This title does not suggest that the preacher deals with the spiritual or soul, the medical doctor deals with the physical, and the psychiatrist deals with the psychological. It does suggest that the biblical counselor must consider three dimensions of the human heart to counsel toward lasting change effectively.
The Bible uses the imagery of the essential physical heart to describe the essential spiritual organ of our souls. The physical heart pumps blood, delivering oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, and transports toxins to the liver for purification. From the spiritual heart, “flow the wellsprings of life,” as Solomon powerfully stated in Proverbs 4:23, warning to guard it with “all vigilance.” Jesus consistently stressed the importance of the heart (Matthew 5:8; 6:21; 12:34; 22:37).
If you are going to counsel effectively, you must carefully consider how to reach the heart in the counseling process.
- Emotions – Our heart is the source of our desires and feelings (Psalm 37:4-5). It is the first thing that comes to mind in our culture when we speak of the heart (other than the physical heart).
- Thoughts – Our heart directs our thinking (Matthew 9:4, Ephesians 4:22-24;). Thinking is the heart’s core, giving rise to emotions and behaviors.
- Behavior – Our heart guides our actions (Matthew 15:18,19). Besides the product of the automatic nervous system, every action or behavior is rooted in our conscious thought life.
All counseling theories or philosophies seek to address a combination of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Skilled counselors focus their efforts on addressing disordered emotions, negative thought patterns, and problematic behavior. Yet, without the biblical anthropology of the heart, counselors can create better-functioning rebels who are independent of God rather than dependent on him.
Because the heart is the source of true and lasting change, biblical counseling must discern heart issues, such as idolatry, pride, discontentment, and bitterness, with their outcomes (Ephesians 4:31) and address how the heart functions. All three aspects of the heart work together in synergy to produce lasting change. Heart surgery is essential.
Focusing on One Dimension Incurs Failed Surgery
What happens when we focus our counseling only on behaviors? For example, if someone changes behavior because he understands the consequences and is unwilling to risk experiencing them, will his behavior change transform his life? No, he still desires the behavior, which will return, or another aberrant behavior will replace it. Or, what happens when we focus only on thoughts or emotions? Addressing feelings may help a person cope better with anxiety or depression yet leave him helpless to change his misguided thinking at the source. Minimizing feelings of anxiety without addressing the source of the anxiety leaves him no better off.
The Jesus Model of Heart Surgery
Maybe the change you are considering is your own. Maybe you are wondering about someone for whom you care deeply and whose thoughts, emotions, and behaviors reflect the brokenness of this world; you must interact with their heart and their faith. Our faith in the living God and his sufficient Word skillfully applied is the key to lasting change. Jesus transformed hearts by encouraging an increasing faith in his counselees. Consider how often he said, “Your faith has made you whole.”
Jesus used an interesting word in John 15 that reflects this strategic methodology. He encouraged his disciples to abide in him. That word evokes emotion expressed as affection, thinking by engaging all that he taught about himself and obedience (behavior) as the expression of love. If your goal is to help people understand the brokenness that is in their hearts, how does one go about that? How does one do heart surgery?
Doing Heart Surgery
You do diagnosis well. Or, as I term it in Curing the Heart1, you isolate the problem(s). Then, you determine the direction in proceeding with the surgery of the heart. The wise counselor skillfully uses the Scripture to first lead the counselee to the Redeemer, who restores the hearts of all who faithfully seek him. He will lead the counselee to confront his sin2(at every level) and offer the hope of change, rectified relationships, and joyful living. The counselor will design homework that provides practical assistance and affects change in the heart, which can be observed in changed thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This is the wonder of biblical heart surgery.
Questions to Consider
- Consider your own life. Choose a stubborn issue you have encountered (maybe alcohol addictions, maybe sexual deviation) that you have overcome. How did the heart surgery (your victorious transformation) take place?
- What major question did this blog raise for you? Now, noddle on why the question was raised and answer it theologically.
- If this blog spurred a realization that you need the change in thinking or practice, determine why and how to implement change.
1 Eyrich, Howard and William Hines. Curing the Heart, Christian Focus Publications.
2 Some readers may react to this statement because the subject is mental health issues. This is a complex matter, but in a blog article there is only space for a broad stroke simple statement that should not be rendered as simplistic.