In Quieting a Noisy Soul, author Jim Berg declares that the cause of the noisy soul is your sin: your unbelief, your discontent, and your guilty conscience (and as it turns out, your pride and your stubbornness). Throughout his nouthetic counseling teachings (nowadays called “Biblical counseling”), he assumes that the situation or person the counselee would have thought was causing the noisy soul is not a legitimate concern, but is instead simply the catalyst for sin in the heart, “a lust for more.”
But maybe it really is a legitimate concern
Berg makes a small and almost flippant allowance for “legitimate concerns.” In the middle of giving his admonitions about repenting of your own sins, he says, “Legitimate concerns should be turned into prayer while surrendering the results to God.”
But even with that statement, even with the “legitimate concern,” do you see what he has done? He tells you to take a passive approach, praying and surrendering, without discussing or even mentioning the option of taking action to rectify the situation causing the “noise.”
Should we pray about legitimate concerns? You betcha. Should we leave results up to God? Yes, ultimately. But as we pray, we listen to the Holy Spirit, perhaps seek advice from other wise believers, and wait on Him for His direction. We should expect Him to give clarity about the situation and directions as to if and when and how we should take action to change it or escape it. (An example would be Paul’s escape in a basket from the perceived religious leaders of his day, in Acts 9.)
Clear your corrupt and guilty conscience
Berg says, “The loudest noises in the soul are the agitations of a guilty conscience,” and “When a soul is noisy, it’s primarily because of a guilty conscience.”
So again he is saying the one with the noisy soul needs to repent, as we would expect to hear from a nouthetic counselor.
The Bible actually talks about several kinds of consciences, one of which I discussed in the blog post “Conscience” in the Bible: insight into abusers and their targets. The different types of conscience are mentioned in Acts 23:1 and 24:16; I Corinthians 8:7-10; I Timothy 1:5,19 and 3:9 and 4:1-2; 2 Timothy 1:3; Titus 1:15; I Peter 3:15, 21; Hebrews 10:22 and 13:18. What Berg calls the “guilty conscience” the Bible calls a “defiled conscience,” which is discussed in the blog post The defiled conscience: should we lovingly help or sharply rebuke?
In that post I showed Biblically that there are two ways the conscience can be defiled—by force from others (in which case the person should be lovingly helped) and by choice (in which case the person should be sharply rebuked).
The fact is that people of sensitive natures, especially if they’ve been abused and neglected as children, will feel a sense of guilt about things they’ve done wrong, but they’ll also have a sense of guilt about things they haven’t done wrong but feel like they’ve done wrong, such as the abused wife anxiously trying her best to prayerfully figure out what she’s doing to tick off her husband that makes him go into screaming and destructive rages, so she can repent of it and change, so his rages will stop.
Berg even admits that “Repeated sinning and rationalization desensitizes the conscience.” For example, a man can horribly abuse his wife in the bed and then drop off to sleep without a care in the world.
So of course, when the abused wife’s soul is the noisy one, according to Berg and many others, she is the one who is in sin. This comment was posted on my Facebook post of Part 1 of this series:
After years of abuse, when I needed medical treatment for depression, my pastor husband ordered [Quieting a Noisy Soul] and demanded that I do this study. When of course my depression continued, he said, “You obviously didn’t do it correctly. Do the study again.” Needless to say, I needed medical attention, not “confession and getting right with God.” I finally found the help I needed and am now free from the abuse. Praise the Lord.
When Berg talks about cleansing the conscience, he leads us to Psalm 51, the heartfelt psalm in which King David confessed before the Lord his sins of adultery and murder. Berg tells anyone with a noisy soul that this psalm is the model to use, because you need to reject the lie that you are not guilty and admit the truth that you are guilty, like David, “of minimizing, covering, blame-shifting, and excuse-making.”
That would be quite a load for a child pornography survivor, for example, to swallow.
Apparently Jim Berg had no guilty conscience himself after reading the 300-page GRACE report detailing how his counseling had detrimentally affected so many abuse survivors. When I communicated with him asking him if he would publicly confess and ask forgiveness for (or make any kind of public statement about) what he had done (as opposed to allowing an uninvolved representative of the University to be the only one to offer an apology), he said he would not. He has held true to that word, in spite of several public statements by abuse survivors about his harmful counseling and double standards, some of which statements are here and here and here.
In spite of all this, Berg continues to teach pastors and other Christian leaders through this and other material, as well as in person through his university classes, conferences, and church discipleship ministry.
Ask forgiveness and grant forgiveness
Berg says that taking care of these “two sides of the wedge” between individuals will help bring peace to the noisy soul.
Asking forgiveness closely relates to the guilty conscience phenomenon above. For example, it’s not uncommon for rape survivors to feel so guilty for their rape that they might ask their counselors if they should ask forgiveness of their rapist for . . . whatever they can think of, like maybe they need to ask forgiveness for not articulating “no” clearly enough. (Any good counselor would recoil at such a thought, but I have heard of nouthetic counselors who think that there is no such thing as “false guilt,” so I assume they would agree with this notion.)
Nouthetic counselors have also admonished sexual assault survivors to ask forgiveness of their rapist for feelings of bitterness against them.
But as mentioned above, Berg isn’t very good at taking his own counsel in asking forgiveness, perhaps because his soul is never noisy, his conscience never bothers him. When he found out via the GRACE report and other means that many sexual assault survivors found his shaming and blaming counseling methods to be retraumatizing, he saw no need to ask forgiveness and went on to further develop his counseling program.
Regarding being on “the other side of the wedge,” that of granting forgiveness, Berg says that when someone has wronged you, you should confront him so that he can ask forgiveness and your relationship can be restored.
Of the many problems with this approach, what about when the one who has wronged you refuses even to allow you to speak with him? This was my experience several years ago when I accompanied an abuse survivor onto the campus of Bob Jones University to speak with Jim Berg himself, to confront him for his arguably abusive counseling practices. He refused to see her.
And of course, there are some people with whom a relationship should never be restored, no matter how convincingly they ask forgiveness. This would include child molesters and rapists, for example, many of whom I could list for you right now who are in positions of power and influence in churches and Christian organizations around this country.
I’ve written at length about forgiveness elsewhere, such as here and here, and it is also addressed in Tear Down This Wall of Silence and Unholy Charade, so I’ll refrain on this post from going into more detail now about what forgiveness does and doesn’t include.
I Peter 5:5 says, “And all of you, dress yourselves in humility as you relate to one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”
Berg emphasizes the importance of humility before others in “getting grace” (defined as “divine enablement” or “help from God”).
Berg, in the privileged position he has occupied as a leader and administrator of a University ever since his graduation from that University, and as the primary counselor for the sexually abused, has had many opportunities to teach students to humble themselves before others, specifically before him and those he has trained. He has even had sexual abuse victims and survivors placed on “spiritual probation” without telling them why, perhaps simply to teach them to humble themselves before others, specifically those he designates. After all, in his sermon on this topic, he says that those who don’t humble themselves before others—which he defines as obedience to authority—have the underlying problem of stubbornness and pride. And pride, he says, is what generates noise in the soul.
According to a Gothard-esque view of grace, Berg says that those believers who humble themselves before others—and at the University during the years he was Dean of Students, that meant primarily himself—would experience the desire and the power to do right. They would be able to resist temptation, rejoice and endure in times of trouble, and be filled with joy and peace rather than discontent, anxiety, anger, and despair.
Apparently it is imperative that he include the standard Gothardite teaching about bitterness from Hebrews 12:15-16. When we “fail the grace of God,” he says, we will be subject to bitterness, moral failures, and temporal values, which cause noise in the soul. This teaching is one I’ve refuted at length in Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind, and have touched on in several blog posts, such as the one about the defiled conscience, here.
It couldn’t be a spiritual warfare situation, of course
As with the counsel of every nouthetic counselor I’m aware of, Berg never mentions the possibility of what is generally called spiritual warfare. This is because in nouthetic counseling the unseen realm that is active all around us is largely unacknowledged, and even the Holy Spirit is given only passing mention.
I’ve been aware of spiritual warfare for most of my adult life; that is, I knew it existed, I knew it was real, but I didn’t know much beyond that. When I wrote my missionary books, of course I encountered situations of missionaries facing spiritual warfare on the mission field. (I say “of course” because many Western Christians tend to think of spiritual warfare as occurring only in remote places.)
When in the last ten or more years I entered the realm of domestic and sexual and spiritual abuse in our churches and communities, I began to encounter the realm of evil that was already right here around me, that had formerly been hidden in plain sight. I began to regularly hear such things as, “His eyes went completely dark just before he assaulted me” or “I keep hearing voices telling me to commit suicide” or “He says that he has something inside him that wants to destroy him and everyone around him.” (And note: I’m not saying that any time a person hears “voices” it’s spiritual assault, but I am saying that this is sometimes the case.)
These things are now a regular part of my life, just by natural course, because this is the world I’ve entered.
I knew I was subject to attack in my own soul too. I began to ask the Lord to help me discern when I was under attack, instead of simply trying to ignore it. Over the course of the last two or three years, I’ve written out a warfare prayer specifically for me to pray regarding the assaults of the enemy on my own soul.
It was really important for me to write out the prayer, because when my soul is noisy, it’s hard for me to pray. I need to have words in front of me—words based on Scripture that I fully believe (in this case, even words I had written myself) and can pray out loud to the Lord for Him to deliver me.
One day about a year ago, I was especially assaulted by something that some might call a noisy soul. I recognized that I felt very anxious but couldn’t pinpoint the reason.
Because I’d been learning to engage in spiritual warfare, I stopped right then and asked the Lord to show me what it was about, and almost immediately He showed me that my feeling was in response to an email I had received earlier. The email was one I couldn’t do anything about right at that time (though maybe I could later), so I dealt with this situation as a small case of spiritual warfare. I pulled out my warfare prayer, spent about twenty minutes praying through it completely, and found that the anxiety completely departed.
There’s nothing magical about a spiritual warfare prayer. It acknowledges the truth of the situation I’m in and the tactics of the enemy and the power of the Lord to deliver. It provides me with a list of possible ways I might be under attack. It rejoices in the truth of Christ’s deliverance and stands on His promises to deliver. Every section is replete with Scripture references that I can spend time meditating on.
I gave the prayer once to a friend who was struggling with alcohol cravings (because of some noise in her soul), and she prayed through it. She told me that afterwards her alcohol cravings were gone. Again, that’s not to say these are magic words. But they do acknowledge that so much of what goes on in the soul is really a battle against forces of evil. After all, most Christians are familiar with Scriptures such as 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, I Peter 5:8, and Ephesians 6:10-18.
But I’ve never heard spiritual warfare of this type acknowledged by nouthetic counselors (aka “Biblical counselors”).
There is so much more I could say about the teachings in Quieting a Noisy Soul that shame and blame the oppressed in order to keep them silenced and low. For example, I could speak about how Berg addresses anxiety, anger, and despair, the emotions that he says are the “fruit” of the “root” of unbelief and discontent. I could talk about how he addresses anorexia and bulimia as “sinful eating practices.”
But I’d like to keep this series to just three parts, so I’ll stop here. I’ll emphasize that instead of the oppressive teachings Berg presents, we can be assured that our God loves His children and rejoices to be with us. When Jesus says “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden,” it isn’t to heap more guilt and shame and duty on us. It is to free us to trust in Him to accomplish all of our righteousness before God, both the righteousness that changes our destination (ordinarily called “justification”) and the righteousness that changes our day-to-day living (ordinarily called “sanctification”). It is all accomplished through faith.
He doesn’t call us to passively accept wrongdoing, as I and others have said repeatedly (repeatedly, like here and here and here and here). He doesn’t make His grace dependent on our unquestioning submission to a (sometimes even self-proclaimed) earthly authority (as I’ve talked about many times, such as here and here and here and here). He doesn’t call us to labor to become like Him (which I’ve addressed more thoroughly here and here and here and made a poster about here).
He calls us to come to Him, rest with Him, follow Him, and delight in Him. Though we’ll often need the help of others (because we weren’t meant to be creatures of isolation!) we can trust Him to uproot the embedded lies, shine the light of His truth, and ultimately bring healing and wholeness. We don’t have to strive to receive His smile. We can rest.
This is a life of peace. This is a life of joy.
In a future post I hope to discuss where “striving” enters the Christian life, because the apostle Paul does talk about striving, even though Jesus talks about rest.