Working with people and their problems is often like working with an onion. To get to the heart of the matter, you often have to peel off several layers. People usually come to me with issues in their lives that they know they need to do something about. They know they are having trouble. What they don’t know is that the problems they know about are usually caused by problems they don’t know about. Sometimes these problems are sinful; sometimes they are not.
In either case, if you want to help a person with the problem they bring to you, you will need to go back and work with the underlying problems before you can help them with the problem they presented in the first place. In the biblical counseling world these two levels have names. The first level, the one the counselee brings to you is called the presentation level. The level that is usually causing the problems at the presentation level is called the performance level. There is another deeper level as well, but this will be dealt with in the next question.
Bob, a member of our church, wanted to quit smoking. He invited me to his house to attend a very serious ceremony wherein he declared to the world that he was going to quit smoking. After the ceremony, we agreed that I would meet with him to see how things were going. The next day, when I arrived at the place we had agreed to meet, I found Bob sitting at a table with a lit cigarette in his hand. When I asked how he happened to take up smoking again, he explained that when he had stopped for gas that morning, as was the normal Monday procedure, the clerk had given him a pack of cigarettes, some matches, and a cup of coffee. Without even thinking about it, and before he knew it, Bob found that he had smoked half his cigarette.
In this case, the presentation level problem was that Bob wanted to quit smoking. But when he stopped for gas, the habits of a decade kicked in, and he found himself smoking without even thinking about it. As I listened to Bob’s story, I realized that we had just discovered a non-sinful performance level problem. Stopping the habit of smoking was the presentation level problem. Where he bought the gas was a performance problem. There was nothing sinful about buying gas, but when Bob purchased gas at that particular gas station on Monday mornings, the habits of two men came together to cause Bob to smoke, even without his conscious knowledge. If we were going to help Bob quit smoking, his presentation problem, we were going to have to change his Monday habits, his performance problem. Bob needed to force himself to think about his actions so that he would have to decide whether to smoke or not. Once the performance level problem was solved, we could deal with the presentation problem in a different way.
Other performance problems would likely be the calming effect of smoking, the weight management that comes with smoking, the “cool” effect of smoking, the lifetime habit of smoking, etc. I simply picked the gas station illustration because it was a non-sinful reason for Bob’s smoking.
In reality, the gas station change would only clear things up a bit so that we could go after the preconditioning level, which is where we need to go to take Bob to the throne of God so that he can find grace for his need to change his life. He needs to trust in Christ for his calmness, weight management, cool attitude, habits, etc. The gas station event was a real performance level problem, but as with all performance level problems, it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Getting to the heart is the main purpose of counseling because it is out of the heart that the mouth speaks, the body acts, and the mind thinks (Lk. 6:42-45).
 Competent To Counsel, p. 148ff. Jay uses the term problem instead of level, but he uses them the same way I’m using them here.
 Help for the answer to this question came from http://hiswillmyhome.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/biblical-counseling-week-6-three-levels-to-problems/.