Really Practical Theology

Pastors, teachers, parents, and employers are daily deluged with people’s problems. Oftentimes we resort to simplistic and formulaic practical counsel that has short-term benefits at best. Other times we are tempted to ignore the problems, to deny them, to run from them, or sometimes just to give up. Our advice is spurned, our help is rejected, our prayers go unanswered, and situations go from bad to worse. We try one counseling strategy after another, we turn from one step-by-step guide to another, from one disciplinary measure to another, and we end up going round and round in circles.

Stop and study the attributes of God.

“What? The last thing I need at the moment is systematic theology. I need solutions and I need them fast. Be practical, man.”

Actually, God’s attributes are the first thing you need, and they are eminently practical for both sinners and sufferers alike. Consider the practical value of God’s attributes for those you are trying to help.

God’s Sovereignty
Let’s plant our feet on this rock-solid foundation before we offer a word of counsel or advice to anyone. God is in sole and purposeful control of all past, present, and future events, both on a macro- and on a micro-scale, at the inter-planetary level and on the our-little-life level. God is the ultimate ruler of time and space. He has a plan that is being worked out perfectly from day to day, and from year to year.  It’s a plan that extends from creation to consummation. It includes all the good things and all the bad things, the pleasant things and the painful things.

Belief in the sovereignty of God changes the way we look at the world, at people, and at their problems. What looks like a mess is actually part of a meticulous divine plan that is being worked out for the good of those who love God.

God’s Holiness
God’s holiness is our model and motivation in counseling others. It is our model in that the aim of counseling is to bring people into conformity with the perfectly beautiful image of God in character and conduct, especially that holy image as manifested in Jesus Christ.

It is our motivation because we learn from this attribute how much God hates sin, opposes it, fights against it and will punish it. Thus we do not treat sin lightly, we do not cover it up, and we do not excuse it; rather, we seek to have it confessed, forgiven, and forsaken.

God’s Wisdom
The all-wise God has all the answers, and all the ones we need He has revealed directly or indirectly in His Word and in His world. The answers in God’s Word may take the form of a verse, a doctrine, or a deduction from a passage. It may be a story, a commandment, a promise, a proverb, a psalm, or a summary of truth from various places. Sometimes the answer may be very direct and obvious, sometimes indirect and yielded only to study.

However, God also communicates His wisdom to us through His World. Although God has placed all we need to know for salvation and sanctification in His Word, He has also placed much helpful wisdom in the world, which we locate, read, and interpret through the lens of His Word.

God’s Power
As we look at the brokenness and complexity of people’s personalities, bodies, minds, hearts, relationships, etc., we collapse in impotent helplessness. But looking up from there, we then see God’s infinite power, and His infinite willingness to help the helpless, toughen the tried, and empower the powerless via His Almighty Spirit.

God’s Love
The love of God is why we counsel and what we counsel. The love of Christ compels us to counsel, and the love of Christ is the content of our counsel. We are not in the business of condemning people but of pointing them to salvation and the Savior. The love of God in Christ is at the center of every counseling session – whether it is extending forgiveness through Christ’s blood or sympathy through Christ’s sufferings.

God’s Justice
God’s justice? Is that not a rather threatening attribute? Well it may be. And maybe it ought to be. We are dealing with souls who are heading to judgment and an eternal destiny of blessing or cursing. We will be called to account for how we direct such souls. And we should remind those we are trying to help that they too will be called to account for how they respond to God’s guidance through us.

But I included this attribute primarily as a comfort! So many of the injustices we face will not be resolved here. It is such a wonderful hope that Christ will return put everything right. He will perfect His people, deliver them from all their oppressors, and punish all who have wronged them. The Judge of all the earth will do right. He will renew His people and this world, and make everything new. He has promised. And He will keep that promise.

Unless we start with the attributes of God, we will never get started.

This article first appeared in Tabletalk. You can try it free for three months here.

I’m also looking forward to Brad Hambrick’s booklet, God’s Attributes: Rest for life’s struggles,  which takes a more in-depth look at the role of the attributes of God in counseling.

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Let the dummies give the answer

Dear very wise pastor/parent/elder/co-worker,

You’ve been blessed with the rare gift of wisdom. Insight, discernment, vision, understanding, answers, solutions come to you as easily as buttering your toast. You see things in a way that most of us never will. We, the not-so-very-wise, are deeply grateful for your intellectual, creative, and far-seeing abilities. Your sage counsel has saved us from lots of foolish choices and damaging decisions.

Now, I know it’s a long way down, but could you bend your ear just for a moment to receive a tip from a lesser mortal? Well, here goes anyway.

Sometimes –  it doesn’t have to be lots of times, just sometimes - let the dummies give the answer.

You don’t need to hold back your wisdom on the BIG questions, the MEGA decisions, but if the opportunity arises on a really small, insignificant, tiny matter (like the time of a meeting, or where to put the trash cans, or the paint-color for the cupboard, etc) why not ask Mr Know-nothing his opinion (he’s probably stopped offering his pathetic views many meetings ago).

Now, of course, it’s never going to be anywhere near as good a proposal as yours. But, if you can do it without choking, why not say, “Mr Know-nothing, that’s a great idea…let’s do it that way!” Don’t tweak it, edit it, “balance” it, or improve it. Just accept it.

You may need to administer CPR the first couple of times you do this but, of course, you know how to do that really well anyway. You’ll still come out looking good.

You can still score the touchdowns, but the team might get more wins if you encouraged the defense, the reserves, and replacements from time to time.

Your pupil,

Mr Lots-to-learn.

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