When is the last time you counseled someone? Yesterday? Last week? Last month? Maybe you're thinking, I've never counseled anyone. We may not think of our interactions with one another as counseling, but quite often they are. One doesn't have to have a degree or a certification to be a counselor, and that's good! But there are also some dangers in this, just as there are when we engage in any ministry which we have not examined in light of the Bible.
Each one of us is a preacher from time to time, but most of us would not want someone to get up on Sunday morning and declare God's word to us if they hadn't spent at least some time thinking about what preaching is. Each of us is an evangelist, whether we like it or not, whether we are a good witness or a bad witness, and usually the difference has to do, to some extent, on the degree to which we have thought about evangelism. Likewise, almost all of us, at some point in our lives, are a counselor, but the quality of our counsel will be significantly benefited or hampered based on whether we have considered what, exactly, counseling is.
So over the next several weeks I'd like to consider this important part of the ministry of the local church and of Christians individually. There is probably no better place to start than by asking the simple question - what is counsel?
What Counseling Is
In most cases when I'm looking to understand what something is I go to the dictionary. In doing so, I found the following relevant definitions:
1. advice; opinion or instruction given in directing the judgment or conduct of another
2. interchange of opinions as to future procedure
3. Law... the advocate or advocates engaged in the direction of a cause in court; a legal adviser or counselor
5. Theology. one of the advisory declarations of Christ, considered by some Christians as not universally binding but as given for aid in attaining moral perfection
7. Obsolete. wisdom; prudence
9. to urge the adoption of, as a course of action...
Each of these definitions captures some part of what true biblical counseling should look like. To put it another way, when we engage in any of these activities we are, whether we think of it this way or not, counseling or being counseled. At the same time, none of these definitions adequately describes true biblical counseling (which should be our goal). Consider the first two definitions, which describe counsel as "opinion." While some amount of opinion sharing is inevitable in counseling of any type, as Christians our counsel must consist primarily of God's opinions (that is to say, solid biblical truth), not our opinions. So let me propose a working definition for our use over the next few weeks. Biblical counseling is the application of the whole counsel of God to the whole life of man.
This is admittedly a very broad definition and we will look at specifics as we go. In fact, I may even offer supplemental definitions in following weeks. This initial definition encompasses both the public ministry of the word (ie. preaching) and the private ministry of the word (ie counseling, as we typically think of it). Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones was correct when he wrote that the proper public ministry of the word can substantially reduce the amount of private ministry of the word the pastor is called on to perform (Preaching and Preachers, p. 37ff). One of the great things about preaching is that it is possible to "counsel" many people at one time. But there are certain things that can never be sufficiently addressed from the pulpit, and even if they could this would still fall short of true gospel ministry because of the relational distance between preacher and people.
What Counseling Isn't
OK, let's establish this right away - there's no couch to lie on (though there might be a big comfy chair), there are no cigars (can't smoke in the church) , and you will not be asked about your mother (unless it is relevant). Biblical counseling is not searching for repressed memories, or getting in touch with your inner child. It's not looking at ink blots (which all look like butterflies anyhow) or having your dreams interpreted by an expert who then tells you what's wrong with you.
Biblical counseling is two or more equals attempting to look at life (usually a particular part) together through the lens of God's word. Counselors (especially lay counselors) are not experts, though they have probably received some training, especially in the case of formal counseling. In fact, one of a counselors most important qualification is simply that she isn't you! This means she sees life through different eyes and can therefore, hopefully, help you identify blind spots in your heart, soul and mind.
Conversely, counseling is not just hanging out. It can certainly take place in that context, but watching the Redskins lose again and comforting one another doesn't qualify as counseling. Neither is sharing a meal and making small talk. This kind of time together is an important part of life, but it differs from counseling in its purpose. In counseling, especially formally, the participants have a stated goal of growth in grace by the mining our hearts and God's heart.
Sugar and spice
When some people hear the word counseling they think of someone sitting around naval-gazing, pouring out their troubles with a box of tissues at the ready while another person affirms them and tells them they're a snowflake. One major component of counseling (what I would call soul care) involves a great deal of listening and compassionate relating, but the counselors office is not the adult version of the cry room (though, ironically, with a little work the cry room would make a good counseling space). It is a place where God's gospel is applied to people's groaning.
A poke in the eye
When others think of counseling they envision sitting in an office exposing their worst secrets and then being subjected to a 30 minute sermon (and maybe not a very good one) on all the ways they are sinners. Another major component of Biblical counseling is caring confrontation (what I would call spiritual direction). But it's not a poke in the eye or a kick in the shin. It is a place where people's shame guilt and bondage can be overcome by the glory of God.
A sign of weakness
As I close this section let me make one more thing very clear - you are weak and you are broken. There, I said it. It's out in the open, so now we don't have to worry about it. The only person who never needed counseling is God himself (Rom 11.34). But counseling isn't only for people with "problems." While dealing with problems will always be a significant part of a biblical counseling ministry, the number of acute problems would be drastically reduced if people began to view counseling as preventative maintenance rather than emergency service.
Think about this - if you approached car care the way you approach relationship care, where would your car be? How long would it last? Most of us take our vehicles in for regular maintenance. Yet our relationships, which are of immeasurably greater value than our cars, we treat as though they are self-maintaining. Take marriage for example; every marriage has its foxes (see SoS 2.15) and the key is to catch them when they are young so they don't ruin the vineyard. But how do you do that without identifying them early and setting traps? Approached this way marriage counseling shouldn't be viewed as something for making bad marriages good, but for making good marriages better. The same goes for all areas of life and relationships.
The Uniqueness of Counseling
Specific and Enduring
As I mentioned earlier, good preaching (which our church is abundantly blessed with) can be of great value in applying the whole counsel of God to the whole life of man. But it is impossible for anyone to apply the gospel to every specific circumstance being experienced by members of a congregation in one sermon. At best, public preaching can give principles and illustrations of how those principles can be worked out Mon-Sat.
By contrast, good counseling can help individuals see how those biblical principles apply to their specific needs. Moreover, the counselor can help the struggler develop a workable plan for living them out. Perhaps most important of all, the counselor is able to come along side the person to help them implement this plan without feeling alone and without legalistically relying on the plan more than the person and work of Christ.
Have you ever walked away from your Bible reading or a bible study more burdened than when you went in? Have you ever left church with more pressing questions than when you entered? It is not uncommon for preaching (or bible study or reading) to raise difficult questions without answering them. For instance, this week pastor Alan explained that coveting included dissatisfaction with our current station or circumstances. But what does being content with ones station in life mean for the man in a prolonged state of unemployment? What does being content with ones circumstances mean for the woman who's husband is addicted to pornography?
Let me flesh out the first one. In the almost 13 years that we've been married, Rhonda has been the primary (and sometimes only) bread winner in our family. Convinced that I am called to pastoral ministry we pursued every opportunity to no avail. Still convinced this was God's plan for my life we decided I should go back to school. Still nothing. Continuing to wait on God's time, I have found myself either under or over qualified for most things because of the narrow scope of my education and training and my firm faith that my life's trajectory is toward full time ministry. I do what I can at home and do some odd jobs. I am available to meet with people when others are not. But still, there's a nagging sense that I'm not fulfilling my role as a husband.
So here's the question I walked away with from this week's sermon: what does being content with my station in life mean when it seems unfaithful? And what do I do about the burden I (and many others) firmly believe God has placed in my heart? There's no chance to get clarification on Sunday morning. But in the counseling office I could express these concerns and seek answers together from God's word with the help of someone whose perspective is not clouded in the same way as mine.
Few of us will ever be called upon to preach a sermon, but most of us will be called upon to counsel someone at some time. The apostle Paul tells us in 2Cor 1.3-5 how we become competent for that calling, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too" (ESV).
As we receive comfort out of the gospel we also learn how to comfort out of the gospel. As others help us to walk in the gospel we learn how to help others walk in the gospel. Good counselors beget counselors, and a church filled with counselors is one where people will feel safe and supported.
I wonder who you will be called upon to counsel this week? The fields are ripe and God is sending each of us out as workers in our own fields of harvest. My prayer is that as you give thought to the place of counseling in the church and in the lives of Christians that the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God will make you increasingly competent to counsel.
His servant and yours,