Editor’s Note: In what follows, Jeremy Pierre, SBTS professor of biblical counseling and dean of student life, talks with Towers writer Andrew J.W. Smith about his book The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life.
AJWS: What was your primary goal in writing this book?
JP: Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” That’s my purpose in this. It’s easy to hear key words like “depression” or “adultery” or “pornography” and just jump categorically in your mind to Scriptures that explicitly address the issue. Those are important aspects of how we should approach it. We should use those Scriptures. But there’s another layer to ministry that requires us to draw the heart of a person out so they understand why they are looking at pornography, why they are in this adulterous affair, or why they experience depression. So, my goal is to help pastors, counselors, and those who minister the Word to understand the experience of someone else. Traditionally, in evangelicalism we’re not that good at that.
AJWS: You write about this idea of the dynamic heart. When did you first start to develop that concept and how would you define what that is?
JP: The dynamic heart is just the multifaceted design of our response. So, we respond cognitively with thinking and belief, we respond affectively with desire and feeling, and we respond volitionally with commitment and choice. All of those aspects of the human experience are important to address when you’re helping someone. The roots of that are in my deep-seated love for literature. And as you study literature, you learn what makes for a good novel or short story and what makes for a bad one. And it’s simply this: If it accurately captures something true of human experience, then usually we think of this as good. It’s telling us something true; it’s expanding our understanding of ourselves and of the world. At times, good literature tells us something true of God’s world as he designed it. As I was teaching literature, I began appreciating when an author can capture the motives of a person’s heart in such a way that’s believable to experience. That naturally blossomed as I studied theology and was able to see how the knowledge of God really does transform a person’s perspective on their life. It also shifts desires and values from what would cause disruption and destruction in their souls to things that bring life. Then I asked the question, “Is there a relationship between the beauty I see captured by accurate descriptions of human experience and the beauty I see in the way Scripture authoritatively describes human experience? Through observing Scripture and doing a survey of anthropological terms in the Bible, these three categories sort of naturally arose. I think they do justice to the full spectrum of human experience.
AJWS: What do you mean by that? What is encapsulated in the complexity of human experience?
JP: For instance, if we have a one-dimensional view of what motivates people, then we can think we know the reason someone behaved in a particular way — it’s because they’re not believing the right things. So they need instruction and education, and that will result in a change of behavior. That’s too one-dimensional. We’ve all had people in our lives try to address a problem by simply trying to inform of us something they think we didn’t know. But the problem is we already knew that; we were already aware of the very truth they are bringing to us. That doesn’t mean that truth is unimportant — it’s a necessary aspect of what needs to change, but it is not sufficient. There’s a level of commitment to that truth that has to be addressed. There are values that rival the perceived value of that truth that have to be addressed. So, you can’t be flat and one-dimensional; you have to be three-dimensional in your approach.
AJWS: Practically, how do you do that as a counselor? How do you apply this idea when you’re meeting with someone?
JP: Basically, in two categories. This three-dimensional understanding of human experience affects the way you ask questions and the way you give advice. So, when I’m asking questions, I’m not just trying to get into how they’re analyzing a situation cognitively, I’m also not just asking about how they feel about a situation (“tell me how you’re feeling”) because then they just report “happy,” “sad,” “angry,” whatever it is. And I’m not just asking, “What choices are you making in this moment?” and “Tell me about your behaviors.” I’m asking all three of those things, and that’s what brings out their response in such a way that, when I move to advice and instruction, I’m taking the categories of Scripture and I’m landing it into instruction for their mind, I’m landing it into a challenge of the values and desires that drive them, and I’m landing it into the commitments and choices that they are called by faith to make.
AJWS: In a counseling setting, I imagine there are aspects of someone’s situation they’re not even aware of. When trying to unearth some of these things under the surface, what strategies might a counselor use to get at the complexities of the human heart in these situations?
JP: The Bible describes us as not being fully aware of everything that motivates us. That’s not a pop psychology fact; that’s a fact of what Scripture recognizes about our own inability to have immediate access to the full depth of our experience. We have two things that diminish our self-awareness. We have our self-deceptive sinful corruption and we have the limitedness of our knowledge. So, being aware of those two reasons helps in how you approach a counseling situation. We don’t assume that someone is merely being sinfully stubborn and refusing to recognize something in their heart — though that’s often the case. The more tender you get in terms of touching a nerve, the more defenses come up. But it could be just from ignorance; it could be just from a lack of thoughtfulness, and for the first time you’re that friend who’s trying to guide them into a greater level of self-awareness for the purpose of their submission to God.
You do this through a series of good questions that come from this theological framework of human experience that is aware of all the cracks and corners that people tend to hide in. So, for instance, whether people realize it or not, there are always four contexts to which their heart is responding. They’re responding to the circumstances around them; they’re responding to other key relationships in their life (and those key relationships have influence on them whether they recognize it or not); they’re responding to themselves (they’re acting out from a belief that they have about themselves); and they’re always acting in relation to God. If you have those categories in your mind as a counselor and you’re beginning to ask those questions, you’re challenging to them to think on angles they are not immediately consciously thinking of at every point, and that forces the opportunity for greater self-awareness. You might ask them a question like, “In that fight with your wife, what do you think you were believing about her?” Oftentimes, there’s a startled look on their face. “I don’t know.” Then you tease it out. “Well, I guess I believe she’s a really critical person,” they might say. “Well, what do you think you were believing about yourself?” you’ll ask. “What were you wanting for yourself or from yourself that led to that explosion?” Again, a similarly shocked response: “I never really thought about that.” And that’s the way of drawing them to think in these categories that I think Scripture considers in a way that will at least give them insight into what needs to work in their heart.
AJWS: A lot of these heart issues present themselves in certain kinds of behavior. So, when you’re counseling someone, how do you navigate that, addressing the behavioral issues that are involved? How do you navigate dealing with how those heart issues manifest themselves in behavior while also dealing with the heart itself?
JP: This is why I call the methodology at the end of my book “tasks,” not “steps.” So, there are four tasks. If I said steps, that would imply a strict chronology, and it’s not always a sequence. Rather, there are tasks that you’re always doing when you’re in a room with a counselee. One of them is “reading the heart” and another is “renew” — call them to strategic change. It’s not like you do step one and then after four sessions you’re doing step four. In the case of pornography, you’re exploring their heart but you’re also immediately giving them specific strategies for removing temptation, for withdrawing from certain activities. You’re immediately helping them address their schedule: When does it happen most frequently? What situation am I in when it happens? How do I have access to this? You’re immediately calling them to change aspects of their life as an expression of faith that Jesus is going to be changing their heart through his Word.