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As You Love Yourself

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The power of Jesus' words in Matthew 22:37-40 are known in how they succinctly handle the entirety of God's moral law (the Ten Commandments), and all that the Old Testament prophets had to say to his people:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

When we come to the work of counseling biblically, that is, counseling that is Christian, when we're dealing with marital or family conflict, for example, it is impossible to conceive of a way forward that honors God apart from these substantive words.

Consider that any form of counseling, if it will bring God glory, must be accomplished first with a love for God in view, followed by a love for neighbor, whether that neighbor is a spouse, a co-worker, a child, a family member, a friend, or even a mere acquaintance.

Quite often, somewhere in the early sessions of counseling, I like to take people to the words of Paul in Phillipians 2:3:

"Consider others as more important than yourselves."

This seemingly inconspicuous phrase, when allowed to lay across the heart properly, often brings a kind of holy discomfort to those who, if they're honest, recognize that they have too often lived as if these words were either non-existant, irrelavant, or simply untrue.

But, the fact is, some clinically significant percentage of counseling cases could be wiped out if only the parties involved would be captivated by the simplicity of the command. On more than one occasion, I watched as one side in a debate sits back in their chair, refusing to believe that, at bottom, their conflict, whatever it may be, could be so easily summed up.

We've been trained by society to believe that our problems are too complex for the words of an unsophisticated Jewish carpenter and his less-than-impressive disciples to make any material, life-changing difference.

In some strange way, I might be inclined to agree with them, if the foundational words of Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40 mean nothing to them. What I mean is, Paul's command to his audience (that includes us), that they consider others as more important than themselves will have little impact on their situation if the antecedent and necessary love for God (first) and (then) neighbor are absent.

Without love for God and neighbor (itself the product of regeneration and the new birth), any apparent capitulation to Paul's exhortation in Philppians will ultimately be a short-lived work of self-righteousness carried out in the power of ones own flesh. It will not produce the needed and desired effect of reconciliation between warring parties.

The Heidelberg Catechism's Question #4 cites Matthew 22:37-40 in answer to its question, "What does the law of God require of us?"

Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583), in his commentary on the Heidelberg, writes:

"If thou love thy neighbor as thyself, thou wilt neither murder, nor injure him. Because the love which we cherish towards our neighbor must arise out of the love of God; it is, therefore, naturally subsequent to it ... The love which we cherish towards our neighbor originates in the love which we have to God; but not the contrary."

A Fountain of Grace

In all this I hope we will see the precipitating role that the Great Commandment plays in our Christian life in general, and certainly at the counseling table, where we seek to apply biblical wisdom to life's troubling circumstances.

To be sure, there are circumstaces that we may be facing that will of necessity need to be addressed before attempting the work of counseling proper (i.e. domestic violence or other matters of safety), but even then, we cannot address those issues in a way that can be accurately described as "Christian" apart from that fountain of grace known as love for God.

Practically speaking, once all the introductions are made, and a brief of the circumstances that comprise a given counseling scenario are laid out, I want to know from the person sitting across from me, as a matter of first importance: "Do you love God," and to the extent that another human being is involved in the case, "Do you love your neighbor?" And, in that order.

Notice, however, that I did not say, "with perfection."

The Heidelberg Catechism, in its Question #5, poigniantly asks and answers:

"Canst thou keep all these things [God's law] perfectly?

In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour."

Once again, Ursinus comments, "The law binds all to obedience, and if this is not performed, to eternal punishment and condemnation. But no one renders this obedience. Therefore, the law binds all men to eternal condemnation."

Can it be that all this flows from the simple text with which we opened this post? Can it be that when we arrive at the counseling table, that we discover things to be much worse than at first we understood?

The answer is a resounding yes.

It is one thing to have conflict with a spouse, for example, that requires a season of counseling and care.

It is something altogether different if, upon arriving at that table we discover that we have not loved God, and as a result, have not loved our neighbor.

Thank God there's grace for that.

Shed Some Light

1. If you're already in a counseling scenario that's not going well, or if you're preparing to enter into one, how does the Great Commandment bring you to a place introspection concerning the condition of your heart, first to God, and then to neighbor?

2. If you've identified any personal shortcoming in this regard, what action might you take to begin acknowledging that before God and the affected party? Talk to your counselor if you have any questions or concerns about how, if, or when to proceed.