Helping the Counselee Suffering at the Hands of Others (Part 1)

April 24th, 2018 by posted in Suffering

America is familiar with injustice both social and personal. The news is replete with accounts of suffering at the hands of others. Biblical counselors see it regularly. Dominant husbands, manipulative wives, harsh and controlling supervisors, and abusive parents threaten happiness and well-being of our counselees. Americans see happiness as a right according to the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (emphasis mine), and relief as the answer to personal injustice. American Christians are no different in their expectations when injustice becomes personal. The feel sorry for themselves, pity their situations, and will do anything for relief.

John MacArthur describes this as a victim mentality when he writes, “Victims are not responsible for what they do; they are casualties of what happens to them.”[1] In other words, the Christian has an improper reaction to the sin committed against them.

The goal of the biblical counselor is to help those suffering injustices to respond biblically, rather than reacting emotionally.

In the American culture, even among Christians, suffering from injustice is considered negative and to be avoided. Most Christians who come to the counseling desk believe that something is very wrong in their life when they are suffering, either at the hand of others or the hand of God. These same Christians come to counseling with the expectation that, through counseling, God will relieve this injustice.

But, suffering is God’s plan for the Christian. While God hates injustice, in the context of suffering saints, Paul writes in Philippians 1:29, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake…” and in 1 Peter 2:21, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” This includes suffering at the hands of others. The Christian who is suffering at the hands of injustice must realize the sanctifying work of God for his glory and their good.

Counseling is woven into the theology of the New Testament. It is in the doctrine of spiritual growth. It is in the nature of shepherding and pastoring. The church in the New Testament is the place where significant change occurs because it is the place where the Word is ministered. The concept of this counsel is found in the Greek word, neotheteo and is a compound of “nous” = mind; “thithemi” = to place. It carries the connotation of warning, admonishing, comforting, and exhorting (Acts 20:30; Romans 15:14; 1 Corinthians 4:14; Colossians 1:28, 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 2 Thessalonians 3:15; Ephesians 6:4).

The biblical counselor recognizes that godly change only occurs through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit as the Word of God is brought to bear in the life of the counselee. The biblical counselor understands what the secular psychologist does not, that every aspect of our lives is affected by sin. And so, our goal in counseling is not simply to change behavior, it is transformation toward becoming more and more conformed to the image of ChristWhile all these heart issues are true and contribute greatly to the behavior of the oppressor, the root problem is a worship problem. What is at stake is worship. Psalm 14 tells us that there is a madness that tries to live as though God is not,

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”  They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the Lord? There they are in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous. You would shame the plans of the poor, but the Lord is his refuge. Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.

So, we must be fierce in our insistence that life is lived before the face of God, that all we do and say in the care and cure of souls has an emphatic vertical dimension before the horizontal, human relation. Our behavior follows what we worship. The pride, fear of man, and lust that drive the oppressor are all indicative of self-worship. “An abusive person is often so preoccupied with himself that he sees himself as misunderstood, not wrong… Let’s be clear: the abusive person is not a monster. Rather, he has become his own God who trusts in his own heart “(Proverbs 28:26; emphasis added)[2]

Is the counselee really suffering injustice or are they incorrectly perceiving evil?

The counselor cannot assume that a counselee is suffering actual injustice simply because the counselee presents with such a complaint. The topic is also difficult because the definition of abuse is so subjective. And, over the past few years the perimeters that have fenced in the definition have expanded from physical abuse to now verbal and emotional abuse. In fact, some counselees we see have gone so far as to define abuse as anytime their spouse disagrees with them. When your children talk about a mean teacher, many times it is simply because the teacher disagrees with them.

One of the problems that the counselor must identify is how the counselee is interpreting the behavior of the so-called oppressor. Everyone is dealing with the same set of facts. Not everyone is gathering, interpreting and responding to the facts in the same way. People tend to ascribe motives to the actions and behavior of others. In the case of the counselee who feels they are being unjustly treated, this is even more acute. Even in a case as simple as children with their mean teacher, when someone does something we don’t like our response is almost always negative. The counselee is interpreting the behavior of the so-called oppressor through a lens that colors her understanding of what may or may not be true. In her case her perception is reality, even though her perception may really be incorrect. One of the greatest threats to relationships occurs when people regularly interpret each other’s behaviors negatively. When this happens even good behaviors like kindness are interpreted in a negative light.[3]

Is This True Injustice?

The often difficult task of the biblical counselor is to determine, especially in the case of injustice, if and when occasional sin has become a pattern of sin. The counselor walks a tightrope of discovery. He must take the accusations of the so called sufferer seriously, while at the same time being careful not to rush to judgment without thoroughly understanding both sides (Proverbs 18:17). The problem of false allegations is real in the United States and thus it is also real in our churches. “32 states laws don’t require any physical assault. Someone can receive a protective order for feeling afraid, apprehensive or experiencing emotional distress. The case that shows the flaws in the protective order process the most is one that involved late night TV host David Letterman. In 2005 a woman who never met the comedian filed for and received a protective order against Letterman because he was allegedly beaming televised code words and seductive eye gestures at her. Because there was no requirement for a physical altercation, the order was granted.”[4]

The organization to Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE) published a Special Report on the Expanding Definitions of Domestic Violence that is helpful in our understanding of the expanding definitions of oppression that our counselees are reading and hearing about. From 1997 to 2003, it is estimated that states enacted 1,500 new domestic violence laws, an average of 30 per state over the 7-year period.[5] While the definitions of abuse at one time almost exclusively referred to physical violence, the broadening definition now includes psychological injustice. “The most common strategy has been to define violence in terms of its alleged psychological impact. This is done both by expanding the definition of physical assault to include emotional distress, and by establishing new categories of offenses that are defined in large part by their psychological impact”[6] Many offenses that are now considered unjust oppression or abuse are indistinguishable from normal life activities. The National Victim Assistance Academy, supported by funds from the Department of Justice, has listed “extreme jealousy and possessiveness” and ignoring, dismissing, or ridiculing the victims’ needs” as examples of domestic violence.[7] The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has published a list of actions that it asserts to be examples of intimate partner violence, including “getting annoyed if the victim disagrees,” “withholding information from the victim,” and “disregarding what the victim wants.”[8]

Some laws, such as the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act include the word coercion in there statutes, yet they apply no definition for the term. “It should be noted that the word “coercion” is not defined in the proposed law. So if a person attempts to persuade a partner about where to go for dinner, what TV channel to watch, or what clothes to wear, such actions could be construed as coercive.”[9] The Special Report concludes,

This Special Report documents how domestic violence laws have defined domestic violence in increasingly broader—and more elusive—terms. In many states, domestic violence is now defined in expansive and essentially limitless terms such as “annoyance,” “fear,” or even “any other conduct.” Some groups are working to expand definitions even farther to encompass the constructs of “power and control,” an effort that defies comprehension by traditional legal norms. When almost any action can be construed as “abusive” and an allegation becomes essentially irrefutable, we have reached the point of criminalizing everyday partner interactions. What remains is an over-extended criminal justice system that finds itself incapable of helping the true victims.[10]

Because American Christians are often more products of their culture than products of Scripture, these expanding definitions present the counselee with pervasive and persuasive models by which we are to understand life and living. They are pervasive in that they are in the intellectual, academic, and government milieu in which we are immersed. They are persuasive in that they are generally argued from experience that seem to appear true.

In Part Two on this subject we will look at what the counselee is expecting from counseling, and how the counselor uses the Scripture to walk the counselee through a biblical response.

[1] John MacArthur, The Vanishing Conscience (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 1994), 21.

[2] Brenda Branson and Paula J. Silva, Violence Among Us: Ministry to Families in Crisis (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 2007), 42.

[3] John Mordechai Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, second ed. (New York: Harmony Books, 2015), 21.

[4] John Macdonald, False Allegations of Domestic Violence: More Common Than You Think, Law Office of John E. MacDonald Blog, (June 14, 2077), https://www.aggressivelegalservices.com/false-allegations-of-domestic-violence/, Accessed January 24, 2018).

[5] Miller N. What does research and evaluation say about domestic violence laws? A compendium of justice system laws and related research assessments. (Alexandria, VA: Institute for Law and Justice), 2005. Footnote 28. http://www.ilj.org/publications/dv/DomesticViolenceLegislationEvaluation.pdf (Accessed October 12, 2016).

[6] Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), “Special Report on the Expanding Definitions of Domestic Violence”, (Rockville, MD. November 2010), 3.

[7] Coleman G, Gaboury M, Murray M, Seymoor A (eds.) 1999 National Victim Assistance Academy. https://www.ncjrs.gov/ovc_archives/nvaa99/welcome.html, Accessed January 16, 2000.

 [8] Saltzman LE et al. Intimate Partner Violence: Uniform Definitions and Recommended Data Elements. (Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control. 2002). p. 62. http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/pubres/ipv_surveillance/00_Preliminary_Matter.htm , (Accessed October 19, 2017)

[9] Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), “Special Report on the Expanding Definitions of Domestic Violence”, (Rockville, MD. November 2010), 7.

[10] Ibid. 8.


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