Foundations of Biblical Counseling: The Whole Life of Man

Last week we expanded our working definition of biblical counseling to include: viewing people, problems and solutions through the narrative of Scripture, and then looked at the whole counsel of God in terms of the Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation narrative of redemptive history. This week I want us to look together at what we mean by the whole life of man. What we're asking here is, what does it mean, biblically, to be human?

When we start talking about what it means to be human, if we're not careful, we can drown quickly in minutia. Arguments abound over whether people are bipartite (body and soul) or tripartite (body, soul and spirit). What does it mean to be created in the image of God? Is it our ability to relate, or think or worship or _________ (fill in the blank). And that's just among biblical counselors; we won't even mention the plethora of secular theories about the human psyche.

Well, we're going to bypass all of that (you can breathe a sigh of relief now) and just talk about one approach to a biblical understanding of people, problems and solutions. This isn't necessarily the way, it is a way, but it is a way that I have found most helpful and most synthetic with Reformed theology.

Image bearers

Representatives

Our primary purpose as image-bearers is to represent God before the creation.  Tremper Longman explains how this idea of representation lies behind what it means to be created in the image of God.

"Kings in the ancient Near East would have images or statues of themselves set up all around their kingdom. These statues represented the king and reflected his glory and power. Thus 'image of God' in Genesis 1:27 indicates that human beings reflect God's glory and represent his presence on earth. Image-bearers reflect the divine glory. The glory is reflected as the moon reflects the light of the sun. When we look into the face of another human being, we see the face of God."

Reflections

Relational

And God said, "it is not good that man should be alone..."

Growing up I acquired the understanding that God created humanity because he was lonely and wanted someone to relate to. I recently discovered where that came from. When I was young I listened to a set of records called the Purple Puzzle Tree. I loved them and owe a great deal of my knowledge and love of Bible stories to those records, but of the theology is very questionable. The first book was titled "When God was Alone" and suggested this popular misunderstanding.

The defining, most fundamental difference between the God of Christianity and the gods of every other world religion, including that of Judaism and Islam is that he is triune. God has never been alone because he is three in one. The Trinity is eternally relational, and so, when God said, "Let us make man in our own image..." it meant that man would be relational as well. This is why it was not good for Adam to be alone, and for the record, it means that Eve was not an afterthought.

But the fall has disrupted our affections so that we fear God and one another. For those who don't like spending time with people (and I'm not talking about simple introverts) this may be an unpleasant wake-up call, but you cannot be like God/Christ without having intimate relationships with others. Growing in sanctification means learning to relate deeply with God (spiritual), others (social), and yourself (self). We'll look at what this means in a future installment, for now simply understand that this means that, in the imagery of Annie Dillard, "there is no such thing as a solitary expedition to the pole" (godliness being represented by the early expeditions to the North Pole).

We see God's relationality in his triune nature, but also in his covenants with humanity and in his plan of redemption. God did not need to relate and bind himself to humanity through the various covenants he made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and others; much less did he have to become incarnated to redeem mankind. God could have made the rules any way he wanted. He set them in such a way that he would have to take on the image of man, relate to and with us and then die in our place.

This first qualitative aspect of being image-bearers, that we are relational beings, is the driving force behind the rest. This is because, as my friend and mentor Bob Kelleman says, "we pursue what we perceive to be most pleasurable." Let's look next at our ability to reason.

Rational

God is rational (Isa 1.18)! While his reasoning is beyond our comprehension (1Cor 2.11; Rom 11.33) and may, to us, seem strange and even irrational at times (1Cor 1.18), he does not act out of emotionalism. We Presbyterians love this one. We are a reasoning people, even holding to a concept called the primacy of the intellect, which maintains that nothing enters the heart without first being processed through the mind. It is why we put such a high value on the right preaching of the Word and why we demand such high academic standards of our ministers.

As image-bearers we have been given an ability to reason such as is not present in the rest of creation. I'll be the first to say that I think animals have the ability to reason. No matter what they tell me, my dogs know when they have disobeyed without me saying a word. One of our dogs used to get on the couch while we were gone and when we got home he'd be slinking off looking guilty. Don't tell me he didn't reason. But nothing else in all creation has the ability to reason from creation to a creator. No other creature has a concept of moral and immoral behavior. No other animal has the ability to worship a God it cannot see, feel, hear or touch by a reasoned decision of the will.

So the second quality of image-bearing is higher, even, spiritual reasoning.

Volitional

"A reasoned decision of the will...” – this leads us to our third image-bearing quality, volition. In the creation/evolution debate there are really two preeminent points for believers: the authority of the Bible and the uniqueness of humanity. The importance of the second point, the uniqueness of humanity, is that we are not merely highly evolved animals. This idea has, in part, led to such theories as B.F. Skinner's behaviorism, mentioned last week, which suggests that people act out of animal instinct. But man, created uniquely in the image of God is a creature with not only the ability to reason, but the ability to act freely with regard to his environment.

God himself is sovereignly free. This means that he is not bound by any external standard or circumstance, but by his own nature alone. This is critically important to our faith because it means that God never changes and is, therefore, entirely trustworthy. Man, reflective of God is also a free agent. He is likewise unbound by circumstances but is, in addition to being bound by his own nature, bound by the sovereign freedom of God.

As Presbyterians we believe in a doctrine called Total Depravity, which maintains that as a result of the fall, unregenerate humanity is incapable of choosing the good or coming to God. This is not, as it is often misunderstood and misrepresented, because we believe that people have lost the ability to choose. It is because we have lost the ability to love, to desire the good and God himself. Until God regenerates the heart by an act of his sovereign will, our wills are subject to hearts filled with enmity, or murderous hatred toward God and are therefore constrained to rebellion against God.

Most people come to counseling for one of two reasons, a problem with their actions or with their emotions, which we look at next. So knowing how to deal with the brokenness of these two aspects of our personalities is an exceptionally important component to good biblical counseling.

Emotional

Finally we come to the most infamous of our image-bearing qualities. To many Christians emotions are the enemy. They are unpredictable, difficult if not impossible to control, and they are absolutely, under no circumstances, to be trusted. But if God created them and they in some way reflect his nature, we need a new approach to our emotions.

Does God have emotions? To answer yes to this is tantamount to heresy in some circles, and if we were to suggest that God's emotions are identical to ours, it would be. As with the other three aspects of our personalities, our emotions, too, have been tainted by the fall, so that too often they control us rather than us controlling them. But this was not God's original intent. Our emotions were intended to communicate information to us that reason alone could not. I won't go into detail here on the original intent, but I will say that in our fallen condition we should look at our emotions as barometers, giving us, all things being equal, reliable indications of what or how we are experiencing our circumstances and environment. Our experience may be wrong and thus our emotions inappropriate to the situation, but they are not to blame for that.

God has feelings (I use the word feelings as a broad term encompassing both affections and emotions. I'll explain that at another time if I get the chance)! I have yet to hear a convincing argument to the contrary. The Bible's descriptions of God are abundantly clear. While it would be wrong to attribute to God all of our experience of those emotions, they never the less tell us something real and important about God. But unlike us, God's emotions are subject to his will. If God is angry, it is because that is the appropriate response to his creation. If he is delighted, it is likewise the called for emotion in that situation. He chooses, if you will, to experience and express emotional responses to the actions of his creatures. What's more, God experiences the whole range of emotions simultaneously as each is called for by some aspect of his creation at any given moment in time, so this does not constitute a change in him.

So as image-bearers, our emotions are a reflection (though broken) like our volition, our reason and our affections, of God's more perfect and divine emotions. They are, therefore, not to be feared, despised, avoided or rejected, but embraced and sanctified as with every aspect of our person and life.

Final Thoughts

John Calvin opens his Institutes of the Christian Religion with the following words, "Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves."  He explains that we are prompted to seek to understand God by understanding our own frailty and misery.  He goes on to say, however, that "it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God's face..." (emphasis mine).  This is why we have considered God's nature briefly in order to understand our own.  Hopefully we have gained more insight into who we are and why we think, feel and act as we do, so that we can grow into being more authentic image-bearers in the future.

What do you think of this view of image bearing? Are there aspects that are new to you? Aspects you disagree with or are uncomfortable with? Does any of it free you to live more joyfully? Join the discussion and come, let us reason together.