Helping the Self-loathing Client: Wisdom from the Heavenly Dr. Sibbes

[This entry is part two of a multiple part reflection on Josiah’s Reformation by Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes.]

What do you do with self-loathing Christian clients? You know, the people whom, despite the promises of the Bible, believe that Jesus died for everyone…except them? In his book Josiah’s Reformation, Richard Sibbes offers valuable insight that may prove helpful to counselors working with these individuals.

Understand the client’s story

In his exposition of 2 Chronicles 34:26-27, Sibbes observes that God revealed himself to King Josiah during a difficult time because of Josiah’s “upright” (or tender) heart (p. 2). When dealing with a self-loathing client, wise counselors must be aware that for some reason, God often seems silent to these people. One reason for this might be that the person has over identified with his or her “old self” because of difficult or traumatic life experiences. In response to these experiences, the person could have developed a hardening of the heart as a self-protective strategy. While this defense initially proved helpful, over time, it may have devolved from a fortress to a prison. If this is the case, reformational counselors must expose the client’s dark story to the light of the FULL gospel.

Expose the client…to the FULL gospel

One way of thinking about the self-loathing client is to imagine spiritual transformation as a spectrum with two extremes. The old self lays on one extreme. This is the part of the inner man that albeit mortally wounded, seemingly refuses to die. The Bible calls this aspect of the self “the flesh” (Rom 8:4). On the other extreme is the new self, or what the Bible sometimes refers to as “the Spirit” (Rom 8:4), the part of the inner man that has experienced redemption and consistently glorifies God. Because of sin, and until one’s final glorification, the healthy Christian remains balanced between the two poles and maintains a realistic understanding of his or her actual self (the composite of the old and new). An example of a healthy Christian would be the Apostle Paul (see Rom 6-8).

Unfortunately, those who cling to either end of the spectrum inevitably struggle with problems in living and often need counseling. For example, those who tend to the “new self” end typically fail to “see” the remaining vestiges in the old self and hence, struggle with legalism. Individuals like the Pharisee in Luke (Luke 18:9-14) are exemplars of this type of person. However, those who reside on the other end of the spectrum over identify with the old self and therefore fail to experience any of the New Covenant benefits effected by Christ’s death and resurrection.

For the self-loather, it seems that they have only ingested the legal side of the gospel. Sibbes sees this side of the spectrum as being related to the God’s law and compares it to a hammer and fire that smashes and melts the heart of the obstinate:

“God’s word is a hammer to break, and as fire to melt the hardened heart (Jer. 23:29)…When the Spirit of God, by the word, doth convince the soul to be in a damned estate, dead, born under wrath, and an heir of damnation; that by nature God frowns, and hell is ready to swallow up; when the soul is thus convinced, then the heart begins to be astonished and cries out, ‘Men and brethren, what shall I do?’ (Acts 2:37)” (p. 12).

Counselors must work to help self-loathing clients see that there is “more to their story” for they are living as if the Tomb remains occupied. Believers obsessively holding onto their “badness” are broken pots unable to hold the living water of the gospel. Maintaining a thorough understanding of the balance needed between law and grace, Sibbes maintains that although the Law is necessary, it is not sufficient, in and of itself, to effect the work of redemption. A Law-only gospel is useless without the cohesive comfort brought about by God’s merciful grace:

“But it is not enough to have the heart broken; for a pot may be broken in pieces, and yet be good for nothing; so may a heart be, through terrors, and sense of judgments hath cast down the heart, then comes the Spirit of God, revealing the comfort of the word; then the gracious mercy of God in Christ is manifested, that ‘there is mercy with God, that he may be feared’ (Psa. 130:4)” (p. 13).

Self-loathing clients must keep moving to Christ until they begin experiencing “the gracious mercy of God in Christ.” Counselors must help self-loathers balance their “badness” with Christ’s “goodness.” This FULL gospel understanding will provide the material needed for deeper heart transformation.

Help the client internalize the gospel

How does this deeper heart transformation happen? Those desiring to nurture a tender heart must internalize the gospel deeper into their souls through experiential activities that appropriate the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection deeper into their hearts. Here, Sibbes offers several interesting ways to promote this gospel internalization. I have translated his recommendations into contemporary English and applied them for the self-loathing person:

1. Practice biblically-based spiritual disciplines (p. 16).

Read, reflect, meditate, journal, and pray Scripture on a consistent basis.

2. Develop a compassion for the plight of churches in persecuted areas of the world (p. 16).

Stop navel-gazing! Contemplate the sufferings of others and pray for them!

3. Maintain a FULL view of the gospel (p. 17). 

Remember, you cannot function properly with only the Law. It is the Law that kills (the old self), but it is grace that bestows life (to the new self). Keep reminding yourself that you are now “in Christ” and that those who have died to sin should no longer walk in it (Rom 6:4).

4. Hang around good people (p. 18). 

Search for Christian models who can reflect the love of Christ into your life and spend time in fellowship with them.

5. Watch out for the small sins (p. 18). 

Don’t let the little things rob you of the riches you have in Christ.

6. Don’t grow too fond of worldly things (p. 19).

Don’t let the riches you have make Christ a little thing.

7. Watch out for all signs of hypocrisy in the heart (p. 20).

Pray like a Tax Collector not a Pharisee (Luke 18:9-12)!

8. Watch out for big sins (p. 21). 

Don’t let the big things rob you of the riches you have in Christ.

9. Remember what it was like when you had a hardened heart (p. 22).

Don’t forget that once you were an alien in a foreign land who now enjoys the citizenship of the Kingdom, not as an orphan, but as a son, or daughter of royalty (Eph 2:13)!

Join the Conversation

What are some other ways that you might encourage self-loathing clients to develop a Pauline view of their actual selves?