The Power of Positive Homework by David Dunham


The regular rehearsal of his failures was utterly discouraging. It seemed every week he was reporting the same dramatic, sinful behavior. There was evidence that some things were improving, but every confession was deflating. I had him regularly recording a problem incident and he could often tell me what he had done wrong and what he should have done. The focus on his failures, however, was overshadowing the progress he was making and the hope that he could change. A shift in focus made a real difference in my counselee’s life and growth. There is tremendous power in properly used positive homework.

Counselors know that recurring failure is an important issue to address. Often it can evidence that a counselee is not really ready to change, that they aren’t willing to work hard, or that perhaps they don’t yet understand their problem. Recurring failure needs to be addressed intentionally and firmly. Yet, good counselors also know that change is a process. Sometimes, our counselee needs particular encouragement to see the progress they are making. That’s the power of positive homework, which aims to identify, celebrate, and encourage successful growth in the life of a believer.

In talking with my friend I knew how frustrated he was. His repeated failure was an issue and I had been firm in questioning his efforts. The longer we met, however, the more I sensed that he was as frustrated with his sin as I was, and weekly reporting these failures was leading him to increasing despair. It occurred to me that he had seen real victory in his battles and helping him to recognize it could be a help to spurring him towards greater growth. That’s where positive homework proved most helpful.

Instead of having him report his problem incidents each week I wanted my friend to report his successes. The goal was twofold: (1) I wanted him to focus his attention and energy on doing the right thing, not simply avoiding the wrong things; and (2) I wanted him to see that he could achieve consistent progress. Overtime that is precisely what we both began to witness.

The positive homework meant that he was not merely trying to avoid sin; he was going to have to actively pursue obedience. It was the difference between fighting the temptation to blow up at his wife and kids and applying the principle of sacrificial love. By giving him positive homework he was being forced to proactively fight against temptation by serving another. The shift in focus meant that he was regularly mediating on doing good, serving, loving, and sacrificing. Negative homework has its place, of course. But sometimes a prolonged season of focusing on what you’re not doing right can exacerbate a problem. In this case, my friend had spent so much time focusing on the negatives that he didn’t know exactly what to actively do. All his self-counsel during the week came down to “don’t blow-up.” It wasn’t amounting to much change. The positive homework gave him opportunity to take steps away from his anger. When tempted to blow-up he would remind himself, I have to record three successes this week – this needs to be one of them.

Positive homework also meant that he could begin to see his progress more clearly. Prolonged focus on what he wasn’t doing right had disposed him to hopelessness. He was constantly starring his failures in the face, and as a result was convinced that nothing was getting better. But the genuine brokenness I began to see in his response to those failures said otherwise. I wanted to show him more clearly that he could believe that God’s Spirit was at work in Him. There was fruit that he could not yet see because his vision was clouded by certain failures. The positive homework helped him see things more clearly. Yes, he still had/has a long way to go, but there was progress.

There is power in positive homework. I have seen it in multiple cases like this one. Alone it won’t be enough to produce change. We need to get to a person’s heart and motivation, applying the Scriptures by the power of the Spirit to their situation. But positive homework aims to celebrate changes in behavior for the purposes of encouraging a counselee. Properly used, positive homework can be incredibly powerful. The keyword is “properly.” If not used properly it can be counterproductive. If I had used it too early in this case my friend would have been convinced of more change than there actually was. If there is still a great deal of pride in a counselee, if there is still a lot of justification for sin, then they are not ready for this kind of positive homework. If tracking their successes will only inflate their ego and allow them to dismiss their faults then they are not ready for positive homework. We must be patient with people, making sure that they fully understand the depth of their sin and the gravity of their situation. We want to make sure a person fully grasps repentance. Used too quickly positive homework becomes disastrous to counseling. Used properly, however, it can be the difference between a stagnant counselee and a hopeful one.

As Biblical counselors it is important that we be sensitive to people. We need to pay careful attention to their frustrations. If the barrage of their failures is dragging them down a wise counselor knows to lift their eyes to the cross. He should also lift their eyes to the fruit of the Spirit’s work in them. If He is at work find creative ways to highlight that for them. Positive homework can be just the thing a person needs to get them out of the trenches. Good counselors can use positive homework to point people to that one great truth of sanctification: he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). God is at work the lives of His people, remind your counselee of this truth.

David Dunham is an associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

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