Monday, November 05, 2007

David Powlison on Bob Newhart's "Stop It!" Sketch

I don't know if you've ever seen the MadTV skit with Bob Newhart as a counselor (video embedded below). It's a funny skit.

As I was reminded of it again recently, I wondered what we could learn from it. So I asked David Powlison--one of the wisest counselors and students of the Word and the heart that I know--if he'd be willing to pen some thoughts on it. He has kindly agreed, for which I am deeply thankful.

(Please note: the most recent conference for CCEF [Christian Counseling and Education Foundation] was on the related theme of fear, worry, and the rest of God. MP3s will be available soon at the CCEF website.)

A Terrific Spoof . . . and a Serious Comment
by David Powlison

The following video is Bob Newhart’s spoof of a counseling moment. It is a sheer delight. I trust you will heartily enjoy the fictional Dr. Switzer’s interplay with the fictional Katherine Bigman, and will forward it to all your friends. It is, of course, a takeoff on the “Dr. Phil," "Dr. Laura," cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) that so dominates the American psychotherapy world.

Newhart’s wit also creates a perfect foil for understanding the contrast between what our world offers and the riches of biblical counseling. Here are a half dozen contrasts:

1. The Bible gives a vision for lifelong transformation and mutual aid – as well as for the 5-minute moment of insight, or the 5-week and 5-month seasons of change, or the 5-year unfolding movement of progressive transformation and deepening. “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” The encouragements of the gospel of grace meet us again and again. They are always new-to-you in some way. Yet they always embrace the Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

2. Our Father never simply says “Stop it!” to the Katherine Bigmans or anyone else. He knows we can’t change on our own. We have a living Savior, who died to give us mercy and lives to give us grace in times of need. The Word willingly became flesh and dwelt among us. We simply are not able to “Just say No.” If we happen to say No to one self-destructive behavior, our self-absorption will merely express itself in another, perhaps less obvious, form of self-destruction. Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses. He was tempted in all ways as we are, yet without sin. We need help from outside ourselves – and he helps. On our own, sins and miseries are fundamentally inescapable. The fear of being buried alive, the compulsion to self-induced vomiting, and the instinct to pursue destructive relationships are certainly first-order human miseries, confusions, and sins. Our Father’s “Stop” always comes with lots of ways, reasons, and help to “Go.”

3. Wisdom doesn’t speak in boilerplate. It’s never a one-size-fits-all formula. Or, contrary to the Christianese equivalent, it’s never 3-steps-to-Victory. So every psalm, every letter, every gospel, every prophet is different. The same redeemer God speaks and engages diverse people. And because the people face different problems and are prone to different struggles, his words and actions always come hand-crafted. Same with your words and actions. That’s what it means to counsel the living Christ to another. You might affirm one person, and challenge another, and teach another, and walk beside another, and listen to another, and weep with another . . . and do any or all of the above with the same person, depending. Such flexibility is not eclecticism. Wisdom from God is an appropriate, flexible, and timely wisdom. See 1 Thessalonians 5:14 and Ephesians 4:29 for starters.

4. Human responsibility is never by oneself and to oneself. It is always relational. For example, like all therapists, Dr. Phil meets with men and women whose lives are tragically wrong-headed and tragically alone. He, like Bob Newhart, sees the wrong-headedness. It’s easy to see that something’s wrong. But he doesn’t see – can’t see – that the person inhabits the barren-universe-of-self. The real world overflows with God and with opportunities to love others. But when you watch Dr. Phil counsel or when you meet with strugglers, that essential, desperate aloneness will break your heart. God awakens us first to see that we are not alone, drifting across an uncharted sea. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” now and always.

5. To bluntly confront such a frightened struggler violates the ABCs of biblical wisdom: “comfort the faint-hearted, hold on to the weak, be patient with them all.”If Katherine Bigman were a conscienceless serial adulterer, filled with self-righteous bitterness, and aggressively blameshifing others for all her problems… then she’d be a candidate for “admonish the unruly.” But she presents herself as confused and needy. You’ll respond appropriately. Of course, warning and moral exhortation are facets of comprehensive wisdom. But biblical admonishment is premised on entirely different assumptions than the accusatory severities of a Dr. Phil. You hold out an entirely different hope for change. You are never hectoring. You never deliver personal threats. You never cast a person back on his or her own resources, as if flesh might tame unruly flesh. And you always hold out offers of mercy and hope to those who begin to take seriously what they look like to God. You always invite another person out of a life of futility and into a life positively worth living.

6. To counsel biblically is to fundamentally identify with the people with whom you converse. “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Cor. 10:12f). Katherine Bigman is a struggler, but she is not a nut. Which of us does not instinctually live in bondage to the fear of death? Or self-destructively worry about how we compare with other people and what they think about us? Or make a significant contribution to unfruitful relationships? To sympathetically identify with another is to become able to love. Only a man ignorant of our common humanity would ever lecture a struggler to shape up. The essential dynamic of biblical counseling is always tender and personal. “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:4). “He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness” (Heb. 5:2).

And so forth. Don’t ever think that biblical counseling is just CBT dolled up with some Bible verses. And “Stop it!” if you ever treat people that way! Wisdom is a wonderfully different creature. When our Father stops us from doing something wrong, he always starts us walking along a delightfully different path.