A complicating problem, also called a secondary problem, is a problem that comes as a result of not handling the primary problem correctly in the first place. Jay Adams gives an example of complicating problems in his book Competent to Counsel, when he discusses how sin, not dealt with Biblically, spirals downward, out of control. He said, “Sinful habits are hard to break, but if they are not broken they will bind the client ever more tightly. He is held fast by these ropes of his own sin. He finds that sin spirals in a downward cycle, pulling him along. He is captured and tied up by sin’s ever-tightening cords. At length, he becomes sin’s slave” (p. 145). He goes on to use the event of Cain and Able in Genesis four as an example of this. Cain’s sacrifice was not accepted by God (4:5). Then Cain sat, seething and becoming more and more angry. God went to him and warned him not only about where he was headed, but also gave him a way out (4:7). Instead, Cain killed his brother Able and compounded his sin (4:8). Later, Cain added lying to the pile of sins (4:9), and he was forced to become a wanderer and a vagabond (4:12, 14).
Sometimes complicating problems are simpler to deal with than the deeper, heart problems. This is because the secondary problem is not often as important to the counselee as is the core problem. Sometimes the secondary problem is outside the counselee, but the core problem is part of him. To heal a light wound is easier than healing a deep wound. It is less intrusive for the counselee and may be used as a lead up to the deeper problems. On the other hand, because complicating problems are often simply symptoms of deeper problems, taking away the symptoms can give the counselee the impression that the root problem has been dealt with and she does not see the need to go deeper. For example, if the counselee presents a headache and you recommend aspirin, which temporarily relieves the pain, she may not go to a specialist to discover the tumor on her brain.
A counselor may also use secondary problems to more easily show a counselee where she has gone off the rails in handling sin by showing her, event by event, how and where she went wrong. Then, when the counselee understands that she has not viewed the situation accurately in the smaller events of her life, the counselor may have a relatively easy time revealing to her that it hasn’t just been the secondary issues that have gone south, but these are merely symptoms of a greater problem. Those smaller problems exist because deeper issues were never dealt with in a godly way.
An illustration of this would be our friend Elizabeth who came for counseling to help her with her finances. As we got to know her better and began discussing her life we realized that she had financial troubles because she could not keep a job for more than a few weeks. We then came to believe that the reason she could not hold down a job was because she always thought she knew better how to run a business than her managers and employers did. She also felt free to share her ideas and thoughts with them. And she became very emotional when her managers did not agree with her or when they did not change their procedures to fit her opinions. She eventually made such a ruckus they were forced to fire her. Her report on these events was that she was being persecuted because she was a Christian.
All the other things, including Elizabeth’s presenting problem, that she did not have enough money to live, were complicating problems. They kept her from seeing and understanding who she was in Christ and how she should be thinking and acting toward others in God’s world. Her root, heart, and preconditioning problem was that she had an inaccurate view of herself in the world God had placed her. She did not believe that God was God and she was not. Finally, she refused to take responsibility for her actions.