A Theory for Counseling Biblically

On occasion, someone will either ask in counseling or approach me in some other setting to ask about my personal theory of counseling. They won't ask in those exact words, but at bottom, this is the question their asking. 

Sometimes, people ask this question or others like it simply because they have a curiosity, other times it's because they can't believe that the Bible actually provides for the church a model for counseling. They can't believe that, as Dr. David Powlison has said, "Christianity is a psychology."

In an effort to further communicate to those who have such an interest, I'm placing within this blog post a link to an academic paper I wrote for one of my master's level courses just prior to graduating from SEBTS this past May. Far shorter than a book (or even a booklet), but longer than a blog post, I'm publishing it here in order to answer the questions of some and (hopefully) provoke dialogue in others. 

Truly, it may not be of much interest to those who are seeking counseling for themselves, but for those who are searching for a trusted, biblical counseling resource for people within their care (i.e. pastors), it may be of some value.

As with any document of this nature, I would call it a "living document," because in the spirit of the Reformation, none of us have arrived. Not theologically. Not philosophically. Not even scientifically. 

We are "always reforming" (semper reformada), but so far as the essentials of the faith are concerned, those things that make biblical counseling biblical, I dare say you shouldn't expect much change any time soon. 

Just this morning, I learned that the ACBC is planning to adopt its revised Standards of Doctrine later this year, at its annual conference. I've read this revised statement, and believe my theory for counseling (what we employ here at Baylight Counseling) stands in agreement with both ACBC's Standards, and the BCC's Confession of Faith (counselors at Baylight either are or will be ACBC certified; Baylight is a partner of the BCC).

It is to God's glory, and our joy that we have His unchanging, inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient word for the purpose of bearing one another's burdens in the pursuit of discipleship and counseling.

Speaking the Truth in Love: A Personal Theory for Counseling Biblically

SDG

Bad Doctrine Corrupts Good Morals

You've heard it said: Don't drink. Don't smoke. Don't chew. And, don't go with girls that do. But, I say to you, disconnected from the person of Jesus Christ, good morals are ultimately a pitiful source of pride and false hope in the trials of life.

Several months ago, LifeWay Research and Ligonier Ministries released a report concerning the pervasiveness of biblical illiteracy in the American church. The report speaks for itself. We're in a time of deep theological anemia, the effects of which are severe to the spiritual heartbeat of our culture. At this time, it's difficult to know if the church in America will recover within our lifetime. We can only hope.

We Must Pray for the Next Great Awakening 

Our biblical illiteracy, itself a product of unbelief and the outright rejection of a Christian worldview, is indeed foundational to the social anarchy of our time. But, what's happening outside of the church is not so much my concern in this post. Instead, I'm terribly concerned, as a biblical counselor, about what's happening inside the church.

What the world calls "mental health," where not connected to a true organic disease of the brain, is directly connected to our walk with Jesus Christ. If you reject this assertion, consider that as prima facia evidence for the thesis of this post.

Our walk with Him will not rise higher than our familiarity with God's written word. Out of this fertile ground springs what we believe to be true about God and ourselves. We call this doctrine, a word lifted up by Scripture, but maligned in culture and even within some circles of the visible church (Titus 2:1). What a person knows, or thinks they know about our triune God will either be rooted in the Scriptures, or the imagination. We should be concerned about this because imaginary gods cannot save (Psalm 115:4-8).

In my estimation, generally speaking, we have become a people who are unable to think Christianly. True Christian ethics have been exchanged for a utilitarian, the-ends-justify-the-means manner of living. We no longer have an appetite for what the Bible actually says, we're unfamiliar with sound hermeneutics, and have no concern for authorial intent, but are satisfied with answers to life's most pressing dilemmas that are rooted in human wisdom, so long as they're adorned with a proof-text or two.

We Are a Distracted People

This hasn't always been the case. There was a time in which the people who named the name of Christ in America assumed a biblical worldview, and embraced the teaching of sound doctrine. In those days, men like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards would proclaim the Gospel and preach the word exhaustively for hours on Sunday morning, only to have the people return that evening for more. In those days, the preacher would preach multiple times a week, and the people who called themselves Christians would not forsake the gathering of themselves together.

Today, our bookstores are stocked with velvety works that tickle the ears of readers, serving up to them not the feast of Scripture's meaty protein, but the processed cheese-food that retailers call "Christian Living." We have exchanged the pursuit of Christ by knifing our way through biblical doctrine one painstaking bite at a time for the ease of theological Hot Pockets. 

If you don't believe me, I'd invite you to call your local Christian bookstore, and ask them for a sales comparison of Donald Miller's "Blue Like Jazz," versus Wayne Grudem's "Systematic Theology." You might even search your own bookshelf in a moment of honest introspection. Did you find your copy of John Owen's "The Mortification of Sin"? Statistically, you've never heard of it, but you probably have a dusty copy of "Wild at Heart," by John Eldredge. 

(Hint: Everyone should be reading the Bible chunks at a time along with dead theologians from generations past, especially if their names sound like Owen, Bunyan, Luther, Spurgeon, Calvin, Whitfield, et al.)

Why Sound Doctrine Matters to Christian Counseling

By now, you're wondering why I'm laboring over this issue. Shouldn't I be writing something like a five-point checklist for defeating depression, or an encouraging word for those battling anxiety? 

Let me explain my concern further by way of a real-life, but modified case study.

Not long ago, a man in counseling suggested to me that the Bible is a good book of good ideas, but that it does not authoritatively speak to our modern lives. The man was more interested in philosophizing his way through our discussion, than theologizing and comparing his life to Scripture. 

Whenever I would attempt to turn to the Bible, he would grow visibly uncomfortable, and attempt to wrestle control away from me. Although he called himself a Christian, he did not hold Scripture as  inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient for the problems that brought him to counseling. As a result, he had no desire and no stomach for counsel rooted in God's word.

The truth is that he'd likely never heard these terms preached at any length. He more likely had never considered their relevance to the Christian life. Instead, he was sailing the oceans of life and navigating his way through its storms without the steering rudder of biblical doctrine. The result was that he was tossed to and fro by his own fanciful beliefs and whatever else he picked up from the media (Ephesians 4:14). In his own mind, the biblical narrative was good for inspiration, but not much else. 

What he needed, in his thought, were the real solutions offered by mainstream psychology. In his estimation, the Bible would be sufficient to ensure that his name would one day be called "up yonder," but human wisdom held the keys to the problems of today. He didn't want the counsel and compassion of Christ. Instead, he wanted the fantasies of Freud.

As a biblical counselor, this broke my heart. I'd hoped that our time together might be like a gentle stroll through some rolling hills. Instead, it was like a hike up Mount Everest in the middle of a storm. Metaphorically, the man had the equipment he needed for the journey, but he never learned how to use it. What's worse, some of the life-saving equipment he possessed, he deemed to be expendable.

From a counseling perspective, he had good morals. He understood right from wrong. He knew what he ought and ought not to do in his daily experience of living. But, his good morals were not rooted in a love for the person of Jesus Christ, a desire to not grieve the Holy Spirit, or the glory of God. He only wanted to make sound, ethical choices so that his life would go well and be free of difficulty.

Among other things, the man had no theology of suffering. He was unaware that Jesus explicitly taught that His followers would encounter trouble in this life, therefore, any thought of what it would mean to complete the sufferings of Christ was replaced with a theology of mere avoidance (John 16:33; Colossians 1:24). Instead of pursuing God in his trial, he simply wanted comfort and his "best life now." He, like the rich young ruler, walked away "grieving" (Mark 10:22).

Bad Doctrine Corrupts Good Morals

According to Dr. Garrett Higbee, Executive Director of Biblical Soul Care at Harvest Bible Chapel, writing in the book "Scripture and Counseling," "...the Bible lays out a model of care that is superior to anything the world has to offer." Higbee isn't just a pastor who happens to think the Bible is important. He writes as a man who once practiced as a licensed psychologist. There are many men and women who hold similar experiences.

The issue is not that they or any other properly trained biblical counselor denies the reality of organic disease, or even the probability that secular science and research can be helpful in the quest to provide informed, compassionate care for those who struggle with life-dominating conditions. 

The issue is simply that at the end of the day, the great majority of problems that lead people to seek counseling are driven not by pathological disease of the brain, but by matters of the heart that are powerfully and thoroughly addressed in God's word.

Diagnosing the Problem

Unfortunately, we as a people have drifted away from pouring over the Scriptures in search of truth. We have become increasingly enamored with natural explanations for super-natural problems. We have listened to men who tell us that exegetical preaching of God's word is "boring," and "cheating," in favor of cleverly designed, entertaining speeches and pontifications that have only the appearance of piety.

From a counseling perspective, the trouble with all of this is that when the trials of life come (and come they will), good morals that are disconnected from the foundational, indicative truths of Scripture promote a type of Christianity that is like a house built on sand. It collapses in the storm. Conversely, good morals that are anchored deep into the bedrock of Scripture and biblical doctrine will withstand the crashing waves (Matthew 7:24-27). 

History, and even our own contemporary narrative bear witness to these truths, I believe.

Do You Want to Get Well?

In John 5:6, Jesus comes upon a man who had been physically sick for thirty-eight years. He asks the man one of those simple, yet profound questions that only Jesus could ask: Do you want to get well? I believe the church must hear and read the question today as if Jesus is speaking directly to her, corporately and individually. We must confess that we have too often been unsatisfied with "thus sayeth the Lord," and have desired in our hearts something that sounds more like, "Today, on Dr. Phil."

The troubles of this life are many and diverse. I do believe that our modern society, with its technological advances, has managed to spin a web of debauchery that in some sense may be more complicated than any other in human history. Still, the Scripture is clear: there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The Gospel, unlike any other resource known to man, is the power of God unto salvation for all those who believe (Romans 1:16). 

Hence, my plea as a biblical counselor for the church to distance itself both from "moralistic therapeutic deism," and from those manners of preaching that have the insufficient goal of "a better America" in view, and to re-engage a biblical, Christ-centered worldview and approach to the Scriptures.

The effects of this upon mental health and counseling would be immeasurable.

Keep It Going

1. How do you see the teaching of sound doctrine in the church as a relevant issue for counseling?

2. How has sound doctrine, or the lack thereof, helped or hurt you in counseling?