Listen to your critics.

Whether the critics be your spouse, friends, enemies, colleagues or those who share your vocational interests, listen to your critics. I might not be good at it, but, especially when it comes to biblical counseling, I want to be. Jack Miller, whose preaching had a significant influence on me, always exhorted us to look for the kernel of truth in the critique we receive. David Powlison’s dissertation on the history of biblical counseling has challenged me to listen even more.

As I try to listen to what others say about biblical counseling I can identify two categories of critique.

  1. There are weaknesses in our actual counseling approach.
    • Biblical counseling is good for spiritual problems but not clinical ones.
    • Biblical counseling is good for sin but not for suffering, victimization or other problems from our pasts.
    • Biblical counseling has hurt me. Some people have been misunderstood or treated harshly by people who identified themselves as biblical counselors.
  2. There are weaknesses in our position on modern psychology.
    • Biblical counseling avoids secular research to its detriment.
    • Biblical counseling is naïve in that it has been influenced by secular material but we deny that influence.

There are kernels of truth in all the points, no doubt. I’ll respond to one of them: biblical counseling is good for spiritual problems but not clinical ones.

I disagree, of course. Biblical counseling is the cure for everything. Next question.

Just kidding.

This is actually a complicated proposition. Embedded in it is a world of opinions on definitions for both spiritual and clinical. What is a spiritual problem? What is a clinical problem? These questions alone deserve serious attention. Start with different understandings of these terms and the conversations become people talking past one another. So I’ll start with these questions.

Dictionaries won’t help. We simply have to listen to the words in context, and, if possible, ask others how they are using them.

The word spiritual? When I use the word spiritual, I am using it in one of at least three ways: (1) from the Spirit, which is the most common use of the word in the New Testament, (2) of eternal substance – we are not merely physical and wasting away, we are spiritual beings whose life endures beyond the grave (this overlaps with the first definition), (3) matters in our relationship with God, which includes everything.

Among those who raise questions about biblical counseling, the definitions of spiritual are a little different. They are usually, I think, identifying a limited range of problems that are specifically mentioned in Scripture, such as blatant sin, misunderstandings about forgiveness and grace . . . and sometimes that’s about it. Some critics make spiritual a more robust category, but it would still be limited to problems that are clearly identified in Scripture.

The word clinical? A clinical problem is anything that is described in the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV-TR). You name it, it’s in there. Bed-wetting, Asperger’s, ADD, separation anxiety, depression, mania, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, borderline personality and many others.

Hmm. Spiritual problems are important, but, in terms of sheer numbers, they are dwarfed by the clinical ones. Spiritual, by some definitions, is one relatively small sector of the person. I am beginning to feel just a little inferior.

Clinical problems can also mean “emotional problems,” which suggests that out-of-the-ordinary emotional experiences are not included among spiritual problems. Add to this category anything that has to do with our past, and spiritual, indeed, becomes relevant to eternity but not so much to today.

Okay, now what?

First, I check with my critics and learn if I am getting close to the way they use these words. In general, most critics would agree, though many of them point out that there is a fuzzy boundary between spiritual and clinical. Spiritual problems, they might say, can become clinical ones. Addictions might have sinful roots, but they morph into something that goes beyond sin. Goal number one is to identify the terms in a way that critics would say, “Yes, that’s what I mean.”

Second, I want to tease out the theological structure that stands behind our differences. We believe that all of life is theological and guided by our theological commitments. Sometimes our theological infrastructure is self-conscious and explicit; other times it unknowingly guides our thought. (Little children, for example, operate out of a theology that identifies who they are, who God is, and who their parents are, but those propositions have not come by way of conscious decisions.) The challenge is to make the implicit explicit. This can be easy when a Reformed theologian talks with a Mormon, but the closer we are theologically the harder it is to tease out our theological differences. So this one might take some work.

My observation is that those who maintain a spiritual-clinical distinction are modern descendents of body-soul-spirit trichotomists or a variant on that view of people. You will find the tracks of this theology whenever you find dashes. For example, those who claim to treat people holistically might say that they view people as emotional-cognitive-spiritual-physical. Their concern for biblical counseling is that we only look at the spiritual. They might suggest that we do that well – a kind of one-trick pony – but there are features to the person that we miss.

Here at CCEF, we see biblical counseling as committed to a spiritual-physical view of people. If you sit in on our classes you will probably hear someone talk about how we are “embodied souls.” The soul, of course, is another way of identifying the heart – the wellspring of life – out of which comes our spiritual allegiances. Are we for the true God or not? The body is our means of material service in our material world. It is the human source of our strengths and weaknesses. This simple view of the person, well established in church history, can account for, as far as I can tell, everything about us. It is the theological structure behind the person who asks forgiveness, the one who feels controlled by bipolar fluctuations, and the experience that has been called post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are hundreds of applications from embodied souls, and, among those applications, are insights into every existing psychiatric diagnosis. One of the wonderful features of Scripture is that it gives us the foundation we need for these insights— even for specific situations and problems that the biblical writers never imagined. But, rather than endlessly list those possible applications, which might put some people to sleep, we would do better to dialogue about particular counseling situations. This takes us to the next step.

Third, it’s time to get specific. How would our critics approach a problem that they would say is not “spiritual”? How might biblical counseling approach that same problem? We could have lots of fun and mutual sharpening here.

These are steps of basic communication: define your terms, make the theological infrastructure explicit, and get down to specifics. How have we done on these? Not well. I can speak for my CCEF colleagues and say that we certainly want to do these things well, but we have not had enough conversations. We would like to invite critics to CCEF or meet them over a meal at counseling conferences. Such conversations, however, take time and money, and both can be hard to find. Meanwhile, we hope that others hear our desire to listen, and we will keep our sights set on interacting kindly with books and articles within the larger field of Christian counseling.