Why podcasts? First, we’ve had a lot of requests asking us to get back on the air. We care about supporting you in life and ministry, so we’re making it happen. Second, the podcast format allows us to touch on topics that can be difficult to cover in other forms of media. Those are two good reasons, but at the heart of why we are relaunching the CCEF podcast is because we recognize that biblical counseling is hard. We want you to know that you are not the only one out there that finds it challenging, and we’re committed to coming alongside and supporting you in the process. We’re in this together.
Let’s begin with a case study. Todd, a middle-aged divorced man, says he is angry with God because, essentially, his life is falling apart. His wife left him for another man; his only child—a twenty-five-year-old son—is not very responsive to him anymore, and a stray dog recently killed his cat, which he thought was the only creature that seemed to love him. His life has not turned out as he once dreamed, and now he’s afraid to dream. What could God possibly be up to in his life?
What could you say in response to Todd’s anguished and angry question?
Befriend him before you counsel him
In this type of case, the easy part is knowing “the right answer.” Undoubtedly, you can identify those biblical writers who would resonate immediately with this man’s plight. Think of the book of Job, Psalm 23, and the story of Jonah. Then there’s 2 Corinthians 1:4; Romans 8:28, and the list goes on. There are so many good, right, true, and helpful passages to draw from. However, your first question is not, “Do I have all the right passages to quote?” but rather, “Do I have this man’s ear? Are we in a conversation where the truth can be savory and relevant, and really touch him?”
When someone’s struggling with anger at God, rather than immediately diving into any number of passages of Scripture, make sure you have his ear. Take a walk with him as a friend. Acknowledge the value of his being honest about his struggle with God. Affirm his current conviction that life in a fallen world can be very difficult and deeply disappointing. Beyond these general guidelines, it’s hard to know how you might script that first relational step where you’re trying to build some trust with Todd. Yet, your purpose at this stage is clear: you’re trying to be the friend who cares about a man who feels like nobody cares about him.
As you think about your response, recognize his asked and unasked questions
Todd’s string of trials probably prompts a number of hard questions for him. There are a lot of what you might call implicit questions haunting him. Among them: (1) What’s the use in life now? Why go on? (2) Do you, Pastor, care about me? Your responses to Todd become a signpost pointing him to the deeper love of God. They set up a context of trust, honesty, and kindness that will make messages about God’s nature and purposes more meaningful to him. Todd cannot face life’s struggles and hardships if he thinks he can know God’s attitude toward him based on those experiences (rather than from Scripture). There has got to be a deeper foundation. Ultimately, he has to develop a deeper view of who God is that takes him beyond his limited interpretations of his circumstances.
Anger at God reveals Todd’s unanchored heart
Anger at God is like other anger problems in that it expresses what someone loves, cherishes, and worships. Todd’s anger at God over these losses illustrates how he has placed his faith, hope, and security in things that are perishable rather than in God, who alone can be his rock and fortress. No one wants a wife who betrays him. No one wants a child who avoids him. No one wants a beloved animal to be killed. But there must be something deeper that is this man’s foundation for building a life with meaning and purpose.
On the one hand, Todd’s anger is understandable: he has lost relationships that are very dear to him. His anger boils from the heat of lost relationships. On the other hand, his anger blinds him to his lack of relationship with the God who could sustain him during these trials. Obviously, it’s not wrong to desire close, ongoing relationships with family members or pets. But Todd’s anger reveals that these otherwise fine desires had been elevated to the status of implicit demands: “I must have ___, or my life is pointless.” But in living by this presupposition, Todd had drifted from God’s purposes for him. Therefore, it’s not the desires for relationships that ultimately got him into trouble; it is rather his own privately generated expectations that he thrust onto God that have sent him into the emotional storm that he now faces. As long as he holds to these desires-turned-into-demands, there will be no peace in his heart. His hope will grow increasingly dim. His purpose in life—which would give him direction—will be lost.
You should help him replace those expectations about what he thinks God ought to do in his life with humble submission to what God says He will do in His children’s lives. Scripture reshapes our core expectations. For example, help Todd to reconsider, “Who is most qualified to direct my steps in life?” You could build a conversation around a couple of life-rearranging Proverbs:
In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps. (Prov. 16:9)
We do plan, but our plans don’t have the last say on what lasts. The humility to accept this is freeing.
A person’s steps are directed by the LORD. How then can anyone understand their own way? (Prov. 20:24)
We can’t even fully understand our lives. Again, the humility to accept this is freeing.
Then you might use the whole second half of Romans 8, which climbs into all of Todd’s hard experiences of life. The last several verses read:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:35–39)
Generally speaking, you need to help Todd see how his anger at God is due to weakness and blind spots in his faith. He has known God. But his degree of faith has been shown insufficient to sustain him through his losses. These hard experiences are a God-sent opportunity for his faith to deepen and grow. Help him learn how “Faith lives as though what God says is true.… The essence of living faith is something different than any particular experience.… Faith takes God at his word and acts on it.”1
Assure him that as he grows in such unmitigated trust in his God, he will change. A living, active, sincere faith always bears good fruit, because a living, active, loving God is at work.
Help Todd to see that the intensity of his current struggle actually bears witness that he is designed for something much greater than even his relationship with people. He is designed for a lasting relationship with God. Of course, his faith is the key expression of that relationship, and as such, it is also the key that unlocks the meaning, purpose, and hope that he desperately needs right now. Faith itself is not the anchor. But our faith anchors in the Savior, Shepherd, and Father who loves us.
Jack and Emma are making a last-ditch effort to fix their marriage. Jack sits across the room from you, arms folded tightly across his chest, his jaw clenched. Emma can’t keep still. She leans toward you and declares emphatically, “Pastor, we need serious help. We can’t make it five minutes without arguing. We can hardly stand to be in the same room together. If something doesn’t change fast, then this marriage is over.”
Anyone who is married can attest that marriage has difficult moments—recurring irritations, disappointments, hurt, and anger. Sometimes those moments feel overwhelming, and for some couples the culmination of difficult moments over the years can become unbearable. During those times, it is easy for either partner to reach a tipping point, where the husband or wife says, “This has got to change—now!”
Couples want change quickly, but most of the time that isn’t possible. Problems that have developed over years usually can’t be fixed overnight. Then what are we to do? How can we as pastors and counselors minister to couples as they walk through these challenging, yet ordinary, moments in their marriages?
We can help them see that these ordinary moments, as difficult as they are, have the potential to change their marriage for the better.
Help the couple see that God is in the ordinary moments
When a couple is caught up in the idea that change must happen quickly, you need to remind them that God works in a variety of ways. Offer the couple the pervasive pattern we see in Scripture, which is that while God does deliver in dramatic ways sometimes, like the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt, what follows is a long walk through the wilderness that takes weeks and years. But it’s on that day-to-day journey where the real transformation happens.
You might say to the couple, “This is how God works, so if we’re going to look to Him together for help, we need to be willing to follow Him in this pattern and expect Him to show us things along the way that may surprise us or that we haven’t seen before. But that requires time in the wilderness where we meet with Him and He feeds us with daily bread.”
If God expects His people to walk patiently with Him and worship Him in the midst of these ordinary moments, then that means, in a sense, that there are in fact no ordinary moments at all. Help the couple to see that every moment of their lives is a moment that they live before God and in which they have an opportunity to either trust Him and walk in love or to trust in themselves and walk in selfishness and self-protection. That includes every moment of every day, whether it’s taking out the trash or discussing parenting or finances. Every moment, no matter how mundane it may seem, is sacred because it is a moment lived before God, a moment in which we are called to trust in and walk in His love.
Let the couple know you are committed to being on this journey with them, but remind them it has to be a journey. It has to be a process. So create an expectation for slowing down, taking things one day at a time, and understanding that this is how God participates in transformation. Reframing the way change happens will help them to be patient and generate hope.
Know what love looks like in the details of the moment, and put it into practice
In the last section, I said that couples are called to live out of His love every moment of every day. But what does this look like?
God’s agenda for every moment in marriage is that each person make the love of Christ manifest to his or her spouse in a real and concrete way. So, for instance, in the moment when one partner feels sinned against and unheard, that person can make that a very “normal” human moment and respond in anger and try to hurt the other in return, but God’s agenda for that moment is to walk in love. The gospel is that we all have sinned against God, and in return for that, He has given us grace and love. So, as a follower of Christ, the husband or wife has the opportunity to love when he or she has been sinned against and to do that in thoughtful, concrete, and wise ways.
How do husbands and wives know what love looks like in the moment of disappointment, hurt, or anger? We don’t have to look any further than Jesus. In the New Testament, Jesus experienced a wide range of emotions, and in every instance Jesus responded in love. He showed grace to the adulterous woman, demonstrated patience when the disciples failed to stay awake and pray, and humbly shared his distress with the Father when facing the Cross.
Love is a person
People tend to think of love as an experience, that love is something that happens to us or just something that we feel. But, ultimately, the Scriptures tell us that love is a person. God is love, and love has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ. That means that love is something husbands and wives are enabled to do in a very concrete way because they are in relationship with the God who is love. Because of this, they can move away from love simply as an emotionally charged experience and toward Jesus as a person who empowers them to act concretely in love.
Slowing down the moment
It’s certainly not easy to put Christlike love into practice in the face of hurtful emotions and verbal attacks. One suggestion is to help the couple learn to slow down the moment—to take that emotional, pressure-filled moment and slow it down so they are able to choose a better response.
Sometimes in the counseling room I’ll slow the moment down by asking a couple to describe their feelings as calmly as they’re able. I might say something like, “You’re both feeling really angry right now” or “You’re both feeling hurt. So let’s slow this moment down. I want each of you to very carefully describe what’s happening inside of you, and I want the other person to listen and not interrupt.” As each person talks, try to help him or her be as constructive in that moment as possible, to get outside of his or her hurt and attempt to understand the other person’s experience.
Sometimes I’ll set up those moments by saying, “It’s the nature of sincere love to enter into the experience of the other (Rom. 12:9–21). I’m going to ask both of you to do that right now, and it’s going to be hard and it’s not going to feel natural. But that’s because we’re following Christ, and we’re loving sacrificially.”
There’s a simple sort of homework that can help people slow down at home and be better students of what’s happening inside of them. Whenever they are in a hard moment with their spouse, have them answer these questions:
This will help them begin to develop a habit of moving away from emotionally charged reactions and walking in wisdom and love instead by asking, “What can I do in Christ’s love that matters right now?”
Love consistently over time
Why is God’s love so important, and how can spouses love consistently as time goes on? Particularly for the married couple, we must remind them that Scripture teaches that marriage is designed to point to something beyond itself. It wasn’t created simply as a gift for our enjoyment, but to point us to Christ’s love for us.
When things get tough, we should direct each partner to slow down and ask what this hard moment of marriage has to do with Christ’s love for him or her, for the spouse, or for the world. Then, have them ask themselves how they can then connect to that love and make it more present in a concrete way. And continue to do that. Instruct them to make it their habit in the moments of anger or hurt to stop, take a step back, and consider how they can love their spouse like Christ loves them in this difficult moment. It may not be easy, but it is possible.
One of the reasons it’s hard is that when people are really struggling, upset, and angry, they are oftentimes not aware of God’s presence and activity. The husband or wife might tend to think that He is far away, that He’s irrelevant, or that He has abandoned him or her. In those moments when they need God the most, they tend to believe that He is absent. Invite couples to see that every moment of their marriage matters to God and that He’s consistently present in every moment.
We need to help couples understand that life in Christ means walking into and living in hard moments, but those everyday moments have the potential to change their lives and their marriages for the better. Trusting in Christ means following His lead in the day-to-day, loving one’s spouse the way that Christ loves us. It means slowing down, understanding the situation, and then acting in love in specific, concrete ways. Even though it is hard, they can do it because Christ walked before them and continues to walk with them. He enables the couple to do what He has called them to do.
This article first appeared on careleader.org.
Pastors are all familiar with that couple. The couple that asks for help and says something has to change, and now! But why the sudden urgency? Maybe something has come out: there’s been adultery, a secret sin, or an addiction that has been discovered. Or, it may be that what has been irritating for five, ten, or twenty years has reached a tipping point and become unbearable.
It’s easy to get caught up in the emotional swell that happens in this scenario. We too feel like something has to happen immediately. But is that really the case? Is this how we can best help in these emotionally charged situations? And do we really understand the couple and the situation well enough from what we can glean in one counseling session?
As pastors and counselors, we need to step back from these emotionally charged encounters and carefully consider how to help the hurting couple. Below, I share five common mistakes that pastors sometimes make in marital counseling and how to avoid them. My aim is to share insights I have learned as a counselor and pastor to better equip you in your ministry.
Mistake #1: Trying to fix things too quickly
The first challenge we encounter in this type of situation is getting caught up in the emotions of the moment and feeling that we have to fix the problem immediately. However, if we give in to that pressure, we are much more likely to say something that isn’t helpful. In the first thirty minutes, hour, or two hours, of counseling we often don’t know enough to be all that helpful.
So how do we avoid this mistake? Here are a few principles to keep in mind:
Mistake #2: Not setting concrete goals
In counseling, it can be easy for us to wander around, discussing many topics but not making clear progress. That’s due in part to the fact that counseling is messy by nature. But sometimes we wander because we don’t have concrete goals to guide our sessions and our overall counseling.
I suggest setting clear, concrete goals that are doable and, if possible, measurable. This not only provides a sense of direction, but it also allows you to measure your progress. For instance, how can we help a couple know when they are communicating better? What will that look and sound like? Talk through these early in the process, write them down, and come back to the goals periodically to assess your progress.
If you are not making progress, review your goals together. Discern together what is needed in the moment to make progress. Are we missing something? Has something changed? Is everyone on board with our approach? Regular evaluation of concrete goals will help you keep moving forward.
Mistake #3: Relying on models that don’t take sin into account
We need to remember that our hearts aren’t neutral places; they aren’t empty love tanks that spouses are responsible to fill for each other. We are fallen, broken people whose hearts are filled with dreams, expectations, fears, and desires that are shaped by sin. So we can’t simply define love as giving each other what we want.
So how does this come into play for the couple we’re discussing? While we counsel, we do need to teach the couple to pay attention to and be considerate of differences in ways that they feel loved, but we also have to help them understand that no one’s heart is neutral. Because we are all sinful, what husbands or wives may want for themselves and what they might ask for from their spouse won’t always be the right or the best thing.
For instance, a wife raised in a home with lots of uncontrolled anger and shouting may feel threatened by marital conflict. We may need to help her husband understand the importance of being calm and affirming in the midst of marital conflict. However, it is not loving for the husband to avoid conflict entirely. I think a lot of Christian enrichment material goes off track in asking spouses to become experts in knowing what the other spouse wants and assuming that is what they must give. Couples need to understand each other’s desires and fears, but also learn how to wisely and carefully challenge them. Sometimes what a spouse prefers isn’t what is best. Spouses must learn to love the other in a way that is wise, even if it is unpleasant for both of them.
Mistake #4: Taking the responsibility of changing the couple
All of us want to be effective in what we do. As pastors and counselors we want to see people grow in Christ, but too often we place the responsibility of change on ourselves. We assume that change is solely the result of what we say or do with the couple. But it is critical for us to understand that no one, no matter how passionate or gifted, has the responsibility or the power to actually change another person. Meaningful change only happens when spouses decide to change.
Oftentimes I see spouses stuck in chronic cycles of conflict and anger, each convinced that the other is the one who needs to change. Their angry words and actions are attempts at forcing the other to change. Of course this never works. It only leads to increasing levels of anger, bitterness, and, ultimately, hopelessness. In those moments, it is important to remind them that their relationship with God—the fruitfulness of that, the joy of that, the peace of that—is not dependent on their ability to change their spouse. Ultimately, God is after a change in us, and that is all we are responsible for anyway. We can only choose to change ourselves; we cannot make other people change.
To do the hard work of marriage requires that they keep it up over the long haul, and spouses need to see the importance of becoming a new person even when the other spouse chooses not to. Hopefully the other spouse may witness godly change and want change as well, but even if that spouse does not, the one who is willing to change will have more joy and more richness in his or her relationship with Christ that no one can take away.
So it’s important to remember that you as a pastor cannot make the couple change.
Mistake #5: Going at it alone
Finally, many of us in ministry have a tendency to be lone rangers. As pastors, we can get caught up at times in our own ministries and our own churches. The same is true of our own counseling cases. Either we forget that we aren’t on our own or we believe that we can do it better without someone else’s help.
But don’t go at it alone. Find other resources—other couples or another church leader—who can mentor the couple or reinforce the work you are doing. Another great resource is other seasoned counselors who can give you advice on those you are counseling. Do you know counselors or other pastors in your area who have experience with these sorts of things? If so, talk to them. Get some other ideas on how to help and how to encourage change in these difficult moments.
You don’t have to be a lone ranger; this will only make you as the counselor suffer. It is also a recipe for disaster for ministry in general.
The next time you encounter a difficult couple in counseling, remember this advice: slow down, set concrete goals, get at the heart, don’t force change, and use your resources. Not only will you be better equipped for helping the man and woman who come to you for counsel, you will be less frustrated and will better understand the issues at hand.
This article first appeared on careleader.org.
This is for pastors.
Pastors who counsel—who do face-to-face care of souls—have reason for self-doubt. For example, I recently spoke with a pastor who is exactly the person you would want to speak with if you were stuck, troubled, confused, ashamed or weary. He is warm, humble, and wise. So I was surprised that he seemed unusually tentative about counseling a despondent person from his church. It turns out that he thought there might be a technology or especially powerful therapy of which he was unaware. After all, who was he to guide a congregant through the complexities of mental health when there were experts out there?
“[Psychological] therapies are a clear improvement on the pre-scientific strategies of the older pastors” (Robert Roberts, Psychotherapy and Christian Ministry, 43). Perhaps you haven’t read this book, but you have received the message: though you stand within a tradition of pastoral care that has served God’s people for centuries, there is something new that has rendered that care either narrow or obsolete, and only those with special training can do it. Who are you to offer help for the complexities of the human soul?
“Mental health professionals need to stay within their limits of training and not give religious or theological advice or opinions. Likewise, clergy need to practice within their training and not engage in therapy” (media release for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Christians with Depression, by Michelle Pearce). Pastors, do you know when you are drifting toward therapy? Given this advice, should you play it safe and leave complex matters to the experts?
It is no wonder why seminaries are training preacher-scholars and seminary students aspire to oversee a preaching conglomerate. Apparently, it is safer in the pulpit—away from the details of pastoral care.
When you read or hear confident claims of therapy’s effectiveness, how do you respond? No doubt, your pastoral confidence ebbs. But at least know this: like most claims, these do not rest on the sure foundation of modern empiricism. They are, instead, filled with implicit theology and cultural artifacts. They are not forgone conclusions but occasions for dialogue and clear biblical thought.
Part of that biblical thought includes our need for and dependence on Jesus. Does Jesus speak to the center of humanity—the deepest depths of humanity—or is Jesus only relevant to our spirituality? Does therapy speak to a critical realm of the human soul that the gospel of Jesus does not? Or has therapy missed the essential connection between the complexities of personal and relational problems and the person and work of Christ?
These are important matters. Since they have been with us for fifty years or so, we don’t have to answer these today, but while the dialogue occurs, I hope your confidence will not be shaken.
Think of emotions as a language. They say something—something very important—and part of our job is to figure out what they are saying.
Sometimes the interpretation is easy. A friend says, “I feel so afraid.” She is saying that a threat looms to something that is important to her.
Got it. We hear her correctly. Now there is much we can do. We want to know more about the real or perceived threat, and we want to know how to bring God’s words to her heart. But the message is fairly clear.
Sometimes the meaning is harder to decipher. When my eight-month-old granddaughter cries, what is she trying to tell us? Since she does not have a large range of sounds, there could be a dozen different messages.
Leave me alone, I want Mom.
My leg is caught in the crib again.
I am hungry.
My brothers are trying to smother me with love.
I like hearing my noises.
Carrots are not among my favorite foods.
This is way too much stimulation for me.
My grandfather is the best.
And so on.
In a similar way, our emotional language is often not very precise. There are only eight or so families of emotions, and a lot gets packed into them. Sometimes we don’t even know what is going inside ourselves. The psalmist asks: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” (Psalm 42:5). If we don’t even know the emotional language of our own soul, how can we discern the intent of those around us? Is it shame that inhabits their fears? Is fear the core of their despondency? And though the meaning of their anger might seem obvious—“I AM NOT GETTING WHAT I WANT” (James 4:1-2)—anger can also be fear, self-protection, shame, despair, aloneness, and more. To complicate things a little more, a disrupted body and brain can send emotional signals that simply say, “I am sick.”
With all this in mind, here are a few clear guidelines.
Figuring out the message in someone’s emotions may take time and commitment, but it is a great work of love and leads us in that process of knowing and being known, which is a key feature of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Many counseling students ask about whether they should consider counseling licensure.
Licensure means that your state has approved your qualifications and established guidelines for your practice. Most states have at least two different categories of licensure: licensed clinical social worker and licensed psychologist. Some states include other categories like licensed mental health counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist. The licensure process for all of these begins with at least a masters’ degree that includes state-required courses, continues with a two to three year internship, and culminates with a national exam.
I am licensed. So I am not suggesting that Christians should never pursue licensure. But my observation is that there are always tensions between licensure and careful biblical thought and practice, and if you are not alert to these tensions, you will gradually adopt the secular shape of most licensed counselors.
Tensions exist in at least three places:
1. You typically complete at least some of your educational prerequisites in a secular setting. This immediately raises the concern that leading Christian psychotherapists have identified for decades—“we have a Sunday school knowledge of Scripture and Ph.D. knowledge of psychology.” Because of this disparity, students usually view Scripture through the lens of secular psychotherapies, rather than understanding how Scripture is the vantage point for everything. In other words, secular theories usually have interpretive control over your counseling.
2. You complete internships in secular settings and receive intensive supervision into a secular mindset. All supervision is a form of discipleship. Even if you have a strong background in Scripture, your wisdom is rarely seasoned enough for the categories of Scripture to meaningfully re-interpret what you are receiving. As a general rule, your internship—the capstone of your educational experience—has the greatest influence on your vocational future.
3. You usually pursue licensure in order to have more vocational options. You want to make a living wage doing counseling and you suspect that a license will be the only way to get jobs in a secular marketplace. Here again, your primary means of professional development will be through colleagues who have little or no interest in drawing out the implications of the gospel in their actual counseling. Even if your colleagues are Christians, the typical ethical advice is to partition religious beliefs from your counseling practice.
As I said, I am licensed. So what has been helpful for me in navigating the tensions in order to remain faithful to the Word of Life? First, I received a strong seminary education prior to my work in psychology. Second, I seek to be alert to how Scripture and secular psychotherapies come from very different assumptions about people and pursue very different goals. Third, I work in an environment in which our mission is to connect Scripture to the struggles of daily life.
Should you consider counseling licensure? If you decide to pursue it, then do it as someone committed to living consistently out of a biblical view of life. And meet with like-minded mentors throughout the licensing process—and beyond—or your counseling will almost certainly assume a secular shape.
In pastoral ministry, are preaching and counseling complementary ways of proclaiming Christ? Is one more important than the other? Or is one essential and the other less so? Seminary students and pastors are by no means unanimous in their answers.
Definitions matter, especially here. Preaching, as I am using it, is public ministry—the public proclamation of Jesus—in which the preacher speaks and congregants listen. They also respond, but not in the direct, one-on-one sense. Counseling, as I understand it, is personal ministry—the personal proclamation of Jesus and the implications of his death and resurrection—in which one person speaks and the other person responds, back-and-forth. It can be done formally, by appointment, but more often consists of five-minute interactions after church and in the course of daily life.
Preaching and counseling as complements
In pastoral ministry, the public and personal ministry of the Word are the two prominent ways that the work of Christ is proclaimed. Both are important, though counseling, either formal or informal, takes more time because we talk with people more often than we preach to people.
The Apostle Paul summarized his pastoral ministry this way, “Him [Jesus] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). Paul did this publicly in the synagogues and personally in the course of his daily conversations. The hard distinction between public and personal ministry, with one form having pride of place, is not immediately obvious in either his writings or in Acts.
Preaching and counseling as antagonists
But perhaps you have heard someone talk about the primacy of preaching. In its original form, it seems to have been a reformation response to papal authority and the primacy of the Mass. In its day, it was equivalent to, “Scripture and its proclamation have primacy.” Today, it means that the actual Sunday sermon is the center of church life and pastoral calling. So far, so good—I think. Most evangelicals agree that the preaching of the Word is essential to life in a local church. But when primacy of preaching is mentioned today, it is no longer contrasted with the Catholic Mass. Rather, it is usually contrasted with other regular features of a pastor’s life, such as the individual care of souls, a.k.a. counseling.
Like all theology, our position here has consequences, some intended, some not. When personal care of souls becomes the contrast to, rather than complement of, the public care of souls it relegates it to the theological ghetto. Its absence or lesser position will communicate that congregants need not talk about their weaknesses or struggles. They have no clear biblical authorization to ask for help for their souls or to give help. This is not what any of us intend to communicate to our churches.
I would suggest that Scripture does not make precise distinctions between public preaching and personal pastoral care. Both are the Word proclaimed. One is not lesser. Given this equal weight, the pastor’s goal is to grow in both pastoral care and preaching, and give as much attention to the personal care of souls as is given to the preparation of sermons.
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.Download Issue
While serving as the center coordinator in one of Baltimore’s busiest crisis pregnancy centers from 2000 to 2005, my supervisor and friend urged me to attend CCEF’s National Conference. She then encouraged me to take CCEF courses in Glenside, Pennsylvania. For three years, we commuted from Baltimore to Glenside. These car trips became an opportunity to share how God was profoundly working in our lives, helping us see our hearts differently than we have ever seen them before.
I highly recommend CCEF’s courses. Know that these courses are not just vocational or career training. They will help you see your own heart—in conversations, in the privacy of the counseling room, in family interactions and in the private moments of life.
I now work as a biblical counselor for Life Counseling Center in Marriottsville, Maryland. I also see people at my home office that were referred to me by local churches. My clientele ranges from singles to married couples, teens to divorced and widowers, those struggling with same sex attraction and others caught in addictive patterns. We discuss many struggles: loneliness, shame, anger, substance abuse, adultery, abandonment, parenting. Most centrally we seek to understand that God is good to us, and how we can grow closer to him in the midst of any struggle.
My husband Alan and I believe that CCEF is one of the most essential ministries to Christ’s church. As a result of this conviction, we support CCEF on a monthly basis. We want to play a part in alleviating financial pressures so that CCEF can focus on the job God has for them to do.
We are also convicted to pray specifically for CCEF’s ministry. Please pray with us for these requests: