Through the specific example of video game addiction, Alasdair Groves illustrates a broader skill fundamental to biblical counseling: learning to see and draw out what is good, even in the midst of someone making a mess of their life.
Hi, I’m Alasdair Groves and I host “Where Life and Scripture Meet,” a podcast of CCEF where we are committed to restoring Christ to counseling and counseling to the church. My goal today is to zoom in on a very specific example, kind of a case study, to illustrate an important fundamental value in biblical counseling. I suppose, in a sense, you could call it a skill as much as a value. But it applies in counseling all the time and it also applies in all of life and all relationships. The value and skill I want to look at is learning to see and draw out what is good in the midst of someone making a mess of their life. And in this case, we’ll be specifically looking at the issue of video game addiction.
Let me set up the conversation this way. The Holy Spirit, in Hebrews 10, calls us as Christians to spur one another on to love and good deeds. Now, there are lots of ways to do that, right? That’s an invitation to an incredible wealth of creativity as believers in thinking about how to spur other people on. And there’s going to be probably different things that are going to be more and less helpful to different people in different seasons, in terms of encouraging them toward love and good deeds.
Now, this particular way that I want to talk about—finding the traces of good in someone’s bad decisions—is one way of growing and being able to spur people on to love and good deeds that’s probably especially helpful when there aren’t a lot of good deeds coming out just at that particular moment from the person’s life. And it’s actually going to be a microcosm for seeing the surprisingness of the hope and power of the gospel. Because as those listening carefully to the rhythms of Scripture unfolding from Genesis to Revelation, we would expect to find that giving counsel and speaking effectively into the lives of others would tend to have the feel of something counterintuitive, something surprisingly good, something better than we had been picturing.
So without further ado, let’s meet my friend, Ben, and his video game problem, and let’s let the gospel surprise us. I remember working with a young man who I will call Ben. He was fairly quiet, well read. You could quickly tell that there was a pretty sharp mind behind a kind of withdrawn exterior. And he was spending countless hours on video games. It wasn’t unusual for him to put in an entire day. Sometimes it would be 16 to 18 hours at a stretch, often skipping meals to do so, losing sleep, losing weight, struggling to hold down a job or stay in school. It was scary to watch this young man throwing his life away into a video game.
Now, the particular game he had been playing had over a million players around the globe. And he was at one point, I believe, if I’m remembering correctly, in the top few hundred, so extreme, extreme time spent and dedication to this game. It was not a good thing.
But it was interesting because there were some things that, at least in a sense, were good as well. For example, he was a man profoundly willing to make sacrifices, right? He is going without food and sleep to pursue this goal. He also would talk about how he loved working together on a team with other players. This was sort of a wizards and monsters and elves type game. And so they would be on a particular mission to go defeat a monster or complete a task or a quest with others. Each member of the team bringing some particular gift or skill sets or whatever powers their character might have.
And he was a guy who you could see did indeed want to make something of his life. He was investing his energies and he wanted to see something come out of it. In a sense, he was obviously lazy and wrestled with self control. In another sense, he was highly motivated and accomplishing something that was very difficult to do and really did require an enormous amount of dedication and focus and pursuit.
It really matters to see the good in the midst of the bad. And when you do that and when I lay out further of what that looks like, I want to be clear up front. Seeing the good does not mean dismissing the bad. It doesn’t mean saying the bad isn’t bad. I’m not trying to minimize the badness of the bad. It just means though, when you try to see what is good in the midst of the bad, it means that you’re going to love and serve and minister much more effectively when you genuinely can see the good, particularly that un-erasable image of God-ness in a person, especially when they don’t expect it.
Now, what am I talking about? Why is this something that I would ever bother? Why wouldn’t your first reaction be,“You are throwing your life away? You’re being a fool. Stop this. No, this is bad.” Why would you take any time to think about any good aspects of it? We could imagine perhaps saying it is good that you do sometimes get away from the game, that you’ve been respectful to your mother in the last week and you were kind to your sister yesterday. You can imagine wanting to highlight things that were good in other areas and try to help pull him away. But why would there be value and actually saying even the very place you’re being a self-destructive fool, there’s actually some good worth highlighting.
And spoiler alert. It’s not trying to pat them on the shoulder and just make them feel better. It’s not trying to lessen the impact of the fact that you really do see bad. But here are three reasons why I think seeing the good in the midst of the bad is actually really helpful and important and it actually pushes toward the gospel. Here’s the first one.
When you listen for and look for, and actually call out the good things you see, it helps you connect to the other person. People appreciate being taken seriously. And as image bearers of the living God, it isn’t flattery to take someone really seriously, whatever they’re engaged in. Even with a two year old, we take it seriously when they can’t find their crayon, that’s a distressing thing. We don’t feel like it’s that big of a deal as we try to help them but we appreciate, or at least if we are going to love and care for them, we’re going to appreciate that this is in fact of significance to this person. We are right to take each other with an enormous sense of significance, because every person, formed in the image of the Lord who is on high, enthroned in holiness and deep goodness, that is something profound to be reckoned with.
So when you take interest in what someone else is doing, even if your main reason for having the conversation is a deep sense of concern about the problem that they are producing, to understand and to listen for: Why are you doing this? What is it that attracts you? What are you doing or what are your values? What are your interests and concerns? That is a profound way to connect to a person who is clearly struggling, even if their struggle is that they’re trying hard not to struggle against it.
In a sense, when you listen for the good and when you name it even and point it out, you’re starting to move past their walls. You’re coming in an unexpected way. Because they know, or at least very strongly suspect, that you want to take away something they love and crave. But here you are genuinely interested to understand their passion. This is unexpected. This is already surprising and in a good way, from their perspective. So there’s a way in which simply being able to enter the person’s world and connect to someone who actually genuinely cares about them as a person is going to be served well, by finding the good in the very thing that is the problem.
Here’s a second thought. Here’s another way where you can see the value of this. When you look for the good, you’re going to see what is motivating them, in ways you can build on rather than attack in order to help them change. And there’s probably a couple of ways that this plays out.
The first is that when you see someone who is highly motivated, who is willing to sacrifice, someone who is dedicated. As I watch this guy pouring himself in, there was a sense in whic I was genuinely impressed. I don’t know that I’ve ever done anything for 18 straight hours and I’m not sure there’s anything I can think of I would want to do for 18 straight hours. This is the semi boot camp like levels of physical endurance that’s being shown here. Now again, not a good thing. Not trying to say, yeah, that’s great. You should go do that again tomorrow. I’m simply wanting to honor, wow, that’s really intense that you have been able to do such a thing.
What I want, of course, ultimately, is for that person to move from “I’m spending this effort and energy into something that’s just a video game,” that does not advance much good in this world, that does not connect you more closely to your local church. Right? But there’s a way in which I want to be able to build on his desire to sacrifice for something worthwhile, to build on a sense of here’s someone who does see things as worth pursuing and pursuing hard.
Now, an aside. Those of you who maybe are more familiar with biblical counseling know that idolatry is a common topic that arises and we often rightly get concerned when we start hearing people say like, oh, well, you want to be really important. Don’t pursue that by impressing people. Pursue that by digging more deeply into your church and by reading more of the Bible. And so there’s a wrong way to say, oh, you know what? This desire you have, it’s just a great thing, and we just want to help you do that in a more healthy way. There can be places where we want to encourage desires to be more healthy, but there’s a right way to worry.
And especially in a situation like this, right, here’s a guy who is desperate to be at the top levels in his video game. If you were simply to encourage and shift that from don’t be in the top levels at your video game, go be in the top levels of volunteering in your community and showing up at your small group and investing in discipling younger guys or whatever. If you don’t change the heart that’s lusting after fame and achievement, you’re not actually helping the person.
So there is a danger, there are no doubts. And I want to be honest about that. But there is a right way to see that someone has a value deep inside that is good and right, like having an impact, like accomplishing something worthwhile. Think about the love of quest that I was talking about with Ben. Right? He loved the experience of working together with people with this clear sense of mission and being on mission. The video game addict may be blind to the excitement and adventure outside of the video game and the things worth pursuing all around them. The lives of their friends and their family and opportunities in the local church for ministry and for personal enrichment and growing.
And here’s somebody who is dedicated to advancing his character, his wizard or his warrior or whatever, to level 99 and being in the top few hundred players. Here’s someone who’s dedicated to seeing character increase. I would love for him to be that passionate about seeing real genuine character, not a character in a game, but his own actual soul, his own actual maturity, his own faith and relationship with the Lord, his own ability to suffer on behalf of others that they might have something good. I would love to see those things increase. And I want him to grow in that.
But there’s a sense in which if that’s what I’m wanting for him, the fact that I’m seeing at least a trace of it, at least an echo of it, at least something that shows in him there is a value he shares here, something he sees in the quest that does attract him. It’s important for me to know that. I want that in my mind, pushing me as I think about how can I help him develop a godly, holy, humble, healthy vision for participating in the kingdom of God, for throwing himself into what is essentially, I think you could fairly describe, as the quest of the Christian life.
So again, you have to be careful. You don’t want to just say like, oh, you like quests? Great. We’ll make Jesus your quest and you can feel good about yourself because you’re doing the quest of Jesus. Obviously, there’s a danger of making it all about you and the pride you can just inflame. But there is something you can build on here and we don’t want to miss that, we don’t want to lose that, as we help call somebody to really engage outside the game and to have a greater sense of quest outside in the outside world.
And one of the reasons people do video games, and I think we can probably, especially those of us in ministry appreciate this, is that it’s simpler. It’s easy. The rules are simple. The rewards are simple. You know exactly what you’re doing. You’re not being distracted in a thousand different directions. It’s not the complexity of relationships with up and down and it’s hard to know. Did I really add value here today or not? You’ve got your little point counter up in the corner. And that is telling you here’s how you are doing. There’s something nice about the simplicity and structure that a game brings that real life does not. And that’s because real life is of greater significance. It is more complicated. It is more important, right? It is real, where the game is only a game.
So number one, looking for the good helps you to connect with the person in surprising ways. Number two, there can be this surprising way where they can realize, oh, there’s this longing in me that while it’s not headed in a right direction and it’s certainly not producing good fruit, there is at least something in it that’s actually calling me to something larger than this game. And that may be a helpful piece of connecting me to the gospel. There’s a surprising goodness to find that in the center of my addictive behavior was actually something I was longing for that was right and pointing me in a good direction.
The third way in which I think this process, this value, this skill is helpful is that it actually impacts and changes you as the person trying to help. And it does this in two ways. Number one, it encourages you. When you can see that there’s good, even the midst of the darkest ugliest stuff coming out of somebody, it is this reminder, okay, all is not lost here. I do see something really good and right and human here. There is something that can be built on in this life.
As helpers, we’re always going to be tempted to despair and to frustration, when we see entrenched patterns of ugliness, especially self-destructiveness and self-sabotaging in somebody else’s life. Here’s this reminder. Here’s this light breaking through in this moment that is this call to us from the Lord: you cannot erase the image of God in people. Your sin cannot pull you out of God’s world and of his power and of his goodness and of his impact on what we even perceive and pursue as good, even in our worst and darkest moments.
Secondly, the way I think it changes you to look for the good is that it can soften you. It can help you have a compassion for this other person. Watching Ben, I mean, here’s a guy investing an enormous amount of his life in something so fleeting and so paltry and so not worth it. Right? There’s actually this right kind of good, healthy, godly, kind pity that we can have for people whose grand ambition is to be in the top 300 players of a video game.
And in fact, we’ll pity them more the more they succeed in that ambition. That’s true in any addiction, any awful behavior. There’s a right and appropriate compassion, watching someone pour out their life with that which does not satisfy, that does not actually give life. Jeremiah 2. That sense of you’re digging a broken cistern here. You’re giving yourself for that which is utter foolishness.
So here’s where we land. When we’re seeking to love and minister and spur people on to love and good deeds, we want to look for the good, even in the midst of foolishness and self-destructive patterns and outright sin. And you’ll be surprised and encouraged how even in our worst moments, we never fully efface the image of God into which he has molded every one of us. His redemption is always seeping into our lives. It’s endlessly bubbling up where we least expect it. And sometimes, it comes bursting forth, even after all hope had seemed to be gone.
Alasdair is the Executive Director of CCEF, as well as a faculty member and counselor. He has served at CCEF since 2009. He holds a master of divinity with an emphasis in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary. Alasdair cofounded CCEF New England, where he served as director for ten years. He also served as the director of CCEF’s School of Biblical Counseling for three years. He is the host of CCEF’s podcast, Where Life & Scripture Meet, and is the coauthor of Untangling Emotions (Crossway, 2019).