Content is the Stuff of Biblical Counseling – Method is How it is Adorned
There is too much to do – that’s one of my favorite features of biblical counseling. One book raises a dozen more questions. Student feedback constantly refines existing material. Counseling that went well generates new ideas for effective ministry. Counseling gone bad is an occasion to address our weaknesses. Don’t expect biblical counseling to ever say that it has arrived, it is complete, and now we can move on to other things. Given the wonderful combination of endless questions raised by our problems in living and how we have been given access to the mysteries of the universe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is much more to do.
This work can be categorized into content and method. Content includes theology, exegesis of biblical texts, and careful study of individual problems and their complexities. Method is the way that theory is offered. These two categories are not the only ones, but they are handy distinctions and can be used to approach any book of Scripture. For example, the book of Proverbs has content or theory. God is the sovereign Lord who is over all things. He alone is to be feared. We are his people who have sympathy with foolishness. We can know the Lord God and his word but all that can be quickly silenced when baited with the possibility of easy cash, sensual pleasure, and personal reputation.
But there is much more to Proverbs. It has a method that connects with its content or theology. Wisdom is much too beautiful to be offered in drab propositional form. Instead, the content of Proverbs is situated in a decidedly family context. The royal parent is speaking to his beloved children. He wants the very best for the children. He wants them to steer clear of the many traps that can lead to ruin; he wants them to thrive. To this end, he woos, persuades, warns in love, spells out the consequences of choices, and thinks of catchy illustrations that tend to embed themselves in the mind’s eye. The royal parent works hard to make wisdom sound as attractive as it really is.
No doubt, some of the work to be done in biblical counseling is in our method. Whereas one part of our theory is well known, (i.e., we are worshippers), our method has a long way to go. Yes, we speak truth (content) and we must speak it with palpable love (method). The to-do list is a long one. How do we listen, especially when we feel like we have so much we could say? When do we go further back in a person’s past and how do we do that? Is there a place for indirect speech? How do we determine what is most important? How do we use metaphors? These are just for starters.
I’ll highlight just one and let you fill in some of the others. One of the guiding methodological principles that I see in Scripture, and, as a result, in biblical counseling, is that our ministry should sound good. We have been entrusted with the gospel of grace. Everything we have been given is “better than.” Our task is to build up. Even the warnings we give should sound attractive. Repentance should be encouraging.
In talking with a woman recently, I noticed that whenever we spoke she would go into a funk that was apparent to her friends and family. If all I thought about was content, I had lots of options. There were plenty of biblical topics relevant to her life. But, apparently, none of it sounded good to her.
“Here is our goal. Whatever we talk about, we want it to sound good. We want to leave encouraged. And we aren’t going to quit until we get there.”
From there we began speaking about what felt most pressing. It didn’t matter to me what they were. It just mattered that we ended well. If she spoke about a particular problem and I noticed it devolving into hopelessness, I would simply say, “okay, now how can we get from here to someplace that is true and good – and, of course, to get there we need to get to the gospel of Jesus.”
How did we do? With moderate success…which, in God’s economy, often looks quite glorious.
It is not enough for us to merely speak the truth. We don’t just wrap a lavish gift in a trash bag and toss it to someone. One of the pleasures of ministry is that we get to wrap it, include a personal note, maybe even a thoughtful poem, and then smile as the other person enjoys the present.