No “digging up the past” allowed: a response to nouthetic (“Biblical”) counseling

Sometimes I talk with people who want healing and help from the Lord but are hesitant to “dig up the past” or who have counselors who don’t want them to “dig up the past.” For a while now, maybe over a year, I’ve been mulling over that pejorative expression.

“Digging up the past” to me conjures a picture of going to a graveyard to dig up the bones or even the rotting corpse of something that needed to be left underground to decompose the way it’s supposed to. A perverted and possibly very harmful activity.

Jerry Cruncher from “A Tale of Two Cities” dug up corpses to earn some extra cash. This is the way I envision “digging up the past.”

This was my own mindset for many years. Years ago when someone who was struggling wanted me to mentor her, I remember thinking, “We won’t go back to childhood stuff. That’s just psychobabble.”

Jay Adams, founder of nouthetic counseling, now known as “Biblical counseling,” would agree. In a blog post in which he blames Freud with introducing the concept of “digging up the past” in order to find the source of people’s problems, Adams asserts that it isn’t Biblical or even possible to do so. He says it is “unnecessary, unproductive, and harmful.” (Like digging up a decomposed body.)

The only two times a nouthetic (“Biblical”) counselor should “deal with” the past, Adams says, is when the past is in the present. I would agree, but the way Adams sees it and the way I now perceive it are different. He says the past has become the present when . . .

(1) the counselee needs to repent of a sin he committed in the past, or

(2) if something happened to the counselee in the past, such as abuse, that he didn’t leave in the past so that it is now governing his present. Then the nouthetic (“Biblical”) counselor needs to help him put it back in the past where it belongs. Nouthetic (“Biblical”) counselors, he says, “encourage counselees to look to the past only to remember God’s goodness to them in past times.”

Only to repent of sin or to be rebuked for not “leaving” it in the past. What a handy tool this can be for abusers. Their victims, according to nouthetic (“Biblical”) counseling, cannot bring up the past. If they do, they are in the wrong.

Don’t dig up the past, they say, when it comes to a promise someone has made to change. Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church and member of the Gospel Coalition, advised married couples never to “dig up the past” to each other (link). Effectively this will mean that husbands and wives should never mention the past to each other. In the lives of many people who have spoken with me, this teaching has proven more than problematic, as an abusive or adulterous spouse begins to repeat old patterns, but the victimized one is not allowed to show that this behavior indicates a lack of repentance from the past abuses/adulteries. As one counselor told a friend, “He may have abused you in the past, but we need to see how you can move on from here.” The abused wife might say, “But this is just like the pattern you promised me you would never repeat again . . . “ and the husband can say, “There you go, digging up the past again.”

Don’t dig up the past, they say, when it comes to addressing extreme harm someone has done. I know from personal experience talking with sexual abuse survivors who have been counseled with nouthetic counseling, especially those from the fundamentalist world of Bob Jones University, that the way nouthetic counselors help their counselees leave the past behind and put the past in the past is to

(1) urge them to forgive and

(2) tell them to put the past in the past, rebuking them for continuing to have flashbacks and nightmares, telling them that these rememberings mean they haven’t forgiven. (After all, forgive and forget.) Since the Bible doesn’t mention flashbacks and nightmares in regard to memories, they apparently reason, neither should they in counseling.

But as brain science has progressed over the course of decades, books like The Body Keeps the Score and What Have We Done? have detailed the effects of trauma and “moral injury” on the souls and spirits of those who have endured unspeakable horrors.

Should we ignore these effects simply because the Bible doesn’t mention “flashbacks” or “dissociation” or other terms that have come into the language by way of study of the brain and mind?

I talk with many people who struggle with their concept of God, often because their abuser was their father or their pastor or another authority figure who should have protected them. Often they believe they have forgiven, but they still struggle. Why? Is it simply because they need to memorize the Scripture and make themselves believe it, the way nouthetic counselors would teach?

In reply to someone who recently expressed hesitation at “digging up” old memories of trauma, I suggested that we see it a different way. Rather than picturing the body in the graveyard (she admitted that was how she thought of it), I asked her to think of it as taking care of an old wound that had scabbed over but was infected underneath.  There is some “digging” that has to be done, but it’s to get out the infection. In the case of traumatic memories, it’s to find the lies that are attached to the trauma—lies about God, self, and the world—and by the power of the Holy Spirit replace them with His truth.

So maybe we can put aside the expression “digging up the past,” and instead use a non-pejorative expression like “dealing with” the past. But unlike what Jay Adams laid out, when you’re struggling with the past, you  won’t look only for sin or lack of forgiveness in your life.

You can also, first of all,  legitimately see a pattern in the life of someone who is harming you or others . . . and you shouldn’t feel guilty for noting it. (Regarding “love keeps no record of wrongs,” see this post.)

And you can also understand the legitimate need for finding the embedded lies from past trauma and replacing them with the sound truth of God, gently, in the power of His Spirit.

We want to look to the past to remember God’s goodness to us, for sure. But that is by far not the only reason to look to the past.

Dealing with the past is important, even crucial, in the life of probably every single person who walks the earth. Finding healing from a shattered heart and truly learning the truth about God, self, and the world, as it pertains to our life experiences—which have all happened in the past—is something everyone needs.

Every counselor who wants to counsel with the full body of Scripture will be deeply familiar with the promise of our Lord Jesus in Luke 4 when He quoted from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted and to announce that captives shall be released and the blind shall see, that the downtrodden shall be freed from their oppressors, and that God is ready to give blessings to all who come to him.

You can freely come to Jesus Christ and open up your past to Him. He is about far more than getting you to repent of sin and forgive. He wants to heal. He wants to gently give you truth. And He wants to set things right.

That’s good news.

 

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BRENDA LINN
Guest
BRENDA LINN

Excellent and thorough, Rebecca Davis. Thank you and God bless you!

Rachel Nichols
Guest

An older friend talked me into watching Loving the Bad Man with her. Ugh!

I love my friend by HATE the film. I haven’t even been raped but I would advise against any recent rape victims watching it. It would traumatize them afresh.

A friend who has been almost raped twice says the very premise makes her sick.

Need to write a thoughtful review of the movie that points out its theological flaws without foaming at the mouth.

Rachel Nichols
Guest

My previous comment came out of left field, but the concept of digging up the past and how churches tell women to be smiley, sweet little girls who “forgive” or don’t get upset at injuries done us. I’ve been dealing with myths of forgiveness and that film I named contains plenty.

TS00
Guest
TS00

This is very potent and marvelous good news. Spiritual abuse nearly always entails a distortion of God’s love for us, and his desire to restore us to wholeness. Contrary to what is so often portrayed by authoritarian churches, we are not fearful sinners dreading our fate in the hands of an angry God. I can think of no more destructive imagery.

Thank you for showing us, repeatedly, that the ministry of Jesus was far different than the ministry of Pharisees, then and now. The Pharisees are all about sin. That’s their game, forgiving sin, so that is what they emphasize. Jesus made the entire priesthood and all who peddled ‘forgiveness’ nonessential. He dealt with sin, once for all, so that we might come to God for help with all the ‘other stuff’. That is not to say, as the abuser does, that forgiveness allows one to continue in their sin with no fear of reprisal. We are told to hate our sin, to cast it away and to live in an entirely new way; one that is not centered on self seeking, but on loving others.

Biblical counselors perpetuate the same lies that spiritual abusers practice, keeping people under law rather than setting them on the true path to healing and health. Alcohol abuse or sexual abuse cannot be ‘forgiven away’; all abusive behavior must be confronted and properly dealt with. It is true that a wife can be sympathetic toward the road that led her spouse into alcohol abuse – but this does not require her to remain a victim along with the spouse.

Like alcohol abuse, most abuse stems from a root of unmet needs, which the person chooses to meet in unhealthy, destructive ways. No person is required to remain a victim, to remain in bondage to another who makes unhealthy choices. The Church recites ‘God hates divorce’, as if God winks at abuse and oppression in pursuit of a false image of functional marriage. This is not true.

And this is good news to all who have been falsely bound to abuse by distorted theology. God is not simply concerned with following some formula for dealing with sin. You cannot simply say the magic words, ‘I’m sorry’ and all is good. We often teach our children that simplistic lie. Nice words do not negate the real harm of abusive behavior. True repentance is evidenced by a real change of heart and behavior, and often requires a lengthy trial to demonstrate.

Biblical counseling, and much of Christian theology, seeks to patch up serious wounds with a kiss and a Band-Aid. But God is in the business of dealing properly with real harm; with opening up and cleansing infected wounds, with resetting broken bones so that they grow straight and with removing the toxic substances that have been damaging us and replacing them with healthy alternatives. There are no magic pills that cure disease, and there are no magic words that heal oppression. God’s healing love can apply the initial balm that our hurting souls need, but real healing requires a change of lifestyle.

I can’t tell you how much I love these beautiful words you have given: ‘He is about far more than getting you to repent of sin and forgive. He wants to heal. He wants to gently give you truth. And He wants to set things right.’

Marie Carnine
Guest
Marie Carnine

Very well explained! Excellent! You might find researching CPT – Cognitive Processing Therap,y in light of what you wrote, to be of interest. I have seen God show up in secular settings through this and seen captives set free to be able to heal and to forgive, and to hope again, through tearing down of strongholds (false beliefs) through this therapy method. It was in no way anti-Biblical and in fact, opened hearts to the God they had rejected due to the hurt experienced through abuse.

BreatheAgain
Guest

I appreciate this post so much. I have had to erect some boundaries in my marriage, which have been in place for a few years now. I had been struggling off and on lately with some guilty feelings over keeping my distance. But then I have to look at the fact that, as there has been no repentance, admission of any guilt and certainly no apology (or even recognition that the abuse took place!) I really don’t have any choice but to maintain the boundaries I have set. If the other party is in denial what else can I do. I have told him as much. And yes I have been accused of being unforgiving. When this happens I quickly remind him that forgiveness does not equal restoration of relationship. That takes two. The ball is in his court and he is letting it sit there. So I need to not allow guilt or even sadness trick me into letting down my safe boundaries. Reading this blog helps me keep my head on straight, so thank you, Rebecca.

Kayla
Guest
Kayla

Thank you for this well-written blog post. This idea of not “digging up the past,” and really, most if not all of nouthetic counseling, is so pro-abuser and anti-abused, that it makes hard not to believe that it was created specifically for the purpose of brainwashing and further abusing the abused so that those doing the abuse can get away with it.

Christian Woman
Guest
Christian Woman

I must disagree with TS00 in the part where TS00 claims “most abuse stems from a root of unmet needs”. I don’t find that to be true. Most abusers I’ve met have lives of privilege, power, and everyone caters to them. They live really, really good lives in terms of ease, getting their way, never having anyone oppose them on anything, being able to beat, rape, abuse, and torture their target at will without fear of reprisal because the abuser has so thoroughly terrorized the victim, there’s no way the victim is going to be saying something anytime soon, let alone calling the police and turning them in.

I really love the untwisting of this accusation, Rebecca. Getting out the infection is needed. So what if the abuser paints over the fresh wound with NuSkin to instantly claim it’s scabbed over and all better?

Who is this Jay Adams guy? Sounds like yet another person churning out ‘c’hristian living books, handing out directives and causing even more suffering for victims. His books and directives need to be burned.

Abuse is a mentality. Abuse is about control. Abuse is about subjugating, dominating, and humiliating the target. Abuse is about destruction and evildoing by the abuser. Abuse is the devil’s playground. Abusers are like slave masters of the south. Abusers even treat animals better than their targets when it serves them to do so (animal abuse brings about criminal charges much more rapidly and harshly than wife abuse) and what better way to re-establish the supposed worthlessness of a target than to care for animals more than the abuser cares for the wife…

Again, who is this Jay-guy? Why is anyone listening to him? TRIGGER WARNING:

Maybe Jay and all his followers who admonish targets for daring to “dig up the past” need to be attacked, bent over, and violated a few times in most savage of ways and then told how they’re being crybabies and wimps for crying and if they don’t instantly ‘forget and forgive’ they’ll be cast off as ‘bitter, unforgiving, abusive, unloving’.

All the ladies of this world will do well to view with suspicion any male’s book, directive, etc. because none of those males have ever lived as a woman and if they did, they wouldn’t be writing such drivel and issuing such directives (actually, being socialized all their lives they’d likely still be super resistant and dense, but at least they might have a chance at seeing what nonsense they churn out and what serious HARMS such cause victims).

NG
Guest
NG

As someone who has at several times been through various counceling / prayer ministry (thankfully, the Christian counceling was nothing like this so called ‘nouthetic’ type..), and has in fact done lots of digging, prayer, soul searching and warfare (about soul tiers, destructive family patterns etc…), I actually hear the opposite.
It is very hurtful when you are hurt again and again by similar type pf people and situations, and then if you express your grief, you’re told ‘oh, you just haven’t dealt with your past’. What?! As if dealing with the past pain somehow would make you immune for any future pain! It is adding insult to injury: again, the vicimt is made to look like the source of the problem, someone who hasn’t properly ‘dealt with’ her life, is incompetent to heal and thus deserves to be punished by abusers.
(So what is the magic formula – how many more digging sessions, or fruitless therapy sessions, until God can look upon you favorably?!)

The answer to that, in my view, is. No, I have dealt with past, and have forgiven my abusers. The problem is – abusers haven’t dealt with it, they have not repented and still continue the same behavior. That is the issue, not the abuse target not having dealt with it. In fact, abuse victim often is the one facing it too much: usually every day, living with the consquences more or less. Forgiveness, yes, but that does not automatically remove the pain at the instant – sometimes it would require also love and compassion from others, instead of berating and judging.

I see so much charlatanism in the name of counceling and inner healing inistry, which often just gives abusive people a way to excert their will over otjers, in the name of -ministry’… Real ministry is very rare, I have come to believe, and that has taught me to be my own ‘prayer minister’, aka praying for myself with the comapssion I would love o receive from others. I hope to show that compassion to other people as well, instead of heaping more condemnation on them.

NG
Guest
NG

In conclusion, often ‘ministry’ for the abused can just be another form of legalism, demands for the victim to go through ‘one more course’, ‘one more therapy session’, ‘pray this prayer out loud’ .. ‘join this group’ (of course, in “our church”) .. until God may seem you sincere enough… And sadly, in my country many people are in fact prisoners to this, seeing themselves always as ‘needing to learn, but never coming to the knowledge of the truth’..

NG
Guest
NG

The advice given to me in my Christian life has included both ‘You need to leave the past in the past, and go forwad’ (something I believe was really wise and true councel at that time – I am someone who does tend to dwell in and brood over the past events…) and, also, in recent years during those crises, ‘You haven’t properly dealt with the past’..(argggh). (Properly=according to whatever those people considered to be sufficient enough…)
I believe that it is indeed a good advice to go forward, and focus onto the future that God has for us, without forgetting the lessons we have learned in the past – about people, human nature, various situations, enemy tactics – most importantly, about God’s faithfulness. Tru healing and remembering do not exclude one another, it is just tow sides of the coin.

Sara
Guest
Sara

Thank-you for choosing to stand up for abused women in the church. “The abused wife might say, “But this is just like the pattern you promised me you would never repeat again . . . “ and the husband can say, “There you go, digging up the past again.” This insanity nearly drove me insane.

BreatheAgain
Guest

Exactly, Sara! I always say I don’t need to dig up anything, as the behavior is still ongoing!

Christian Woman
Guest
Christian Woman

Dear Rebecca and everyone else subjected to reading my awful prior comment — I apologize. I was in a bad place when I spewed out that comment and I can hardly believe I wrote it. Evidently, I did.

I just wonder about the chasm that is between those abused women who are actually subjected to all sorts of evils and those who write books, particularly men like Jay who apparently have never been abused or violated or subjugated or beaten. How many women are in counseling because of abuse and what the abusers have done to them?

And the featured bad advice from Jay Adams really set me off. It is so awful. So pro-abuser as what abuser doesn’t hurl the accusation at his victim that she is “digging up the past” if she ever mentions a single negative thing he did to her in hoping to communicate how painful, hurtful, and damaging it is that he is doing to her.

No, I don’t wish violence on Jay Adams. I just wish they knew how bad things are for abused women and hopefully that knowledge would keep them from ever writing such bad advice and creating such bad, harmful counseling viewpoints. Abused women are made to feel bad enough, guilt enough, and horrible enough, the last thing they need is more requirements and hoops and rules and admonishments from Jay Adams and counselors trained in his style.

Blessings to you Rebecca and fellow readers. 🙂

Carolyn Wilkes
Guest
Carolyn Wilkes

…excellent insights…
Can you explain why you chose to “call out” Bob Jones University–a sort of public rebuke–rather than just delineate Truth?
Thank you for responding as this question is sincere and not meant to be antagonistic…

Restored
Guest
Restored

Well written and documented. H and I recently together after 2 yrs. separation. Married 34 yrs.
Church helped to protect from neglect/abounded / verbal abuse in marriage but unable to reach H or healing for me. A Christian counselor who understood wrong thinking stemmed from both our childhoods was especially able to reach H. She never used the word sin. Jesus revealed it to H when he understood how his wrong thinking from his own abusive childhood drove his beliefs and harden heart. Once he visited the past many times with counselor and saw how his defensiveness caused his volitle reactions to me and others , he repented (Holy Spirit experience). The wrong assumptions that he made trying to protect himself from past trama repeating itself caused wrong sinful behavior toward me. Yes he was immature in emotions and reacting to them.
He couldn’t see it as sin because to him he was protecting himself. Also didn’t feel Gods love as he does now. Therefore church counseling just referring to his sin and telling him to repent, give it to Jesus,etc wasn’t reaching the deepest pain of his soul . Also always questioning his salvation.
We of course had bad habits of doing conflict which professional Christian counselor helped us with once we both saw our own issues with conflict. Counselor never would say which if us was “more the problem”. This kept blame out of picture.

NG
Guest
NG

Dear Restored: What a wonderful testimony. Congratulations on your miracle! I salute you for your tenacity as well, I wouldn’t have been able to take prolonged cold treatment and neglect from a spouse. It is relatively easy to recognize that certain behavioral patterns come from the childhood, but for the person to adress and change them, it takes motivation and willingness, which not all have – it is easier just to go on and continue to hurt others as a form of defence.

There are so many men (of course women too, but it seems to be more common with men) who react to their abusive childhood with cold anger as a primary defence mechanism. Having seen that in my certain family members, and having lived through that kind of behavior, I have told the Lord that I am not willing to marry someone who needs long term counceling in order to treat me with kindness and decency. Many women are stuck living with men (often professing Christian) who do not want to see their ways hurt others, but just blame it on their wife.. (non-submission etc..) and wouldn’t even agree to any counceling. (unless it is to tell her she needs to be more supportive and submissive)
No one can be forced to change, and it us not useful unless it comes from the heart.

Praying that the Lord would show me as well every time I am to react wrongly to something as a defence and how I can delete it and replace it with His way. How to be kind, loving and genuine. Sadly, it still leaves me vulnerable to someone else’s choices, they can still decide to mistreat and reject me. It would be much easier just to stay isolated and shut off from people altogether and never risk any rejection, but obviously that is not the life God has called us to live..

cindy burrell
Guest

This was very interesting and so horrifying. Quite simply, I don’t think that my Lord and Savior is disappointed with me when I come to Him with my past wounds and seek His grace and healing. If He loves and accepts me right where I am in the midst of my mess, why shouldn’t my brothers and sisters in the Lord? How has the body of Christ moved so far from the heart of God – straining out gnats and swallowing camels?

Lucy
Guest
Lucy

Thank you for this
I used to be a church leader and medical dr
After I was widowed i had a 3 year emotionally and spiritually abusive marriage
My x is a gifted , charismatic christian leader
I forgave and forget etc but didn’t feel safe and by then had developed severe physical health issues probably trauma related
After no help or diagnosis from uk nhs services I became distraught
The more upset I was the more people thought I needed deliverance
I am now divorced but still respect my x
If his behaviour was ‘safe’ I would be tempted to return
However I am now having EMDR and realising the trauma I experienced has had major impact on my nervous system I’m struggling physically to live alone
I’m hoping that with prayer and with EMDR I can allow my body to recover
The pressure I and otgers have put on me to stay in a abusive relationship has added to the trauma
Churches and medical services are not well equipped here to help but I’m slowly realising what’s happened and very keen to find a way through for me and first others

Bunkababy
Guest
Bunkababy

I’m reading a book now called THE BOY WHO WAS RAISED AS A DOG by Bruce d. PERRY. H e studied the brain in infants and children who have 3xperienced trauma. Essentially trauma shapes our neuro transmitters and neuro pathways.

But it reminded me of a child of 3 he treated who had seen her mother murdered and had experienced stabbing at the event.

During her therapy Bruce let her lead the way in therapy, and the girl repeatedly reinacted the trauma with Bruce being the victim. Over months and 12 times of this repetitive behaviour the girl slowly was able to move past reinacting the event.

For people with past trauma, like myself you cannot revisit the trauma just once. It needs to be dug up until processing, understanding, and all emotional outlets have been exhausted.then comes acceptance and healing.

The phrase just move on or just get past it is irrelevant and does more damage.

Some injuries require multiple surgeries until the issue is fixed.