I was speaking at a large women’s event in Texas. During the break, a woman asked if she could speak with me.
“I need to know if there is hope for me,” she asked. “I’m a narcissist, and from what I’ve read online, there is little hope for me to ever get better.”
Curious, I asked her a few more questions about what led her to think she was a narcissist. She said, “I’m selfish and self-centered.”
“Give me a few examples of what you mean,” I asked, wanting to see where she was going.
“I don’t want to babysit my grandchildren like my daughter wants me to,” she said. “I don’t always want to put other people’s needs first. I try, but I end up feeling resentful.”
By now tears were streaming down her face, and it was obvious she was distressed exposing her very human character flaws.
This woman’s problem wasn’t excessive self-love and desire for admiration (which narcissists never notice about themselves anyway), but rather destructive shame and self-hatred. In our brief conversation, I learned that she lived by an internal script that dictated that she should be better than she was. She failed to live up to her idealized image of herself as a selfless person, and after numerous attempts at change, she felt hopeless.
People who are perfectionists may not demand perfection in every area of their lives and often have a hard time admitting that they think they should be perfect, but deep down that’s what they crave. And when they fail to live up to their own idealized standards, they grieve deeply. Their internal shame, self-hatred, and self-reproach can be lethal.
These individuals rarely feel happy because although they might achieve a moment of perfection, it’s entirely unsustainable. Eventually they mess up, can’t do something, aren’t all-knowing, fail, make a mistake, or put their own needs or desires ahead of someone else’s.
This woman was not my client, and we weren’t in a session, but I had something to offer her in that moment that provided a real solution to her pain. I had the privilege to show this hurting woman a glimpse of what God is like and surprise her by the good news of the gospel of Christ.
Isn’t that why we do what we do? Isn’t that what makes Christian counseling Christian? We offer real hope to people’s pain not merely through good counseling or proper theology, but through the person of Christ. He is the answer to this woman’s pain because he gives her what she cannot give herself. Real forgiveness, radical acceptance, grace, peace, hope, love, and true truth.
John Fawcett, as quoted in Leanne Payne’s book Restoring the Christian Soul says,
Some who are afraid of the appearance of narcissism in the language of self-acceptance veer dangerously close to self-hatred in their antidote to it, as if a deeper introspective gaze upon our own guilt and sin could bring us to fuller freedom in Christ. But self-hatred is not the opposite of narcissism; rather, it is egocentrism under a different guise─the same mirror of self viewed from another angle. The discovery of the true self encompasses the denial and crucifixion of the flesh, but it is far more than a negative process. We find our true selves positively in relation to God: hearing His loving, affirming Word, we are freed to celebrate the new self He makes. We become enamored not of our own accomplishments nor of our unworthiness, but of the beauty of Jesus. Through his Spirit he descends into us that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith (Ephesians 3:17), transforming us into His image, from glory to glory (2 Corinthian 3:18).
What I said to that woman at the conference was something similar to what Jesus said to the rich young ruler who asked if he was good enough to inherit eternal life. (See Luke 18:18-27 for the story.)
I pulled her to the side, wrapped my arms around her and whispered, “You could never do enough, love enough, give enough, or be selfless enough to earn God’s forgiveness or his love. It’s not up to you. It is a gift. Now go, and thank and love the giver.”
Later on in the day she caught my eye and her countenance was transformed. She believed God and found hope.
John Fawcett, quoted in Leanne Payne, Restoring the Christian Soul (Grand Rapids: Baoker, 1991), 234.
As Christian counselors, pastors and people helpers we often have a hard time discerning between an evil heart and an ordinary sinner who messes up, who isn’t perfect, and full of weakness and sin.
I think one of the reasons we don’t “see” evil is because we find it so difficult to believe that evil individuals actually exist. We can’t imagine someone deceiving us with no conscience, hurting others with no remorse, spinning outrageous fabrications to ruin someone’s reputation, or pretending he or she is spiritually committed yet has no fear of God before his or her eyes.
The Bible clearly tells us that among God’s people there are wolves that wear sheep’s clothing (Jeremiah 23:14; Titus 1:10; Revelations 2:2). It’s true that every human heart is inclined toward sin (Romans 3:23), and that includes evil (Genesis 8:21; James 1:4). We all miss God’ mark of moral perfection. However, most ordinary sinners do not happily indulge evil urges, nor do we feel good about having them. We feel ashamed and guilty, rightly so (Romans 7:19–21). These things are not true of the evil heart.
Below are five indicators that you may be dealing with an evil heart rather than an ordinary sinful heart. If so, it requires a radically different treatment approach.
1. Evil hearts are experts at creating confusion and contention.
They twist the facts, mislead, lie, avoid taking responsibility, deny reality, make up stories, and withhold information. (Psalms 5:8; 10:7; 58:3; 109:2–5; 140:2; Proverbs 6:13,14; 6:18,19; 12:13; 16:20; 16:27, 28; 30:14; Job 15:35; Jeremiah 18:18; Nehemiah 6:8; Micah 2:1; Matthew 12:34,35; Acts 6:11–13; 2 Peter 3:16)
2. Evil hearts are experts at fooling others with their smooth speech and flattering words.
But if you look at the fruit of their lives or the follow through of their words, you will find no real evidence of godly growth or change. It’s all smoke and mirrors. (Psalms 50:19; 52:2,3; 57:4; 59:7; 101:7; Proverbs 12:5; 26:23–26; 26:28; Job 20:12; Jeremiah 12:6; Matthew 26:59; Acts 6:11–13; Romans 16:17,18; 2 Corinthians 11:13,14; 2 Timothy 3:2–5; 3:13; Titus 1:10,16).
3. Evil hearts crave and demand control, and their highest authority is their own self-reference.
They reject feedback, real accountability, and make up their own rules to live by. They use Scripture to their own advantage but ignore and reject passages that might require self-correction and repentance. (Romans 2:8; Psalms 10; 36:1–4; 50:16–22; 54:5,6; 73:6–9; Proverbs 21:24; Jude 1:8–16).
4. Evil hearts play on the sympathies of good-willed people, often trumping the grace card.
They demand mercy but give none themselves. They demand warmth, forgiveness, and intimacy from those they have harmed with no empathy for the pain they have caused and no real intention of making amends or working hard to rebuild broken trust. (Proverbs 21:10; 1 Peter 2:16; Jude 1:4).
5. Evil hearts have no conscience, no remorse.
They do not struggle against sin or evil—they delight in it—all the while masquerading as someone of noble character. (Proverbs 2:14–15; 10:23; 12:10; 21:27,29; Isaiah 32:6; Romans 1:30; 2 Corinthians 11:13–15)
If you are working with someone who exhibits these characteristics, it’s important that you confront them head on. You must name evil for what it is. The longer you try to reason with them or show mercy towards them, the more you, as the Christian counselor, will become a pawn in his or her game.
They want you to believe that:
1. Their horrible actions should have no serious or painful consequences.
When they say “I’m sorry,” they look to you as the pastor or Christian counselor to be their advocate for amnesty with the person he or she has harmed. They believe grace means they are immediately granted immunity from the relational fallout of their serious sin. They believe forgiveness entitles them to full reconciliation and will pressure you and their victim to comply.
The Bible warns us saying, “But when grace is shown to the wicked, they do not learn righteousness; even in a land of uprightness they go on doing evil and do not regard the majesty of the Lord (Isaiah 26:10).
The Bible tells us that talking doesn’t wake up evil people, but painful consequences might. Jesus didn’t wake up the Pharisee’s with his talk nor did God’s counsel impact Cain (Genesis 4). In addition, the Bible shows us that when someone is truly sorry for the pain they have caused, he or she is eager to make amends to those they have harmed by their sin (see Zacchaeus’ response when he repented of his greed in Luke 19).
Tim Keller writes, “If you have been the victim of a heinous crime. If you have suffered violence, and the perpetrator (or even the judge) says, ‘Sorry, can’t we just let it go?’ You would say, ‘No, that would be an injustice.’ Your refusal would rightly have nothing to do with bitterness or vengeance. If you have been badly wronged, you know that saying sorry is never enough. Something else is required—some kind of costly payment must be made to put things right.”1
As Biblical counselors let’s not collude with the evil one by turning our attention to the victim, requiring her to forgive, to forget, to trust again when there has been no evidence of inner change. Proverbs says, “Trusting in a treacherous man in time of trouble is like a bad tooth or a foot that slips” (Proverbs. 25:19). It’s foolishness.
The evil person will also try to get you to believe
2. That if I talk like a gospel-believing Christian I am one, even if my actions don’t line up with my talk.
Remember, Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:13–15). He knows more true doctrine than you or I will ever know, but his heart is wicked. Why? Because although he knows the truth, he does not believe it or live it.
The Bible has some strong words for those whose actions do not match their talk (1 John 3:17,18; Jeremiah 7:8,10; James 1:22, 26). John the Baptist said it best when he admonished the religious leaders, “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God” (Luke 3:8).
If week after week you hear the talk but there is no change in the walk, you have every reason to question someone’s relationship with God.
Part of our maturity as spiritual leaders is that we have been trained to discern between good and evil. Why is that so important? It’s important because evil usually pretends to be good, and without discernment we can be easily fooled (Hebrews 5:14).
When you confront evil, chances are good that the evil heart will stop counseling with you because the darkness hates the light (John 3:20) and the foolish and evil heart reject correction (Proverbs 9:7,8). But that outcome is far better than allowing the evil heart to believe you are on his or her side, or that “he’s not that bad” or “that he’s really sorry” or “that he’s changing” when, in fact, he is not.
Daniel says, “[T]he wicked will continue to be wicked” (Daniel 12:10), which begs the question, do you think an evil person can really change?
 Tim Keller, Jesus the King, page 172
When it comes to conflict in relationships, Ken Sande says there are really only three kinds of people: peace-fakers, peace-breakers, and peace-makers.
Peace-breakers are prideful and power up. If they don’t get their way, they blow up, escalating conflict like gas on a flickering flame.
Peace-fakers avoid conflict or clam up trying to shove conflict under the rug out of fear.
Neither way is glorifying or healthy.
Peace-makers see conflict as an assignment, not an accident. They approach the problem with humility, reasonableness, and seeking wisdom from God (James 3:17-18). They do not intimidate, but they also do not hide. They expect conflict, embrace the opportunity to resolve things biblically, and have an urgency to keep unity in the midst of hard times.
Recently, I considered the relational landscape of my life. I have not ignored the conflict in my life, but am I doing everything, as far as it has to do with me, to keep the peace with others (Romans 12:9-21)? What would it look like to be a peace-maker in those situations and relationships?
Is there anyone in your life you are bitter toward or someone you have offended deeply? I want to challenge you to get your eyes off another’s sin and turn your focus inward with a vertical orientation (Psalm 139:23-24).
But the Bible never treats the symptoms alone… we have all tried to control our anger or appease someone else’s with a moment of kindness—but it goes deeper. Sometimes the only way to heal what is sick or broken is to get to the source, to seek true healing, to go vertical.
The Source of Conflict
Don’t you love it when God answers our most profound questions?! Hey, why do we fight anyway? Why can’t we just get along? Consider this passage from James 4:1-12, which gets to the heart of the problem.
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?…
What Can We Learn about Conflict from This Passage?
The Word of God presents some very clear reasons why we can’t seem to lay down our agendas or get along well with others who differ from us.
Fill in the blank: "If I only had ___________, I would be happy?" That is the beginning of constructing an idol. So, think about these four escalating steps of selfish desires:
I. I want it too much – it could be a good desire or an evil desire (not always sinful… God may still be in the picture, but kingdoms begin to collide).
II. I need it now – it now owns you (leads to sin because looking to someone or something to fulfill only what Christ can… God can’t meet this need or won’t… so I will).
III. I deserve it – it now controls you (sinful entitlement creates murderous thoughts and feelings if desire is blocked… God wants me to be happy or is an afterthought at best).
IV. You will give it to me or I will punish you – it now betrays you (even hurt those you love if your demands are not met… is God even in the picture at this point?).
Here are three more truths from this passage:
That sets up the problem well, but there is more grace! The second half of the chapter teaches us to truly repent and turn to the Lord so we can be a peace-maker in the situation. Consider verses 7-10 as the way out of your side of the conflict and into the graces of God.
Seven Steps out of this selfish cycle of personal conflict:
1. Submit to God – what are you holding away from Him?
2. Resist the devil – what are you giving over to Him?
3. Draw near to God – where are you hiding or running from Him?
4. Cleanse your hands – what outward behavior needs to stop?
5. Purify your heart – what inward attitude needs to change?
6. Be wretched mourn and weep – where do people need to see godly sorrow?
7. Humble yourself – where do you need to admit you’re wrong and ask forgiveness?
Remember, those who are in Christ are called to be peace-makers. That requires for us to be intentional with how we deal with conflict.
Almost daily we encounter evidences of the current moral revolution occurring in this country; and it is happening at a blistering pace. At the forefront of this discussion is the topic of homosexuality. Depending on which side of the fence you fall, you might consider this an evolution of morality or you might see morality devolving before our very eyes. Sexual orientation has been a hot topic for some time; and for many, even many professing Christians, the practice of sexuality outside of the traditional heterosexual covenantal relationship of marriage has been seen as progressive.
Sadly, much of this debate is devoid of any real interest in God’s perspective. Sadder still there is much twisting of what God has to say about it all. This speculation is unfortunate. God’s word is clear. Homosexuality is sinful and is rebellion against God’s creative design. This increasingly counter-cultural stance on homosexuality will no doubt bring the church to the forefront if we hold fast to this truth. This blog is not an attempt to make an argument for or against homosexuality, but instead to deal with the heart of the matter. And that starts with us, the church.
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good character let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be every disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:13–18)
Before we speak as to what God says regarding homosexuality, we need to hear from God ourselves. We need to check our own hearts. Do we enter debates to win or in the confidence that, in Christ, we have already won? Our selfish ambition will result in every disorder and we will be shown lacking wisdom and ultimately foolish. But if our hearts are pure it will be expressed in our conduct, we will be peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.
As we move to the topic of homosexuality we need to approach it with sensitivity. I have had the great privilege of walking alongside several men compelled by the gospel to come out of a homosexual lifestyle. Our church is full of men and women who are experiencing redemption in Jesus Christ. Many of these still wrestle with homosexual temptations while others have experienced healing to such a degree that they are now happily married, joyfully expressing their sexuality within heterosexual marriage or have the desire to do so.
I have come to understand that no two stories are the same. Some clearly feel that they were born with homosexual tendencies and others can see clearly the development of homosexual thoughts and behavior’s through experimentation or abuse. I want to dispel one of the arguments used in the culture to justify homosexuality: The idea of being born this way. This assumes that we are born without distorted desires. You hear things like, “God doesn’t make mistakes’. The assumption is if I was born this way, it must be His design. The truth is that we are born in a fallen state, sinful, and therefore this argument for homosexuality falls flat. Equally invalid is any argument that implies it is God’s design that one express sexuality through innumerable heterosexual encounters.
I think labeling homosexuality a matter of “orientation” is a great point of engagement. What is meant by this term culturally is am I personally (as a man) sexually oriented around men (homosexuality), women, (heterosexuality) or both (bisexuality), animals (bestiality), children (pedophilia) or some object (fetish), etc. But the conversation must move beyond the horizontal orientation and, instead, must be oriented vertically in terms of our relationship with God. Through the fall of mankind, in addition to having distorted desires, we have become disoriented from God. This means that we are inevitably lost - looking to the culture to define us while simultaneously seeking to have our desires met through creatures for what only He can ultimately provide.
Homosexuality is rarely about sex. It is always about worship. It is about offering myself to the one who is providing what my heart desires and/or receiving the worship of another in exchange for what their heart desires. This, by the way, is true in all sexual immorality regardless of whether it is homosexual in nature or not.
At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, I will give a couple of examples of how people I have known came to practice homosexuality, the counterfeit redemption it offered them, and the superiority of the gospel in resolving the underlying issues.
A young man I counseled grew up in a Christian home. He was perceived culturally “effeminate”, because he was slim, sensitive and artistic. His father was perceived culturally “manly”, because he was strong, liked to hunt, fish and work on cars. As a boy he identified more with mom. Dad was somewhat disinterested and looked passed him. The boy longed for the attention and acceptance of his father. He began to wish he were different, that he was more “manly”. He began to be jealous of the boys who looked more like his dad. He lusted for these things that seemed unattainable.
In his adolescence, one of these young men began to show interest in him. The association gave him the sense that he had gained what he was looking for. As the relationship became sexualized he attached himself in a covenantal act by offering himself in worship to the one who possessed what he was lacking. He became “one flesh” with this young man and this gave him a sense of possessing what he longed for. At the most basic level this is no different than someone who feels they are “important “because they hang out with important people.
Similarly, I have known a woman for some time that was abused by her father and later by her husband. Disoriented from God and done with men, she sought to have her desires met through the gentle nurturing of a same sex relationship by offering herself to another woman sexually.
These counterfeit forms of redemption pale in comparison to the ultimate redemption found in Jesus Christ. These counterfeits are just twisted replicas attempting to mar the real thing, robbing us of life rather than give it. Through the gospel we find the acceptance of our Heavenly Father. He has not overlooked us in sending His son. His perfection makes up for where we are lacking. In offering ourselves to Him, we receive all that our hearts have longed for. We are nurtured in Him. We are filled with the Holy Spirit and the covenant is sealed. Our value and worth comes through our association with Him. We are given a new heart, which leads us to love and practice the things that He loves and despise that which profanes His name.
If we merely stand on the outside judging whether homosexuality is right or wrong without taking the time to move beyond the behavior to come alongside and know a person, we will never have the opportunity to show how the gospel is applied in satisfying the deepest longings of the heart. Without condoning sin we must enter in.
The Association of Biblical Counselors (ABC) exists to encourage, equip, and empower people everywhere to live and counsel the Word, applying the Gospel to the whole experience of life.
Encourage: ABC provides a fellowship of believers committed to life transformation through the Living Word.
Equip: ABC promotes training in biblical counseling and points to resources that deal biblically with all of the issues of life.
Empower: ABC provides excellent materials for growth in Christ and for use in effective biblical counseling.
To find out more, visit the Association of Biblical Counselors website.