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Helping Counselees Form Good Habits

Truth in Love 335

Our goal as biblical counselors is to help form habits in the counselee that will last long after we're done meeting with them.

Nov 1, 2021

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast, once again, I am joined by Dr. Greg Gifford. Greg is the associate professor of biblical counseling at The Master’s University. He received his PhD from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is an elder at Faith Community Church. He is a certified member of ACBC and he recently completed his fellow process so now he is a fellow with ACBC as well. He is married to Amber and they have two boys and one on the way, praise the Lord. Really excited about that. He’s released a new book called Heart and Habits and I want to talk with him further about this—I think a very important book. So Greg, one of the things I want you to do first if you can, is just share a little bit about a personal story, the way that some of the ideas of habits was developed into your heart, and the way this idea of habits personally affected you and even the way that you minister. 

Greg Gifford: Okay. Thank you for letting me do this. You know, it’s really the privilege of every biblical counselor to be an instructor in habits to a certain degree. It’s no different in my own experience that really I’ve been an instructor in habits for 9, almost 10, years now. That’s as long as I’ve been counseling. And what I have found is that when we’re assigning homework, a big part of what we do, we are teaching individuals habit formation and helping them practice godly habits. It really started to become apparent—I was working with a couple and they had no meaningful time together. Just think of it this way, just very transactional conversations. Talk about the kids. Talk about logistics. But no—like when one gets home, they pause and talk with the other and just small talk. Obviously no date nights. And so they were at this communication impasse and it was a very cold time in the affection of their home. So upfront, one of the things that I asked them to do was to just develop the habit of time together, and that habit could be expressed in a couple of ways. Obviously date nights. You know, that’s a very standard one. But I also asked them that whenever the spouse gets home, so whoever’s home first, that they pause for the first 15 minutes of the other spouse’s arrival and they just chat with them for 15 minutes. Just, how was your day? Take a break, pause. Talk about things. There’s nothing magical about either of those, date night or, it’s called the first 15 minutes exercise, there’s nothing magical about it, but there is something important about just starting to talk again and starting to have a space where you can communicate as a married couple.

So what I began to find is that the impasse of communication, it started to break down because now they could at least have a conversation together, and then they could at least joke about certain things, and yet there were certain topics that had to be discussed, but yet that habit of time together was cultivating intimacy in their marriage. So, I could duplicate that a thousand times and be able to say, here is how this has looked a thousand times over as we have assigned a person to practically do something out of obedience, Spirit enabled obedience, and God used that to start to bring about change and transformation in themself or, like in this case, in their marriage. So that’s the practical outworking, or maybe just a short example of what it looks like to see habits change and bring about change. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I think it’s important. You mentioned that habits in and of themselves, there’s nothing magical about them. But what we often realize is, habits have already been formed in their life that have precluded them from fostering good relationships with one another. So to make them aware and to help build habits that help foster a godly biblical relationship, it’s going to be something that’s key and this is a part of what you dive into in your book. So, what are some of the ways that your book affects the work of biblical counseling when you talk about heart and habits? 

Greg Gifford: In biblical counseling, as I mentioned just a second ago, we are all instructors in habits and I don’t know if many of us have thought of ourselves that way, that we are coaches in a sense, coaching people to re-engage in their Bible, to re-engage in fellowship, to re-engage in obedience to what God’s word says. And we’re doing that at a weekly level most of the time. So think of your counseling process like this, most of us are starting with weekly meetings when we’re meeting with a new counselee and for those first five, six sessions, it’s going to be weekly. So then what’s taking place is, we’re helping people form new habits and implement those habits over a month to two months, and then we’re going to start to stagger our time out with those individuals. So then our goal as biblical counselors is to help form habits in this counselee that will last long after we’re done meeting with them.

So let me just take the habit of meditating on God’s Word. The habit of meditating on God’s Word is a habit that we practice and we develop, and God uses that habit to help address things in our life like anxiety. So maybe I need to meditate on the character of God and as I develop that habit and I assign that homework in the counseling process, my counselee starts to meditate on the character of God and, especially in the times when they’re tempted to be anxious, they start to meditate on the character of God, maybe His sovereignty or His goodness. So then before long, when they’re tempted to be anxious, they start to meditate on the goodness of God. I mean, Hallelujah, that’s what we’re doing. And sometimes we don’t realize what we’re doing. We’re helping them form good habits. So in this book, my goal was to write in such a way that biblical counselors would benefit from an understanding of theology of habits and, why do habits do that? But also to write in a broader way to where those that are just looking for growth and biblical change can understand the way that habits work in their life as well. So biblical counselors are maybe coaches and trainers in habits, but big picture, this hopefully could just inform those who are considering, how do I change? That’s the subtitle of the book, how we change for good. How do I change for good for a lasting way for God’s glory and so forth? 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, because the Bible certainly has a method of the way that change happens and it certainly speaks to the issue of heart motivation, desires, passions, affections, but it’s not without mention of habits, things that we are called to do. And I think you’re weaving that together. You talked about meditation, Greg, as a means to form healthy habits for the counselee, things that promote understanding of the Word and change as it were. But I want you to talk a little bit about, for the counselor, how does homework affects habit formation? I mean, help them to take something like meditation or other aspects that we may give as homework and think about that in terms of forming a habit through the homework that you give as a counselor. 

Greg Gifford: Okay, so a good biblical counselor is trained in homework. If you’re listening to this as a counselor, you know you’re assigning homework, or you should be, and part of what you’re doing in that homework process is you are ensuring that your counselee is practicing certain habits. I think all of us could identify quite easily that there are often just very common spiritual breakdowns with our counselees, things that aren’t happening that are very fundamental habits to their spiritual maturity. Let me give you an example. It’s not uncommon, in my experience, that those that I’m counseling are not strongly connected to fellowship. When I say strongly connected, I don’t mean like they don’t go to church at all. They might show up on Sunday morning and leave right after the service is over with, but they don’t have meaningful Christian community. They don’t have a strong connection to the body of Christ. So what are you assigning them week one? You’re assigning them to go to a small group Bible study or to go to Sunday school and to get more involved in fellowship.

So how does your homework help form habits? It does it like this, week one you assign, you need to be engaged in your local church and increase that engagement if they’re only marginally involved. Then week two, you’re following up on, did they do that? What did it look like? How did it go? And then week two you assign it again and then week three you follow up on it. So you could substitute in Bible reading or meditation that you’re assigning. You could substitute in church attendance. You could substitute in service and giving your time to others as a member of the local church. Any of those habits are going to be habits that you’re assigning, and then in your next counseling session, you’re going to review, did your counselee do it or did they not do it? So then practically what takes place is over the duration of, let’s say, twelve sessions as our model, that we have now six months that we’ve spent with a person and we’ve assigned them to be reading their Word or to be engaged in local church fellowship weekly. So when we get to the seventh month, we don’t have to tell them anymore. They’re just doing it. And it’s not surprising how that’s happened because we’ve required them to do it. We’ve held them accountable to do it. We’ve encouraged them to do it. And now in the seventh month, they’re not even thinking about what they’re going to do on Sunday mornings. They’re just going to church and they’re getting engaged in their local fellowship. That’s what it practically looks like for us to help develop habits through homework. 

Dale Johnson: You’ve talked about some of these good key habits. What are some of the habits that we want our counselees to imbibe? I mean, these are things that maybe not every counselee will begin, but these are some of the key habits that we want counselees to develop, or maybe we would even say they need to develop in their life. 

Greg Gifford: I have no problem, and you may chastise me for this, but I have no problem saying that if a person is not involved in their local church and they have access to one—you know, so this isn’t the missionary on the field that they’re the only Christian in the city—but if they’re not involved in their local gospel-preaching church, that they are failing to practice a biblically prescribed habit. That’s Hebrews, 10:24-25. 

Dale Johnson: No chastisement here, brother. You keep going. 

Greg Gifford: All right, good. Let me keep going on this because then what I’m saying then is, alright, if you’re not engaged in a local church in any capacity, that’s got to change. We love you. You got to be part of the church. I may actually do a rock-solid killer job as a biblical counselor with you right now, but if you don’t get involved in a local church. Guess what’s going to happen two years from now? You’re going to be in the exact same situation going through the exact same problems because you need the body of Christ. You just do. So habit one: the local church. Habit two: engagement in the Word and some method. It’s audio Bible. It’s reading in the mornings. It’s memorization. It’s meditation. If you’re not engaged in how God reveals himself to us, then it is impossible for you to grow. You cannot grow apart from the Word of God and one of those methods, meditating, memorization, reading, listening. So you have Bible engagement. And then I would say, third that’s integral—and this often surprises people—is, as a member of the body of Christ, we have a purpose and a function with our giftings. Sometimes we fail to understand the importance of what serving does, not for those that we are ministering to, but for our own souls. Serving, using your gifts that God has given to you to serve others, is one of the greatest balms, one of the greatest mercies, for your own soul. Do you want to see how growth takes place? It’s often the opposite of myopic introspection. It’s where we get our eyes off of ourselves and put it on to others and say, how can I be a blessing to them? How can I encourage them in their faith? How can I facilitate them being more like Jesus? And service is a habit. You get in the habit of serving other people or you don’t. And so, if we were to just say, what are maybe some fundamental habits? I don’t know if I would weigh those in that particular order, but I would say, every counselee has to be engaged in a local church. Every counselee has to be engaged in the Bible. And every counselee has to be engaged in using their gifts in some capacity to serving others. 

Dale Johnson: I couldn’t encourage everybody to listen to exactly what you said more. In fact, I wrote a book on that issue, the church as a culture of care, and I think it’s that important that the local church is a critical place to offer soul care. It’s the place where we need to be assimilated for regular care of all of our souls. I think it’s that critical.

I love those three things, Greg. I think that’s going to be even simplifying, but radically world-changing, because what we’re after is not just to change a little piece and part of what a person does, but to change the whole of their life that’s given now to Christ in every aspect of their being, that they bring glory to the Lord in everything that they do. And these are three things, I would argue like you did, prescribed in the Scriptures to make that happen. Now, we do come to this crossroad, as a counselor, where–this is a difficult crossroad. What if we see counselees not developing some of these habits? I mean, we see this. This happens. So, how do you use a counselor handle a situation like that?

Greg Gifford: Let me make a reach back to Critical Stages of Biblical Counseling. You guys remember that book? Jay Adams’ timeless text for a while. I think it was republished recently. He used the vocabulary of termination. 

Dale Johnson: Don’t you love that word?

Greg Gifford: I love terminator. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, it is a bit of a difficult word, but the concept is phenomenal. 

Greg Gifford: Exactly. Now I may not use termination in my vocabulary as well, but I definitely employ that concept, where Jay was basically saying if a counselee isn’t doing what you’re asking them to do, then what you may need to do is to have that meeting of, Wayne Mack would call it inducing them, you know, gaining a commitment. And if they’re unwilling to follow through, then maybe you do need to terminate counseling with them for now until they’re willing to start these habits and these practices.

When you first read that you’re like, man, that can be really unkind. You know, this person’s hurting. How dare we just drop them and then walk away? But the point is this, that we’re not really helping a person if they’re failing to implement the things that we’re talking about. Worse yet, we may actually hurt them because they’ll think, wow, I went to go see a biblical counselor and nothing changed. And the biblical counselor would say, well yeah, because you didn’t do anything I told you to do. And so what do we do when we start to get to that point? It’s not that at the first failure to do homework that we drop the counselee and walk away, but that we are willing to say, hey, if you’re not going to practice these habits, then don’t expect this to be a beneficial process for you because you need God’s Word. You need God’s people. You need God’s resources. And if you’re not engaging in practices that represent that, then I’m not going to be a great help to you as a biblical counselor because this is what I do. This is how I help you according to God’s way.

Dale Johnson: Super well said. And I think there’s a way that we can do that and be kind. I move into what I call modes of warning when a person is not doing things that are clearly set out in the Scripture and I just gently and kindly warn them. Brother, listen. If you keep walking in this direction, you keep neglecting these types of habits, biblically this is what the Bible says will happen. Right? The way of the transgressor is hard and you’re looking at things in the future that are not going to be simple for your life. I try to warn in that way. So I mean, I think that’s a good idea but we seem afraid of that idea today. But I do think that’s the most helpful thing, where a person comes to a crossroad and they have to make decisions whether they’re going to follow the things of God or follow their own way as they’ve been doing.

Now, when we talk about habits, particularly if people have been around the biblical counseling movement for very long, they know some of the history of Jay Adams’ talk relative to habituation. I want you to talk about that for just a second and some of the ways that you’re defending some of the ideas of habits, certainly, but I think you’re helping us to move along even in some of this thinking, bringing some things together. One of the most critical things that I want us to do at this point is, as we push habits, as we talk about habits with our counselees, how do we keep some of our counselees from becoming behavioristic? That was one of the big, you know, criticisms of Jay, that he’s a behaviorist. He’s just pushing this idea of habits and he’s, you know, a biblical behaviorist. So how do we keep a counselee from becoming that way? 

Greg Gifford: You know, that was the accusation that I think, it was hard for Jay to shake that and some of the programming language that he used about habits and habituation. So, how do we, how do we not fall susceptible to doing that or even maybe communicating that to our counselees? In the beginning of the book, I think it’s chapter one, I talked about behaviorism and what I try to show is that really, fundamentally, you cannot be a Christian and behaviorist because Watson’s behaviorism was a soulless behaviorism. So sometimes it’s like throwing tar on a person when you call them a behaviorist. It’s like, you can’t get that off, you know? So behaviorism, just fundamentally, it’s insulting because it’s like, hey, I believe in a soul. I believe in an eternal soul. We have to be very cautious about that. But I think what people mean is that we’re maybe focusing too much on the outer man and not enough on the inner man. And so that then renders the solution, it’s—we have to have a habits and heart perspective. So if the council, he just wants to know what they’ve got to do—just tell me what to do—that’s important. Okay, let’s help show you according to the Scripture what you are supposed to be doing right now. Speaking in this way. Trusting the Lord in this way. Not being angry in this way. Yes. But also, why are we doing that? Because technically, I could just jump into, this is how you should speak. Let’s go to, be honest. Keep current. Attack the problem, not the person. Act don’t react. But I haven’t got at the motivation of why you speak and I haven’t gotten at the heart. So if we’re trying to prevent counselees from being behavioristic, we can’t just get to, oh here’s what you do. We have to continue to focus on, this is how the gospel propels us into what we do. This is how we’re motivated from the heart to please God in what we do. So it has to be the heart and habits. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s important for all of us to understand first. You’re warning us about the two ditches on either side, right? We need both, and not either-or. Our tendency is to swing the pendulum. So, we’ve got to be cautious about that. We need both heart motivation and we need habits that help to foster it. It becomes the soil by which we see the beauty of that motivation happen. But that brings a question. So, let’s guard against one side of the ditch here and maybe we’ll finish with this, should a counselee pursue a habit even when they don’t feel like it? So that’s guarding us against just becoming behavioristic. You know, there’s this tendency—I don’t want to ask them to do something, especially when they say they don’t feel like it or they’re not motivated in the right way. Should we ask a counselee to keep pursuing this even when they don’t feel like it? 

Greg Gifford: I had a counselee ask me, Greg, what do I do when my “want to” is broken? That’s good. I’ve thought that about 2 million times in my own life. What do I do when my “want to” is broken? The answer is that you, by faith, with the help of the Spirit, you obey. Let me just give you a really practical example. For those of us that have lived in a cold climate, it is a very enjoyable thing, I can say it that way, it’s a very enjoyable thing to sleep in in the morning, stay in the warm bed, but yet we know that our time in devotion, our time in the Word, is of paramount importance. So in just a very fair sense, I would maybe rather just sleep at 6 a.m. at that exact moment. I would rather be asleep. I’d rather stay in the bed, but I know that that habit of reading the Word is so fundamental and it’s so important for my life, for my family, for my Ministry, for my counseling. So what do I do at that moment when I don’t feel like it? I, by faith, through the Spirit’s work in my life, I get out of the bed and I go do my devotions and I may not immediately want to be there right now. I might immediately want to be in my warm bed. But yet, that act of faith and obedience is what God uses to change my “want to,” to change my feeling. It gets to the point where it’s like, okay, there was a point where I didn’t really want to get up at 6 a.m. and do my devotions, but now I want to and now I’m excited to. Now it’s not even a wrestle at all. This is what I want to be doing at this time of the day. So, how do you break the, I don’t feel like it. You do that through, Spirit-filled obedience and that’s your habits. 

Dale Johnson: Amen. And that takes time. You don’t snap fingers and that comes about and that’s why we need counsel. That’s why we need the local body, right? To come alongside, to walk, persevere with an individual until these things are settled. Greg, this has been helpful. Really great conversation. And I’m really excited about your new book. So thanks for taking some time with us this morning and giving us some insight.