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The Methodologies and Techniques of Emotionally Focused Therapy

Truth In Love 365

Can we adopt secular methodologies in EFT into our biblical counseling framework? Does general revelation justify the means to an end?

May 30, 2022

Dale Johnson: And once again, it’s mental health month, the month of May. And we engage this idea of the mental health month by talking about different aspects of mental health. This time, what we’re trying to do is engage particular therapies that are employed in that whole world of how to be mentally healthy. And yes, of course, we’re doing this as a critique, I would say that that whole paradigm is certainly contrary to Scripture and we’re trying to understand today Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). If you remember, last week, we did a biblical assessment of these ideas. So I would encourage you if you did not, to go back and listen to that critique of Emotionally Focused Therapy; understanding some of its philosophical foundations and such.

This week, I want us to consider some of those techniques. And I want to see how some of those techniques or those methodologies sort of bleed into some of our Christian literature. I’ve asked Marshall Adkins, one of my PhD students here at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to join me once again. A little bit about Marshall—He was certified back in April of 2020, he is pastor of adult discipleship in Bardstown, Kentucky at Parkway Baptist Church been there for several years. He’s married to his wife, Rachel, and they have three young kids. Marshall, I’m so grateful for your work here. It’s been really fun to engage you even last week with the things that we talked about. As we look forward to this week and discussing some of the methodologies and the techniques, it’s important for us to be able to recognize these things. So, I want us to talk about it. I want to make clear up front. This is not a promotion of EFT. We’re trying to assess it. I think we need to be wise about these things. We need to understand those secular philosophies. I think that’s important for us to do that. If we’re to engage them well and engage them biblically, and that’s proper for us to do that. So, let me start off with this question. Marshall, what exactly do we mean by counseling methodologies and techniques and use EFT as sort of exemplary on this?

Marshall Adkins: Yeah. Thanks, Dr. Johnson. It’s good to be back in the podcast with you again. Great question! when we talk about methodologies and techniques, what we’re really getting at is what we do in counseling, and how we do it. So, we’re getting to, once we’re in front of a counselee, what are we going to do, and how are we going to do it. For example, when we’re thinking about Emotionally Focused Therapy, there are specific techniques that an EFT therapist will employ, such as they’re going to want to develop a therapeutic alliance. I don’t imagine we’ll unpack all these, but just to throw some out there. For example, they’re going to emphasize empathic listening and using sort of reflective statement, restatement techniques, offering validation of a client’s emotional experience, and so forth, we could go on. But the point is that every therapeutic framework like EFT has an attending set of techniques or methods that are built upon the philosophical foundation. Just what we talked a little bit about last week, the techniques, the methods that are built upon that philosophical foundation that are then employed in the moment of therapy.

I think about, for example, David Powlison talked about counseling methodology, and he wrote that counseling methodology is a system of theoretical commitments, principles, goals, and appropriate methods. He went on to write that it’s a set of interconnected things, not a collection of random or eclectic bits of observation or technique. He writes, “A counseling methodology is an organized, committed way of understanding and tackling people’s problems.” I think that’s helpful what David Powlison wrote there. And so, what we can say is that methodologies, techniques, whatever we want to call them, these things that we practice in counseling, they represent what we will do and how we will do it when we meet with the counselee, and they are based upon our core understanding of people, their problems, what the best solutions are, and the anticipated goals that we want to see come about. 

Dale Johnson: I think the statement that you’re making here in the connection that you’re making is super profound, and this is something that’s consistent with the history of the Biblical Counseling movement. I mean, my goodness, certainly Jay Adams said those things and the quote that you just gave by Dr. David Powlison is an immense testimony.

We can’t see these methodologies, these techniques, if you will, as sort of up to our leisure, and we can just choose à la carte these things. This is what I described when I talk about eclecticism, the danger that we have seen. “Oh okay, yes, I understand the philosophy behind all that and yes, it’s evolutionary-based, and we get all that part.” The problem is then we start taking some of the methodologies and techniques as if it’s disconnected. And man, Dr. Powlison said this super clearly. These things are part of a system and it’s not; you can’t just extrapolate that particular methodology because it has a context, right? And so, you can’t just extrapolate that to just come up and say, “Oh we can redeem this and make this right and make this ours.” Then we have to be careful about that because we have a system too, and the system that we employ, the methodologies we employ have to be consistent with the aim of the system of Christianity itself. All those things that we do in counseling have a connection to the system of Christianity, and we can’t deny doctrine or an aim, or a goal of humanity, by the things that we choose to employ. So, we have to be cautious and careful. I think that was really well articulated there.

Now comes the next question. I mentioned this just a second ago about we sort of have this posture, if you will of, we don’t want to be seen as people who are neglecting what’s coming out of good research, or good study or whatever. Surely there are ways that we can redeem a counseling method or a counseling technique from a system, like EFT. I mean, they’re well-meaning, right? So, we can use these things in Biblical Counseling. Let me just say that in the history of the Biblical Counseling movement, this has been one of the key things that have caused splintering in the past from very early days with Dr. Jay Adams and John Bettler. This was a point of contention. So, as we talk about this Marshall, we’re very aware that people disagree on this particular part and that’s okay that we disagree. But I think it’s important that we at least consider how we go about thinking we can extrapolate techniques and methods. So that’s the question. Can we redeem a counseling method from a system like EFT to utilize in biblical counseling?

Marshall Adkins: So, I think the short answer to that question is no, and to expand on that, to flesh that out a bit—when you see how methodology and technique is inescapably connected to the underlying presuppositions of a theory, it makes perfect sense why we can’t transfer those. An attempt to do that would be to just mutilate the technique because you’re taking it out of its environment. But let me expand a little bit, you know, you mentioned Dr. Jay Adams, and like Powlison and I think they were in agreement. He talked to, Dr. Adams talked about how all counseling systems are built on presuppositions, and it’s those presuppositions from which methods and techniques are derived.

One of the places that I found Dr. Adams very helpful is he wrote a chapter on this very topic in one of his books. And I think it’s helpful because he gives us a framework with which to maybe think about this. He asks the question, “Can we use different methods from other counseling systems?” And he distinguishes between a means and a method, and some of our listeners may be very familiar with this. But just want to reiterate here because I think it’s a very helpful way to think about these things. “A means” according to what Dr. Adams articulated is an activity such as listening or asking questions or taking notes and on and on we could go. Basically, what a means is it’s a tool that can be used in a variety of ways for different purposes, whether you’re listening asking questions, taking notes and so forth.

“A method,” however, is a goal-oriented activity. In other words, it’s also an activity but it’s an activity that is specifically designed from certain presuppositions and it’s aimed at achieving particular outcomes. And so, it is very different in that way than “a means” because a method is pregnant with philosophical assumptions and desired goals. So, for example in EFT, Emotionally Focused Therapy, there’s a technique called “Validation”, and it’s basically a method of affirming the emotional experience of the individual and affirming how the emotional experiences is good and adaptive, and drawing out its utility, and trying to connect it to what it’s allegedly saying about the underlying emotional needs of the person, or the fracture and the emotional bond of the couple. Well, if you think about that, you could take the method of validation and try to redeem it and draw some sort of comparison to a word of encouragement. And we might say that, well, offering a word of encouragement appears analogous to validation. But actually, it’s not the same at all because validation is a particular activity within the system of EFT that is built on specific assumptions and reaching for very specific goals.

So, when you see it with this clarity, in my estimation, a biblical counselor cannot redeem EFT validation because to do so we can’t bring the underlying philosophical assumptions. We know better than that. We’re not aiming at the same goals. So, whatever we’re trying to do, we’re not doing the same thing that the EFT is trying to do. And so, in that way, I would say that the methodological well of other systems is poisoned in so much that we just simply can’t draw usable water from them. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and I think that’s critically stated, and it’s a critical point right, as we consider these things. Take validation as you brought up. We’re not going to deny a person’s experience, what they experienced was what they experience, how they feel is how they feel, but to validate then certain passions and desires in our system, the way we understand a person, and how these emotions come, or how we experience and see life, for example, to validate those passions and desires that led to these things. Well, that becomes, you are participating in their wickedness, you are encouraging what is poisoning the well in their heart, and that becomes a problem. Can we empathize or sympathize with where they’re at, the consequence that they’re facing, and the circumstances that they’re under? Of course, and we absolutely should. But should we distinguish then, in what Dr. Adams would call sympathetic disagreement where we would disagree with some of the parts underlying, we’re not going to validate those things. So, that’s one critical way here.

Marshall, the reason we bring this up is because you may say well, why are we even having this discussion? does this really happen? do people really do this? I mean, yes, this happens everywhere all over the place. Give a couple of examples of not over EFT, but some of the ideas that we’ve seen, you know, people in more popular-level books, and I’ll mention a couple that I think this happens in. I don’t think these are bad actors or bad players, I don’t dislike these people at all, but the way in which they write in the goals that they’re trying to accomplish really sound more like some of the assumptions of what philosophically is building EFT, books like “The Five Love Languages,” or “His Needs, Her Needs,” or “Love and Respect” for example. Talk, just for a second about how we see these types of philosophical assumptions really arrive or flourish in some of these popular Christian books. 

Marshall Adkins: Yeah, it’s good. I think it comes down to where an author’s starting point is. So, for example, you know, I think it’s very helpful, what you just said about we’re not denying that someone’s had a particular experience and we want to embody the compassion of Christ to hurting people. And if we start with the Scriptures as our starting point, and we work out from there, then we’re not going to lack methodology or techniques to meet people in their suffering or meet people in their sin with the grace, compassion, and the resources of Scripture and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But if we start with a theory, a philosophical assumption that is not derived from Scripture, then we’re going to then have methods and techniques that are just a bit sideways, that aren’t exactly aimed at what the Bible was aiming at.

You mentioned a couple of books, you know, when you think about “The Five Love Languages,” or “His Needs, Her Needs,” or “Love and Respect.” And again, we’re not trying to make any sort of sweeping statement about the authors, but what my concerns are with that sort of thing is that we see in popular level literature books that are starting at the wrong place and they’re taking these ideas such as from Attachment Theory or Emotionally Focused Therapy, and they’re trying to mine from them what they think is “insightful” or “credible” or “empirically proven.” You know, all those in quotation marks, and they’re trying to then incorporate that into a biblical way of understanding human relationships and how to solve marital problems. And the problem with that is that, then you end up getting as we often say, in biblical counseling, you get man wrong, man’s problem wrong, and man’s solution wrong. And you’re aiming at the sort of change that the Bible doesn’t aim at, and you’re trying to help people with their marriage troubles in a way that may bring relief from temporal, difficult circumstances, but actually won’t bring about the sort of help and hope that can only be provided through the Word applied in the power of the Spirit. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and having the goals that Christ clearly established. Even as you’re talking Marshall, I’m thinking about Jesus’s encounters with people, right, where He’ll often ask, “What do you want me to do for you?” He’s asking a methodological question. It’s not that the means is unimportant. He is saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” But then he always leaves them in a means that’s consistent with who he is, and the plan of redemption. “Your faith has made you well.” “He’s the way the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him.” He’s going to do methodologically what’s necessary, and always through a means that’s consistent with who He is and God’s plan of redeeming and repairing people. I think of the discussion that he had with the rich young ruler. The rich young ruler was looking to, you know, “How do I gain eternal life?” And Jesus gets to the point where not just any methodology would do. He’s telling him the truth at the base level. There is a means, by which this happens, and the Bible says, he walked away sad, and Jesus didn’t chase after him. I think that’s one of the most profound parts of our interactions that Jesus had with someone that’s really difficult to swallow sometimes. And Jesus was just faithful, consistent to the message of God, and we have to be compassionate in that, Jesus certainly was. I think this is an important distinction here.

Now, that always leads us to this question because then people will say, “Okay well, if you’re denying this, then certainly you must deny the common grace of God, right? Or “Are you denying the general revelation that God has given, or is that what you’re denying, right?” That’s sort of how the discussion goes. So how do we respond to arguments that “effective methods” and “effective techniques” are a part of God’s common grace and that we should redeem those. 

Marshall Adkins: Yeah, that argument is certainly being made, and on the one hand, that sort of argument is based again in a pragmatism that misses the goals of biblical change. So, when you think about what is an effective method, and even talking about some of the books and the authors that, you know, we had just mentioned. It’s not that we’re trying to pick on those guys, but I would suggest that their understanding and definition of effective is different than mine. And I would offer that theirs align with presuppositions that are not biblical because if the goal is biblical change, then where else other than the Bible can we define what that change looks like? And so, on the one hand, I would say that that argument is built upon a pragmatism that misunderstands what we even could define as effective. On the other hand, I think it misunderstands the nature of common grace, and I’m thankful that at least we’ve for the most part moved on from using general revelation in a category that is just a miscategorization of what general revelation is. But I don’t think we’re doing any better by moving to the category of common grace.

Of course, common grace is a wonderful thing. It’s God’s merciful benevolence toward all people. It’s seen abundantly in the delay of His wrath and His undeserved kindness toward those who are far from Him. So, it’s a wonderful, you know, common grace gift from God. But shifting the category from general revelation to common grace in order to establish a line of reasoning to adopt methodologies that are inconsistent with the presuppositions of the Bible in order to achieve so-called effective ends, I think is deeply misguided.

I think if you see on the one hand that the goal of change is biblically defined as sanctification, how in the world can the methodologies of a system like EFT produce that apart from the Spirit of God, apart from the Gospel of Jesus Christ? And then, if those techniques are necessary and even helpful toward the end of sanctification, then what does that say if God has not provided those until the 1980s through Susan Johnson? So, it seems that, the sort of help that God offers to people that are in marriage troubles clearly comes from His Word, from His Spirit, through the gospel of His Son. 

Dale Johnson: Well said, brother, and listen, I’m really excited about the work that you’re doing as a PhD student, but more so as a minister of the Gospel, the things that you’re doing there in Bardstown, discipling and committed to your people there and helping them to think. You’re being a shepherd to guard against these philosophical ideas, I really appreciate that, and I appreciate your deep work here. You’ve done some good work, and you’re going to continue to do some good work, and I look forward to what’s produced. So, thanks, brother.

Helpful Resources

Mental Health Awareness Month Podcast Series

A Biblical Assessment of Emotionally Focused Therapy