By: Dennis Gruening
April 1st, 2022
Author's note: Out of caution about being misunderstood as insensitive, I would like to make a comment here. The Ukrainian war being waged by Russia is currently coloring a lot of our world these days. Talking about guns, shootings and targets is perhaps not the best choice of words. However, the importance and accuracy of the illustrative power of these pictures cannot be overstated and have therefore been purposefully chosen. This does not, however, mean the author was neglectful or ignorant of current cultural issues that may color one’s perception of the issues spoken about.
When I first began learning about Biblical Counseling, I often heard about the need to find the right target in your counseling. At a recent training in counseling, I talked to the students about what we as people often perceive as the greatest need for counseling – “I want my problem solved, because I want to feel better” or “I want the problem solved, because I cannot function like this.” The target is clear – get rid of the problem!
We must ask the question, however, is that target the right target? Further, we must consider whether even the next target we name is in fact the right target. Of course, this also begs the question, “How do we know what the right target is in the first place?” In God’s gracious providence, he has given us guidance on this problem. According to God’s Word, change in the life of people never happens outside of “the heart.” In other words, “the heart is the target.” Various blogs, articles, chapters, and even books have been dedicated to the topic.
The goal of this post is not to do go into the details of the biblical/theological foundations for this target. Rather, we want to talk about the heart as the hard target as there is a distinct level of difficulty in reaching the target of the human heart.
THEORY vs. PRACTICE
Every profession, every enterprise has an underlying theory and an actual practice. You want to play cards, you have to know what the deck looks like, what the pictures, signs, and/or numbers look like, as well as how the game is played. If you want to learn how to drive a car, you need to know how to operate the car itself, but you also need to know the rules of the road in order to avoid accidents. If you want to counsel a person, you will need to a fair bit about people, how they function, what they do and why, and so on and so forth. Yet, with all these things, there is a distinct difference between the theory behind the thing and the practice of it. Two examples follow to illustrate.
Growing up, my grandparents always had people over for various holidays. Often, my grandfather’s brother would come with his wife. I liked both of them; they were friendly, kind, and very generous. When the gathering dragged on and the clock moved from hour to hour, we kids got bored. Well, it was just my brother and I then, sitting amongst a bunch of adults who talked about things I neither understood nor was interested in. Every now and then, my uncle would be up for playing games. He loved playing chess. He’d often battle it out with my mother’s younger brother. Then, on day when I was about eight or nine years old, I asked if he could teach me how to play. I caught on quickly on “how to play” the game. Yet, there was no way I was even close to beating him. Understanding the theory of play, how the game pieces could or should move, and what it took to win was only part of the equation. Observing the board, thinking about potential moves, not worrying about defense at the expense at playing your own game and many other things were completely off my radar. I could play the game, but I couldn’t win… yet.
This reminds us of the difference between theory and practice. It reminds us that there is a certain level of naïveté that comes with being new at something. It reminds us to be cautious about moving too fast with things when we are new at something.
Hunters know the importance of having their weapons in working order. This doesn’t mean simply ensuring there’s “nothing in the barrel” and having ammunition with you. It means properly cleaning the rifle and sighting-in the rifle before every hunt. It ensures that the shot, if within proper range, will always hit the target within a certain range exactly from where the crosshairs of the scope were pointing. The preparation before the hunt ensures both a clean shot and a clean kill – nobody wants to miss their potential once-in-a-lifetime shot and no serious hunter wants wounded animals that ran off suffering alone and without help.
In the process of sighting-in the weapon, the target is moved further and further away from the shooter. The goal is to see if the rifle will still accurately hit the target when shooting a three-shot cluster on the target.
This is a good illustration for what we are trying to do with the way we ask questions related to our counselee’s situation. We don’t just ask a single question hoping to have hit the target. We ask a series of questions to get to know the person and their situation. We aim at moving closer and closer to the target, that is the heart.
We don’t just ask a single question hoping to have hit the target. We ask a series of questions to get to know the person and their situation. We aim at moving closer and closer to the target, that is the heart.
Recently, I sat with a few less-experienced counselors to do some case studies. After presenting the case- meaning the person and their situation- we began to consider what we needed to do in order to really help the person. It quickly became clear to me that these counselors had a good basis of theoretical knowledge. I also saw, however, that there was a need for more practice, especially in establishing the right target and then asking the right questions to get to the target.
THE HARD TARGET
One of the most frustrating things about counseling can be the process of getting to the heart. Hitting that target is not easy – we must use all our knowledge and experience and bathe it much prayer. God will help us get there, but practice and patience will need to go hand in hand.
What is most difficult about the process of “drawing out the purpose” from a person’s heart is that there is so much to pay attention to. The person’s general story, the details of the story, the emotional state of the counselee, the physical affect of the person as they are telling the story, the counselee’s reactions to the situation, other people’s reactions as well as the consequences from the entire scenario. Additionally, we must look out for what all of this says about the person’s beliefs, hopes, desires and motives located in the heart.
That is why it is not easy to hit the target. There are a lot of variables and a lot of content that can impact the direction we are headed or even just distract the counselor so as not to make any progress.
HANDS, HEAD, HEART
These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about my early days of counseling (as though that was so long ago…). What I recognize is that I often had to learn and re-learn things. Or maybe more accurately, I had to be reminded often about various aspects of the art of counseling.
One of the things I was reminded of for this blog was the idea that we need to move from wide to narrow or as some have said in the biblical counseling world, from extensive to intensive questions. The goal is to first get the story straight, then hone in on the details surrounding the story, then focus more intensely on the counselee’s reactions before dialing in on what all of it has to do with that persons’ heart.
With all this as context, we should consider what we can do to keep our eyes on the target and ensure that we practice the right things, meaning, as the hunter who prepares his weapons before each hunt, we should consider what is before us, where we are going, and how we can get there before we engage the counselee.
The first of three things that I think is really important in figuring out how to really help a person live a life that is honoring to God and allows them to grow in their ability to deal with struggles is to examine the behavior. In Luke 6:45 Jesus talks about connection of heart and behavior. He says, “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” And I, hopefully not heretically add, “and the hands do.” Why do I say that? Because in Matthew 15:19 Jesus also says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Clearly, while arising out of the heart, these things not simply “words” with which the mouth runs over. Additionally, when talking about idolatry of the heart driven by desires, James reminds us in verse eight of chapter four that we should “cleanse our hands [outward action or behavior] you sinners, and purify your hearts [inward motives] you double-minded” (explanations added!). Because God explains that there is a clear connection between hands and heart or behavior and worship, we must be careful to get the picture right. The best way to start is to get an idea of how a person reacted to a situation, the outward action in word and deed that colored the situations we are examining.
Because God explains that there is a clear connection between hands and heart or behavior and worship, we must be careful to get the picture right. The best way to start is to get an idea of how a person reacted to a situation, the outward action in word and deed that colored the situations we are examining.
God’s Word further reminds us about the fact that a huge part of our inner being (biblically speaking: the heart) is related to thinking. Perhaps you know the passage or caught it again in the Matthew 15 passage referenced above, but Jesus talks about “evil thoughts.” The original language here actually means “conclusion reached through use of reason.”1 We know that the faculty for reasoning, physically speaking, is the brain but spiritually and biblically speaking it is the heart. From the inner man we are operating in all situations as beings that think about, discuss, and reason with ourselves regarding what is happening both in and around us.
When we then examine what God’s Word says about how we should engage our thoughts, we find out that there is no place for passivity or neglect. We must be active, focused, and ruthless in the way we engage our “head” (consider Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, and Phil 4:8 as starting points).
This leads us then to consider that what the hands did has somehow resulted from the considerations and reasonings of the head. Our thoughts have created constructs that we act upon. Our perceptions and our rationalizations are the breeding ground for our actions. Whether these truly reflect reality or are merely our own strawmen built to justify the pursuit of our own desires is then, yet to be determined.
Our thoughts have created constructs that we act upon. Our perceptions and our rationalizations are the breeding ground for our actions.
Outside of the hands and the head, however, there still is the third part, the heart, which we must consider.
Because this a blog post and not a lengthy dissertation about biblical anthropology, I hope you recognize the limitations of what we can achieve here. As I said at the beginning, a lot has already been said about the human heart from the biblical perspective and we cannot go in depth here. However, from all that we have talked about so far, it should be clear that the actions of the hands (our behaviors) have a clear connection to the head (our thoughts) and these do arise out of the heart.
In Lukan account of Jesus’ words related to the heart referenced above, we also read about trees and the fruits they bear. We quickly understand that the fruit is related to the roots. Jesus therefore says, what is unseen and under the ground is what ultimately produced the fruit on the tree – in the human “tree” the heart is the root system that is responsible for the fruit of our actions.
Let’s consider an example as a brief practice. A man with a difficult upbringing has come to you for counseling. You quickly find out that his current situation is not healthy. In addition to being unequally yoked, he struggles with anger and issues of fear. His faith journey only began about a year ago and he has a ton of questions. He now is questioning a lot of his past decisions and wonders about his future ones too. Because he has a couple of kids, he wants to make sure he’s now changing even the ways he raises them as he believes God is calling him to honor him in all aspects of life, especially parenting. The angles and questions that follow focus primarily on the issue of fear. The man shared fearing going outside to go shopping. He had to stop at the front door and then simply wait things out as he was too afraid to leave his home.
Not Quite on Target
As we start caring for this man, we begin with some basic questions that will help us gain some deeper understanding of this man’s world. This is where many of us would likely begin.
“How often does this happen?” “What did you do in the time you waited before going out?” “What were you afraid would happen outside?” “Are there other situations that scare you?” “What have you done to try and deal with this fear?” “Were you often afraid as a child, if so, what about?” “Are there other ways that fear shows up in your life?” “What is the greatest fear you struggle with?”
It’s easy to want to ask more questions about circumstantial things and doing it for far too long. While these questions do in some small way move us toward the right target, when engaging unexperienced counselors with case examples like this, I see them getting stuck here. There is so much information to be gathered and because most counselors are naturally curious, we want to know more and don’t want to miss anything.
Hitting the Target
As we described above, the main goal of counseling is to hit the heart as the target, and that is hard to do. Some practice though will help us here.
As with my recent counseling apprentices, I simply asked the question, “What is the goal of the questions we ask?” More accurately, I could have asked about the “target” instead of the “goal.” It took a little bit of time and some nudging on my part for them to see that we were only focusing on circumstances, not the heart. There was some asking about the “hands,” but not the head or heart. Here then are some questions we could consider asking next:
“What is your most common response to the fear creeping up inside you?” (hands) “What other feelings, emotions, and body sensations did you notice?” (moving toward the affective piece of the heart) “What thoughts were you ruminating on as the fear began to rise?” (head) “Did you try to fight the thoughts that were arguing to be fearful or did you try to take them captive?” (head) “What did you want most in that moment of fear?” (heart) “Did you have a sense of a goal being blocked or a desire being thwarted through this fear?” (heart). “Where was God in all of this – did you think of him and pray or did you try to ‘manage’ the situation on your own?” (hands and head) “What does this fear say to you about you related to your identity?” (head and heart)
We could go on. There are many more things to ask initially and equally many more questions to follow based on the counselee’s responses.
What is the difference in focusing too much on the circumstances and the response behaviors as opposed to moving toward the head and the heart? What conclusions will you draw from the information you gather when you are “off target” as opposed to when you are “on target”?
As a last note, I want to highlight the reason this whole conversation is so important. The critical issue here is two-fold. One, the information we get influences the choices we make. Based on the data, we think, plan, and pray. Insufficient data ultimately means, you will miss the target (or at least the bullseye).
Two, more importantly than the general response we have or the plans we develop from the basic information, the counsel that we give must be targeting the heart. It must be focused ultimately on what we desire, what we love, what we worship. If we don’t aim at that, we can easily alienate the counselee because our direction and counsel will remain ineffective and misguided.
When we do not target the heart, we do not address what matters most. It’s most critical, therefore, that we prepare well and keep our questions moving toward the heart as the target and what is hard will become more doable over time.
When we do not target the heart, we do not address what matters most. It’s most critical, therefore, that we prepare well and keep our questions moving toward the heart as the target and what is hard will become more doable over time. May God use it to bear fruit in the hearts of many whom he sends to us for soul care.
William Arndt et al., in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 232.