A few other thoughts have been rattling around in my head related to my previous post on sex offenders in the church. It touches on several other topics related to counseling in these kinds of difficult situations.
And it has to do with the potency of naming.
We know that naming is powerful because in the beginning God created the world through His Word, naming the world as He spoke it, and after making man in His own image, He invested him with something of the same glory. And whatever he called each animal, that was its name. And when his wife was brought to him, he named her Woman with a doxology and later Eve, professing repentant faith that she would be the Mother of all the living.
Names serve as Faith-Markers: Abraham will be the Father of Roaring Nations, when he is yet a childless old man; Jacob will be a wrestler, striving with God and man, and he will prevail. Ultimately, Mary bears a son and names Him Jesus because He will save His people from their sins. And He was the Word that was with God; the word that was God. And then in a restoration of that original glory, the Church has been entrusted with the Word of the Gospel, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins and the reign of King Jesus because of His death and resurrection. Every Christian has been called to take every thought captive to the Lordship of Christ, naming all things in their right relationships to their Maker and Lord.
But of course the challenge is sin. The Serpent showed up with lies because He is the Father of Lies, and he began suggesting other names, other words, questioning the word of God. And ever since the Fall, naming has carried this peril. Our tongues are capable of life and death, bringing healing and rottenness to bones. Tongues are flames of fire, capable of setting worlds ablaze with destruction or filled with the fire of the Spirit, men courageously proclaim the gospel and set worlds ablaze with new life.
But this is precisely why Christians must be people of the Word and people of words. We worship the Word made flesh, the Word that dwelt among us and saved us. We cannot help but speak with words of thanksgiving and praise and testimony to God’s goodness. And when we are confronted with the lies of the Enemy, we must tell the truth. This is what confession is: telling the truth about sin, agreeing with God’s word, and seeking forgiveness and cleansing.
And yet, I don’t know that we are skeptical enough of the words given to us to describe sex offenders and pedophiles, abusive husbands, sociopaths, and so on. Now on the one hand, we live in the same world as unbelievers and God grants common grace that allows many of the spiritually dead to nevertheless observe and articulate true things about the world. In other words, I don’t have any problem hunting for gems in the landfill of modern psychology and secular counseling. At the same time, this hunting must be done with heaps of skepticism, remembering where we are in the universe, and Christians need to be particularly careful when it comes to naming.
So for example, I mentioned in my previous post on sex offenders in the church that I suspected our culture was not in a good place to evaluate what God thinks about the spectrum of crimes committed against children. What does God think about the differences in nature and degree between a fifteen year old girl encouraged by her parents into a horribly foolish relationship with a nineteen year old man and a young child preyed upon by a creepy old uncle? Is there a difference? Does the label “sex offender” carry any nuances that understand that difference? Or if we determine that a husband is being manipulative and harsh towards his wife and his mouth is full of lies and hypocrisy, his “conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:2), is it helpful to label this man a “sociopath?” He is certainly being incredibly antisocial; he certainly has no conscience. But if you think about it for about two seconds, by our modern standards the Apostle Paul was a manipulating sociopath before he met Jesus. He was cool and calculating and conniving; he was a liar and he believed his own lies; he oversaw the abusive treatment of men and women, including the murder of Stephen. And he believed that what he was doing was morally upright, that it pleased God. And yet, he was completely wrong.
There are several things here: If labels are descriptions of patterns of behavior, then that may be helpful for those trying to discern the patterns of behavior, for those dedicated to helping people break those patterns. But what often happens is that the labels are essentially used as prisons to trap sinners inside. This happens with perpetrators; this happens with victims. This is your diagnosis; this is your disease, your disorder, and now this is who you are. We have defined you, you pervert, you predator, you sociopathic manipulator, you victim, you survivor. But whatever is going on chemically, whatever is going on psychologically (and to be clear, I’m fine with admitting there may be much going on), what we are told clearly and explicitly in Scripture is that what we’re dealing with is a crippling disease called sin. It’s as old as dirt, and it’s 100% fatal. There are no survivors. And in this court of justice, everyone is a perpetrator and everyone is a victim. And Jesus pressed this home by messing with our labels: have you hated your brother in your heart? You’re a homicidal maniac. Have you lusted after a woman who was not your wife? You are an adulterer, a sex offender, a rapist, a pedophile, a pervert. If you’ve broken the law at one point, you’ve broken it all. This condemnation of the law is calculated to stop every mouth and make the whole world guilty before God. This is how the gospel names the world and names every individual born into this world.
As I have labored to show elsewhere, I don’t believe that the Bible then proceeds to require all sinners to be afforded the same privileges. This equal opportunity condemnation of the law does not steamroll issues of trust and privilege. Just because all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God doesn’t mean that every man is an eligible suitor for one of my daughters (some day). Just because all have sinned, doesn’t mean everyone is qualified to be an elder in a church. Trust is not the same thing as forgiveness, but the two are certainly related: forgiveness is the ground on which trust may be rebuilt. Apart from true forgiveness there can be no trust. Trust is a flower that grows only slowly and may take many seasons to return after it has been trampled underfoot. But forgiveness is the right kind of soil that invites trust to return. Forgiveness is the kind of foundation that sometimes turns a sociopathic terrorist like Paul into one of the greatest pastors this world has ever known.
But too often people take up the psychological names with the assumption that the definitions given are necessarily true. And the logic is pieced together like bricks: if he is this, then he most certainly also must be that. He has lied, so he must always be lying. She has manipulated; she must always be manipulating. It says so right here on the label. There’s a certain kind of powerlessness when sin is spitting sparks uncontrollably in a marriage, in a family, in a church, and the fleshly instinct is to reach for control, for handles on the situation, and one of the most common ways we attempt this is with tidy titles. Ah, you’re doing this because you’re a pedophile. You’re acting this way because you’re a sociopath. You’re doing this because you’re one sick bastard. Again, these may be fitting generic descriptions of somebody’s sin, but they are not sufficient definitions of who these people are. The label seeks to define, seeks to contain, seeks to wrest some kind of control of the situation. But we are not in control. Only God is in control. Only God rules the atoms of the universe, the chemicals in every individual’s brain, and turns the hearts of his creatures whichever way He pleases. We pull out labels, slap them on people, and then read the ingredients off the side of the bottle. We want to know, we want to understand, we don’t like being uncertain. We don’t like the tension of the unknown: what is going on? So often we don’t know, and God calls us to trust Him in the storm.
But the gospel names sinners and condemns the whole world so that the sinners that fill this world might be forgiven and set free. On the one hand, sinners in their sin may have readily identifiable patterns of behavior, but on the other hand, people are complex creatures that can want a dozen things all at once really and truly. Every son and daughter of Adam has a borderline personality disorder. Ultimately everyone is either ruled by the Spirit of God or enslaved to their own demonic schizophrenia, but this doesn’t stop people from being inconsistent in all kinds of directions. Which is just to say once again that psychological labels are only so helpful. The problem is sin; the answer is Jesus. The problem is guilt; the answer is Jesus’ blood. The problem is our flesh; the answer is Jesus’ Spirit.
We must not confuse forgiveness and trust, and just because someone is forgiven is no reason to be foolhardy or unwise. But we need to understand deep in our bones that we have all been born with a condition that’s demented and insane. Some of us are more recovered than others but that is only by the grace of God, and everyone still feels the old ways deep inside their chest. If we want to help both those who have sinned and those who have been sinned against, we must feel the weight of this reality. And when we feel the weight of this in our own hearts, we feel the complexity of what it is to be human, of what it is to be enslaved, of what it is to wrestle and fail. This is no justification for sloppiness or relativism, and sometimes the wise word is a hard word. But counselors need the wisdom of grace, the understanding of forgiveness, overflowing with sympathy for those still floundering in the dark.
We have been named sinners and now renamed children of God. We have all been named liars and sociopaths and sex offenders, but now we are children of light. We were once adulterers and sodomites and thieves and drunkards, but we have been washed, we have been sanctified by the precious blood of Jesus.
We have been set free.
Our name is Forgiven.