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Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation

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Reflections on Our History

An interview with our executive director and two long-time board members.

Barbara Aills
What first drew you to biblical counseling, and how did you come to serve with CCEF?

I embraced the biblical counseling model out of a deep desire to make sense of people and their struggles. I was a natural counselor. People would come to me and tell me their problems, and I loved to help. For years I’d been reading every Christian counseling book available. Much of what I read tried hard to understand human experience and to explain the human heart from a Christian perspective. But it always fell short. The theories and practices never seemed to square with what Scripture teaches. But in the early-90s everything fell into place when I began to read the Journal of Biblical Counseling and to hear CCEF’s teaching. I got involved in CCEF’s Changing Hearts, Changing Lives seminars held in Texas—and what I learned made a profound difference both in my own life and in my approach to helping people. My interest and commitment led to being invited to join the board in 1999.

Steve Estes

When I was in college, I was traveling with two Christian buddies one weekend, and we picked up a hitchhiker. The man was due back at his mental hospital by a certain time, and appreciated the lift. His manner was pleasant and his thoughts intelligent. But when my friends and I gently turned the conversation to Jesus, he grew uncomfortable and his sentences gradually became nonsensical. I would not pretend to know “the thoughts and intentions of his heart,” but spiritual issues clearly had some play in his life. I had recently read Jay Adams’s Competent to Counsel, and while I certainly felt incompetent that afternoon, the exchange awakened in me a thirst to understand people on a deeper level and in a biblical manner.

I love what biblical counseling seeks to do—to make sense of hard problems and offer wise help. But I often notice that when faced with practical ministry challenges, many Bible-loving people seem drawn to . . . what else can I call it? . . . anything but the Bible. Is our congregation shrinking? Let’s see what sociological studies teach about how to influence a community. Is our city vice-ridden? Let’s attend a seminar on how to oust territorial demons. Is my sister-in-law depressed, or bulimic, or traumatized by memories? The church is obviously not equipped—let’s refer her to a psychiatrist. In contrast, I love how biblical counseling actually shows how Christ and Scripture explain and address the deepest human problems. For example, although “bulimia” is nowhere in the concordance, the things that drive those behaviors express basic biblical themes: life-dominating desires and fears, a distorted belief system, confusion and enslavement. Christ’s grace and truth are directly relevant and transformative. Yet I also love how the best biblical counseling, even while refusing to yield the field to secular thinking and practice, shows humility to learn from the social sciences and from whatever wisdom God’s common grace has taught other human beings. I was honored to be asked to serve on CCEF’s board, and I joined along with Barbara in 1999.

David Powlison

The story of how I came to embrace biblical counseling and began working at CCEF is interwoven with the story of how I came to faith in Christ. I was an existentialist, and actively disliked Christianity. I had majored in psychology at Harvard, was working at McLean Psychiatric Hospital, and had been in psychotherapy myself for several years. I intended to pursue a mental health career. Psychiatry and psychotherapy promised a true understanding of people, a calling to help fellow strugglers, and the power to address human woes by bringing about healthy change. But I grew increasingly disillusioned. Yes, the hospital provided a caring and protective environment. And at our best we ameliorated some symptoms and helped some people to cope a bit better. But in three years I had never seen anyone qualitatively change from dysfunction to flourishing. Meanwhile I was finding Dostoevsky’s straightforward and Christian portrayal of human beings far more true to life than what our theories, diagnoses, and therapies were saying and doing.

Read the rest of the interview
By the grace of God, I was dramatically converted to faith in Christ. The longtime friend who led me to faith was a student and intern at CCEF. In the fall of 1975, when I had been a Christian less than a month, he invited me to attend a CCEF class as a guest. The straightforward way that Scripture spoke to the deepest issues of troubled lives struck me as intuitively right—both personally and professionally. I continued to work in the hospital for the next eight months. As my faith deepened and became increasingly articulate, I experienced a growing sense of frustration with my career path. It is self-evident that every psychiatric disorder describes a person who is profoundly isolated, self-absorbed, and unhappy. But we were forbidden to share with patients the truth that most deeply addresses such woes. Jesus’ mercies draw us out of ourselves. Trust in him, growing care for others, and underlying joy are the opposites of all that confounds and confuses our souls. I enrolled at Westminster Seminary in 1976, became a counseling intern at CCEF in 1978 and was hired to counsel, teach, and write in 1980. I’ve never left!

What has surprised you most as you reflect on the past 50 years?

Barbara: I’ve seen God’s faithfulness as the biblical model has been fleshed out into more and more areas. I’ve seen the Lord sustain us and grow us. CCEF’s ministry was beginning to burgeon in the 1990s, and is now having a worldwide impact. It’s been amazing for me to experience that, and be part of it as a board member.

Steve: In the early years, I was like many people in that I saw CCEF as refreshingly biblical, but wondered whether a comprehensive model of counseling and pastoral care could ever be adequately developed. I’ve witnessed huge progress. And what most grips me now is how the ministry has extended all over the world. It is remarkable to watch biblical counseling become planted so deeply in the UK in the past five years, and to see what has been opening up in India and in many other places.

David: During my first year as an intern at CCEF, I was struck that this thing we call “biblical counseling” was in pursuit of something far bigger than I’d imagined. It aims for a depth of practical wisdom that changes the church and challenges the world. When we understand how God’s ways intimately connect to our ways, practical theology comes to life. Our faith offers a comprehensive understanding of people—a coherent psychology. Wise ministry offers practical ways of helping—effective psychotherapy. After all, every truth that the Lord reveals about himself keys to corresponding realities in our lives. If Christ is for “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people,” then he is tailor-made for every individual, whatever our troubles. Biblical counseling wisdom changes preaching, because our applications rivet to human realities. It changes our evangelism, because we become better attuned to the points of contact between human experience and God’s mercies. It changes how we pray, because we learn to ask honestly for what we actually most need. It changes our worship, because we bring more of ourselves to more of our Lord.

And biblical counseling wisdom essentially differs from the alternatives. The secular psychologies know many things about people—but they fundamentally misunderstand what a person is, and what is at stake, and what dynamics operate in every human heart. And the secular psychotherapies genuinely care —but they consistently lead struggling people away from what they most need. Every therapeutic intervention is premised on enhancing your self-trust. But self-trust, self-serving, and self-absorption are our essential problems. We are meant to trust a Savior, serve him as Lord, and be absorbed in his mercies. Therapies that do not awaken us to God and decenter us off of ourselves inevitably nourish more successful forms of what is most wrong with us.

I was surprised by how significant and significantly different biblical counseling is.

And then I was surprised at how often Christians are resistant to realities so evidently true about God and about us. I had come out of the world of secular psychology and psychotherapy because Scripture made better sense of reality and addressed what is really wrong. But my new-found Christian brothers and sisters often didn’t seem to appreciate the depth and relevance of what we had. They often seemed entranced by theories and practices that I’d found shallow and misleading. The 1980s were difficult years for CCEF and for other nascent biblical counseling ministries. Biblical counseling was “out of season,” and struggled to find a foothold in churches and schools. It was often caricatured. And we had some growing up to do. But we continued to develop our understanding of people, of Scripture, of counseling practice, of God’s ways.

And then in the early 1990s both the church and the culture changed in surprising ways. These last 25 years have been an “in-season” for biblical counseling. Christian people started to take biblical counseling seriously.

What are you most excited about as you anticipate the future of our ministry?

Steve: I am excited about seeing the transition to the next generation of leaders at CCEF. This is not a ministry built around one or two people, but built around a theological and pastoral vision with a lot more work to be done. I am looking forward to seeing how God brings this about in the next ten to fifteen years.

David: When Jay Adams and John Bettler founded CCEF in 1968, they began with Adams’s conviction that Scripture, ministry, and church were about the exact human problems that all counseling models and psychotherapies seek to address. And they saw how God’s truth operates right where people live and struggle, not up in the clouds of theological abstraction. As our director, John Bettler sowed the seeds for how CCEF has developed over the last 40 years. Under his leadership we started to think through the significance of suffering, the dynamics of human motivation, the need for flexibility in the counseling relationship, and how to work with the rich variety of truths embraced by the words “biblical” and “gospel.” John wasn’t afraid of exploration and development. He had confidence that the Scriptures are “the whole counsel of God”—unsearchably deep yet understandable, and always relevant in fresh ways. I think that the generation mentored by John—Ed Welch, Paul Tripp, and myself—has succeeded in advancing understanding and practice. And I think that our generation sowed seeds that are bearing fruit. For example, Mike Emlet has made genuine advances in how Scripture applies in counseling conversations and in how spiritual issues and our physical bodies interact. I am eager to see what the next generation accomplishes, particularly in developing fine-grained practical skills and in better understanding the counseling process.

Barbara: I agree with the theological and practical vision that both of you mention. I am also excited about simply seeing our mission being fulfilled. I want biblical counseling ministries to reach far into churches and to serve brothers and sisters around the world. The next generation has work to do.

What would you say to encourage CCEF’s current students, faculty, staff, and friends of the ministry?

Steve: Remember how the book of Joshua begins: “Moses my servant is dead. So get up and cross the Jordan River and be very courageous. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” That will happen someday here, too. The current generation of leaders will move on and those who remain must have courage and be faithful in fulfilling our mission.

David: I’ve been reflecting on Micah 6:8. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice? In other words, do the right thing. And love mercy. In other words, the way you do what is right expresses mercy, generosity, and kindness for people. And walk humbly with your God. In other words, you are his dependent, so need him, trust him, thank him, listen to him, worship him, turn to him, follow him.

Barbara: Follow hard after Christ. He is faithful.

How would you like to thank former teachers, counselors, and staff? If you could say one thing to them, what would it be?

Barbara: I thank God for you always. I see the fruit of your labors in my own life, in my family, in my church, and in the lives of people all over the world.

Steve: Jesus told his disciples that others have done the hard work and you have reaped. Similarly, many people have done a lot of things at CCEF over the years. A lot of quiet faithfulness goes into fifty years of ministry. Many of you who came before didn’t get to see the blossoming of what’s happening now. To you I say, be encouraged. On the Great Day you will be rewarded for your labors.

David: I want to mention Jay Adams in particular. He was courageous for the truth of Scripture, and said things that no one else was saying—things that needed to be said. It is very hard to be a pioneer, and he worked harder than anyone can imagine. Jay deserves honor as a godly servant who made a huge breakthrough in setting a trajectory of fidelity to Christ and Scripture. He left CCEF more than 40 years ago, and we have sought to walk out further implications of those core commitments. Along the way, I think we’ve filled in some gaps, rebalanced some emphases, and corrected some missteps. But we have not forgotten the debt of gratitude we owe him. Thank you, Jay, for always pursuing fidelity to the Savior whose Word makes us wise unto salvation.

How do you want people to pray for CCEF?

Barbara: Pray that God will raise up future leaders, teachers, counselors, and writers for this important work. Pray that he will keep our staff and board true and humble.

Steve: My prayer request combines opposites. Pray that God will not let us change at all, and pray that God will help us constantly change in certain areas. What do I want to see changed? We need to take our understanding of people and more fully develop “how” we actually counsel. And we need to keep addressing important new counseling issues as they arise in the culture and in the church. Where don’t I want us to change? Our clear proclamation that the Bible is true and that Christ is our hope. Constant change, no change at all.

David: You put that well, Barbara and Steve. Rigidity in the wrong places and flexibility in the wrong places would prove deadly to future fruitfulness. May God grant the humility of being unchanging and unchangeable in faithfulness to Christ and his Scripture. And may he grant the humility of asking the hard questions, of taking fair criticisms to heart, and of learning new things from him. He freely gives wisdom. He freely gives himself. Please ask him to keep giving his inexpressible gift.

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God has used CCEF’s classes and counselors to rescue us! CCEF lives what it believes. Its people love God, teach his truths, and proclaim his sovereign grace in a loving manner to hurting people who need hope and help from God. We have seen God’s grace, wisdom, and love constantly demonstrated by CCEF leaders and staff. In 2006, Kim Han repeatedly and patiently helped me (Lucia), a brand new distance-ed student who had used neither a computer nor an iPod, use them both. In 2008, Karen Schoch helped me (Lucia) find a place to stay and use the library when I took January classes at Westminster Theological Seminary. And Ed Welch somehow found my (Don) request for long-distance counsel and pursued me. Yes, the people at CCEF have shown us the patient, practical, unexpected, pursuing love of Christ!

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I was working as a youth pastor when I first came upon the ministry of CCEF after a family member encouraged me to listen to a talk given by David Powlison at a pastor’s conference recorded years earlier. The way Scripture was applied carefully and practically to difficult problems was inspiring and invigorating. So many of the books and sermons I had read and heard conveyed scriptural truths as hanging abstractions that I struggled to connect to the lives of those I was entrusted to shepherd. What I heard from David was different. As I read more of CCEF’s materials I was exposed to the depth of Scripture and the personal nature of God in a way that was immensely practical.

Consequently, my wife and I moved from Ontario to Philadelphia and both enrolled in seminary intent on learning how to counsel in the way approximating what we had read and heard in CCEF’s resources. Not only were we equipped, but transformed on a personal level. I learned that I had to be transformed personally before ministering to others.

Today we both serve as biblical counselors, teach biblical counseling at Canadian seminaries, while I work as a psychologist in Ontario. The training we received impacts my work in secular settings, within the church, as well as everyday conversations.

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