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.