If only we could whittle biblical counseling down to a few basic, standardized, reproducible steps. Then we would know exactly what to do. First step one, then step two, three, and then four. No more counseling blunders. We would avoid those moments when we are clueless. We would have a clear script for every problem. We would be skilled counseling mechanics.

And, of course, we would no longer be biblical.

“We would know exactly what to do”—that’s the giveaway. When you know exactly what to do, you neither pray nor listen. Prayer is for the needy and desperate. In contrast, a specific technology of counseling would leave us feeling quite competent. Let the steps guide you. And why listen? All you need is a key word—anger, fear, conflict—then you dispense the correct treatment.

There is a biblical and theological background to all this.

The movement from Old Testament to New Testament. If we didn’t have the New Testament, we would be within our rights to pursue a technology of ministry. There are lots of laws in the Old Testament; not much is left to the imagination. But we have matured some since then. That is, we now have the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul, as a result, casts aside the laws that were intended to provide a barrier between ourselves and idolaters. In their place is meditation on the gospel and the clarion call to love others as we have been first loved. A technological approach to counseling misses some of these changes that took place at Pentecost.

The doctrine of the person. Many of the differences among Christian counselors can be traced back to differences in their theological understanding of the person—the more mechanical your understanding of people, the more mechanical your ministry method. The more you focus on techniques that sound the same from one counseling conversation to the next, the more you understand the person as a machine that, when it receives the correct input, will give the correct output. In contrast, the more you acknowledge a relational core to humanness (i.e., we live before God and before each other), the less rote and formulaic will be your ministry method. When Jesus revealed himself as the incarnate God, that was the death of rote law-keeping as our chief end. The aim of God’s people, as stated in many church mission statements, is “to know Christ and make him known.”

The influence of the culture. Step-by-step approaches to counseling (or preaching, parenting, relationships, and so on) have been around for centuries. Wherever legalism flourishes, you will find a ministry technology: “do this and you will live.” Our legalistic bent, however, received quite a boost from the industrial revolution. Out went the artisans and their hand-crafted wares and in came automation, replaceable parts, assembly lines, an emphasis on how rather than why, and results that come from following the directions. The more you veer into a technology of counseling, the more you identify with the basic images of the industrial age.

The alternative to the engineering model of counseling is the personal one. By personal I mean that we are people who listen and are moved by what we hear. Then we speak and the other person is moved by what we say. By personal I mean a wonderful back-and-forth of knowing and being known between two people, and a mystical back-and-forth with the Spirit of God who animates all ministry.

The only certain script we have is “How are you doing today?” To specify much beyond that takes the pleasure out of ministry and the process of joint discovery. Who wants to know the details of a conversation before you actually have the conversation? This sounds right—personal, not mechanical—and it sounds downright enjoyable. But there is a problem: it doesn’t give much guidance. “Just get in there, love the person, keep feeling the tug of the gospel and its implications, pray when you are stymied, and all will be well.” That is fine advice for experienced counselors, but it is gobbledygook to the person who wants to learn. You aren’t helped when a preacher who has preached thousands of sermons says, “Study the passage and wing it.” No one finds it helpful when you go to your first jazz guitar class and the instructor says, “Feel the music and improvise.” Easy for the instructor to say.

All of a sudden, techniques and steps sound attractive. Helpfulness at the expense of a little impersonal woodenness seems better than aimless but well-intentioned wandering. But just before we search the internet for a book on counseling technique and listening skills, we are reminded of a basic tenet of biblical counseling: it should be sophisticated enough to gain the attention of scholars and simple enough to be done by schoolchildren.

Know the other person well enough to be able to pray for him or her.

That’s biblical counseling in miniature. Be personal. Study and know the person. Then, together, consider how the promises and wisdom of God, especially as they meet their zenith in Jesus Christ, overtake, compel, and lead us in how to live and pray. And prayer, by the way, is a tangible expression of rising hope. Hope is what most of us dream about when we are stuck in our troubles.

There are details that lie behind these general guidelines. There are plenty of how-tos in biblical counseling. But they all serve to place wisdom in its apt setting—the knowledge of God and love.