,000 evangelical churches are fasting and praying for a repeal of these laws. I don’t believe that we Americans are apathetic towards our Slavic brothers’ plight; rather, most people are just unaware with the limited media coverage given to international news – especially stories dealing with the persecution of Christians. But there is another reason it might be hard for Americans to know how to respond: We cannot even relate to legislation restricting religious liberty to that extent.

At least theoretically, this could never happen here. The First Amendment to our Constitution protects our freedom of religious expression and prevents government interference in worship and religious practice. Of course, we American Christians bristle when our Nativity displays are removed; prayer in public school was abolished and God was removed from the public square. Even those of us who are proponents of public education have to admit the progressively anti-God slant the curriculum has taken, and the lack of morality both in education and in society in general. The issue, and this is what leads to many of the problems we see in the counseling room, is that people don’t notice what’s being taught. (As an example, our town’s  middle school sex ed week includes making models of reproductive organs out of cardboard tubes and tinfoil. In a school of over 600 students, I was one of only 2 parents who would not permit her child to participate).

Whether across the world or in our own towns, we tend to miss a lot of attacks on the Christian worldview. Busy with careers, preoccupied with petty concerns or entertaining ourselves, much of what is damaging the Church flies below our radar (including entertainment itself, for that matter. I cannot understand how Christians can be comfortable watching the series, “Game of Thrones”). What’s going on in Russia is not so much a warning to us, as it is an object lesson of what a society whose leaders have rejected God can do to believers.

The Early Days of Hope  

In 1991, following the coup and disintegration of the Soviet Union, evangelical leaders were invited to the Kremlin for meetings and discussion of how to bring Christianity back into the public sphere. In an initiative called Project Christian Bridge, the Supreme Soviet publicly acknowledged the importance of Christian faith and morals, and how the lack of them had led to a spiritual vacuum in their country. They requested mass-production of Bibles; Christian schools and seminaries to be established; charitable organizations to help the poor and disabled. This ran counter to everything they had taught for the 70 years that Marxism had dominated their nation, and represented a massive turning to God when an evil system was proven to be a failure. In “Praying with the KGB,” Philip Yancey wrote this:

“Everyone is looking for a society so perfect that people don’t have to be good,” said T.S. Eliot, who saw many of his friends embrace the dream of Marxism. What we were hearing from Soviet leaders, and the KGB, and now Pravda, was that the Soviet Union ended up with the worst of both: a society far from perfect, and a people who had forgotten how to be good.

Twenty-five years later, and a demoralized nation has again put despotic rulers into place who, again, will try to stamp out the Gospel. However, as a Bulgarian pastor imprisoned by the Communists once wrote, “The Church is strongest when she is most persecuted. Christianity spreads most rapidly when it is oppressed.” This is unlikely to be the motive for Russian believers’ steadfast faith. When put to the test, the individual is either strengthened or broken.

The Russian Christians currently being put in chains for the Gospel demonstrate what faith under fire looks like. There are at least three lessons American believers can draw from this horrifying new trial:

  • Be informed about the persecuted Church. It’s not just Russia – the Middle East; India; Africa; many places all over the globe, believers are suffering terribly for their faith, yet do not renounce Christ. (Russia claims an Orthodox heritage dating back to the 8th century, which makes it somehow more stunning). In 2 Thessalonians, we see the godly character of a persecuted church, and how the faith of those under fire “grows exceedingly.” We are reminded to pray for these believers, that God may again be glorified through them.

    Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. (Hebrews 13:3)

  • Rejoicing in all circumstances is possible. Realizing how minor and trivial most of our concerns are in light of what these laws mean for millions of Christians is sobering. I get upset over having to pay $30 for an oil change; I cannot imagine being fined $1,000 for sharing my faith. In fact, I’m usually too lazy to share my faith. I have sisters in Russia willing to risk arrest for the sake of Christ. Paul reminded the Philippian church that his chains actually advanced the Gospel and for that, he rejoiced! We have so much more to rejoice over: including living in a democratic society where we are free to proclaim Christ.
  • Our freedom should lead to gratitude and action. Our response to the oppression in Russia doesn’t necessarily have to be political, although that is one option. We have privileges such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press and expression of religion that are being denied to millions of other believers, and we should be good stewards of them. Although we cannot build a Utopian society any more than Lenin could, we have the example from recent history of what a society completely devoid of Christ and Christian morals can look like. This should inform how we raise our children; how much attention we are paying to what they’re learning in school; our entertainment choices; how we vote; even how we pray.

Much is said in counseling about giving hope; but the emphasis needs to be on the object of our hope: The Person and work of Jesus Christ. Before we discuss how Christ must reform the culture, we need to focus on how he reforms our individual hearts. And, as the furnace refines silver, it is through trials that our faith grows stronger and impacts others. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson from our Russian brothers and sisters.

Do Expectations Destroy Relationships?

Do Expectations Destroy Relationships?

Posted July 7, 2016 on Biblical Counseling for Women

by Marie Notcheva

Recently, a friend of mine posted a quotation on social media from a female Christian writer. The citation exhorted other Christian women not to expect their husbands to help with housework; meet any of their needs except to economically provide for the family, and to simply try to “make his life as easy as possible.” What most caught my attention was a portion of the quote which was underlined:“Expectations destroy relationships.”

While undoubtedly well-intentioned, this sort of advice targeted towards Christian wives concerns me. It is not about the housework or a division of labor based on traditional gender roles. That is an individual arrangement that can be decided by couples based on preference. If a husband does not feel it is his role to give the baby a bath, fine. If she does not want to mow the lawn or snowplow the driveway, that is reasonable. However, as another reader pointed out, the quote seemed to imply that a woman who is honestly overwhelmed is sinning if she asks for help. She is not.

Many women fall into serious depression because they are overwhelmed by the demands of running a household (often while homeschooling children) and are made to feel guilty if they expect assistance from their husbands. Would we tell men they are wrong to expect their wives to cook their dinner? Iron their shirts? Meet their sexual needs? It would be hard to find a male writer willing to take this stance.

Even so, household chores are not the main issue I had with the quote. It is the notion that in a relationship, it is wrong to have any expectations of the other person.

The Bible sets forth some very clear expectations for both husbands and wives – they are to love and submit to one another (Ephesians 5); he is to be patient and gentle with her (Colossians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7); she is to be industrious at home and assist with running the household (Proverbs 31); not contentious (Proverbs 25:24). He is not to be a drunkard (1 Cor. 6:10 and elsewhere); both are to be sexually faithful to each other (Hebrews 13:4), and the list goes on. God has set these expectations – why would it be wrong for either spouse to hold them? It would be extremely unhealthy to enter into any kind of relationship with no expectations whatsoever, but particularly into a marriage covenant.

Expectations are Necessary and God-ordained

Telling women “You won’t have a happy marriage if you expect anything from your husband” is dangerous for at least three reasons. First, it demeans men. A godly man seeks to honor and obey God by loving, serving, protecting, encouraging, comforting and helping his wife. He is the spiritual leader in the home, and is the one to whom his children look to see an example of Christ. It is rather condescending (if not insulting) to tell women to “expect nothing” of them.

Secondly, it saddles Christian women with the responsibility of their husbands’ happiness, and additional guilt if they fall short. These women are often already burdened by self-recrimination, trying to live up to their own standards of perfection, and usually blame themselves for their husbands’ short-comings. The last thing they need is to be rebuked for having “expectations.”

Lastly, telling women to have zero expectations in the marriage relationship opens the door to abuse. I have written about this before, and I firmly believe that sanctimonious messages like this contribute to the problem. The implication is that the woman is somehow responsible for any failings in the marriage; that it would all go so much better if she would just be a better “helpmeet” and stop expecting her husband to obey God. When women internalize such unbalanced messages, they are less able to recognize emotional abuse and the Church, by extension, continues to perpetuate the cycle. “Doormat theology” is not biblical.

Live up to It!

While it is certainly not correct (or realistic) to marry expecting perfection of one’s spouse, a healthy regard for the other’s spiritual well-being (as well as that of future children) demands a certain set of expectations. That is, in essence, what the marriage vows are: a commitment to live up to one’s God-given responsibilities (including to love, honor and cherish one another). If a woman does not expect at least this much of her husband, the relationship is already in serious trouble.

Expectations do not destroy relationships. Selfish people destroy relationships. The most important relationship men and women can ever have is with their Creator, and Christ Himself laid out some very clear expectations on His followers: “If you love Me, you will do as I command” (John 14:15). He expects us to live up to what we have already attained (Phil. 3:16), and part of this means behaving in a selfless and Christ-like way in our relationships with other people (most of all, our marriage). Failing to have any standards or expectations in a relationship, on ourselves or other people, is a sure-fire way for it to fail. God has given us the standard of what a healthy relationship should look like, and women need to work toward what God has called them to do – while expecting no less of their husbands.