In this episode of Mind + Heart, Phillip Holmes interviews Mike Hillerman, Adjunct Professor of Counseling and the Program Development Coordinator for the Master of Arts in Counseling program at Reformed Theological Seminary. Hillerman is currently a doctoral candidate in Counselor Education in the area of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Mississippi State University. He is also a private practice counselor and co-founded Hopewell Counseling. Mike and his wife, Cristy, have been married since 1993, and they have four adult children. Hillerman talks with Holmes about the Christian response to suffering and the interaction between counseling and Christianity.
Holmes asks Hillerman about his background and testimony. Hillerman explains his growing-up years in a secular environment and his general hostility to Christianity until a pastor developed a long-standing relationship with him and was able to answer some of his questions regarding God’s goodness in suffering and evil. Hillerman talks about his conversion and eventual calling into Christian counseling.
Holmes asks Hillerman about his experience wrestling with the issue of God’s goodness in suffering. Hillerman discusses his entry into the seminary world and his discomfort with theodicy, especially the isolation and destabilizing effects of that distress. He explains the process and progress of his question and discusses the necessity of that process to grow him in his faith.
Holmes and Hillerman discuss the importance of the process of sanctification and the various temptations Christians experience to judge one another in our different experiences of sanctification. Holmes asks Hillerman to explain the difference between someone who experiences the process of suffering for themselves and someone who is observing the process of suffering in someone else. Hillerman talks about mirror neurons and the effects of the fall on our ability to empathize and sympathize. He also talks about possible reactions and the appropriateness of those reactions, depending on the situation.
Holmes asks Hillerman about the interaction of the truths of Scripture with the science of psychology. Hillerman talks about the discoveries of psychology over the last hundred years, and the presence of these truths in Scripture, using Psalm 73 as an example. Holmes and Hillerman also examine Jesus’ raising of Lazarus and his differing reactions to Mary and Martha.
Mind + Heart Bonus Episode: Suffering
Phillip Holmes: Welcome to the Mind + Heart podcast, which features interviews and more from the faculty and friends of Reformed Theological Seminary. We created this podcast to assist you in your daily quest to love God and love your neighbor. I’m your host, Phillip Holmes, and this week I’m joined by my guest, Mike Hillerman. Mike Hillerman is an Adjunct Professor of Counseling and the Program Development Coordinator for the Master of Arts in Counseling program at Reformed Theological Seminary. He holds an MA in Marriage and Family Therapy and Counseling from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Bachelor of Science from the University of West Florida, graduating with honors from both institutions. Mr. Hillerman is currently a doctoral candidate in Counselor Education in the area of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Mississippi State University. He is also a private practice counselor and co-founded Hopewell Counseling. Mike is an approved supervisor with the Mississippi Board of Counselors and is a past secretary with the Mississippi Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. In 2006, he left a 15-year career in software development to pursue a calling to become a professional Christian counselor. Mike and his wife, Cristy, have been married since 1993, and they have four adult children. Mike, welcome to the show.
Mike Hillerman: Thanks, Phillip. I’m glad to be here.
Phillip Holmes: I’m so interested in hearing your story. So before we dive into the topic for this particular episode — because I think they’re intertwined — tell us a little bit about yourself. Briefly give us your origin story. Where did you grow up? How did you become a follower of Jesus?
Mike Hillerman: Well, so, I was raised in a single mom home, and my mom and dad both grew up in religious families but had both fallen away from the church for different reasons — mom from a Catholic background, dad from a Lutheran. And there’s a whole story on that that I could go into. I won’t go into [it]. But I end up growing up secular. [I] didn’t know at the time, but a secular hedonist who, you know, went through high school and college in Florida and really didn’t see any issue with any of the ways I thought about things, how I thought about — I really saw religion and Christianity specifically as almost something to avoid that was kind of controlling, or it was out there to try to like, manipulate you in order to serve its own purposes. And so I was a skeptic. And so, I brought all of that loveliness into my marriage. And a couple of years into my marriage, I started experiencing and engaging in conflict with my wife. That’s not uncommon, right, in marriages? It happens. But it was happening at a level of an intensity that reminded me of stuff that I saw growing up in my family that I thought I would never engage in, right? So, you know, when you’re growing up, and you see your parents, or your parent and stepparent, and they’re in conflict, and they’re getting pretty heated and doing stuff that’s really not good, as a kid, you think at some level, “I’m never going to do that,” right? And there’s that time when I did that. And at the time, I was attending a church with my wife. My wife has been a Christian the whole time I’ve known her.
Phillip Holmes: So would you have called yourself a Christian?
Mike Hillerman: No, absolutely not. And when people talked to me about it, I was really upfront about that. Like, I’m just here, you know? And what I would say is, “I’m here because if I’m going to reject Christianity — which I fully plan on doing, by the way — I might as well know what it is I’m rejecting.” And I’m attending this church with my wife, and we have this huge conflict, involves a camping trip and some really ugly stuff that went down that I won’t go into all the details of, but I saw my own sin. I wouldn’t have thought of it in those terms at that time, but I saw its ugliness, and I saw it come out of me, things that I just never thought I was capable of. And so, I go to the pastor of this church. His name is Dr. John Westfall. And he listened. I told him what happened between my wife and [me] and what had been going on. I told him I wasn’t a Christian and that I thought maybe there was a relationship between the two of those things. And he engaged in a year-long relationship with me, where he asked me questions about growing up and what my family life was like and just got to know me. And about a year into it, I was in his office again, and I was wrestling with whether or not I should participate in the baptism of my first child. Because when I got married, I made all these commitments in this church. But I, you know, I was secular; I didn’t really believe them. And here I am now, getting ready to stand up in front of a church at this baptism and do the same thing, and there was something in me that was just like, “That’s just not right.” And so we had again been in this relationship, and he — I went to him, you know, talking about this, and he said, “Well, Mike, what is keeping you from belief? From accepting Christ?” And so I told him, gave him the answer, and he looked at me, and he said, “OK, Mike, so if I answer this one, is this really it, or are you going to come up with something else?” And I said, “No, this is really — this is it.” And so again, he answered it. And when he answered it, I kind of knew that he hadn’t really fully answered it because it’s one of those kinds of issues that’s hard to really have an answer for. But this weird thing happened, Phillip. Like, I’m sitting in this office, in his office, and I’m realizing all at the same moment, he hasn’t quite really answered the question. But I also realized that I suddenly have this profound sense that God is real and that I’ve been avoiding him most of my adult life now. I had the sense that the Bible said what God wanted it to say. And that I had this, like, moment of, I could either accept these things that I know, like, I already know are true, or I could continue to avoid them. And so I looked at him, and I said, “I’m ready.” And he prayed with me, and I prayed. And in that moment, I accepted Christ. So that’s the — I mean, there’s certainly much more I could say.
Phillip Holmes: Yeah, that’s super helpful. What I think I appreciate the most about what that story revealed is the power of the Holy Spirit and his ability to deal with imperfect answers. Because in that story, I mean, thank God for that pastor being faithful. But ultimately, in that story, it wasn’t his eloquence. It wasn’t, sort of, his clarity. It wasn’t him having the right exact answer. Something else took place that was miraculous.
Mike Hillerman: The Holy Spirit was working in my heart. And certainly, Dr. Westfall was involved.
Phillip Holmes: Absolutely. He was an instrument.
Mike Hillerman: He’s in that, right. Yeah, but he didn’t have to have all the right answers.
Phillip Holmes: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I’m sure Dr. Westfall would rejoice in that, knowing that in his feeble attempt to explain, given time and, you know, maybe given the pen and the paper, he probably could have fully answered your question. But it still shows that, again, the Holy Spirit just needs us to be as faithful as we can be, and he can use that. He’s able to use that. You described yourself — what was the question? I’m curious. Do you mind sharing?
Mike Hillerman: No, I can share that. A big question for me at that moment was — and had been for some time — how is it that a good and, really, a fair God could create people and populate the Earth with those people, most of whom would never have the chance to know Christ and were doomed to hell in the afterlife? How could that be the result of a good and just God? So in some ways, and we will get later into the story here, that theme continues in some ways.
Phillip Holmes: Yeah. So I mean, that actually ties in with my next question for you, at least my first question. “Have you ever wrestled with the question of God’s goodness and man’s suffering?” was the original way I posed the question to you, but obviously, you have. So out of that experience, like, what did you learn from it?
Mike Hillerman: Well, you know, again, in that moment, it was overridden by this profound experience that I had. But you know, what happened after that, if you fast forward, oh, six or seven years, you know, in that moment when I accepted Christ, I was working in a software company in Northern California, just outside of San Francisco, and was really happy doing that. But between the time I became a believer, and about seven years later, I had this growing sense of discontentment in me where I found it increasingly difficult to work in this secular software environment where my whole job—and it was a difficult job in that required a lot of hours, intense work—the whole point of that was to help this multibillion-dollar software company make more money. I mean, at the end of the day, that is what it boiled down to, and not that there wasn’t good in that, but I just felt this growing sense of discontentment, and that ultimately led me to leave that whole profession, and as you said earlier in the bio, to pursue what I perceived as a calling into the ministry of Christian counseling. And so, you know, Cristy was on board for this. We talked it over. We pack up the kids, you know, sell the house, pack up the kids, drive across the country, land in this majestic and wonderful world of Jackson, Mississippi, which is completely different than Northern California in many ways, in order to pursue this master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and counseling. Well where I’m going with all this, is that I’ve disrupted my whole life here. Left all that I knew, left this, you know, pretty lucrative career that I had in software. And I’m about a year-plus into seminary, right, into the marriage and family therapy program at RTS, and this very issue comes back and bites me, right? I have this moment somewhere in that second year where I realize that I still can’t reconcile how there can be evil and suffering in this world while God is God, and he is good, and he is all-powerful. So the whole problem of evil is how the problem is framed. And Phillip, it rocked my world because I had disrupted my whole life, and now here I am, questioning the very God I had disrupted it for, and all the underlined — like, the idea that the Bible is true and says what God wants it to say, you know, is that really true? How can I know that? And so I went through this intense period of distress while I’m in seminary. And I didn’t really feel like I could talk about it with anybody. And all I’ll say is that over a lengthy period of time — and I think, really, because of faithful attendance at a Bible-believing church, God resolved those issues in me. But much like my original conversion, it wasn’t one person’s succinct answer. It was a prolonged experience of wrestling with these issues, and who is God, and what is God? And I have come to a very different place now, but it took a long time to get there.
Phillip Holmes: No, that’s helpful. So ultimately, what you’re saying is it was a process. You know, it’s interesting again, you are a new Christian, or I guess, at the time when the question was being answered, the Holy Spirit was in the process of softening your heart, bringing you over, if you will. And the answer, though incomplete or though not as comprehensive, perhaps, it changes you in that moment. It wasn’t really a process. It was kind of like, boom; something’s different. I get it. God is God. The Scriptures are true. Now all of a sudden, you’re just surrounded by theology and theologians, and you’re in the church community, and you find yourself wrestling once again with this same question. And then it’s a process.
Scripture says exactly what God wants it to say, and that that has something to say about what’s going on in our clients’ lives and how we should work with our clients, how we should even view our clients.Mike Hillerman: It was. Yeah. And I think that was — it [was] God’s plan all along. It was really distressing for me. But it wasn’t distressing for him. It’s exactly what he knew I needed to go through. So I look back on it differently now than when you’re going through it.
Phillip Holmes: Well, I would imagine that that probably made you a better counselor.
Mike Hillerman: I think it did.
Phillip Holmes: If the experience was instant for you, right —
Mike Hillerman: You expect it for —
Phillip Holmes: That’s how we’re wired, right? We look at other people, and it’s like, “Why is this not instant for you?” Like, “I heard it, and I just got it.” You know, if you don’t get it, maybe something’s, you know. And, of course, you wouldn’t say that as a counselor, but it did position you to be able to empathize with people going through the process.
Mike Hillerman: That’s exactly right, and I think, true. The idea of patience, long-suffering, and I’m good with that.
Phillip Holmes: Yeah, yeah, that’s helpful. In your experience as a counselor, how do we tend to respond – we, as just people, tend to respond to other people’s suffering versus how we respond when we are the ones experiencing that suffering for the first time? How have you noticed the differences between somebody looking at what somebody else is going through and then when they’re actually faced with some type of trial or period of suffering?
Mike Hillerman: That’s a great question. In both cases, what we experience is a measure of distress. So when we go through suffering ourselves, you know, like I described in that moment of time of suffering that I went through in seminary, there’s an intense set of distress. And what am I wanting in that? I’m wanting the distress to go away. I’m wanting it to resolve, right? When we encounter someone else in — someone else’s distress, their own suffering — so, I’m with someone, and they describe to me something that they’re experiencing that’s causing them a lot of suffering, I too experienced distress in that. That’s how most people experience that. And that’s built-in. So, there’s something called mirror neurons that we have — all humans, in fact, all mammals have these. And they activate when we see and hear other people in different kinds of situations. And this is what causes — part of what causes us to feel things like empathy and sympathy. And so we often experience distress at someone else’s suffering, and that often prompts [us] to act to try to do something, right? And again, I think that’s built-in. Now, the fall has an effect on everything in this world, including this aspect of human experience, and I think distorts, often, our reaction to other people’s suffering because what happens is, often, I think, we feel distressed and then we try to come up with something to say, we want to act, that will simultaneously comfort the other person and get rid of our own distress.
Phillip Holmes: Man. Yeah, that’s good. That’s true.
Mike Hillerman: Now, sometimes we are skilled at that, and we can actually pull that off. But other times, what we end up saying doesn’t actually offer comfort. It’s seeking more to alleviate our own distress and can have the opposite effect of what we intend on the other.
Phillip Holmes: Especially if the person can see that you’re ultimately making this about you, and they’re the ones who, you know. Because usually, I mean, the reality is, is that when we see somebody else suffer, we’re affected in real-time. But when we go home, chances are high — and it doesn’t necessarily have to happen this way, but — the chances are high that we’re going to forget about it and move on. It’s not our thing.
Mike Hillerman: Yeah, we’re not — it’s not our crisis or suffering. Yeah, it’s someone else’s.
Phillip Holmes: And so, to experience someone making a situation about them rather than the person who’s actually going through the suffering, the offense is kind of worse, in a sense.
Mike Hillerman: It is. And it now piles additional suffering on top of the original suffering.
Phillip Holmes: Because then you feel isolated. Which is the worst place you can find yourself when you’re suffering, right?
Mike Hillerman: Yeah, I know I mentioned when I was going through that thing in seminary, I couldn’t talk about it. And one of the hardest things was the isolation, just what you’re talking about.
Phillip Holmes: How do you think Christians can leverage the authoritative teachings of Scripture? Because, you know, counseling right now is sort of — well, I feel like it’s less controversial than it used to be.
Phillip Holmes: It’s definitely there, but it’s not the focal point, at least in the circles that I listen to. But there’s always been this tension, though, that Christians have kind of had when it comes to, “What does counseling look like within the church? What does it mean to be a Christian and a licensed professional counselor who actually uses mental health science and leverages that in their counseling as a Christian?” I don’t want to get into that. But I do think that it’s important that our listeners understand the importance of Scripture and what that’s like for you as a Christian who’s also a professional licensed counselor. Briefly talk about that before we dive into this particular question?
Mike Hillerman: Sure, I mean — so, a professional counselor goes through all the kind of normal training and mental health theories and all the stuff that you go through there. You know, there’s over 100 years of literature on psychology and how to help people that we can learn from, right, that are — these aren’t just theories now. These are, you know, empirical truths that we’ve discovered about, you know, what helps people respond in different situations? What can help them deal with things like depression and anxiety? And that’s all important to learn. OK, so what’s different then, about Christian professional counselor? And it is what you just asked. It is the belief that Scripture says exactly what God wants it to say, and that that has something to say about what’s going on in our clients’ lives and how we should work with our clients, how we should even view our clients. So you know, again, I don’t know how far you want to go into this, but like, that’s a huge piece. And I can give you an example of, like, in this area of suffering if you want. So just going back to my story, often, you know, when you have someone who’s going through a difficult time, and they have that sense of isolation, they start to wonder what this means, right? What does this say about God? What does this say about their faith? And so when you’re working with someone or trying to help someone who is going through that kind of an experience, I like to point to Psalm 73. It’s kind of a way of helping frame how you might respond to somebody. So in Psalm 73, it’s a Psalm of Asaph. And it’s about two topics. It’s about how the unrighteous prosper, and then it’s about suffering of the faithful. And it’s really an autobiographical account. Asaph was like, the, in a sense, the worship leader for the nation of Israel. So he’s like, way, way up there, and he is — in the psalm, he is describing how he sees how the arrogant and the wicked prosper and thrive. And they’re healthy, and they have few worries in comparison to the faithful who so often struggle, and they struggle with everything from health problems to finance problems, or all these things that they struggle with. And he sees this disparity. And he slips into a bit of despair about how can God allow this? He’s a righteous, good God. How can he allow the wicked to prosper? And what it says in Psalm 73, is that Asaph despairs and begins to question God, how can this be? And he talks about the isolation that you just mentioned. He says, “I could speak thus, but it would corrupt God’s people.” It would be a corrupting influence. If he were to raise this issue, it might cause someone else to start thinking these things, it might cause them to despair. And so he had to — and that caused this, like, bitterness to grow in him. He became embittered and he describes in this language of he “became like a brute beast.” And if you read the commentaries on this psalm, what they say is he’s describing his — he almost loses his higher-order faculties and begins to respond in this very basic, primitive way. “I’m in pain, I’m suffering,” and he forgets what he once knew to be true about God. So first thing I would say is, you know, what do you do with the Scripture is, it reminds us that when people suffer, sometimes they forget things they once knew to be true. And we shouldn’t be surprised by that. But it also says as you continue into that psalm, Asaph says that God held him in his hands the whole time that he was going through this, and brings him through in the end. And I point to that to people who are having to respond to folks who are suffering as a reminder of, “You don’t have to worry. If this person is a child of God, God is going to bring them through this, and you don’t have to be anxious about that.” And that frees us up. So, part of the, what we talked about earlier, that distress that we feel sometimes when we’re trying to help, especially a fellow believer and they’re maybe struggling in one of these areas. So we start to get distressed about their, where, you know, where their faith is and what’s going on, and that causes us to feel distress. And then we start, you know, trying to make ourselves feel better by saying things, and all that, that whole dynamic. Psalm 73 reminds us, just like you pointed out in my own conversion, it wasn’t up to Dr. Westfall to say the right things. It’s not up to us to save this friend or colleague. The Holy Spirit is working in them, and he’s going to use this time of their distress for that person’s sanctification, for whatever God is doing in them, and we can — that frees us up to be — what the psychological literature would say is important is — stable. For us to not be in distress ourselves, to care, to be empathetic, but not to be distressed about what that person is going through. And so, that’s where you can kind of see these two major things kind of really interweaving together.
Phillip Holmes: You actually answered my last question. Mike, any final words or thoughts about this topic in general? Maybe something you wanted to talk about but we didn’t cover in one of my questions?
Mike Hillerman: You know, I did want to say one thing, and that is, sometimes, because of the distress that we feel, we can actually get irritated with the other person. You talked about making it about us, and I really want to caution the church about that, that if you notice yourself getting irritated with someone who’s in grief, who’s suffering, maybe they’re not recovering as quickly as you want, so you’re continuing to feel distressed, you know, and you’d really like to be done with this. When you notice you’re, like, getting irritated with that person, I really just would encourage all of us to really check that. Like, what’s going on there, you know? And are we attending to them, or are we attending to ourselves? If you can get to this place that I’m trying to describe here of, “You know what? The Holy Spirit is working in them. And I have to have some part to play in this.” I’m, as you said, an instrument in this, but it’s not all on me; that frees me up to have discernment about how to respond. And sometimes, my response might be encouragement. It might be even an instruction. “Hey, I really think you ought to look at doing this,” right? But other times, it might just be just sitting with that person in their grief and weeping with them. I use the story of Martha and Mary when Lazarus dies as an example of this, right? So, you know, Lazarus dies, Jesus comes back, and you have one sister who basically says, “Lord, if you had been here, he wouldn’t be dead. But even now, I know all things are possible through you.” And so, she remembers Christ, right? And what he’s capable of. [She] sees him clearly. And for her, Christ offers instruction and direction. The other sister, you know, when Jesus comes, basically says, “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died,” and leaves it at that. And here, I think, is an example of someone who has forgotten what she once knew to be true. And how does Jesus respond?
Phillip Holmes: He wept.
Mike Hillerman: Right. He doesn’t rebuke her. He doesn’t say, “Cease all this excessive emotionalism.” Right? And he could have rightly told her, “Look, he’s going to be standing here in a couple of minutes. Just relax.” He weeps. And just having that discernment, being able to be stable knowing that the Holy Spirit’s doing way more than I’m doing, and that something good is going to come out of this, and then having the discernment to go, “Where is this person right now and what do they need?” That’s, I think, probably the big thing I wanted to say.
Phillip Holmes: Yeah, no, and just a real quick observation. Weeping is not a sign of instability.
Mike Hillerman: Right. It is not.
Phillip Holmes: And even though the Bible says, “Mourn with those who mourn, weep with those who weep,” I do think that sometimes we feel like we have to be the strong one. It’s not the Holy Spirit. That’s not a Christian view, right of mourning. I’ve just gone through two instances, one with my grandmother passing away and another one with my son nearly drowning. And both were very difficult. In those incidents, especially with my grandmother passing away, it was a really, really difficult situation for us because she was kind of the matriarch of the family and, you know, she had nieces that were essentially our daughters. But you know, you’re always going to have those who feel like they’re stronger because they’re not weeping, because they’re not crying.
Mike Hillerman: That moment really demands weeping.
Phillip Holmes: But that requires us a certain level of vulnerability that I think we’re uncomfortable with.
Mike Hillerman: And interestingly, Christ was not uncomfortable with that kind of vulnerability.
Phillip Holmes: Yeah, yeah, that’s good. That’s so good. Thank you, Mike, for joining us today, and thank you for stopping by the office to do this in particular.
Mike Hillerman: My pleasure. Glad to be here.
Phillip Holmes: Yeah, thank you for tuning in. And we hope you enjoyed this week’s episode featuring Mike Hillerman. I also would like to thank the RTS family, church partners, students, alumni, and donors for the many ways you make the work of Reformed Theological Seminary possible. Mind + Heart is powered by Reformed Theological Seminary, where we desire to raise up pastors and other church leaders with a mind for truth and a heart for God.