This post was originally posted on the Biblical Counseling Coalition blog, a resource I would highly recommended for resources for counseling and discipleship.

Most empirical research indicates that particular life struggles (including those that Scripture calls sin) have a higher incidence rate along hereditary lines. Stated in English, if your parents struggled with “x” sin, you are more likely to struggle with “x” sin than if your parents did not.

This sparks a large debate about the nature vs. nurture origin of human behavior. But at this point I am willing to concede some physiological predispositions for particular sins. If you watch multiple children within the same home, it is hard to deny (in my opinion). There are natural strengths and weaknesses that have nothing to do with the children’s choices or environment.

I have one child who is given to people-pleasing and another who revels in having the minority opinion. The more social child is extremely convincing with his words; both for encouragement and manipulation. The more determined child can withstand any resistance to attain a goal; both in the form of perseverance and defiance. Any amount of parenting (to the best of my ability anyway) has not changed these natural dispositions.

These two examples are relatively benign (at least so far, but I appreciate your prayers on the matter), but in some cases it is not. What about the person who does not grasp relationships or social cues and, therefore, is frequently self-centered and rude? What about the person who has a hair-trigger fear response and neglects significant life responsibilities because “something might go wrong?” What about the person for whom every pleasure so quickly becomes consuming that life seems to be a mine field of addictions waiting to happen?

Let’s forego the debate about whether these actions remain morally wrong. At this point I am assuming that self-centeredness, rudeness, neglect, and addiction (substance or otherwise) are wrong. They represent a failure to love God and love others. They violate the character of God whose image we are called to bear. They’re wrong.

But does the conversation stop there? In such cases, should we seek to apply a suffering paradigm to some struggles that are sinful? Should we have a separate (but still moral) category for sins that require forethought, practice, and continued intentionality to avoid?

If we say “yes,” then more questions arise. How do we differentiate sins that have become “second nature” through habituation from sins that emerge from a predisposition? How would we understand responsibility and repentance for sins rooted in large part in disposition? How, if at all, is this different from the sin nature with which every person is born? What does sanctification look like when there is more being refined than the will and heart?

These questions deserve a book more than a blog post. But I believe they are worth asking. I believe they are worth asking even if we are not able to formulate definitive answers. There is humility and compassion in entertaining difficult questions from hurting people even if the questions are misapplied (as doubtless this question will be many times).

I am simply saying some people relate and emote in broken ways without intentionality. There are cases that few people dispute will fit into this category; for example, autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Both of these struggles exist across a spectrum of experiences and severities. In their more severe expressions, most counselors (rightfully, in my opinion) would work these struggles almost exclusively out of a suffering paradigm.

But again, we are forced to ask questions. Is there a chasm between these experiences and “normal” human experience? Or, do these experiences manifest themselves along a spectrum where some struggles are more mildly predisposed with less daily life disruption?

The difficulty is that, if we are going to entertain these kinds of questions, they can only be answered in specific cases. We can (and should) do a systematic study to determine if a sin-predisposition is a legitimate category of thought and whether it could be distinct from the general effects of the Fall experienced by every human being. We can (and should) do a systematic study to determine if there is practical and effectual benefits to counseling such struggles (if they exist) with at least a partial suffering paradigm.

But such answers will never replace conversations with real people. I have found that a willingness to have these types of conversations with people who were disgusted and confused by their own sin has aided the counseling relationship. The vast majority of the time we have agreed to side with responsibility and work within a sin paradigm; rather than assessing a predispositional struggle and working within a suffering paradigm.

The conversation, however, helped people put nagging questions into words. It gave the peace of mind that they were being cared for, not just fixed. The counselee gained a clearer picture of the distinction between sin and suffering, so that suffering began to truly mean “negative experience totally out of my control” rather than just “negative experience I didn’t like.”

As we talk, the fairness of God becomes clearer. God can be seen as someone who seeks to restore people more than just eliminate sin. This fuller picture of God makes it easier to come to Him in repentance for sin and comfort for suffering.

Admittedly, in this post I have asked far more questions than I have answered. My goal, however, was not to answer these questions as much as it was to display the value of asking them.

Join the Conversation:

  • How comfortable are you speaking of counseling as having a “suffering paradigm” that is distinct from a “sin paradigm”? When you hear these two phrases what methodological differences come to mind?
  • Assuming you agree with the two counseling paradigms, what benefits and dangers come with approaching biologically predisposed sin within a suffering paradigm?

If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Counseling Theory” or “Favorite Posts on Suffering” post which address other facets of these subjects.