SBC Life Articles

Getting Behind the Mask

In recent years, Christian counseling has come under the heavy influence of secular psychology. Perhaps in reaction to this influence, there are many ministries emerging with a different take on Christian counseling — a biblically-based one that stresses the strength of the in-dwelling Christ to guide a believer into a Spirit-led walk. The message is simple — because Christ is your Life, you must come to the place where you are totally dependent upon him — and yet the message is complex — total dependence requires a walk so transparent that you must rely on God for all your needs, even the psychological ones that are so slowly surrendered.

This teaching is nothing new: It's found in Paul's Epistles, the writings of St. John of the Cross, the commentaries of F. B. Meyer, and the devotions of Oswald Chambers, but it almost seems a generation of Christians missed the message. Drawing from four diverse ministries, SBC LIFE offers this forum on authenticity within the Christian walk. Participating are: Bill Gillham, author of Lifetime Guarantee: making your Christian life work and what to do when it doesn't and host of a syndicated radio program of the same name; Tom King, counseling minister at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, TN, and a featured speaker for the BSSB's Festival of Marriages; Paul Carlisle, professor of pastoral care and counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, and is largely responsible for initiating Southeastern's new counseling program; Steve Pettit, a former pastor, now director of Commission Ministries in Melrose, FL, and a featured speaker for the BSSB's Festival of Marriages.

SBC LIFE There's a common thread within all four of your ministries that emphasizes the need for authenticity within the Christian walk, a kind of transparency that allows others to see Christ in you. Yet, it seems authenticity should go hand in hand with Christianity; why the need to emphasize it?

Carlisle In the people I counsel, I see a ton of energy spent on pretentious living: "What does somebody want me to be?" Each day these people spend half their energy projecting an image rather than just being who they are in Christ. They don't want anyone to know who they really are so they hide behind various psychological "defense mechanisms." Yet, the truth is — if I sin, all I have to do is confess it, get back in a right relationship with God, and go on. It's a waste of time to try to make sin look better. I'm real concerned with Christians learning to be genuine — so the church becomes a place where people can go and not have to hide behind defense mechanisms one more time.

King The real freeing-agent is to be open and honest, instead of buying the lies that we've bought from society for years. For example, we bought the lie that we have to be strong. Yet, one of the greatest truths we can learn is, "I'm not strong." That's transparency; "I'm weak, it's Christ in me who provides what I need." I don't have to shoulder a false truth about my strength. I learn to really rely upon Christ-in-me to produce what He wants to produce in me.

Pettit This is what liberated Paul in the New Testament, to boast of his weakness. One of the things I think Paul figured out from both his pre-Christ and after-Christ experience was that God was a stranger to the Land of Pretense. As long as Paul pretended and performed and put more into the appearance than the reality, he was on his own. But grace seems to flow when we're honest. We're not by ourselves. It's the life of Another by which we begin to live, and that's liberating.

SBC LIFE Steve, you've said one of the reasons people are unable to be authentic is that the church is no longer a safe place to come. What do you mean by that?

Pettit In church, we've learned to utilize one another, rather than relate to one another. And this use of other people and use of information to try to fix people ends up disabling the life of the Spirit. So, when people open up, and they're rejected, or their pain goes unacknowledged, they quit reaching out. They turn inward, and that self-absorption is exactly where Satan wants us focused.

Carlisle That hits a real familiar tone with me, Steve. If you don't have an identity, then you're controlled by anyone and everyone. If your identity is based on whether someone likes you, then other people can change your whole identity day to day. Part of the Christian walk is to come to the point where you can be who you really are, but I think that's a quantum leap for many of us in the church right now.

When I work with small groups, it takes four or five meetings for people to really believe it's okay to say, "Bless God, I'm really hurting." But, when it starts flowing, I can't find the cut-off valve. I see pastors and leaders hurting and spending so much energy keeping up a false front. Unfortunately, they then teach that to the people.

Pettit If, as leaders and pastors we believe, way down in our belief systems, that appearances are what matter — that appearances are the ultimate reality — then we're a whole lot more interested in looking good than we are in being honest. It's no longer the life of Christ flowing through us.

If I believe appearances or what you think of me are the ultimate reality, then it's an easy step to believe I've got to perform well to be loved or accepted or important or to count. Then we're playing a real vicious game with our identity.

Carlisle That's right, it's just too costly to permit anyone but God to define us.

Gillham We often fail to communicate the whole gospel of having been crucified with Christ and then recreated through Christ's resurrection as a new people "in Christ." It says in Ephesians 2:10 that we were created in Christ Jesus for good things, to do good things. That doesn't just mean passing out tracts, but being kind to my wife, or courteous at the four-way stop — allowing Christ to live through me in all that I do. It doesn't say I was created in my mother for this, but I was created "in Christ," a re-creation after my crucifixion with Christ. This is what's missing in the theology of many, many Christians. It was the foundation of the early church, but the Devil somehow quashed that whole thing for the majority of people who were born-again through the years. But I think, in our day, God is doing a new thing. I see Him beginning to enlighten people's minds and spirits to understand these truths and walk in them.

King It's hard for people, whether you're a pastor, staff minister or layperson, to be transparent if you're caught up in worrying about expectations that other people have of you. When people are saved, one of the first things many of them hear is, "Now you've got to start doing this and that." We lay a lot of rules and regulations and do's and don't's on them.

When I do marriage counseling, during that first session, I try to get across to the couple that I'm excited about what the Lord can do in their lives. But I emphasize that my hope and expectations are not on them, but on Christ-in-them and what He can do … teaching them the truth of Galatians 2:20, "we have been crucified and it's no longer us who live, but Christ in us," and II Corinthians 5:17, "we're new creations." I try to change their whole mind-set because we've grown up in a society where we've been taught that it's up to us to make the change instead of Christ-in-us. It's a whole re-focus and a whole new education of who we really are as believers.

Carlisle The other side of our identity in Christ is — if I do accept people's expectations and try to run the race by myself, it gives me a sense of control. That's been the name of the game from the beginning: who is in control? If I can get behind the steering wheel, that makes me feel good, even if I'm going the wrong way. Who wants to be told that you can do nothing, when our society says only those who do something are significant?

I long to see the pastor get up, and from the pulpit, be honest about his struggles. I don't think he needs to tell everybody that, at 3 years old, he squished goldfish with his bare hands, but I don't see Southern Baptists even close to overdoing transparency. I long for a man to say, "I'm preaching on praise today, and I don't do this one very well," or "I know I'm to love my wife, but that's a real challenge to let Him live through me that way."

Gillham I agree with that, but there's a red flag I want to raise on this point. You can become too transparent and that can diminish your ability to lead, even in your own family. Just to illustrate the point, who wants to know what kind of toilet paper I use?

Pettit That's a good word of caution, and I agree, but I think a lot of modeling we're doing from the pulpit is teaching people to engage in denial — saying "I'm not in pain: I love God, I'm trusting God, and I'm not hurting." All those things that we've been taught in order to be successful Christians. We teach them to deny their feelings when we should be teaching them to discern between soul and the spirit — Hebrews 4:12 — allowing the living Word of God to discern between the soul and the spirit within us.

My soulish (fleshly) reactions, the things I think or feel at any given moment, aren't accurate indicators of reality or who I am. It's not my feelings or thoughts that tell me who I am — it's God. If you don't know who you are, then you're vulnerable to the condemning, accusatory voice of the enemy telling you you're no longer acceptable to God.

By not teaching our people to discern between soul and spirit — soulish reactions and spirit realities — we've rendered them ripe for the lies of the enemy. They're not free to live in the truth, which is that reality is not based in our external circumstances, but on our relationship to God.

Carlisle I don't think people have accepted that this earthly life is not going to reach a real high level on the fun scale. It's like we don't have sanctification in our theology. We have justification and glorification, but we seem to believe it all should occur without any process. I hear people asking, "Isn't there a recipe to just get this thing over with? Can't I read a Bible verse, or say a prayer — or can't you give me a pill, so this will be over?"

Pettit A lot of Christians have established dreams and objectives that they simply cannot attain because they don't know life in the Spirit. They've formed, in their minds, an idol image of a god who delivers on command. It's much like the old picture of the vending machine: You put in the right religious coins, pull the button and expect the machine to deliver. When that god doesn't deliver according to their little religious formula, then anger sets in. People are very, very angry. As a result, there's a lot of depression.

King I agree. I see a real problem with the growth of psychology, integrated with Scriptural truths. It seems a nice fit until you peel the banana — until you really look at biblical truth. We've developed more and more of a "get well" theology, that if I'm hurting, then there is something I can do to get over it or get well. And, if there is a problem, then we've got to eradicate the problem and change it. The bottom line is, it may not be God's timing to change the circumstances.

Gillham So the goal becomes to make the guy feel good.

King Right. A driving goal needs to be, how do you grow a person in faith where they know the Lord's going to work in and through the circumstances according to His desire? How do you get a person to walk according to truth by faith when he wants to keep changing his circumstances? We need to teach that, by faith, God is going to provide everything a person needs, spiritually, physically and psychologically.

Gillham Psychotherapy is just Operation Bootstrap. I see the major sin of man as independence. Adam didn't break the ten commandments; there weren't any ten commandments to break. What the guy did was write the first personal declaration of independence. Just like us, he wanted to be in control and run his own life. But that doesn't correspond to a biblical worldview — This is not a Disneyland; it's a bridal finishing school.

God is using the circumstances of life, many suffering kinds of circumstances, to conform us to the image of Christ. It's not a fun trip. It can be very, very painful. The terrible thing is, if I set myself up as a counselor and give this hurting person a bag of tricks to ease his pain, those tricks can actually work against the Holy Spirit. I'm trying to make this guy feel good when the Holy Spirit is trying to let him feel bad enough to give up on himself. The Spirit's work is meant to bring this guy to the end of his independent flesh-trip and introduce him into Christ as his Life.

Pettit Isn't "Oh, wretched man that I am," the prelude to victory? We're trying to stop the "Oh, wretched man" from feeling wretched.

Gillham And, ironically, we feel good when we've done that. We think that if we can send the guy out with a smile on his face, we must be doing it right.

Pettit I think a lot of us as pastors, when we're crashing and burning — or trying to prevent the crash and burn — realize that most of what we did, we were doing for ourselves, even though it appeared we were doing it for others. We realize, "I was doing this and saying these things and working 150 hours a week to make me look good and make me feel good about me."

Carlisle I think the reason psychology "took" is because it at least gave an answer. When you're hurting bad and all your pastor says is "pray more" or "get busy and do something," you'll get yourself so active that you won't feel the hurt. A lot of psychology has grown in the church by default. I think they've offered a little humanistic bag of tricks, and it's not going to stick, but I do think many people are buying into it because it offers a list of, say, three things they can try to do and that has a temporary soothing effect.

King That's where Satan has come in with one of his biggest lies ever — over the issue of understanding. The world's understanding is many times not an understanding at all, but it soothes a person's conscience when he thinks he understands because it gives him a false sense of why things happen. Many Christians have equated the issue of faith with understanding. God never told us to understand everything. We're to walk by faith, not understanding. People feel they need to know "why" things happen, but psychology provides answers that leave out God. The answers sound logical to man, therefore giving us a false sense of security and peace, but they really haven't solved anything.

Pettit And then we're going to keep trying to create something that cannot be created — the Christian life. It's essence is uncreated. The sin nature is not fixable, it's terminal. Death has to be applied to it. If we don't believe that, then we're back to trying to fix these old habit patterns of the flesh rather than seeing that they are replaced by truth.

Gillham To me, true Christian counseling is merely discipleship. In II Corinthians, we're told we have been comforted, and that we then can pass this comfort from God along to another person in any kind of situation. In other words, I don't have to have been divorced in order to comfort a divorced person. The comfort is our identity in Christ: that we are totally acceptable to our Re-Creator and now our job is to allow Christ to express His life through us.

SBC LIFE We've been saying that lists of "do's" and "don't's" won't bring people into the comfort of Christ. How do you respond to people who say, "If we don't give them some rules and regulations, they'll go wild — they'll start doing whatever they want to?"

Carlisle What we're doing now isn't working either. If I tell you, "God is going to get you," as a way to externally control your behavior, then it's bound to fail. This type of motivation rarely has a lasting effect. Right now I am learning more about spiritual disciplines, not to get God's approval, but to release His life into my life. I've got His life in me, but I need to prepare this body to experience His presence.

King Just like Paul had to come back and say, "It's not a license to go out and sin, God forbid that," we need to teach what real freedom is about: not a license, but gratitude. It's the freedom to be everything that Jesus wants you to be, not the freedom to do anything you want to do. So you focus that freedom, but freedom in Christ is still true, whether they use it for right or wrong.

It's just like a person who says, "I know if this marriage is to really work out, I've got to read my Bible, and I've got to pray more, and I've got to do that." I then say, "No you don't. You can, but you don't have to. You've got the freedom to sit down, open up the Word and let God Himself, through His Holy Spirit, teach you His truth." And that releases me into a real life of excitement instead of a life of legalism.

Pettit I'm with you on focusing on the freedom: the focus being that we are now free for Christ to be our lives. That gives us the option — for the very first time — of living selflessly because we're living by the life of Another. Unless we understand this grace message, we become too busy looking at us, fixing us, working on us. Yet, the life of Christ in us is meant to be a life for others. The minute the revelation comes that a person is free, Christ's life comes out of us for others. It can't go any other way.

Gillham I find it helpful to boil the law down to this: you ought, you must, you have to. Now grace is: I want to, I yearn to, I'm looking for the clues as to how. I have a deep desire to obey God. I want to walk uprightly with Jesus Christ and all those are "cans" in the new man in Christ. What the devil tries to get us to do is to get our human needs satisfied by sinning against God, by going after it through the flesh, trusting in the flesh to meet those needs.

Pettit But the desires of the flesh are not the problem. The problem is who we're focused on, who we're looking to for the meeting of our needs. There is nothing wrong with the needs and desires of my humanity. They provide the very tension necessary to make faith choices possible, and apart from those faith choices, I'm not going to please God. So, the tensions and pressures are not my problem; they exist to help me.

King As believers we tend to focus on what we need to do — being obedient — but we need to teach people to genuinely love the Lord. We focus on so many "do's" and "don't's," that we miss the love. If you look at John 14, three times in that one chapter Jesus said, "If you love me, you'll obey me." I'm finding that teaching people how to fall in love with the Lord makes a drastic difference in what they want to do.

Gillham That ties us back in to our "wanter." What the new man really wants. But how are you going to snuggle up to somebody (or a God) that you feel is mad at you all the time?

King Good point. And that is what is so exciting about the ex-changed life. It shows God really loves us. Scripture teaches that God reconciled us to Him, as explained in II Corinthians 5:21, "That He made Him that had no sin to become sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of Christ."

Pettit When we know by faith that we are really loved by God and are no longer separated from Him, we no longer need guilt or manipulation to move people. And we no longer need to pretend. It really takes an authentic person to bear witness to the truth, and authenticity is something through which the life of Christ seems to smoothly flow. Even if there are some messes still left to clean up, even when we find ourselves not hitting the standard every day, His life flows when we're real.

SBC LIFE So, to summarize what we've been discussing, the Spirit-led walk involves a total surrender to God, spiritually, physically and emotionally. That includes things like our reputations or our dreams, even our right to convenience. As Christians, it's no longer acceptable for us to use physical or emotional tricks to fix our circumstances — because often it is those very circumstances, the ones that aggravate us the most, that God is using to bring us into a more Christ-like state. It is no longer our life to live: Christ is our life. And that doesn't mean that we adhere to a rigid formula of what we think the Christian life should be, rather we allow Christ to live a life through us as we remain sensitive to the Spirit. We have no other options, and although we sometimes pretend that we do, any other technique we use for living other than the Spirit of Christ within us is really just another form of death.

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