It’s actually a beautiful verse.

But sometimes it’s used as a cudgel.

After I had heard two different people refer to this Bible verse as a verb (as a cudgel that had been used against them), I knew it was time to write about it.

Here it is:

Beautiful verse, right? A wonderful reminder to set our minds on things above, the way Colossians 3:5 talks about. Because who or what could be more honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise than our King and Lord, our Savior and Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ? Through the Scriptures as we ask the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to Him and His truth, we see Him more and more clearly, and we marvel at His holy love. No matter how much we meditate on Him and His goodness, there is still more.

But sadly . . .

There are those who truly do want to walk with Jesus and love Him and know Him deeply—in fact, who are desperate to know who He is—who have been beaten over the head with Philippians 4:8.

This is because they’ve struggled with abuse in their marriages and are trying to get help. Or because they’re experiencing flashbacks and nightmares of extreme childhood abuse. If they even speak about what they’re struggling with, they’re told something along these lines:

Your life is like a tea bag. Life circumstances are like the hot water. Whatever comes out of the tea bag into the water indicates what’s in your soul.

So when people are afraid for their lives, when they’re dissociating, when they’re suffering from flashbacks and nightmares, when they’re in deep confusion from the way Scriptures have been twisted to keep them in bondage . . .

They’re told that what’s in their tea bag is sin. Sin is coming out of their tea bag and poisoning their hot water.

Here’s one, from the GRACE report on Bob Jones University, a document I studied at length when it came out in December of 2014:

A victim of childhood sexual trauma said she heard the tea bag illustration in counseling at BJU: she was told by the BJU counselor that she was sinning because she was not focusing her thoughts the way Philippians 4:8 commanded, and that the following symptoms were coming out of her because she was like a tea bag and her trauma was like the hot water:

“I couldn’t stop being angry. Being angry was a sin. . . . What was inside of me was rage, terror, nightmares that woke me up almost every night crying, blackouts, a yellow fog that muted everything, or else I was hyper alert, on edge always. I felt like the lid that was on me as a tea kettle was just a little nudge away from exploding. I thought I was going crazy. . . . I walked around seeing myself as a tea kettle with a rattling lid about to explode. . . . I would hide out in the prayer room on the third floor in the dark and ask God to kill me because I was too chicken to step out in front of a car. I didn’t have any other way to die.”

That survivor happens to be someone I know, who suffered nearly indescribable torture as a child. Here’s more from that same woman:

The Christian counselor I was required to see engrained in me and other abuse survivors that what came out of us was from the evil that was in us. (He may not have used the word “evil,” but that’s the impression I was left with.) The trial was what happened, but I was responsible for how I responded to it, and however I did respond proved what was in my heart.

He called it the tea bag illustration: the hot water of trials is applied, and your reactions are the tea showing what was in your heart.He applied that to flashbacks, nightmares, anger, and depression, using Philippians 4:8 to prove that it was my wrong thinking that was at fault. I truly believed I was evil and that the “problem was in me, not around me.” I heard this so many times that even after ten months of healthy counseling with my current pastor, I still believed it.

Philippians 4:8, instead of the blessing and encouragement it was intended to be, has been turned around as a curse.

The pressures around us (the unfavorable circumstances, the temptations, and the commands of God to love Him and our neighbor) merely draw out of our heart what is already in it. We cannot blame the hot water for the taste in the cup. . . . Similarly, we cannot shift the blame for any bitterness, anger, despair, deception, cruelty, and so forth that we display when we are under pressure. The pressures merely expose how unlike Christ we really are.

~from Changed into His Image: God’s Plan for Transforming Your Life, p 4, by Jim Berg

I’d like to point out that the tea bag analogy isn’t Biblical, which is surprising since the man who promoted it claimed to be counseling from the Bible alone. Bitterness, on the other hand, is a Biblical expression for grief, and not a sin when it is simply the display of grief. (“Peter went out and wept bitterly” after denying the Lord Jesus Christ.) Anger can be very Christlike when it is righteous anger. Despair was even expressed a good bit in the psalms. (Cruelty is always a sin, of course, but is the exception far more than the rule in the abuse survivors I’ve interacted with.)

So what can we do instead?

Some may recognize that the above use of Philippians 4:8 is a common theme of nouthetic “admonishing” counseling (which is now usually called “Biblical counseling”) started by Jay Adams, the bottom line of which is that every problem you have boils down to your own sin. It’s really so simple—you just need to keep repenting and trying to change until your problems stop.

This kind of counseling has done untold damage in the lives of the abused.

Yes, each individual will still have sins to repent of. Yes, forgiveness is still important.

But in the conservative Christian world, through people who have never even heard of Jay Adams, nouthetic “admonishing” counseling has spread like a cancer. It is being used like a cudgel against those who desperately need to be rescued.

It’s as if the Good Samaritan saw the man lying on the side of the road and asked, “What sin did you commit to get you in this situation?” or “You need to turn your thoughts away from your broken bones and start thinking about things that are pure, lovely, and commendable, and if you don’t it’s obvious that there’s sin in your heart.”

Yes, we want to help people think about things that are good, especially to turn their thoughts to our Lord Jesus Christ and His holy love and great salvation. I hope that in my blog I’m accomplishing that at least to some small degree.

But thinking about things that are good cannot mean that we refuse to consider the dark deeds of the Evil One and the people who choose to follow him.

Here’s the rest of the story from the woman above:

What finally overwrote that “tape” was the anger of my current pastor against the damaging effect of that previous counselor. In my experience of many kinds of counselors, none of them had been personally invested in my life enough to allow themselves to be angry about what had happened to me. Without that anger, I still would have believed I was the evil one because “evil” was coming out of me. Now, though, that old “tape” has  been rewritten.

Those who love the Lord Jesus Christ must learn what wicked people have done and are still doing to the innocent, yes, even in our churches. If we don’t, the innocent will continue to suffer under damaging counseling such as the “tea bag” metaphor . . . and the misuse of beautiful Scriptures such as Philippians 4:8. 


Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.



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