Healthy Biblical Counselling

Photo by cottonbro on

In previous articles I’ve shared my concerns regarding some aspects of Biblical Counselling. Some approaches lead you towards what risks being harsh and legalistic counselling. This arises out of an assumption that we can resolve a problem by identifying and stopping the sin that caused it. This leads, in my opinion to a shallow engagement with people but also is caused by a shallow engagement with Scripture.

However, I remain committed to the vital place that Biblical counselling has in pastoral ministry.  It is possible to counsel Biblically in a way that is healthy and that goes beyond shallow engagement.  This requires first that we start not with a set of proof texts but with an understanding of the whole Bible’s teaching concerning the big questions of life.  You’ll notice that I consistently return to these big themes here:

  • How do we know truth?
  • Who is God?
  • Where did we come from?
  • Who am I?
  • Where are we going to?

This is because we want to help the counselee find their place in God’s big story and understand what is happening in their life right now within that framework. Our intention in counselling is not to simply help them resolve/escape/survive a problem -though counselling may help with that. Rather, our concern is to see them learn to be holy through their circumstances. This is a crucial distinction. One of the reasons why some approaches to counselling end up sounding legalistic is that they suggest that if you say or do x or y then the result will be that the problem will go away. The counsellor in effect promises that if you manage to identify the root cause sin then your depression and anxiety will go away, your marriage will be fixed or you’ll be able to get a job. All of that begins to sound rather like prosperity teaching.[1]

So, a big part of healthy Christian counselling involves two things. First of all, we want to hear the counselees tell their own story and share their understanding of how they got to where they are. Secondly, we want to be re-sharing God’s big story of redemption together and seeing their place in that. What this helps us to do is to spot places where they have learnt and acted on lies about God, creation, humanity/themselves and new creation.  AS we retell God’s big story we are seeking to replace lies with truth.

A further aspect of healthy Biblical counselling is that we will be wary of seeking to identify the one sin that a person has committed.   There may be such a specific sin that has worked out in a particular way but not always. The Bible teaches that we are fallen and that we live in a fallen world. This leads to a deeper understanding of the human condition. First of all, it means that I’m aware that suffering is around because of death and decay in the world around me. Their struggles may be a result of this rather than of one thing that they have done.

Secondly, it means that we have to recognise that we live with other fallen people and therefore they can act, intentionally or unintentionally in ways that harm us.   It is okay within counselling to recognise the ways in which others have acted which have been harmful to us. This includes where they have set poor examples or taught us wrongly.  And part of the process here includes learning to forgive others who have failed us, recognising that they are not perfect.

Which leads to the next thing to consider, idolatry.  You see part of living in a fallen world is the presence and lure of idols. This can include people who have become godlike to us, hence then eed to recognise their fallibility. But we also see idolatry in the way that we can make particular needs all consuming and seek satisfaction in those areas away from the true and living God.  We’ve identified these areas of idolatry previously as:

  • The desire for approval and identity
  • The desire for comfort
  • The desire for security

The danger with each of these is that in and of themselves they are legitimate desires, the problem comes when they take over and when we look to having those needs met instead of to God.  What this means is that I may not in counselling immediately recognise a specific sin that has caused the issue and yet I may well be struggling with thought patterns which are idolatrous and therefore sinful.

If I can give an example from my own life, you may remember that I’ve previously talked about how some people began to talk about me going for Biblical counselling when I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. You will recall that I balked at this because of the association with attempting to dig up the root cause sin. Now to be clear, I didn’t and don’t think I was perfect, I was well aware of my sinfulness and could have named a whole list of specific sins. However, I don’t think that there was a specific sin that could be said to have led to my depression.

Indeed, my own experience was that I was emotionally exhausted, battered and bruised from being right in the heat of aspects of pastoral ministry including being in the middle of some significant conflicts, often trying to mediate and in effect becoming what someone else described as the lightening rod when there was trouble.

However, even within that, if you listen to me telling my story carefully, you should be able to detect some problems.  I was often placing myself as the mediator, the one who would bring conflict resolution and in so doing taking a place that I could not and indeed was not mine to take.  I was effectively assuming that I could teach and reason and calm the church out of trouble.  This suggests that I was learning to believe lies about myself. 

Furthermore, as I’ve written elsewhere, I needed to have a serious look at myself and my desires.  What was it that I was looking for? Well, I don’t think it was comfort or security. However, I did want to be approved of. I did want identity. I wanted people to think well of me. This meant I risked seeking to appease conflict.  This was idolatry and addressing that was something crucial for me in relation to depression. Not that addressing it would guarantee recovery from depression and anxiety, though I can see obvious examples of how this would help.  Rather, that it would start to help me learn to be holy even through depression. Addressing this teaches me not to seek to escape that diagnosis out of fear that if people know I have been depressed then they will think less of me as a person and a pastor nor to seek approval and attention as a victim.

So Biblical counselling will help us to think about how we face our problems and struggles as believers in a holy way. It may not always promise solutions and indeed our recongitino of common grace and general revelation may well mean that we encourage counselees to seek outside help such as through medicine, just as our awareness of our own limitations means that we may point them to specialists with greater experience and expertise in an area,

Most of all, we need to recognise that true Biblical counselling is Gospel counselling. The confrontation that people in our care need, whether or not they are new or mature believers is with the Gospel of Grace. Our concern as pastors is to bring them back to the Gospel. If doctors treat the body and psychiatrists the brain, then the Biblical Counsellor’s responsibility is to treat the heart.

[1] Please note that I’m not saying here that this was the intent of people like Jay E Adams who would no doubt have recoiled from such  thinking but it is the impression we risk creating by approaching counselling in certain ways.

%d bloggers like this: