Admittedly, this post will be as uncomfortable as its title. But, then again, counseling is about very uncomfortable things. The concern I want to discuss is the tendency to assume that biblical principles like those found in I Corinthians 10:13 mean that all our struggles carry the same weight. The unintended consequence can be that abusive relationships receive the same counsel as garden-variety arguments and instances of low impulse control receive the same guidance as manic episodes.
We’re All the Same
Let me begin with the first sentence of the title: “We are all equally sinful.” Whatever distinctions we make later in this post in no way imply that anyone needs Jesus-on-steroids or a double dose of atonement. There are no varsity and no junior varsity sinners. We are all in the same league (i.e., sinful) and in need of the same Savior (i.e., Jesus) by the same means (i.e., repentance and faith). I fear that, because we want to make sure people understand this paragraph that Christians can neglect to make the kind of assessments discussed below.
There Are Differences
Now let’s move to the second sentence of the title: “We are not all equally broken or toxic.” As I am using these terms, “broken” would refer to things for which we do not bear moral responsibility but create unique challenges for us, and “toxic” would refer to persistent patterns of sin that not only harm others but we punish others if/when they bring them to our attention. From the opening paragraph, the person whose body involuntarily cycles between the extreme highs of energy-grandiosity and lows of depression would be experiencing the “brokenness” of bipolar (not just garden-variety moodiness), and the person who verbally and physically intimidates his-her family and punishes them if it is brought up is exhibiting the “toxicity” of being abusive (not just garden-variety rudeness).
In either case, we as biblical counselors, would need to be equipped to make the necessary assessments (not just acknowledge that such cases exist) and provide the kind of counsel that fits the situation. If we get lost in the “they’re no more of a sinner than I am” logic (which is true), we will be prone to neglect the unique, acute care that each situation – or others like them – would require.
Things that fit in the arena of “advanced brokenness” are matters of aptitude, physical pain/limitation, or emotional regulation challenges rooted in one’s physical condition or traumatic history. Our goal, as ambassadors of Christ, in these matters is to grieve with the individual facing these challenges (Romans 12:15 as a way of embodying Matthew 5:4), and destigmatize the condition or experience so that the individual will be willing to engage the common grace remedies God has provided to alleviate such suffering.
In the example we’ve been using for brokenness, our friend who experiences the high-highs and low-lows of bipolar would be served well by our empathy as they realize their mood regulation follows an erratic pattern. They need a community where their struggle could be acknowledged without being labeled “crazy.” A desired outcome would be that our friend could receive support in important lifestyle choices that might decrease the onset of manic or depressive episodes (e.g., regulating sleep diligently, managing conflict well, avoiding drugs and alcohol, faithfulness in taking medication, additional accountability during times of elevated mood, etc.) while considering what it would mean to honor Christ even during an manic or depressed state.
“You can’t promise them that you will never experience another manic episode. But you can tell them your goal is to learn to love and listen to others in all circumstances, including mania (p. 16)… Since you might actually enjoy mania (at least when it is not extreme), you might be reluctant to try medication. Talk to wise counselors and your family about this. You might decide to try medication as a way to better love others (p. 23).” Ed Welch in Bipolar Disorder
Things that fit in the category of “advanced toxicity” are abusive, addictive, controlling, or manipulative lifestyles that are not only personally destructive but manifest in attacking and slandering those who address their presence. The result is that the more loved ones try to address the problem, the more wrapped up in the problem they become. Our goal, as ambassadors of Christ, in these matters is to first ensure the safety of those associated with the individual relating in a toxic manner, be willing to be part of an intervention when the abused loved ones are ready, and thereby be an embodied warning that God lovingly opposes the proud as an invitation to restoration (James 4:6; see also this discussion of Matthew 7:1-6).
In the example we’ve been using for toxicity, this would begin (if applicable) by helping the family of the toxic individual create a safety plan, walking through what healthy boundaries look like for this situation, identifying patterns of manipulative repentance, and looking for the best-fit resources that could be beneficial at the end of the intervention if the loved one expressing toxicity is cooperative. In all of this we are lovingly trying to alert our abusive friend that nothing that is happening to them is more important (by degree or causation) than what they are doing. More than generically advising them to “take the log out of their own eye before taking the speck out of anyone else’s,” we are seeking to deconstruct the blame-shifting narrative they are forcing on others. We are following Matthew 18:17, alerting them that their sin has reached a degree of significance – not that requires “Jesus on steroids” – but that calls on those that love them to relate to them in a manner that is different from how they relate to those whose sin has not reached a degree of severity that results in willful blindness.
Doubtless this post raises many questions; the “what if” scenarios are almost endless. I would encourage you to study the resources provided in the links for additional guidance. I will leave you with two questions for further reflection.
Questions for Reflection
- Can you think of an example when you focused exclusively or primarily on “they’re no more of a sinner than I am” logic (which is true) and it caused you to neglect addressing the aspects of brokenness or toxicity in a situation?
- Are you, as an individual, more prone to false positives (calling garden-variety situations extreme) or false negatives (minimizing highly broken or toxic situations with garden-variety remedies) when it comes to assessing situations of potential brokenness or toxicity? While both outcomes are problematic, this post is to help those who have a tendency towards false negatives in their counseling assessments.
If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” or “Favorite Posts on Counseling Theory” post which address other facets of this subject.
This article was originally posted on the Biblical Counseling Coalition blog on August 18, 2017.