Have you been Philippians 4:8’d?

It’s actually a beautiful verse.

But sometimes it’s used as a cudgel.

After I had heard two different people refer to this Bible verse as a verb (as a cudgel that had been used against them), I knew it was time to write about it.

Here it is:

Beautiful verse, right? A wonderful reminder to set our minds on things above, the way Colossians 3:5 talks about. Because who or what could be more honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise than our King and Lord, our Savior and Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ? Through the Scriptures as we ask the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to Him and His truth, we see Him more and more clearly, and we marvel at His holy love. No matter how much we meditate on Him and His goodness, there is still more.

But sadly . . .

There are those who truly do want to walk with Jesus and love Him and know Him deeply—in fact, who are desperate to know who He is—who have been beaten over the head with Philippians 4:8.

This is because they’ve struggled with abuse in their marriages and are trying to get help. Or because they’re experiencing flashbacks and nightmares of extreme childhood abuse. If they even speak about what they’re struggling with, they’re told something along these lines:

Your life is like a tea bag. Life circumstances are like the hot water. Whatever comes out of the tea bag into the water indicates what’s in your soul.

So when people are afraid for their lives, when they’re dissociating, when they’re suffering from flashbacks and nightmares, when they’re in deep confusion from the way Scriptures have been twisted to keep them in bondage . . .

They’re told that what’s in their tea bag is sin. Sin is coming out of their tea bag and poisoning their hot water.

Here’s one, from the GRACE report on Bob Jones University, a document I studied at length when it came out in December of 2014:

A victim of childhood sexual trauma said she heard the tea bag illustration in counseling at BJU: she was told by the BJU counselor that she was sinning because she was not focusing her thoughts the way Philippians 4:8 commanded, and that the following symptoms were coming out of her because she was like a tea bag and her trauma was like the hot water:

“I couldn’t stop being angry. Being angry was a sin. . . . What was inside of me was rage, terror, nightmares that woke me up almost every night crying, blackouts, a yellow fog that muted everything, or else I was hyper alert, on edge always. I felt like the lid that was on me as a tea kettle was just a little nudge away from exploding. I thought I was going crazy. . . . I walked around seeing myself as a tea kettle with a rattling lid about to explode. . . . I would hide out in the prayer room on the third floor in the dark and ask God to kill me because I was too chicken to step out in front of a car. I didn’t have any other way to die.”

That survivor happens to be someone I know, who suffered nearly indescribable torture as a child. Here’s more from that same woman:

The Christian counselor I was required to see engrained in me and other abuse survivors that what came out of us was from the evil that was in us. (He may not have used the word “evil,” but that’s the impression I was left with.) The trial was what happened, but I was responsible for how I responded to it, and however I did respond proved what was in my heart.

He called it the tea bag illustration: the hot water of trials is applied, and your reactions are the tea showing what was in your heart.He applied that to flashbacks, nightmares, anger, and depression, using Philippians 4:8 to prove that it was my wrong thinking that was at fault. I truly believed I was evil and that the “problem was in me, not around me.” I heard this so many times that even after ten months of healthy counseling with my current pastor, I still believed it.

Philippians 4:8, instead of the blessing and encouragement it was intended to be, has been turned around as a curse.

The pressures around us (the unfavorable circumstances, the temptations, and the commands of God to love Him and our neighbor) merely draw out of our heart what is already in it. We cannot blame the hot water for the taste in the cup. . . . Similarly, we cannot shift the blame for any bitterness, anger, despair, deception, cruelty, and so forth that we display when we are under pressure. The pressures merely expose how unlike Christ we really are.

~from Changed into His Image: God’s Plan for Transforming Your Life, p 4, by Jim Berg

I’d like to point out that the tea bag analogy isn’t Biblical, which is surprising since the man who promoted it claimed to be counseling from the Bible alone. Bitterness, on the other hand, is a Biblical expression for grief, and not a sin when it is simply the display of grief. (“Peter went out and wept bitterly” after denying the Lord Jesus Christ.) Anger can be very Christlike when it is righteous anger. Despair was even expressed a good bit in the psalms. (Cruelty is always a sin, of course, but is the exception far more than the rule in the abuse survivors I’ve interacted with.)

So what can we do instead?

Some may recognize that the above use of Philippians 4:8 is a common theme of nouthetic “admonishing” counseling (which is now usually called “Biblical counseling”) started by Jay Adams, the bottom line of which is that every problem you have boils down to your own sin. It’s really so simple—you just need to keep repenting and trying to change until your problems stop.

This kind of counseling has done untold damage in the lives of the abused.

Yes, each individual will still have sins to repent of. Yes, forgiveness is still important.

But in the conservative Christian world, through people who have never even heard of Jay Adams, nouthetic “admonishing” counseling has spread like a cancer. It is being used like a cudgel against those who desperately need to be rescued.

It’s as if the Good Samaritan saw the man lying on the side of the road and asked, “What sin did you commit to get you in this situation?” or “You need to turn your thoughts away from your broken bones and start thinking about things that are pure, lovely, and commendable, and if you don’t it’s obvious that there’s sin in your heart.”

Yes, we want to help people think about things that are good, especially to turn their thoughts to our Lord Jesus Christ and His holy love and great salvation. I hope that in my blog I’m accomplishing that at least to some small degree.


But thinking about things that are good cannot mean that we refuse to consider the dark deeds of the Evil One and the people who choose to follow him.


Here’s the rest of the story from the woman above:

What finally overwrote that “tape” was the anger of my current pastor against the damaging effect of that previous counselor. In my experience of many kinds of counselors, none of them had been personally invested in my life enough to allow themselves to be angry about what had happened to me. Without that anger, I still would have believed I was the evil one because “evil” was coming out of me. Now, though, that old “tape” has  been rewritten.

Those who love the Lord Jesus Christ must learn what wicked people have done and are still doing to the innocent, yes, even in our churches. If we don’t, the innocent will continue to suffer under damaging counseling such as the “tea bag” metaphor . . . and the misuse of beautiful Scriptures such as Philippians 4:8. 

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Tamara Church
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Tamara Church

Yes!!! I spoke to a woman last week who was a ACBC counselor for 5 + years and a bible study teacher . Excellent. When I met her she was exhibiting somatic symptoms . Pain of unknown etiology etc. within a month or 2 of meeting her she had a literal psychotic break. The pastor his wife and another woman completely took over her life and attempted to control it in every way. She was single older woman and moved in this this woman and literally controlled her diet her exercise her visitors her cell phone. After a brief stay in a psychiatric ward. I was part of that group. 4 yrs ago again she tried to take her life. I went to see her because she had been on my mind. I hadn’t spoken to her in a few yrs. The pastor AFTER the ACBC abuse conference said oh BTW we didn’t do a good job of helping u. She’s still there. She sees the control. She clearly sees how the 2 NON certified counselors have been given power to step into counseling roles under the authority of the pastor. The whole group at this training center has me! One counselor and the secretary both left on bad terms. I reached out to one who refuses to comment or discuss at length. Refuses to say it was harmful . She counseled many marriages and women that I know were experiencing abuse but put burden on her. I don’t know every situation but this was their methodology. I pray others will learn of ur blog. I have been connecting with my friend and she still goes to that church. She’s on the fence to leave. I asked her how she was doing and she’s doing better but what was sad to me she said she reads the Puritans daily….. I sent her this article!

Tamara Church
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Tamara Church

Also I had gotten counseling off and on with ACBC counselors/friends/sisters in Christ. Never any boundaries never any privacy! The analogy that was used with me was a SPONGE not a tea bag! The verse Phil 4:8 bred guilt and shame! To me and my whole family in light of childhood sexual abuse. It was a disciplining problem that my husband couldn’t lead his family well. So much spiritual abuse from that situation. I had cut off counseling several times because of what I know now as experiencing decades of spiritual abuse and childhood emotional neglect and abandonment mixed with sudden loss of a parent and sibling. I was experiencing emotionally and physically symptoms of cptsd and I was given a list of to dos always submissive and receptive to doing what they asked lest I was disobeying God. One time the Pastor got involved because I was getting worse. It was more punitive just read Jay Adams book on romans 12. Overcome evil with good! I couldn’t get out of bed for three days. I have a history of suicidal ideation and hospitalization. I wrote Stuart Scott from ACBC after the conference and shared the depth of my concerns with Lin validation just a defense of their methods! And to write out a formal complaint . Nope! No one cares or listens! There have been no changes! When u allow those under ur care to leave that were in ur counseling program and u don’t r unable to discern that their problems have worsened because of the methodology Matt 18 isn’t helpful !! Hoping they truly begin one day to examine the damage and harm done that others will FIND THEIR VOICE! Love ALL that you do Rebecca to provide an outlet and to educate and help others untwist scripture that binds and entangles!!

Cindy Burrell
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Tamara, I couldn’t believe how traumatized I felt just reading what you wrote above. That poor, dear woman. My heart breaks, the tears flow. How our Lord must weep and shake His head when people who claim to represent Him burden those He loves with such legalism and shame. That woman is blessed to have you as a friend, and I pray she finds comfort and true healing in the arms of our gracious, faithful Lord.

Shawn
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Shawn

I heard the tea bag illustration a bunch. It was quite the shaming tool. I prefer Eleanor Roosevelt’s version. “A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” :).

Shawn
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Shawn

Phill. 4:8 is my favorite verse for so many reasons. I’m sickened that such a beautiful verse has been twisted.

I was excitedly explaining to a pastor that I had learned this verse was about Jesus. All the attempts to find pure and lovely and excellent in man would fail because we were meant to dwell on God’s Glory not the works of man. He took my favorite verse and twisted it. He told me that once I learn to see Jesus in all those ways that I should see his buddy in the same church institution (the one that had lied and caused us harm) as all those things too. I was too stunnned to respond.

That institution has tried to ruin so many things I love- even my favorite verse but God continues to redeem each one of those things. I think of this verse as a protector and a refuge. It’s a place I can run to when evil happens to me or others. It brings renewed life and hope to dark places. It’s the healing oil of Psalm 23 for me and the armor I put on to help fight for others.

Thanks, Rebecca, for being part of God’s redeeming love by sharing your thoughts.

Dawn
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Dawn

I guess the counselors would also say then that the psalms are full of sinful attitudes as well, as the psalmist pours out his heart to God. Naomi must have been sinning too, and Job and the book of Lamentations,, etc, because they weren’t thinking positive thoughts! Oh dear, no where to turn, it seems we can’t even turn to God to pour out our anguish. These “biblical” counselors have actually turned us away from the very scriptures that were meant to heal us.

In Ezekiel 34:4-6, God speaks out against these types of false shepherds, who instead of binding up our wounds, tie us up with false teaching that truly scatters us and leaves us hopeless. Everything is my own fault, and my reactions are sinful, and somehow that leaves me unacceptable to God until I fix myself, which I can’t do on my own, but they say I must.

This then becomes a legalistic working out of my own salvation, a works based religion, like every other religion out there in the world. And if we don’t shape up in x amount of time, (6 weeks) then we are abandoned(shape up or ship out). So then where does the gospel fit in this counsel? It doesn’t. But God goes on to say in Ezekiel 34:11-16 that he will search for us and rescue us and tend us and feed us, bind up the injured, and strengthen us and we can lie down in peace. Thank you, Lord.

Jane
Guest

I so LOVE that this precious woman’s pastor got angry on her behalf!!! … and that his righteous anger “overwrote her tape.” If we don’t get angry when bad things happen to innocent people, we lose the image of God we were born to bear! I wrote the following a few years ago after being ordered to “forgive!”

“You must forgive,” a Christian friend told me when I was reel¬ing from a deep emotional wound—as if I could forgive on demand. (Of course, she was right, but whose timetable was I on—hers or God’s?) People in the church who hurt may be viewed as unspiritual. They’re not supposed to talk about their negative feelings, feelings they may already feel ashamed of. After all, those who are spiritual have no reason to feel hurt or depressed—if they have enough faith, that is. But the pain we’re not allowed to have will never really heal.

Anonymous
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Anonymous

What you write is so true. I had never heard of Jay Adams but the cancerous mentality and views of nouthetic counseling do infect so very much of most churches teachings, most religious writings, most of what is said on Christian radio stations. Daily devotionals contain things like this, too. Bibles with inserted stories usually contain bad advice/examples as well.

And Phil. 4:8 is very much weaponized against abused women. The tea bag example – it shames victims all the more.

And those most hurt by it, are usually the least able to make sense of it. Reading your blog makes so much sense. It’s hard to articulate things when it’s a jumble of stuffed down feelings.

Life is so hard to navigate. It’s so difficult to sort the ever-growing weeds of evil. It’s really tremendous of you to do the work that you do. It takes such skill and intelligence to sort this stuff and then be able to clearly articulate the distortions and twisting involved. 🙂

Deb
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Deb

Thank you. I feel like I’m coming out of a thick heavy fog when I read your articles.

HealingInHim
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HealingInHim

Thank you for this post. So many scars have been inflicted by Nouthetic counseling. Had Jay Adams and Jim Berg’s resources as we homeschooled. Now, here I am snubbed by the man I married, adult children, etc and being told not to “air out any dirty laundry!” sigh …

Joy
Guest
Joy

Oh, yes!! This was a huge point used repeatedly by my pastor when I tried to tell him what was happening at home! Along with not having “black spot mentality” and how I should put water on the fire, not petrol/gas and how I needed to “forgive and forget” as many times as was needed and that love overlooks a multitude of sin and I’m a sinner too and, of course, God wants me to submit to my abuser as if it were God Himself, then trust God with the results. Thank you for writing this!

Joy
Guest
Joy

This was a huge point used repeatedly by my pastor over the years when I tried to tell him what was happening at home! Along with not having “black spot mentality” and how I should put water on the fire, not petrol/gas and how I needed to “forgive and forget” as many times as was needed and that love overlooks a multitude of sin and I’m a sinner too and, of course, God wants me to submit to my abuser as if it were God Himself, then trust God with the results.

This was the teaching of Bill Gothard also. If you were abused or assaulted, he taught that before you went to the abuser in Matt 18 fashion, you FIRST had to search your own heart as to what you’d done to encourage this crime and humble yourself before God for something like 2-4 weeks. Then, if you came up guiltless, you were to go to the pastor to see if he saw any sin in you. If there was any, you had to go confess this to the abuser and ask his forgiveness! If none were found, the pastor took it to the church and the church had to pray for a month (if I remember the time length correctly) for their sin or how they had, in some way, failed the abuser, again, asking forgiveness if so. THEN the Matt 18 process was allowed to begin! So absurd, yet thousands upon thousands of people weekly attended Gothard’s seminars and bought his materials and schooled their children with his philosophy.

So much twisting of the Bible! Thank you for writing this!

Jane
Guest

Joy, I was confused for a long time regarding these issues. I can’t really blame my church so much as my own misunderstanding of the scriptures… and not taking the time to study the Bible as a whole… not just a few verses lifted.

Then someone I loved and trusted emotionally raped me (for lack of a better word to describe it, and I mean no disrespect to those who have been sexually assaulted). My misunderstandings of God’s directives had a head-on collision with my heart! (Did God really expect me to be a ‘loving’ doormat, or was I made for more?).

Authors that really helped me included Paul Caughlin and Lewis Smedes. I love a quote from Caughlins’ book, “No more Christian Nice Guy” that sums it up for me: “If you’re going to tolerate what God hates, you’d better have a very good reason!” In others words, we don’t please God when we allow ongoing cruelty and injustice, allow ourselves to be perpetually mistreated!

NGal
Guest
NGal

This is crazy, but i am not surprised! There is a similar dynamics going on in the secular world as well… How the abused needs to fix themselves in order to avoid such situations in the future etc…
It is truly mad.

Stephanie
Guest
Stephanie

I’ve had Phil. 4:8 used to shame and silence me from protesting wrong and abuse. A form of gaslighting and spiritual denial. Because what was meant when that verse was pushed was not what was actually true, but whatever they wanted to be true. Not what was actually honorable, but whatever they said is honorable. Not what is truly just, but what they say is just (which meant “forgiving” (ie overlooking) their sin). Not what is actually pure, but what they pretend is pure. Not what is truly lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, but that which reflects their own warped version of those things.

Once I began to know God’s true heart and character, and now that I’ve seen the abusers and enablers for who they really are, I know that nothing is as they defined it and can read that list as a true and beautiful reflection of who He is.

I sobbed through that GRACE report when I read it years ago. Here were the same “godly” attitudes and teachings that had so harmed me being rightfully identified: abuse. Please tell your friend I so admire her strength and courage and am terribly sorry for what was done to her.

Thank you, Rebecca, for once again shining a light into the darkness. Between your posts and the comments, I find such help and encouragement here.

Quietrunner
Guest
Quietrunner

Thanks for “ re-tooling” that one on paper so it can be revisited as necessary