The Ambiguously Cured Soul

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Tim Challies links to one of my favorite articles by David Powlison, entitled The Ambiguously Cured Soul (originally published in The Journal of Biblical Counseling and reprinted in Powlison’s book, Seeing with New Eyes).

In my own experience, this article was extremely helpful in shaping a more biblical view of counseling, sin, and the human condition. I highly recommend it.

Powlison reprints the personal testimony of a married woman (called “Amelia”) who struggled for years with lesbian fantasies. After significant Christian counseling she interpreted her experience as the result of having a father who both physically and sexually abused her, and a distant mother who could not love or protect–hence, in her need of unmet love, she played our scenarios of intimacy with other women. Her counselor helped her to see how this caused her current problems and pointed her to God as the only source to meet her deepest love needs.

Powlison, rejoicing for the fruit in this woman’s life, nevertheless believes that this counselor has taught her a faulty view of human history (our past is determinative) and a faulty view of the human heart (it’s the passive receptable of unmet needs, rather than the biblical picture of the “active-heart-vis-à-vis-God”).

One of the most illuminating parts of the discussion–at least it generated a “ah-ha” moment for me–was when Powlison showed that multiple scenarios could be explained by the history of abusive-dad and distant-mom. For example, the counselee might live an immoral heterosexual lifestyle because of her longing for an intimate relationship with men; she might marry a man just like her dad because she’s drawn to that which hurt her; she might isolate herself from the world since she can trust no one; she has a godly marriage having determined to avoid her parents’ mistake. Etc.

What follows are some quotes from the article that I’ve found helpful. Again, I’d encourage you to read the whole thing.

History Is Determinative vs. History Is the Context

“When we look at 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.”

“experience does not finally constrain the heart’s bent and habits.”

“the consequences of personal history are infinitely malleable. History explains anything, everything…and nothing.”

“Knowledge of a person’s 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 heart’s proclivities and inclinations.”

“Any theory that claims to explain sin actually falls prey to sin’s intellectual effects, and wriggles away from both theological truth and psychological reality.”

“Sin is its own final reason. Any theory that claims to explain sin actually falls prey to sin’s 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.”

The Passive Heart vs. the Active Heart Explanation

Powlison argues against the view that the “heart is a repository of unmet needs, an unfilled void, a passive receptacle determined by painful life experience.” “The core motivation theory—the heart as essentially empty, needy, longing, wounded, disappointed in love—derives its structure from secular psychodynamic psychology, and runs counter to the Bible and reality.”

“Only the active-worshiping-heart-responsible-before-God finally explains and causes any particular way of life.”

Conclusions

“Amelia seems to be a sincere sheep, wanting her Shepherd’s 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 God’s 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 Amelia’s life. But I do wish to voice disagreement with the interpretive map others placed over her life experiences, and into which she was discipled 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, God’s 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 Amelia—and her counselor. May Christ make us, each and all, increasingly clear and unambiguous as we grow up in His image!”

You can also read Challies’ commentary on the article.

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