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Counseling and the Emotions

Truth In Love 411

Does the command to put-off and put-on apply to our emotions?

Apr 24, 2023

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have with me Brian Borgman. He’s the founding pastor of Grace Community Church in Minden, Nevada. He earned a B.A. in biblical studies from Biola University, an MDiv. from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, and a Doctor of Ministry from Western Seminary located in Escondido, California, as well as a Th.M. from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Historical Theology. Brian and his wife, Ariel been married since 1987; they have three wonderful children, Ashley, Zach, and Alex, four grandsons, a granddaughter, and another one on the way. Brian’s written Feelings and Faith, along with a number of other books. And we’re talking specifically about the topic that he discusses in “Feelings and Faith.” Brian, welcome to the podcast again. 

Brian Borgman: Well, thank you for having me. 

Dale Johnson: We’ve talked previously on the podcast on “Feelings and Faith,” talked a little bit more broadly about theological concepts, how to think about emotions, and how to set that within a biblical-theological framework. I want us to talk a little bit more practically about the emotions because many of our listeners are biblical counselors, they engage in the practice of biblical counseling, and I love the order of how we’ve done this in a previous session as we talked about the framework, which is appropriate, now we flow out of that framework into some practicality. And listen, this is, you know, 90-95 percent, maybe you might even say, 99.9% of counseling cases deal in some way with issues of emotions, the lack thereof or heightened emotions or whatever. And so, this is very, very relevant to where we are. And so, let’s just start here. As we think about this issue of emotions, is it important for us to keep the emotions in mind when we are in the counseling room? 

Brian Borgman: Well, I would answer that in the affirmative. Yes. And I think that the reason is because everything that we do, and you alluded to this earlier, everything that we do, everything that we say is emotional at some level. We cannot actually separate out the emotions from the problems that we have, from the sins that we’re guilty of. And we also can’t separate the emotions from growing in grace and progressing in sanctification. And so, there’s a sense where if we’re going to help people, we have to be cognizant of the emotional component. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah. And I think that’s right. And sometimes we maybe miss that. We’re paying attention to so much to the words that people are saying, we forget there’s other types of data that we’re paying attention to as well that are reflections and demonstrations of how they’re processing certain things or how they’re interacting in certain ways or the realities that they believe about life. And so let’s talk about how you, when you’re counseling someone how to handle the emotions because, honestly, those things seem very messy. That’s part of what makes counseling so messy is I teach new counseling students, and when we talk about these issues of emotions, they’re so impacted because they know life is made up of emotions. But then, when they try to start sorting out some of the details about emotions, it feels so slippery to them or almost like it can’t be organized in a way that makes sense. And how do we get our arms wrapped around this issue? So, I want you to talk about that. How do we handle emotions in the counseling room? 

Brian Borgman: First of all, we have to be very aware that many Christians are coming to their own understanding of their emotions, probably from a very unbiblical perspective to begin with. When I was a new Christian, the emotions were the caboose, completely irrelevant. You can run a train without a caboose. For a period of my life, I was involved in a certain strain of Christianity where the emotions were king, they determined everything. Whether or not I had assurance was just simply based on whether I felt saved right? So you have, in a sense, sort of these two opposite ends of the spectrum. So, trying to understand where the counselee is coming from in understanding those emotions is important.

The other thing is you mentioned this as well. When you start trying to unravel some of these things, what we pretty quickly find is that the emotional component almost becomes the insurmountable component. So, you have a marriage situation and you tell them all the right things. You give them all the right verses, you tell them all the relevant truths, and they make cognitively acknowledge that those things are true. But then they get out to the car, and all the sudden, it’s a flood of emotions that over take anything that they just heard. And so, to me as trying to help people as a pastor, trying to actually help people understand what’s going on emotionally and then start to handle those things biblically, ends up being a massive part of the task. 

Dale Johnson: And I think one of the reasons this can be so confusing to people is, you know, in biblical counseling, of course, we talked about putting off and putting on things. The emotions don’t seem to fit in that category. They feel like they don’t fit in that category. Another cultural dilemma, I think, is we feel like we’re at the mercy of our emotions to some degree. And so, you know, well, okay pastor, how do you expect me to just master my emotions in this way or how much, you know, if you make this person stop doing this then, okay? But I feel like I’m at the mercy of this issue, or this feeling that’s coming, and I think that’s an issue.

So, we talked a lot about mortifying sin, killing sin, putting sin off, putting righteousness on, I think that applies to emotion, but I want you to talk about this in a way that helps us to understand how we can still talk about mortification or even cultivating right emotions and how they play an important role in counseling. How do we actually apply that to the emotions? 

Brian Borgman: That’s a great question because, you know, I’m not an old man, but I’m not a young man, you know, reading counseling material over the years, especially from our commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture. One of the things that I think we made errors in is the idea that the emotions are somehow off-limits because the idea is you can’t control them. One of the early manuals that we went through 25 years ago basically said that you don’t even address the emotions because you can’t control how you feel. And I think that it ends up being, in a sense, sort of a pervasive assumption is that I cannot help how I feel. But I want to say the minute that you concede that I can’t help how I feel, you have just given up a major, major ground in a sense to the enemy and into the flesh and ended up creating an impediment in growing.

And so, I would start by saying that we believe in the authority of the Bible. Right? And the Bible authoritatively tells us how to use our words. The Bible authoritatively tells us how to think, the Bible authoritatively tells us how to behave, what to do, and what not to do. The Bible gives us more than that, but not less. And the Bible authoritatively tells us how to feel. Once you start to grasp that, all of a sudden, it becomes an issue of okay, wow. So, the Bible actually tells me that I am to not fear, or the Bible tells me I am not to be anxious. Or the Bible tells me I am to rejoice, where the Bible tells me I am to forgive from the heart, or I am to love with brotherly affection; you cannot extract the emotional component from any one of those commands. And so, the Bible authoritatively tells me how to feel. If that’s the case, then part of the process is me learning to put to death those things the Bible tells me to stop doing and to cultivate the things the Bible tells me to do, and that part of the sanctification process of course, you know, we talked about put off, put on. The Puritans would talk about mortification and vivification, we could use the word cultivation and so that has to be a major part of what we’re trying to do, right? And I would say, taking the view of the emotions that I take, which could be called more of a cognitive view of the emotions. I would say that the word of God empowered by the spirit of God, actually not only tells me how or how not to feel but actually gives me the power, the motivation, and the framework to either mortify or cultivate the emotions as far as whatever God tells me to do or not to do. 

Dale Johnson: So, I want to maybe drive down a little bit more on that last question and sort of some of the concepts. If we walk into your pastoral office in the counseling room, and we’ve all heard this if we’ve been doing counseling for very long is, you know, I can’t help it as it relates to emotions, and so that conversation is happening, so we can see it, okay, a ditch on one side is, you know, I don’t want to deal with the emotions, I can’t. As a counselor, how do I engage that? It seems so tangled, and I’m not even sure where to start, where to pull the first string to go. So I’m just going to talk about these commands and I’m going to command them to do certain things and I’m not even going to touch it. And then on the other side, you know, the ditches to say, just stop feeling that way. Both of those are problematic.

I want you to flesh out, okay, knowing what we know, how emotions come about. You talked about sort of a cognitive view of patterns of thinking that certainly well up within us a reality that we believe, and then our emotions are responding to that reality; jot this just a little bit further and sort of give you my concept to be fair, as I think about this issue of emotions, particularly as it relates to secular world, is when we talk about the issues of depression, for example, or anxiety, it doesn’t mean that our emotions are broken. For example, somebody who’s depressed immensely, they believe certain things to be true about themselves. They believe they’re worthless, they think they would be better off dead. They even think maybe lots of other people think that that would be true too. And I’m like if you believe that’s your reality, right? And you’re dismissing a biblical view of intrinsic value and who we are and that sort of thing. If you believe that to be true, it’s not your emotion that’s broken, right? Your emotion is actually responding very consistently with what we believe to be true about ourselves. So knowing sort of that framework, walk us into the counseling room to keep our counselors from both of those problematic ditches and help them to see. Okay, where do we start to unpack this? How do we start to attack this wisely so that we can see a cultivation appropriately and a mortification of these emotions?

Brian Borgman: Yeah, so that is vital because if what we’ve said about the emotions is true, that they are gauges, they’re indicators, they reflect value, they reflect priorities, they reflect the way that we think, right? So, that’s the cognitive perspective is that emotions are an expression of how I’m perceiving something and so forth, and I illustrate this in different ways, right? So when my kids were young, and they were involved in sports, I go and my youngest son is just an athlete and a half, and I’d go, and if he hit a home run, I mean, I would just go berserk, right? Well, it wasn’t because he hit the ball at a certain velocity and a certain trajectory, and it made it over the fence, right? I’m excited because that’s my son. I love him. I want him to do well. I’m ecstatic, I’m proud of him. Right. All those things. The emotion is a reflection of that priority, that perspective. So, keeping that in mind in the counseling room, I’m trying to pick up on cues of what these emotions are telling me about what that person is thinking, and so I want to be in tune. So, if somebody is just laden with anxiety and they are worried about everything that could possibly go wrong tomorrow, that is actually not primarily, let’s say, an emotional problem, as it is a biblical theological perspectival problem. I’m not thinking correctly about how the Bible tells me to think about the future, all right? Or to think about the character of God or whatever it may be. There’s no like magical silver bullet to sort of like fix somebody’s emotions. But there is a way to bring the truth of God’s Word to bear upon the thinking so that the emotions actually start to comport to reality, not to false perspectives, priorities, loves, and so forth.

And so, in a sense, that’s the goal of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to do it in preaching, we’re trying to do it in counseling, and that is bring the Word of God to bear to renew the mind in such a way. So take anxiety, for instance, I don’t want just somebody to say I’m a really anxious person and I can’t help it. That’s the way I’m wired. That’s the way I was raised. My mom was a worrywart, whatever. I want people to go, you know what? Anxiety is thinking wrongly about who God is, what He’s promised, and how I’m supposed to view the future. I will talk about what we might call like oxygen truths, right? The stuff that I need not only to breathe but I need oxygen to my brain to think clearly, and so, I’m going to be focusing on things like the character of God, I’m going to be focusing on things like you take a depressed person, for instance, and again, we all know this is not just some quick easy, hey, just give them Romans 5:1 and all of a sudden everything’s better. But what I want to do is I want to focus on the basis of their acceptance with God; I want them to not just cognitively see it; I want them to start to actually feel the amazement of being loved by God in such a way that God would do this for us. I want to give them a perspective of the already, the not yet. Not to be overly technical, but sometimes a lot of our emotional problems are based on an over-realized eschatology, right? And expecting too much from God in this life so that we don’t have an appropriate theology of suffering, so wrong thinking is going to impact my emotional state and at virtually every turn, right? And I would say, Dale, that wrong thinking about God himself is probably one of the primary culprits to emotional darkness and depression and those kinds of sins and those kinds of ailments that we suffer from.

Dale Johnson: Brian, I want to emphasize just a few things, maybe three things that you’ve talked about that. We need to hear and saturate ourselves with. Number one, how deeply the Bible speaks to the issue of emotions—my goodness. The God of the universe has given us such insight in how we work and operate as people, and He doesn’t give a non-emotional perspective on that. The second thing is in the counseling room, we’re not stoics, right? So many people have this perspective of biblical counselors that we’re throwing out verses and just commanding people to do certain things. There are times and places for that, but it’s never disconnected from who we are as people as emotional beings. I love that you’ve helped us to own that to some degree, right? And then maybe the third thing is just our emotions have implications. They are making statements. The way I say often is everything we think, say, and do, you could add feel, makes a statement about God, you talked about in terms of the oxygen we breathe. There are certain non-negotiable theological truths that we have to remind ourselves of consistently, and our emotions often deny those theological truths. Listen, if I didn’t love you before with your book, I love you more now in our conversation, and I look forward to the day that we can meet in person. This has been very helpful. I’m so grateful for your time, and I look forward to the way you’re going to encourage our folks. I appreciate it, Brian. 

Brian Borgman: Thank you very much for having me, Dale.

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