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From the Editors Desk

The Ambiguously Cured Soul


by David Powlison

hen truth lines up next to error, Bible next to philosophies of life, Christ next to figments of the imagination, you can learn to spot the difference in a flash. Good is good, evil evil, never the twain shall meet, and God trains our senses to discern good and evil. But in actual lives lived things are often not simple. Corporately, church history simultaneously plays out both the divine comedy and an all-too-human tragedy. Things turn out wonderfully well, because Jesus Christ is on the move. Yet problems, conflicts, confusions, perversions, regressions, distractions, and deviancies always arise. There are always things we need to repent of, reprove, reform, and renew. Individually, in each saint, the cravings and works of indwelling sin grapple against the Holy Spirits desires and fruit (Gal. 5). It is no surprise, then, that in life stories you often notice competing voices jostling for the final say. Competing life-trajectories wrestle for the controls. A transcription of what takes place in a persons soul reads like a courtroom drama where different witnesses tell contradictory stories about what happened. These are givens of our struggle on the long walk from regeneration to glorification. I want to consider an aspect of the problem that often does not get much attention: not remnant sin grappling with the Spirit for the say so, but remnant falsity calling out from

the same mouths that also utter the Spirits truth. Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly both say, Listen to me (Prov. 8-9), and in principle they are utterly different voices. But sometimes the same personthe same book, the same sermon, the same conversationspeaks a bit of both voices. Things would be nice and tidy if you could always keep the good guys straight from the bad guys. But often its not possible. The same person who is a primary means of grace to another may also be a secondary means of confusionor a primary means of confusion and a secondary means of grace. We consciously aim to disciple others in the truths we know and seek to live but others easily catch our errors, blind spots, and failings in the bargain! For example, a man may repent of a criminal lifestyle and find genuine new life in Christbut at the same time, in the name of Christ, he embraces a bizarre eschatological scheme and a political conspiracy theory. He may genuinely turn from violence, drug addiction, and immoralityhigh hosannas! At the same time he may become newly self-righteous towards former partners-in-crime (he never had occasion for that sin before), and may adopt the abrasive manner of the person who led him to Christ a Bronx cheer for such changes. Souls are cured, and souls remain sick or sicken in new ways, and always need more curing. In the counseling context, you often wit-

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ness such ambiguities. The positive effects of good, true, and beautiful counsel coexistuneasily, you hopewith the negative effects of counsel that is bad, untrue, and deformed. This contributes to the problem of the ambiguously cured soul. The following testimony came from a woman, Amelia, who struggled with lesbian desires. Her story appeared in the newsletter of a counseling center that aims to counsel Christianly. Some of the outcome is good: in Christ she openly battles her sins, rather than secretly indulging and regretting the fleshs proclivities. But some of the ideas this story communicatesand does not communicateare troubling. They express rather standard psychotherapeutic fare, not something identifiably Christian. They deviate from Scripture and from the truth about human psychological functioning, which God always gets straight and which rebellious psychological theories twist. The result is an ambiguous fix for a real problem. Hear her story, and then we will interact.1 1 My name is Amelia, and for many years I struggled with a secret inner life that contradicted my relationship with the Lord. Finally, in my early 30s, I faced up to the fact that I needed help, and I sought Christian counseling. Id been married for eight years, had two kids, and had been actively involved in teaching Bible studies and in our churchs mercy and prayer ministries. But Id carried on a secret lesbian fantasy life that first sprouted in elementary school and had become a wellestablished secret garden. 2 I hated myself for it; and I knew God hated what I did in the theater of my mind. But I also loved my fantasy release. When I felt lonely and rejected, or when my husband or friends disappointed me, Id turn to the precious friends I made up. I professed to believeand taught others! that Jesus forgave sins and changed sinners. But I lived as if the opposite were true. I couldnt give up my secret comfort; but I couldnt live with myself, either. Either I had to change or I had to come out as a lesbian and forget God. 3 The idea of counseling scared the wits out of me. Id never told anyone my struggle. Id had lots of friends, was always popular and vivacious. People liked me, but I always thought, If they knew the real me, Id be rejected. So I never let anyone in. Theyd think I was some weird and dangerous per1An

vert, though Id never acted out my fantasies. I never consciously chose to have lesbian desires. It seemed like something that just happened to me as a child, a decision made for me, something I discovered inside me, not something I decided. 4 So what happened? My therapist accepted me. That allayed my anxieties. As we worked in counseling over the next year and a half, he helped me to understand the reasons for my lesbian attraction. My father had been an alcoholic. When I was a child he beat me often, and sometimes sexually molested

A transcription of what takes place in a persons soul reads like a courtroom drama where different witnesses tell contradictory stories about what happened.
me. His anger scared meit still does. I learned never to trust men, and to look towards women for love. But my mom was mostly helpless and passive through it all, preoccupied with her own troubles. She could never really protect or comfort me. So I spent my life trying to meet my need for love that no one had ever met. That parental combination made me hungry for an intimate, accepting relationship with a woman, a precious friend whod fill the empty space inside. 5 Counseling taught me a perspective on my past, to see how the pain and disappointment of my family upbringing produced my struggles with lesbian fantasy. Ive learned to understand why I am the way I am. These realizations about my past have helped me to make better choices in the present. My counselor helped me to learn that only God can fill the void inside me, and can quench my deep thirst for an accepting relationship. 6 God has been at work in me. Jesus was tempted in all ways as we are, yet without sin, and Ive learned more and more to come to Him, and that He will never leave me nor forsake me. Ive become accountable to my husband and a couple of female friends at church, not just to my therapist. Ive learned to identify the situations when Im tempted to old patterns of fantasy, and to resist more effectively. Praise Him that I am changing! Reading Amelias story, we find evidence of Gods good work in her life. A struggler is being set free of the sin that came between her and God. He is providing

earlier version of this discussion appears as one section in my article, A Flourishing of Fresh Wisdoms (Johnson, Gary, and Fowler White, eds., Whatever Happened to the Reformation?, Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2001, pp. 205228).

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strength to overcome temptation, and to grow in holiness and joy. Praise Christ! The final paragraph, 6, sounds like normal progressive sanctification, to the praise of the glory of His grace. It is a good thing that a struggler no longer struggles alone, but reaches out to both God and the body of Christ, becoming more honest and accountable. It is good that her conscience was active and accurate, registering in guilty feelings her

When we look at both Scripture and lives lived, it is clear that painful life experiences never determine why people think, want, and behave the ways they do.
objective guilt before God. It is good that she depends on the God of gracious promises. It is good that she has a plan to meet situations of temptation. It is good that she has aimed at actual change, and seems to be changing by Word and Spirit. And, though she does not say so, it is easy to imagine that Amelias ministries of teaching, mercy, and prayer are increasingly fruitful. But we hear other interpretive voices mingled into the story, particularly in 4 and 5, which express distinctives of her counselors orientation. The counselor mapped a particular interpretive grid onto Amelias life, enabling her to realize the reasons why she did what she did. Counseling taught Amelia to credit her fathers violence and mothers lack of nurture as the cause of lesbian desires. And counseling further taught her that these desires arose from an inner emptiness. After teaching that the human heart is essentially passive, void, pained, and needy, then the counselor also teaches a good news that Jesus meets those psychological needs. How should we evaluate the interpretation that Amelia has been taught to read into her life? When we look at both Scripture and lives lived, it is clear that painful life experiences never determine why people think, want, and behave the ways they do. Temptations and trials do not pattern our sins or make our hearts empty. Instead, the past (like both the present and the anticipated future) offers contexts where, when, and with whom the active, will-full heart reveals and expresses itself. James 1 offers a compact summary of this biblical perspective. Various trials beset us all (1:2). Amelias childhood sufferingsalong with the ongoing hardships and beguilements that she, like every human

being, faces and will facecertainly qualify. But our tendency to fall for specific temptations arises from within us. It is not inserted into us by experience (as if either suffering, the devil, or God were producing and eliciting our sins). Amelias own lust carried her away and enticed her (1:14). In Gods redemptive working, her sufferings and sins can occasion growth in wisdom, as truth becomes fruitful in His children (1:2-5, 17-18). It is possible to read Amelias story as this biblical kind of story, if one excises the deterministic perspective on the past and the passive, empty self that infuse 4 and 5. Unfortunately, the distinctives of the counseling she received sound a false note. When the middle-C key on a piano goes flat, the discordant sound repeatedly jars the ear. It is revealing that the particular facts of Amelias personal history could lie behind any one of many radically different lifestyles. This is because experience does not finally constrain the hearts bent and habits. The same family history might lie in the past of someone with [1] lesbian desires, like Amelia; [2] a heterosexually immoral lifestyle; [3] an anti-social withdrawal into a fearful, hermits existence; [4] a life of escapist indulgence in temporary feel-goods (food, sex, athletics, TV, drinking, drugs, hobbies, computer games); [5] choosing boyfriends or a husband significantly like ones father, and so making a bad marriage; or [6] a committed, loving marriage to a godly, loving man. It turns out that the consequences of personal history are infinitely malleable. History explains anything, everythingand nothing. Consider each of those six scenarios briefly. The first outcome was assumed in the counseling Amelia received: My vile father and absent mother made me mistrust men and long for lesbian love. That sounds plausible on an initial reading. But a second scenario, an Amelia given to heterosexual fornication, is equally plausible: My non-nurturing mother contributed to my distrust of women as ineffectual and distant, while the sexualizing and abuse from my father fueled my hunger for intimate relationship with men. Im allured by the very activities and men that hurt me. And a third scenario makes equal sense! Because of my family background, I find its just safer not to relate to people at all. An anti-social Amelia experienced such rotten interpersonal relationships that it seemed better to retreat into protective, fearful isolation. The self-indulgent fourth Amelia is similarly asocial and loveless, but here the drug of choice is pleasure, not fearful avoidance: My family created such pain, unhappiness, and emptiness, and I find that when I drink, eat, travel, or lose myself in a fantasy role-playing game all the pain goes away and I feel good. In the fifth scenario, an

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Amelia falls for the same type of man over and over, hoping against hope to redeem the bum and rewrite her lifes script: Even before we married, I knew my husband had a temper and liked to hang out with the guys, but I figured he would grow out of it. He didnt. I feel like my life is a broken record, playing the same miserable song. Finally, in the sixth scenario, the crucible of ungodliness taught an Amelia to love and value godliness in others: From life experience I saw clearly what was wrong in my own familys relationships, and how Gods ways were redemptive and good. By grace, I was looking for different and seeking to be different, and when I got to know my husband-to-be I knew exactly what it was that God had given me. In each case, a counselor prone to finger history as determinative could find a plausible causal link from past experience to present lifestyle! Six very different Ameliasand these six life stories are not made up might each be taught to think that she had come to a realization that explained why she is the way she is. If the same set of experiences can stand in the background of lesbian desires, heterosexual immorality, isolation, pleasure-loving, falling for louses, and godliness, then those experiences explain and cause nothing predictable about the human response. Knowledge of a persons history may be important for many reasons: compassion on sufferers, sympathetic understanding, locating the present within an unfolding story, knowledge of characteristic temptations, and so forth. But it never determines the hearts proclivities and inclinations. We only know that heartache and temptation occurred, and that such things must be responded to one way or another. But why evil for evil, not good for evil? And why one form of evil, not another? History cannot tell us. Only the active-worshiping-heartresponsible-before-God finally explains and causes any particular way of life. Amelia has come to believe that she understands and has a true perspective on her past history. But psychodynamic myth has mingled a significant illusion with elements of Christian truth. To say that her lesbian struggles were caused by unhappy childhood circumstances fails to bow before the riddle, unfathomableness, and culpability of sin. Sin is its own final reason. Any theory that claims to explain sin actually falls prey to sins intellectual effects, and wriggles away from both theological truth and psychological reality. Sin is the deepest explanation, not just one more problem begging for different and deeper reasons. A second, closely related problem threads through Amelias story: she has been taught that her heart is a
2See,

repository of unmet needs, an unfilled void, a passive receptacle determined by painful life experience. Awareness of the active-heart-vis--vis-God taught in the Bible seems absent from her story and counseling.2 Instead, her inner emptiness and neediness for love, once misdirected towards fantasy women, now needs to be redirected towards Jesus. A loveless childhood produced the void, even as it determined the object of perverse desire that would fill the void. Amelias psychotherapist derived his model of counseling primarily from Larry Crabbs Inside Out. The core motivation the-

Any theory that claims to explain sin actually falls prey to sins intellectual effects, and wriggles away from both theological truth and psychological reality.
orythe heart as essentially empty, needy, longing, wounded, disappointed in lovederives its structure from secular psychodynamic psychology, and runs counter to the Bible and reality. Diagnoses and explanations are always signs pointing towards proposed solutions. The good news taught by Amelias therapist was logical: Jesus fills inner voids. He sought to get Amelia to change the object towards which her desire for acceptance looked, but did not set about to change the dominance of the desire itself. If Amelias need to feel loved is an unchangeable given (passive heart), then change only involves turning from disappointing parents and disappointing special friends to a Jesus who will meet her deepest desire/need. But if, in fact, Amelia loves human affection more than she loves God (active heart), then change involves turning from idolatrous craving to the Jesus who died for sinners, who lives to remake us into lovers of God and neighbor, and who will return in glory and joy for our glory and joy. So Amelias psychotherapy mingled these two myths into her self-understanding: a faulty view of personal history and a faulty view of the heart. Her counSmall (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1997); David Powlison, Crucial Issues in Contemporary Biblical Counseling (in Powlison, editor, Counsel the Word, Glenside, PA: CCEF, 1997); Powlison, How Shall We Cure Troubled Souls? in John Armstrong, editor, The Coming Evangelical Crisis, Chicago: Moody, 1996); Powlison, Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair(Journal of Biblical Counseling, 13:2, 1995). See, also, numerous other articles in the Journal of Biblical Counseling.

for example, Ed Welch, When People are Big and God is

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selor also failed to address two other problems that lie on the surface of her story. First, her repeated assertion that lesbian attraction was something she never consciously chose, that it was discovered not decided, is significant. She reiterates that she was the unwitting recipient of lesbian desires. The therapists notion of a passive, history-determined heart persuasively mapped onto this experienceand blinded both par-

Which of us ever initially decided to be proud, or comfort-loving, or people-pleasing, or rebelliously self-willed, or perverse in our romantic and sexual longings?
ties to the fact that Amelias experience needs to be reinterpreted biblically, not taken at face value. A common misunderstanding of the nature of sin seems to have reinforced the psychological theory. Amelia thinks like Pelagius, not like Augustine and the Bible. Presumably, her therapist thinks the same way, because he did not help her think more deeply about herself and her experience. Under the Pelagian construct, for a pattern to count as something we are responsible for, it must be a matter of conscious volition. If I consciously decided to be a lesbian, then it would count as responsible choice and as culpable sin. But if The decision was made for me, then a causality outside herself explains her deep-seated, compulsive, and mysterious problem. In fact, our core sin patterns rarely arise only from conscious consideration and decision. Which of us ever initially decided to be proud, or comfort-loving, or people-pleasing, or rebelliously self-willed, or perverse in our romantic and sexual longings? We do not need Nike to tell us to just do it. Sinners sin instinctively. That Amelia can remember no conscious moment of choosing lesbian lust is no particular surprise. Some people can remember a fork-in-the-road moment; others cant. Sexual lust is polymorphous and promiscuous. In most significant sin patterns, we witness a combination of specific choices and seeming just-thereness. As Amelias self-knowledge deepens, what now sounds like Who me? and Why me? will become Yes, me. And praise God for incalculable grace. But her counselor did not help her grow in true and profound self-understanding coram Deo.

A second, unaddressed problem breathes through Amelias story. There is a common theme to her secrecy, preoccupation with popularity and acceptance, occasions of temptation, fantasies of intimacy, fears of rejection, and relief at her counselors gentle response. The tendency to orient our lives around the opinions and approval of others is termed the fear of man in the Bible. This typical pattern of our sinful hearts does not appear to have been identified or tackled. The counselors passive heart theory blinded him from seeing an unmet need for love as, in fact, the active hearts fear of man. Fear of man (and its cooperative partners, pride and unbelief) is one of the core dislocations of our idolatrous, apostasizing hearts. It frequentlyinvariably?!cohabits with homosexualityand with heterosexual sin and other sins. Like love of money, the fear of man is a root of every sort of evil. It is a deeper and truer way to explain what motivates Amelia than both need for love and historical determinism. The Bibles view of human nature is subtle and searching. For example, Amelias happiness and sense of reliefThis person accepts me!is in part a natural joy, and is one of the particular joys of a candid friendship. But, like the unpleasant feelings of social anxiety, it can also express the hearts defection from God. A man-fearer feels happy when the idol is stroked. Amelias bondage to human acceptance is a far more significant psychodynamic than speculation about the cause of her desires.3 Amelia seems to be a sincere sheep, wanting her Shepherds presence, and wanting to put secret sin to death. My criticisms are not about her or the genuine work of a faithful God. But it is sad that one-and-a-half years of counseling engendered two significant strands of false consciousness and two significant gaps in selfunderstanding. It appears that her counselor nourished her with a mixture of Bible truths, half-truths, and fictions. That the Holy Spirit animated the biblical truths and bore fruit in her life anyway is to the praise of Gods glorious grace. That He works despite each of our failings as counselors is always to His credit. But that is no reason for counselors and counseled alike not to put aside the half-truths, fictions, and blind spots mediated by the Therapeutic. My intention in saying all this is not to quibble with what the living God has really done in Amelias life. But I do wish to voice disagreement with the interpretive map others placed over her life experience, and into which she was disci3Ed Welchs When People are Big and God is Small (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1997) provides a rich and biblical discussion of both problem and solution.

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pled to think and trust. Amelia is an ambiguously cured soul. Her story captures the Therapeutic in action, when it mingles with Christianity into a syncretistic psychotherapy. This is what the ministry of the Word competes with. The Therapeutic is more than ideas to critique. It mispatterns and misdisciples the hearts of Amelias, Gods sheep who need better and more wholesome nourishment. Ministry of the Word must reach Amelias. Yes, we need skills to do broad philosophical and cultural apologetics, but we need other skills, too. The cultural apologetic paints broad strokes in the background, but both preaching and counseling must also do personal apologetics. They must reach into the details of lives lived in the foreground. They must reach Ameliaand her counselor. May Christ make us, each and all, increasingly clear and unambiguous as we grow up in His image! *** Several years ago Paul Randolph developed what he called the Family Covenant Model for analyzing family problems and guiding positive changes. He based his model not only on particular parent-child passages in the Bible, but on the whole of Scripture: God is a wise Father raising His children.4 Here he traces the same line of thinking into the husband-wife relationship in A Biblical Theology of Relationships. God is a Husband who loves His wife wisely and effectivelyand so we learn about marriage not only from those passages explicitly about marriage, but from the entire Bible. Addictions: New Ways of Seeing, New Ways of Walking Free by Ed Welch is a compact discussion of how to understand the addictive behaviors and how the progressive change process takes place. Bob Fu came to the United States from the Peoples

Republic of China in the mid-1990s. He was converted to Christ in the aftermath of the failure of the Tiananmen Square student revolt. In an interview, he talks about the particular counseling needs of the church in China. In Let Me Draw a Picture, Jim Bergs Basics for Pressured Believers teaches a practical way to help

Fear of man (and its cooperative partners, pride and unbelief) is one of the core dislocations of our idolatrous, apostasizing hearts.
people face and address the stresses and strains of life. He puts in pictures how the pressures of life weigh on both mind and body, and the effect of renewing our minds. Our public ministry section presents a sermon on Romans 1:1-6 by Skip Ryan: Bond Slave. How do you feel when I, standing in Christs stead as a minister, command you to believe in Him? Do you wince? How do you feel about being commanded by the Lord to give up every loyalty that would stand in the way of your loyalty to Him and to become a bond slave? If this test makes you wince, its okayas long as you dont say No. Annotated Bibliography for Biblical Counseling: 2001 Additions is the fifth in a series of bibliographies listing works by authors and counselors committed to biblical counseling. Two book reviews consider, first, Of Two Minds: The Growing Disorder in American Psychiatry by T. M. Luhrmann, and then a very popular weight loss and eating program, The Weigh Down Diet by Gwen Shamblin.

4Journal

of Biblical Counseling, 15:2, 15:3, and 16:1, in 1997.

The Journal of Biblical Counseling Volume 19 Number 3 Spring 2001

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