Two weeks ago I proposed a working definition of biblical counseling: the application of the whole counsel of God to the whole life of man. But that definition may raise more questions than it answers. For instance, what does "the whole counsel of God" mean? "The whole life of man" may, on first glance seem pretty straight forward, but it may encompass more than you realize.
This week I'd like to flesh out some of those concepts, focusing on the first half (the whole counsel of God) as we think through the foundations of biblical counseling. Put another way, is there a biblical answer for why we need, as well as how we are to think about and perform counseling? The answer is a resounding yes! But before we answer it, I’d like to take a brief look at some of the competing answers.
The World's Narratives
At this point everyone who has not been living under a rock has at least a basic grasp of the theory of evolution. From this approach there isn't so much anything wrong with the world or people, as much as it is that they just aren't as far along as they will be. Given enough time, natural selection will weed out the weak and favor the strong and everything will get better and better.
There are, of course, two major problems with this approach. 1) Everyone has an innate sense that things are not the way that they are supposed to be. In other words, everyone knows deep down that something is wrong with the world. 2) in terms of counseling, this is not good news, since it is the weak who usually seek help and evolution holds no hope for the weak.
Very closely related to evolution, this approach was made most popular by B.F. Skinner and it also doesn't really see anything wrong with the world or people. In essence it says that what we experience as problems are just reactions to external stimuli. By nature we are programed to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. So change the stimuli and the behaviors will change. Put people in a better environment and they will get better.
This approach also crashes and burns on at least a couple rocks. 1) Almost no one wants to see themselves as equivalent to a single celled organism simply reacting to the world around it. Humans pride themselves on their independence and ability to direct their own path. 2) Every attempt to fix people by changing their environment has failed. The fact is, if you put people in a perfect environment it does not make them better, they just very quickly make it worse.
This is probably the most common approach to problems today. It essentially contends that there is no absolute right or wrong, therefore there is no good or bad and so, again, there isn't really anything wrong with people (seeing a pattern?). So you can lose your guilt by losing your grip on outdated modes of morality and just feel good about being who you are. While this sounds good on paper, it too cannot hold up to reality. It's first insurmountable problem is the human conscience which, although it can be seared, generally resists the "I'm ok, you’re ok" approach to life by leaving us feeling guilty when we actually are. The second problem is that everyone has a limit to what they are ok with. Just look at the prison system. If there was anywhere you'd expect people to be ok with sin it would be here, but even murders disapprove of sex offenders. Even the tolerance crowd is intolerant of those who disagree with their definition of tolerance. What's more, relativity gets stopped short in all our lives the moment someone's actions interfere with our desires and goals - then we want justice!
This is sort of the culmination of the other three. When one discovers that "there is nothing new under the sun", especially if one is convinced that life has no ultimate meaning (evolution), people have no ultimate purpose (behaviorism) and there is no ultimate truth (relativism) the only logical outcome is to believe that nothing really matters. Of course, if followed to its logical conclusion life would be so unlivable that we would be forced to commit suicide (if you think that's a stretch, Google "right to die Belgium" and start reading). Of course, this view essentially rules out any counseling as there is no solution to life's problems and therefore no point in pursuing healing.
The Bible's Narrative
So how does all this relate to counseling? Well, let me offer an expanded version of our working definition of biblical counseling: viewing people, problems and solutions through the narrative of Scripture, and then applying the whole counsel of God to the whole life of man. We, as those who are in the world but not of it, who are called to be salt to a tasteless world and shine light into the darkness had better have a narrative worth offering if we are going to dismiss the world’s narratives - and we have just that. In fact, the world borrows this narrative all the time without realizing it. It marks almost all great music, books and movies. It is the narrative of redemptive history and it has four parts - Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation.
Each of these parts has implications for how we understand people, problems and solutions, and thus for how we apply the whole counsel of God to the whole life of man. Furthermore, we can see God himself providing "counseling" throughout these stages of redemptive history.
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth... so God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them... and God saw everything that he had created and behold it was very good" (Gen 1.1, 27, 31, emphasis mine).
We're almost all familiar with the story. There's nothing, God speaks and through his voice everything that is comes into existence, except Adam and Eve. God takes special care and forms Adam with his hands and breathes life into him. Then after showing Adam that he is incomplete without another, he personally takes a portion of the man and forms the woman and unites them in marriage. At the end of it all God declares everything "very good."
This is the story of Creation. It tells us where we come from, why we are here and what things were originally intended to be like. This stage of redemptive history reveals that there was an original design and it was good - nay, it was very good. Creation opens the door for us to understand crucial elements of people. It doesn't tell us everything, but it does tell us who people are by original intent and that is critical to determining how we counsel. Creation gives us pictures from Scripture (Gen 1-2 among them) of what life and we were supposed to be like, as we travel together to wholeness.
At creation God gives his first counsel to Adam and Eve by giving them what we refer to as the Creation and Cultural Mandates. He guides them in their new life and instructs them in what they are to do, why they were created and how they will find fulfillment. "And God blessed them. And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth'" (Gen 1:28).
"Now the Serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field... He said to the woman, 'Did God actually say...', 'you shall not surely die...', 'God knows that when you eat of it... you shall be like God.' 'So... she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths... and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden" (Gen 3, emphasis mine).
Deep down we all know things aren't like they should be. Some things are obvious - outbreaks of deadly viruses, devastating natural disasters, failing marriages, the death of children - problems are real. Other things are more subtle - a cold or the flu, property damage from a storm, tension in relationships, general disappointments with life. If creation describes how things were meant to be, Fall explains why they aren't that way now. It gives us insight into people - why are we the way we are, what motivates us, and how we seek to solve our problems; and problems - why life doesn't seem to work right, what external circumstances prompt act, and the consequences of our actions. As with Creation, Fall is not limited to Gen 3, other Scriptures such as Rom 1.18-32 and 1Jn 2.16 extend our understanding of people and problems.
At the fall we see an amazing example of God's counsel. Maybe we can look at this more in depth at another time, but see how he coaxes them out of hiding through his disarming questions "But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, 'Where are you?'" "'Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree which I commanded you not to eat?'" "'What is this you have done?'" (Gen 3.9, 11, 13). He weighs down their consciences with guilt, as the Puritans used to call it, when he pronounces curses upon the man and the woman and casts them out of the garden baring their return. But he also lightens their consciences with grace, as again the Puritans called it, when he proclaims the protoeuangelian (first gospel announcement), "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel" (Gen 3.15 NAS) and when he initiates the first blood sacrifice in history to clothe Adam and Eve in redemptive garments, "And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them" (Gen 3.21)
"But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Gal 5.4-5). For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works" (Tit 2:11-14).
How do we know that change is possible, and if it is, how do we do it? This is where Redemption enters and it is the climax of the story. God sends his Son to restore what was broken in the Fall. This happens in the most unlikely way, by the death of the redeemer. Redemption gives us hope that change is possible because God cared enough to make it possible. It reveals how God brings about that change and guides us in the process of experiencing change. When we are faced with the hard realities of the consequences of our actions, the difficulties of making changes to things that seem to go down to the very core of who we are, the challenges of resetting the lies we have learned, believed and repeated to ourselves, sometimes our whole lives, Redemption is our promise that God is with us, that he fully understands all that we are facing, he has experienced our weaknesses and overcome them for us, and he has empowered us to persevere to the end.
In the midst of the most spiritually, emotionally and physically overwhelming day of Jesus life he counsels no fewer than five people or groups. Jesus warns Peter of his coming trial and subtly tells him he will fall but not fail. "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers" (Lk 22:31-32). Jesus warns Judas; seemingly pleading with him not to do what he is about to do, "The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born" (Mat 26:24). He speaks tenderly to the crowds that follow him down the Via Dolorosa, "But turning to them Jesus said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children" (Lk 23:28). And he speaks words of grace and assurance to the repentant thief on the cross, "And [the thief] said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' And [Jesus] said to him, 'Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise'" (Lk 23:42-43).
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.' And he who was seated on the throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things new'" (Rev 21:1-5a, emphasis mine).
Creation tells us how the world and we, ourselves, were intended to be. But that is only the beginning of the story, not the end. In counseling we must, in one sense, aim toward a restoration of the intended order, so we look to Creation for that pattern. But in another sense we are stopping short of the goal if we limit ourselves to what was supposed to be rather than to what is supposed to be or will be in glory (sometimes Consummation is also called Glorification). The New Testament abounds with descriptions of what the new heavens and the new earth will be like from Matthew to Revelation. Still, we must confess that there is far more that we do not know than what we do about the future. Still, where we have clear teaching it behooves us to set our sights on both the short term (Creation) and long term (Consummation).
One of the greatest benefits of the descriptions of glory is their counseling applications for those who suffer and are weary. We've already seen one in Rev 21.4, here are a few more. "And the angel said to me, 'Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb'" (Rev 19:9). "And he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son'" (Rev 21:6-7). "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations" (Rev 22:1-2).
Everyone has a narrative by which they make sense of themselves and the world around them. The preacher explains this in Ecc 3.11, "Also, [God] has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end." This is of course, without the aid of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures which are contained in the Old and New Testaments. This is precisely why every other narrative but the biblical narrative of redemptive history (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation) ultimately leaves its adherents wanting for more. It is why, as I said, every piece of great narrative art, from fairy tales to movies borrows this theme from Christianity. Cornelius Van Til once said that "Non-Christian science has worked with the borrowed capital of Christian theism, and for that reason alone has been able to bring to light much truth.” This could be broadened to say that the world, as far as it works at all, does so because it operates on "the borrowed capital of Christian theism" and when it relinquishes that capital it becomes utterly bankrupt. Believe it or not, this can be good new, because when people declare bankruptcy they must seek something else to sustain their lives. When that happens, if we are faithful in our Christian message, the light of biblical counsel will shine brightly into the darkness and drive the darkness out. In fact, it's already happening, "the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining" (1Jo 2:8 ESV). So what narrative are you living by? What narrative are you declaring? Take heart Christian and believe and live the gospel narrative!