Monday, July 9, 2012

Tailoring Interventions to Match Sin Motivations

A typical definition of sin is that it is disobeying God or “missing the mark”.  These simplistic descriptions are often learned during childhood. However, as the person matures his understanding of sin needs to also mature. Sin is a complex subject demonstrated by the numerous terms used in the Bible. Some terms emphasize the cause of sin, including ignorance, error, and inattention. Other terms focus on the character of sin such as missing the mark, irreligion, transgression, iniquity or lack of integrity, rebellion, treachery, perversion, and abomination. In addition, there are terms that center on the results of sin such as agitation or restlessness, evil or badness, guilt, and trouble. [i] Theologians have attempted to describe the central aspects of sin. A survey of nine contemporary theologians[ii] resulted in 13 different descriptions of the essence of sin. Sin was described as sensuality, disruption of shalom, sloth, selfishness, pride, unbelief, mistrust, lawlessness or transgression, covenant breaking, apostasy, rebellion, idolatry, and power. These descriptions have given us a greater depth to our understanding of sin. This understanding needs to be applied in the counseling room.

It is important that the counselor have a multifaceted view of sinful behavior. Not only must the counselor recognize sin but the counselor must also seek to understand the motivation behind the sinful behavior. While theologians have identified several aspects of sin, this article will briefly discuss implication for counseling due to these three:  rebellion, apathy, and mistrust. Biddle postulates that sin results from a person either overreaching one’s humanity or failing to live up to one’s full potential. [iii]  God created man in His likeness. A person embraces authentic humanity by maintaining a balance between striving toward godlikeness and accepting creatureliness and its inherent limitations. The overreaching or attempting to be more than human has been described as pride and rebellion. Failure to reach one’s full potential has been described as slothfulness or apathy. Those who are rebellious believe they know better than God how to live life and those who are slothful do not believe they are created in God’s image or have great potential. While both rebellion and slothfulness may characterize sin, Biddle suggests mistrust of God’s ability to provide what is best underlies both of these descriptions of sin.
If the counselor, for example, assumes that all sin is motivated by rebellion against God, the counselor most likely will confront the client regarding her rebellious attitude. For some clients, this approach is appropriate and they will recognize their behavior as a form of rebellion. For other clients, if their motivation for sinful behavior is apathy or mistrust they will likely reject the counselor’s interpretation and feel misunderstood. In the worst case scenario, this misunderstanding may jeopardize the client-counselor relationship and interventions will not address the cause of sinful behavior. The counselor needs to realize that the motivation for sinful behavior will vary among clients and during counseling the specific motivation for a client must be examined.

 A person who is rebellious may make clear statements of rebellion such as “I don’t care what God’s standards are. I want to do this instead” or the statements may be more subtle and express a lack of concern about what people think. For the rebellious client the counselor will work with the client toward understanding that he is created by God and that God knows best. However, simply proclaiming these truths is not enough. Often the rebellious client does not trust God and is questioning whether God really know what is best? An exploration of what the client thinks would happen if he choose to follow God’s plans may be helpful. It is during the exploration that the counselor can identify misconceptions that the client has regarding God or himself. Then these misconceptions can then be addressed and challenged.  

Individuals who are motivated by apathy tend to make statements of hopelessness and believe that what they do does not matter. They may talk about times that they believe God has let them down and thus have difficulty trusting God. This mistrust may extend beyond God to people. Issues of trust often need to be addressed with the apathetic client. Re-examination of times in the past where she believed God had failed her can be helpful so that the client can discover that God was there and did not abandon her. As the client begins to see that God is active in her life, she will experience hope and be more accepting of the truth that she is created in God’s image and that she has great potential.

No matter what motivation is behind sinful behavior, the right response to the recognition of sin in one’s life is to repent. Understanding the motivation behind the sinful behavior will help counselors intervene differently with each client regarding resisting temptation. During stressful times, clients will be tempted to return to old habits of either rebellion or apathy. Issues of sin need to be addressed in the counseling room but the interventions are not “one size fits all’. Interventions need to be tailored for each client based on the motivation behind the sinful behavior. This gives individuals hope as they begin to see victory in their lives.

Dana Wicker, Ph.D.
Dallas Baptist University

[i]For a more in-depth discussion of these terms see Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 583-95.
[ii] The following theologians were survey by reading published works: Mark Biddle, Millard Erickson, James Leo Garrett, Wayne Grudem, Reinhold Niebuhr, R, Stanton Norman, Cornelius Plantinga, Charles Scobie, and David Smith.
[iii]Mark Biddle, Missing the Mark: Sin and Its Consequences in Biblical Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 12.

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