Very few people have training in counselling, but we can all “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). This involves helping others to shape healthy thought patterns, especially when we see what they don’t. Of course, Romans 12:1-2 encourages transformation through the renewing of the mind, which must often be cleansed from wrong thinking. Confrontation with biblical truth often prompts ownership of attitudes and actions, but it also needs a willingness to address them. This might seem unnecessary where we have blind spots informed by our past. But a simple and time-honoured technique can help break intractable situations open and steer a biblically sound reframing of unhealthy thinking.
This model derives from ‘rational emotive behaviour therapy’ (first developed in the 1950s) and assists effective thought modification. Criticisms of a formulaic or secular approach are short-sighted, since this is merely the use of a helpful system to apply the Bible for lasting change. Naturally, over-applying a tool or probing invasively is problematic, too. Risking overly authoritative or over-simplified insights may exacerbate a problem, but this technique is merely a five-step process for gentle exploration of issues with people who want to change, rather than a quick-fix cure-all.
(i) Activation. Consider the activating event in a person’s life which might serve as an underlying cause for their issue. This could be from their distant or recent past. It may not be the first element of the process that presents itself, either, especially if it is embarrassing or if the person doesn’t realise its link to their present feelings.
(ii) Belief. Identify the resulting ‘stronghold’ in the mind, the problem thought which may excuse actions, explain emotions, rationalise behaviour, contribute hardship or just hold them back. This is less obvious from brief conversations but will normally be evident in lengthy ones. Beliefs connect the root causes and the consequences. Active listening can generally identify them.
(iii) Consequence. What are the emotions, frustrations or circumstances in which the person finds themselves? They may express that something is ‘unacceptable’ or that they feel ‘unworthy’ or ‘unhappy’ in some way. Such consequences may be the initial reason for a helpful conversation but may alternatively emerge later if the first element raised is the activating event or perhaps the belief. In many cases, consequences such as emotions may link to deeper issues.
(iv) Dispute. This is the process of lovingly and gently challenging the underlying problematic beliefs that have been activated, according to what God says about them. This needs knowledge and revelation of Biblical truth. Cases of demonstrative demonic deliverance, even if sensitively handled, can reflect a spiritual blockage through resistance to Biblical beliefs. Change is often fast, willing and quite undemonstrative when internal blockages are released. Of course spiritual growth generally happens, anyway, when a Christian simply embraces the truth of the Bible and what it requires of them.
(v) Exchange. When a person comes to own what he or she believes God is saying to them, there is a preparedness to replace a previously hidden life-controlling lie with the truth which sets the person free (John 8:32). In this sense, the weapons of spiritual warfare tear down strongholds in the mind (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Whereas demonic deliverance occurs by force and progressive discipleship occurs by personal discipline, effective people helping simply nudges progress past seemingly impenetrable barriers.
Sensitivity and love are extremely important with this technique, because real people are involved. Any truth must be spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15), our conduct must be gentle (Titus 3:2), and our conversations need grace (Colossians 4:6). Importantly, serious and strongly emotional or stubborn issues need referral and our own pride in seeking to bring change must be surrendered in the interests of another’s wellbeing. We need great sensitivity to people to deal with what we have permission to address and then to deal with one issue at a time. This is sometimes likened to the need to individually peel back each layer of the onion that makes people cry, rather than smashing the entire onion.
Nevertheless, careful probing out of our relationship with a person can help advance the skill of identifying tell-tale emotions of ‘consequence’ that relate to a root cause ‘activation,’ so as to then find problem beliefs that can be challenged. Using these links in no particular order may tease out problematic issues and connect dots in people’s minds in any range of situations so as to promote increased growth and maturity. Ironically, even skilled practitioners often struggle to deal with their own concerns, thus reinforcing the need for other people helpers being needed in everyone’s lives.
Some times when using this technique, activation will be less painful or significant for people and maybe more obvious, but we can develop our ability to identify associated emotions by asking the right questions (e.g. “How did that make you feel…?”) People simply respond to events in different ways, according to their beliefs about them.
Remembering that the point of this technique is to help people find wholeness reminds us that we are disciplers and not detectives. Prayer will usually be needed, too, not just to show empathy or to consolidate a revelation, but to ask God to shine His light on areas of darkness or confusion in people’s lives.