Winston Smith sits down and discusses the use of liturgy in counseling.
Sometimes I go to secular psychology conferences, hear someone speak, and think, “I would be happy to bare my soul to that person. He seems to understand people and care about them.”
Describe a person well
Skilled secular counselors can describe people well. They seem to understand pain, especially pain from the past, and their counselees feel understood and cared for. Biblical counselors should be able to do that and be able to take people to depths of insight, hope and growth that secular counseling cannot. But I suspect that secular counselors, on average, might do a little better at describing people’s hardships than biblical counselors.
This is a problem.
A good description opens doors
As a general rule, whoever describes the person best wins the person—and whoever wins the person—gets the opportunity to impact the person. Think about it. Speaking for myself, if I feel you understand me, you could give me most any explanation or direction (that is within biblical boundaries) and I’d run with it or be blessed by it. But if I feel you don’t know me or understand me, I am probably not going to pay attention to you, even if what you tell me is true and good. If you don’t “get” me, you don’t get to direct me. I am not saying that I am right in thinking this, but I am typical.
I saw a psychologist on TV recently—okay, it was Dr. Phil. He was talking to a thirty-ish-year-old husband who, to use Dr. Phil’s words, was an arrogant, narcissistic racist. Many biblical counselors would have reacted to his degenerate swagger in the first few minutes, reminding him that his issues were with God more than his fellow human beings, and that he was in spiritual trouble. In response, he would probably have smirked and said that he, indeed, might be the son of the Devil himself!
Dr. Phil took a different path, one that is traditional in modern psychotherapy. He went to the man’s past, found pain, and told him that fear was behind his bravado. “You are afraid of intimacy,” Dr. Phil said. “Because of your past pain, you are self-protective, and your goal is to hurt and reject people before you can be hurt and rejected.”
Bingo! This man, who had felt little or nothing for years, felt understood and he cried on national TV. And—he was willing to follow Dr. Phil anywhere. It made me want to be a guest on the show.
There is no mystery in Dr. Phil’s approach. He looks for the hard things in a person’s life that might lie behind the sinful and bad, and, when in doubt, he tells the person that he or she is fearful of being hurt—you can’t go wrong by offering that to any human being. He follows that up with something that makes sense and has pragmatic appeal but is certainly shallow by biblical standards.
Biblical counselors need to grow
Biblical counselors should be able to offer accurate, “that’s me” descriptions—we must if we want to persuade people. We should be able to look for the good in someone and the hard things in the person’s life, before we consider the bad. Otherwise we will have sound theory but ineffective practice.
Scripture guides us in both descriptions and explanations. When patience and kindness are coupled with biblical insight, we hope that those who receive biblical counsel will feel deeply understood and eager to hear more from the God who knows the heart.
“Counseling is the most practical theology.” David Powlsion discusses the relationship between public, private, and personal ministry.
Often I am asked, “Where should we start in bringing biblical counseling into our church?” I like to come at this question from an unusual angle—but one that builds directly on something that already happens in churches. I say, “Change the way you make prayer requests, and the way you pray for each other.” When prayer requests deal with matters of consequence, when we learn to pray for each other about the actual struggles of our souls, when prayer aligns with God’s deepest purposes, then we simultaneously are making a huge start at becoming alert, effective counselors. For example, the Bible’s prayers are rarely about health, travel mercies, finances, doing well on a test, finding a job, or the salvation of unsaved relatives. Of course, these are legitimate things to pray for, but they are a minor emphasis in Scripture. Even so, these topics typically dominate most church and small group prayer requests. They easily miss the real action of God’s dealings with his beloved people.
In contrast, the driving focus of biblical prayer asks God to show himself, asks that we will know him, asks that we will love others. It names our troubles. It names our troublesome reactions and temptations. It names our holy desires. It names our God, his promises, and his will. When someone asks you, “How may I pray for you?,” imagine the impact of responding in a manner such as this: “I’ve had a lot on my mind lately, and have been inattentive and irritable to those nearest and dearest to me. Please pray for me, that I will awaken and turn from my preoccupation with work pressures, recreations, health problems, or money. God promises to help me pay attention to him. Ask him to help me remember and focus. Ask him to help me to take my family and other people to heart. Pray that I will take refuge in him when the pressure is on. The Lord is my refuge, but I’ve been taking refuge in TV and food.” This kind of prayer gets things that matter on the table—things that matter both immediately and eternally. It so happens that these are the daily versions of the issues that serious counseling deals with.
When people start to identify where they really need God’s help, then they enter the world of both prayer and counseling. We step into reality. Most prayer requests ask for God to give external blessings. But biblical prayer, like counseling, deals with how God meets us, comforts us, changes us. Retooling our prayer requests is an accessible way for believers in a church to begin to teach each other to talk about the things that really matter, the things that are on God’s heart. If you are praying for matters with personal consequences, then you will have conversations of consequence.
How can you help people change the way they make prayer requests? First and foremost, model what it’s like to be in touch with where you really need God’s mercies, strength, and wisdom. Second, help God’s people to study what the Bible shows and tells about prayer. Learning to pray is not mainly about how often we pray, or the techniques and elements that go into prayer. It is about how to need the right things, and how look in the right direction for what you need. What is the Lord’s Prayer asking for? What are the Psalms asking for? What about God comes into view in the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms? This is what we ought to be asking for from others, and how we ought to be praying for each other. The focus is on what people really need—not just the external blessings we crave. Real prayer engages the real person who stands before God needing much mercy, much guidance, much strength. As we do it, we start to become attuned to the dynamics of reality. As we are in touch with reality, then we are in touch with what really matters. We will then start to create conversations and accountability that is counseling-oriented.
Of course, there are many other “counseling-specific” things that can be taught, discussed, planned, and implemented. But prayer requests are a surprising door into the world of caring practically and pointedly for each other.
Thank you to Paul Tautges who interviewed me in December 2012. This blog represents a further development of the ideas we talked about.
Why should the church be interested in counseling? The word “counseling” does not appear in the Bible. Combine that with the fact that churches often outsource counseling, and it becomes easy to draw the conclusion that the Bible is not really that interested in counseling. I have often heard the argument, “The Bible is not a textbook on counseling.“ So how can the body of Christ be persuaded that we have a mandate to do counseling?
Thank you to Paul Tautges who interviewed me in December 2012. This blog represents a further development of the ideas we talked about.
Can local churches become a natural home for counseling ministry? Often the limitations or failures of the church get cited first, making it seem that church is at best an adjunct to “the real work of counseling.” But, in principle, the local church is the natural home for face-to-face ministry. Counseling can and should thrive in local churches. Here are five of the numerous advantages to counseling being localized in the church.
First, a wise pastor (or friend, elder, small group leader, mentor, etc.) has many advantages over the secular paradigm of the office-bound counselor. In your own church you know people. You have seen them in action. Perhaps you know their parents and friends. You see how they treat their kids. You know how they handle themselves in a group. You have “back-story,” and aren’t limited to hearing only one side of the story. You know what kind of Christian nurture they are receiving week to week—and counseling can build on that. In addition to a wider knowledge base, you relate at multiple levels. You can invite people to your home, and invite yourself into their home. You can initiate the relationship, and express your concern. In contrast, office-bound counseling is structurally passive, always only on the receiving end of inquiry or referral. There is an active, outreaching quality to counseling ministry when we conceptualize it in the church.
Here is a second advantage. It is a premise of biblical counseling that people are not just “problems.” They are not defined by a “diagnosis.” People come with gifts and callings—from God himself. They have a new identity—in Christ. All of us are given a role to play in the greater whole: regardless of physical or mental abilities, or education, or age, or any of the other human differences. Most people have helping gifts. The call to serve others brings dignity, purpose, belonging, identity, and participation. A woman coming out of drug addiction and poverty was moved to tears of gladness by the simple fact that she was personally invited to help another family in need. She contributed five meaningful dollars and a Saturday morning to helping them. Instead of being seen just as a “needy, troubled” person, she, too, could give, and it meant the world to her.
Here is a third advantage. Anyone can help anyone else. God delights in apparent role-reversals. Counseling in a church context is far richer than “designated expert” meets with “needy client.” I’ll never forget a story that my former pastor, Jack Miller, told about his sister-in-law. She was mentally disabled and lived with him and Rosemary, his wife. As a result, “Aunt Barbara” was a natural part of the church body. One day on the way to church, Jack was grumbling about the rainy weather. Aunt Barbara, in her simple 5-year-old way, said to him “But Jack, the sun is always shining. It’s just behind the clouds.” God used that like a lightning bolt. God is always shining, no matter what his providence displays on the surface. Out of the mouth of a woman with a child’s mental life came words of faith that blessed the pastor of a church of 800 people. That’s the body of Christ!
Here is a fourth advantage. You have freedom to be completely open about the life-rearranging significance of God’s gift of himself, and you can participate together in his gifts of Scripture, worship, prayer, sacraments, and bearing one another’s burdens. The means of grace come naturally in a church context. It comes naturally to talk about knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent—which is the hope of life in a world of death. The counseling implications could not be deeper.
Here is a fifth advantage. It is natural to talk about the Big Questions, as well as the practicalities of problem-solving or the process of coming to truer self-understanding. You can ask pointed existential questions. “What are you living for?” “Where are you placing the weight of your identity?” “How do you deal with your inner contradictions—the tension between the good and the bad in each of us?” You can help a person face mortality, and the reality that so many things let us down in the end. “Are you spending your life longing for things that will finally end up disappointing you, that will leave you with nothing but regrets and losses?” The church is uniquely equipped to ask, to talk about, and to offer real answers to the biggest questions.
Local churches flourish as they become places where counseling flourishes.
And the five advantages I’ve mentioned are only a start. For further reading, you might appreciate an article that appeared in the Journal of Biblical Counseling last year: “The Pastor as Counselor”
Postscript. By the way, these wonderful advantages to local church counseling do not mean that “para-church” ministries are per se unhelpful or wrong. God blesses the counseling that occurs through educational institutions, campus ministries, military chaplaincies, publishing houses, crisis pregnancy centers, mission agencies, and many other para-church Christian works. CCEF is a para-church ministry, and I happily work here, as well as participating in my local church. But there are pitfalls that any para-church ministry must avoid. We must guard against generating an autonomous existence. We must genuinely serve the church. There are particular things that a counseling ministry like CCEF does— distance education, seminary teaching, counseling training, and publishing—that a local church would have a hard time replicating. But that said, our work serves a high view of the centrality of the local church. Local expressions of the body of Christ are God’s primary point of interest and activity.
Thank you to Paul Tautges who interviewed me in December 2012. This blog represents a further development of the ideas we talked about.
When you are counseling, how much do you share about yourself? The same question could be asked of small group leaders and preachers.
What is self-disclosure?
Self-disclosure is simply offering personal information while you are also offering godly direction to someone else. This information can be in different forms.
Demographic data. This might include things like: your age, birthday, where you grew up, marital status, kids’ names, church, or what you did on your summer vacation.
Similar experiences. This one says, “Really? Me too!” If the person you are speaking with is going through a particular kind of suffering, you share an analogous hardship in your own life. If the person lost a job, you mention how you lost one. If a person has been abused, you share your personal experience of abuse. You could also do this with sin. That is, if a person struggles with pornography, you speak of your own struggle with sexual sin.
Personal reflections. This is when you share what is on your heart. It could be about Scripture: “Here is a passage that has been critical to me this week.” It could be about the person: “I really appreciated our last time together. What you said was so important and insightful.” Or, “You have really been on my heart this week. I finally got a sense of what it is like for you. I felt it, and it moved me to pray more often for you.”
What should you self-disclose?
Forgiven people, whose guilt and shame have been taken by Jesus, have nothing to hide, so we are willing to share most anything if it would edify another person. What and when to self-disclose is largely a matter of individual discernment. Some counselors do it more often, some less. Scripture follows that same pattern. There are some books of the Bible that are highly autobiographical and self-disclosing (Hosea, 2 Corinthians) and others in which the author is nearly anonymous (Ecclesiastes, Hebrews).
As a general rule, we are quick to share personal reflections. Even more, since one of the implicit agreements in counseling is that the other person will affect us, we must share personal reflections. We are slower to share similar experiences. Less-seasoned counselors often do this as a way to establish rapport. But this can backfire because it could actually demonstrate a misunderstanding of the other person if the experience shared is not, in fact, similar. Regarding demographic data, when someone is in distress, they might want to know your name, but the rest can usually wait.
Counselor self-disclosure is a perennial counseling topic. At its best, self-disclosure invites the counselee to further openness which is a key feature of a growing relationship. At its worst, it draws undue attention to the counselor, distracts the conversation, and fails to provide the desired empathy. Keep in mind the different types of self-disclosure. Counselors typically want to grow in offering personal reflections and want to be discerning when sharing similar experiences.
Some passages of Scripture could be read before every counseling time, no matter what the circumstances. This is one of them.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30)
Jesus is urging us to do two things: (1) come to him, and (2) share the effortless yoke of the gentle rescuer of our souls.
Come to me
This invitation is ridiculous. Jesus’ ministry was polarizing people. The Pharisees were increasingly contentious. People were seeing miracles but, like the Egyptian rulers with Moses, were unmoved. Normally, a rabbi receiving this much rejection would wash the dust from his shoes and move on to those who are his supporters. But, instead, Jesus invites. He invites everyone. This is simply incomprehensible. As the risen Lord, he continues to invite us.
All you who are weary and burdened
Some invitations are better than others, or at least there are some that catch our attention more than others. “Come network with other professionals”—that will appeal to some. “Come to the high-society wedding so you can see and be seen”— that will attract plenty. But this one—“Come, if you are weary from the hardships of life and think that becoming more religious will just be too much work, come”—it is hard to imagine why anyone would refuse.
And I will give you rest
“Come” is enough in itself. It breaks through the aloneness of a hard and burdened life. But “come and rest”? How did he know that rest and refreshment of soul is what everyone ultimately wants? Psalm 23 and still waters come to mind.
Both physical rest and spiritual refreshment are part of this invitation. The spiritual refreshment responds to the problems with the Pharisees’ teaching. Though Jesus calls us to even more careful attention to God’s commands than the Pharisees, the commands themselves are not burdensome. It is when those commands are part of a system that seeks to win approval from God by performing a long list of rote actions that religion is burdensome.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me
The highly personal nature of Christ’s kingdom presses on us again with the second part of his invitation to take up his yoke. Picture an oxen’s yoke. We are hitched together with Jesus and that brings loyalty, partnership, sharing, knowing, and working together. Where he goes, I go, and that yoke assures that I will be as close as possible during the journey, which means it is the best seat in the house for learning more of him and from him. Oh, and there is no need to worry about the oxen image, especially if that connotes slavish labor under harsh masters. Instead, work is good, and this is both good and highly meaningful work. It will only add to our refreshment.
Implicit in this invitation is that people were living under a religious yoke that was burdensome, and Jesus was inviting them to a much better fealty and yoke-partner. Whose yoke? If your yoke feels like a heavy burden then you are hitched to the wrong person and living a religion that is not really Christian.
For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls
We already know God is gentle and humble (Ex. 34:6), but these words sound fresh and new when spoken by Jesus. He is the long-suffering, patient God who leads us as the servant-shepherd. Gentle and meek. For those who think that he is perennially ticked off and impatient, you have the wrong person. You must have him confused with a mere human. He offers rest, not turmoil or impossible expectations.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light
Notice the way Jesus’ words are structured. There are two directives that are roughly symmetrical, and they end with rest. But this final addition draws attention to itself because it unbalances his words. Apparently, we can misunderstand or stumble over his comments about a yoke, so he offers us a little more.
This is a strange yoke. It is light, which means that Jesus is doing the heavy lifting. And he is lifting a lot. He kept the law on our behalf, he forgives us as we sin, and as we follow him we adopt his perfections and status as beloved by the Father. Given that he is the one who has done the heavy lifting, our following him—our obedience to him—should never feel like a burden (1 John 5:3).
So this is the standard for our counseling. It should echo this invitation, relieving burdens and offering rest. Whether we are talking about the hard circumstances of life or even sin, this invitation should sound good.
 Cecelia Bernhardt led a recent counseling supervision meeting with this passage.
Sometimes Scripture is our fix-me manual rather than God’s revelation of himself as the only true God. We spend more time in spiritual analysis than we do in prayer. We look for that biblical principle to solve our problem and once we settle into a satisfying insight or self-assessment, we consider the job done. Prayer rarely has the last word.
Biblical counseling, including my own counseling, can be guilty of this. My own life can be guilty of this. It can look good on the surface: I really am trying to think biblically about the daily struggles of life. But, in fact, my system is less than biblical; I live as though God’s job is to give me a relevant principle and then off I go to figure things out. I need less analyzing and more praying! Perhaps an app that gives me a mild shock every half hour would useful. It would remind me to talk through my thoughts, fears and questions with the Lord. In other words: it would remind me to pray.
These can be messy prayers. Here is a single woman’s prayer about sexual temptation:
Lord, here is what is on my heart. I just don’t know what to do. I am so confused about my relationship with this guy. I try to keep my desires in check, but that seems impossible. I want to keep this relationship, which scares me, and I want to stop this relationship, which scares me even more. I am such a mess.
This woman is learning to cast her cares on the One-who-Cares (1 Peter 5:7). Meanwhile, the rest of us are trying to figure it all out using biblical principles about purity and temptation, and once we know what to do, there seems to be no reason to pray. After all, who prays, “Okay, Lord, I am going out on a date now. I know what I am supposed to do. Talk to you later.”
Prayer requires more than that.
Recently, I spoke with a woman who is plagued by hallucinatory voices that egg on sinful thoughts. She relies on food to quiet herself. Many would consider her spiritually weak. In one meeting with her, as I offered a biblical analysis of her issues, she asked, “Could I read you some of my prayers?” A few weeks before I had suggested that she begin to write out her prayers, but in the short time we had I was not planning to follow up on that suggestion. I didn’t even remember that I made the suggestion. Then she started reading her prayers.
Jesus, please help me. I am tempted to binge right now. I know it’s wrong, but I have turned to food for so long that it has replaced you. I don’t want to live like this.
Jesus, I had a great conversation with a friend, so I didn’t binge or purge. I am really happy about that. Today I will seek her out again when I am tempted.
Jesus, I blew it so bad today. I stubbornly – rebelliously – turned to food and I didn’t care what you or anyone else said. Food is my refuge. I am so sorry, but I am afraid this could happen again. Thank you for hearing me, and thank you for making the sacrifice for sins once and for all.
I interrupted her after about five minutes because I was late for another appointment. All I could say was, “Thank you. That was just beautiful. Your words have been an inspiration to me and I can’t wait to hear more of them.” Then I prayed for her. She was just the shock I needed, better than any app. She reminded me that spiritual analysis is no substitute for prayer.
He is forty-two-years-old and his physician suggested that Ritilan or one of its relatives might be helpful. So he tried it, and it was helpful.
“There hasn’t been anything magical about it, but I noticed a difference almost right away. My brain just felt clearer and more orderly. My wife has noticed the difference too.”
My first response was simple.
My second response was, “please, tell me more.” He is a biblically thoughtful and insightful man, and I was eager to learn from him.
Biblical counseling can be positive about psychiatric medications.
It depends, in part, on the person or group we have in mind. For example, if I am thinking about my father, who was overmedicated, I would say one thing. If I am thinking about another family member, who was helped by psychiatric medications, I would emphasize medication’s usefulness.
Here I have at least two groups in mind that I want to be positive with:
Group 1: Psychotic people and their families. “Psychotic” is a general term that can include delusions, hallucinations and other severe mental experiences that make it difficult or impossible to work or have relationships. Schizophrenia, bipolar and even depression can move into psychosis.
Psychiatric medication has quieted the voices of schizophrenia, abated the storms of bipolar, and relieved the vice-grip of depression. Medication is not always successful with these symptoms, but so what. I would argue that families and friends would be wise to encourage (plead with?) the person who is prone to psychosis to both see a psychiatrist and take the medications that a psychiatrist recommends.
Group 2: Those who feel unsure, guilty or ashamed because either they are taking medication or their children are taking medication. I would like to think that we have not compounded your pain, but I suspect that this group has overheard some comments from biblical counseling that have made them feel worse.
If medication is helping, even a little, here is what we would say.
If you feel like a spiritual failure because you are taking medication, we would say, “No way. Why do you even think that?” (Most of my colleagues would say something less abrupt.) Then we would try to reason how Scripture itself is not giving you a reason to feel like a failure.
If you feel like a failure because your child is taking psychiatric medication, our guess is that you have worked harder at your parenting than ten other parents combined. We hope you are not judging your parenting success against the parent whose child sits quietly, gets all A’s, does homework without supervision, rarely gets frustrated, and is compliant and obedient. Parenting probably had little to do with any of that!
Some kids are just hard. The strategies that worked for some parents will not necessarily work for you. To make matters worse, you will receive an endless stream of advice, which will leave you angry, because you feel like you should do everything you can for your child and the advice is often contradictory. We hope you will not add guilt over medication to that list. Rather, success is marked by “help me and my child, Lord Jesus.” It isn’t measured by having a medication-free zone in your home.
All this is to say that wisdom about these kinds of decisions can take different forms in different situations. A divine directive would be nice: “do this or take this and everything will be fine.” But our Father has a better way. We confess our neediness, consider relevant biblical teaching, seek the counsel of others, make the hard decisions, learn from what helps, avoid those things that hurt, and know God-with-us. For some of us, a positive decision for medication will be a wise consequence of this process.
For more on this topic, see: “Listening to Prozac…and to the Scriptures: A Primer on Psychoactive Medications” by Mike Emlet in Volume 26:1 of the Journal of Biblical Counseling.