Yes, the title—Counseling Is Theological—is making you sleepy. But let me explain. Theology can, indeed, be boring. Some theological books read like an old encyclopedia article or an oversized dictionary. But theology done well is electric. It reveals to us the very mind of God and it compels us into action. There is nothing more exciting.
Theology looks for patterns in Scripture. What recurs? Are there particular themes? What seems especially important? It assumes that there is coherence and unity in Scripture because God inspired it all, and that coherence reflects the order of God’s thoughts.
When you discover actual patterns, Scripture becomes less of a list of favorite, somewhat disconnected passages and more of a coherent story with the major themes always apparent. Think of some of the well-known musicals, such as Lion King or Les Miserables. There are certain recurring tunes throughout. Each time you notice the tune you feel like you are in familiar territory, but each time you hear the tune it accumulates more of the story. By the time you reach the finale, the familiar tune now evokes all the significant moments of the story, and you can’t help but cry.
So when we find the patterns in Scripture, we tune in. We keep track of the patterns as they accumulate more of the story. We savor them. As we savor them, we begin to live out of them. This is why counseling is theological: because we live out of our theology, and counseling focuses on life lived.
Here are a few examples of some themes in Scripture. They are ones that we can savor, ones that we can live out of. And some are so beautiful that they make us cry.
God speaks and we respond. When you read Paul’s epistles you find a predictable structure: first he identifies what God has done in Christ and then invites us to respond to God’s initiating work (e.g., Eph. 2:13, 19; 4:1). It turns out that this structure is embedded in the Old Testament, even apparent in the Ten Commandments. They begin with what God has done. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2). Then those commandments teach us how to respond to his rescuing love.
John’s first epistle captures the same pattern when he writes, “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God takes the initiative toward us and we respond. That is the way life works in the kingdom of heaven.
Indeed, God speaks and we respond. So what do we do with this bit of theology? Once we get started the applications never end.
God always moves toward us first. He always loves us more. Such love provokes us to thankfulness, joy and worship.
Legalism, in which the law of God becomes most important, feels religious—but it is wrong. Legalism suggests that we act and then God responds.
Disregarding God’s law is also misguided. The law, understood rightly, is a delight. It is as if the Lord said, “I have taken the initiative of love toward you from the beginning of time. Now you are going to want to know how to love me in return. Here are ways you can do that.”
When we live in such an imbalanced relationship, where our God always loves first and most, we have a hard time being arrogant or judgmental. Humility becomes natural.
All eyes are on Jesus. He is God’s Word in person. God has spoken to us in Christ. All transformation begins with knowing Jesus and what he has done. Then, amazed at his sacrifice, we respond.
Here is another pattern in Scripture.
God is “a se.” This is a quieter, more esoteric piece of theology. When we talk about God’s aseity, we mean that he is “of himself” or “from himself.” He was not created, and he is not dependent on his creation. In other words, he does not need us in order to be complete and fully satisfied. His name, “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14) expresses his aseity.
Unlike all the other gods who were born, derivative and interdependent, the true God is seated over all, and is complete in himself. We need him to live, move and breathe, but he does not need us. He is under no compulsion to create, love and adopt us; he loves us simply because he loves us. This again emphasizes the asymmetry in our relationship with the Lord. His love is freely given first, and is greater than our own.
What can we do with this?
God’s love is not stingy. He doesn’t dole it out to his favorites and restrain it with the rest of us. The picture he gives us is one of lavish, overflowing abundance. We, in turn, can repent of any thought that God’s love is like man’s love.
Since his love was freely given when we were still sinners and he redeemed us through the blood of Jesus, why would we think that our continued failings would make him love us less? We, again, can repent of our contaminated understanding of his love.
His love sets our sights higher. We want to love, not because of what we will get in return. We want to love because we have received the abundant love of God.
Now for a final theme that we can trace through Scripture.
We take what we know about God and we cry out. I was reading Psalm 107 and noticed a phrase, but it didn’t really stand out. “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress…Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love” (v. 6, 8). These same words appeared a few verses later. Now I was listening. A few verses later they came again and the pattern was clear. This was important in the story of God’s people, it was important in the mind of God, and so it is important for me. By the time it was repeated a fourth time, I was already anticipating the refrain and was ready to add it to the details of my day. And I had tears over how God had so graciously revealed how we are to live.
I was doing rudimentary theology. I was on the lookout for things emphasized, echoing and familiar. When I found them I knew God better, and knew more about how to live as one of his people. Cry out, watch what he does or reflect on what he did, give thanks—that is the rhythm. And yet this simple way to live before God is so much harder than it looks. Our natural tendency is to cry rather than cry out (Hos. 7:14), and so God patiently reminds us that we are intended to speak from our hearts to him.
There are dozens of other themes in Scripture. We often know them as doctrines—the doctrine of God, of how we change, of the church, of the end times, of heaven, and so on. They emerge as we ask certain questions of Scripture—such as, Who am I? And they emerge when we look for patterns throughout Scripture. As Scripture unfolds, all those doctrines shape our understandings of life and how to help people through hardships.
Biblical counselors are theologians. We look for patterns in Scripture, we notice patterns in people, and we bring those two together. And there are even times when the emergence of a clear pattern in Scripture, spoken at the right time to another person, is enough to make us aware that we are standing on holy ground—a place where God spoke and someone responded.
This article orginally appeared in the CCEF NOW 16 Magazine.