A Counseling Case Study
Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:14 | Listen to Message
Here’s a case study to give an example of what Gospel-driven counseling might look like in action. I’m choosing the topic of shame because, as I’ve written here and here, I think it’s the #1 thing destroying Christian community right now.
Though my case study refers to an endemic problem in modern culture – including the modern Church culture – this is not a reference to any actual persons or events.
You’ve noticed that your friends, Steve and Steph, have not been showing up to church lately. Their absence is conspicuous because they used to be regularly involved on the Welcome Team, and their faces were some of the first you’d see when you arrived each Sunday. You ask around, and nobody seems to know where Steve and Steph are or what’s going on.
After 4-5 weeks of noticing their absence, you send Steve a quick email to let him know you miss seeing them. “Is everything ok? Do you want to grab coffee and talk about anything? How can I be praying for you?”
A week goes by and you get a terse response back: “Thanks for checking in. Things aren’t good with Steph and me, but I’m not really in a place where I want to talk. We appreciate your concern.”
Let’s just start there with that much info. How would you apply the biblical pattern of love –> know –> speak –> do in your relationship with Steve?
First, you remember all those Thursday nights you spent with Steve and Steph in your small group, talking about everything from marriage and kids, to faith and work, to his volunteering down at the local food bank. You already care about Steve and Steph. You genuinely love and miss them.
So start the way Jesus did: by moving toward the broken. Don’t just tell yourself, “Oh well, I tried. Obviously they don’t want to talk.” Try again. Send a gracious follow-up. Maybe include the words to a short prayer you’re praying for them, in the absence of any details. Look for an excuse to serve them.
Let’s assume Steve agrees to meet for lunch. You can tell he’s hesitant to talk. So be patient. Love continues to reassure: “Hey, I don’t know what’s going on, but I want you to know that I care. It’s okay if you don’t want to talk. But if you do, I’m not here to judge you; I’d just like to help encourage you somehow. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs in my own life, and sometimes it helped me to have a friend to listen in as I processed through some difficult things.”
Steve says something like, “I appreciate that. I just don’t know where to begin. And you’re right: I don’t want to talk about this, but I know I need to.”
First, how could you understand Steve’s situation?
Invite him to share what he’s comfortable sharing. Start with what’s obvious to both of you: they haven’t been at church, and there’s a reason (or reasons) why. You could start with very basic questions like:
- Obviously you’re not there on Sundays anymore, so where are you?
- What are you doing with that time in lieu of participating in church life?
- Why are you there instead of at church? What happened that instigated this recent change of behavior?
- What else is going on in your life that’s contributing to some of these recent changes?
- What’s going on in your personal life? How has marriage or parenting affected this change and vice versa?
- You mentioned that things are not good with you and Steph right now. Can you say more about that? What’s going on?
With questions like these, you’re just trying to get a picture of the situation before you speak and completely miss the mark with false assumptions. To the degree that you can also speak with Steph and get her firsthand perspective, that is both loving and wise.
Second, how could you understand Steve’s response?
- You said you and Steph have been arguing a lot lately. What are you fighting about? What kinds of things do you say during those fights?
- How do you react when she says that you always prioritize your work over her and the kids?
- How do you respond when she implies that she made a mistake in marrying you in the first place?
- What do you say when she tells you you’re acting just like your dad?
- How are you and Steph acting toward each other day-to-day right now? How are you handling things with the kids?
Third, how could you understand Steve’s thoughts and feelings?
- When Steph says your actions are causing all this conflict in your marriage, in what ways do you agree with her? In what ways do you disagree?
- What emotions do you experience when she talks about your work that way? What about when she brings up your dad and the ways that you’re like him?
- How is this affecting the way you think and feel toward Steph and about your marriage in general?
- What are the thoughts and emotions that are keeping you away from church right now?
- What do you think about as you’re missing church? How does that feel?
- How are you feeling right now?
- What are your primary, recurring thoughts when you’re all alone? What keeps coming to mind over and over again?
Finally, how could you understand Steve’s desires?
- What is it that you want that drives you to work so many extra hours?
- What do you want most for your marriage? What would make you happy?
- What are some ways marriage is deeply dissatisfying to you right now?
- What desires do you feel like are controlling your actions and reactions?
- What do you want more than anything right now? What would be the most ideal resolution to all of this conflict?
There are two tendencies that happen when we turn from listening to speaking: there’s the judgmental tendency and the permissive tendency. The first condemns and the second condones. But neither self-righteousness nor minimizing sin (and its painful effects) gives you further permission to speak into a person’s life.
The challenge is to speak Gospel truth in love, and to apply it with humble boldness to the heart of the issues Steve is dealing with.
You might see one, two, or a few core issues here, depending on how Steve has responded to your questions. Let’s just suppose, for the sake of this case study, you’ve identified two key heart issues: one is his desire for success at all costs and the other is a pervasive shame.
Let’s just take the second of those heart issues: shame. Steve admits they’ve withdrawn from community because they’re struggling in their marriage, and they don’t want anyone else at church to know. He admits they’re both having to lie more and more when others at church ask where they are and how they’re doing.
The first thing you want to communicate is Gospel declarations – the indicatives that proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Then, and only then, do you want to communicate the Gospel’s obligations – the imperatives that are derived as implications of that Good News (and its application to everyday life).
Again, let’s say the first core issue you’ve identified is Steve’s deep-seated shame.
Steve’s shame is tied to his idol. He lives for success – which he defines as a good reputation, the respect of his peers, and a life of financial and relational prosperity. Success is not only Steve’s idol, it is also his identity. So long as things were going well outwardly, Steve was happy to serve as a greeter (where he could meet everyone with a smile and give the impression that he had it all together). Now that his marriage is in shambles, he defines himself only by his failure. He doesn’t want anyone to know about his sin and his struggles, so he’s gone into hiding.
Steve needs to hear the Good News that his true identity is received, not achieved. Because of Jesus, Steve is not the sum total of his successes and failures. Jesus died on the Cross to pay the price for Steve’s failures – including the shame that he’s experiencing now. And Jesus reigns victorious, eager to reward Steve with the spoils of his own successes. Yes, some Christians may judge Steve for his failures in marriage; but God himself declares Steve righteous and calls him to live by faith in that Good News.
Now, that Gospel has obligations that flow from it. For instance, Steve needs to repent not only of his surface sins but also of the desires that produced them in the first place. He needs to confess that, even when everything looked good on the surface, he was living for his own glory rather than God’s. He was making a name for himself and storing up treasures on earth. He needs to earnestly confess his idolatry to Steph, and confess the devastating effects that his idolatry had on her and their kids. And he needs to walk in step with the Gospel, in community, regardless of what others think of him.
How would you help Steve walk this out, then? How would you encourage him tomorrow, and next week, and next month?
Maybe you say, “Steve, you need to be back with your church family. And since I know how humiliating and hard that will be, I’ll meet you in the parking lot. I’ll walk in with you. I’ll sit with you. I’ll model for others the grace that you, and I, and all of us need.”
Maybe you set up a once a week, informal get-together, where you can ask Steve how things are going. How is he meditating on the glory and grace of Jesus? How is this truth that his identity is received, not achieved, practically affecting him?
That, of course, is just a start. Real life situations are ongoing and fluid. So love people. Get to know them. Speak the Gospel truth in love. Help them do what God is calling them to do. Be patient. Repeat.