One of the books I wish I’d read at the beginning of my ministry is The Peacemakerby Ken Sande. It is subtitled “A Biblical Guide To Resolving Personal Conflict” and if I’d known about it twenty years ago, it would have saved me a lot of trouble. I now make it a required text for my students and also recently decided to begin my new pastoral ministry by studying it with my congregation in the Adult Sunday School Class.
Why a priority?
Why make such a book a priority at the beginning of my ministry? First, because conflict will eventually and inevitably arise in every church; and the way we respond to it will make or break the church.
Second, it’s also a “pre-emptive” strike, trying to get ahead of any trouble, so that we have a pattern and model for handling conflict that we can use to keep one another accountable.
And third, it’s to re-teach myself. I was brought up in a large city, Glasgow, and attended large public schools where I learned the infamous Glasgow way of handling conflict – blunt fists or sharp tongues. Not having much in the pecs and biceps department I became quite skilled with the only muscle at my disposal – a sharp, quick, and aggressive tongue.
Tamed but Temptable
Though now considerably tamed by grace, my aggressive, confrontational Glaswegian nature has often resurrected and erupted, damaging myself and others in the process.
On the other hand, aware of my weaknesses in that area, I’ve sometimes over-compensated by avoiding dealing with issues, fearing that I will end up making things worse.
That’s why I need to read Sande again and again, in order to be constantly delivered from my “natural” sinful instincts and to seek spiritual and God-glorifying ways of responding to conflict.
My study guide handout for the introduction and chapter one is here, but I began the class with a general mixture of my own and Sande’s thoughts on conflict and peacemaking.
Inevitable: It comes into the best of relationships.
Helpful: Not all conflict is bad as different perspectives can stimulate productive dialogue, encourage creativity, and promote helpful change.
Surprising: Sometimes it comes at the most unexpected times from the most unpredictable of people.
Damaging: Conflict can damage relationships but also mental, spiritual, emotional and physical health.
Revealing: It brings out the worst in us and exposes our hearts to ourselves and others.
An opportunity: To learn how to manage oneself in stressful situations and to teach others how to handle conflict.
Difficult: hard work, goes against our grain.
Obligatory: Not an option for Christians.
Hopeful: Can produce even better relationships than what was there before.
Rare: Uncommon both in the world and the church, therefore opportunity for countercultural witness.
Healing: restores relationships, improves health.
Dependent: We need the Holy Spirit in us and in others.
Modeled: Christ is our model and motivation for peacemaking.
Conscience-satisfying: even if other person does not respond, we can enjoy the freedom of knowing we tried everything possible to resolve the issue.
Why not get the book and read along with us? I’ll aim to publish the handout here each Monday. It will basically be a summary outline of the chapter with some of my own thoughts thrown in. I’ll highlight what I think are the most important sections and sometimes re-arrange the order. Next week we’ll be looking at chapter 2.
While I’m on vacation, I’m taking a break from preparing Check outs and writing a daily post. Instead, I’ve been posting “The Best of HeadHeartHand,” a series of indexes to past blog posts under a number of headings including Counseling, Leadership, Preaching, etc. Previous posts included:
And today it’s approximately 80 posts on Counseling. Some of the older posts’ formatting may be a bit off, the result of transferring from blogging at Posterous to using WordPress a couple of years ago.
Researchers at Emory University have discovered a brain scan that can predict whether medication or Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is the best for each person’s depression. At present the treatment plan is often based on the doctor’s or patient’s preference, but only 35-40% of people see any improvement with their first choice of treatment. It’s basically been trial and error.
But Dr. Helen Mayberg and her team of researchers used PET scans to measure brain glucose metabolism in the interior insula region of the brain, and found that scan patterns prior to treatment can provide important clues as to which treatment will be best. Patients with low activity in the anterior insula showed remission with CBT, but poor response to medication, while patients with high activity in the insula did well with medication and poorly with CBT.
Until now brain-imaging has been primarily a research tool, but the National Institute of Mental Health director Dr. Thomas Insel believes that “these results demonstrate how it may be on the cusp of aiding in clinical decision-making.”
Speaking personally, I’ve never seen a medication-only approach work in the long-term. I have seen medication work well in treating moderate to severe depression, but only when combined with counseling and lifestyle changes (e.g. diet, sleep, exercise, relaxation, Christian fellowship, etc.). However, this research might help explain why antidepressants just don’t seem to work at all for a large number of people.
If the success or otherwise of anti-depressants can be predicted, then that should build confidence in some cases and avoid weeks of frustrating and futile experimentation in others.
This is an outstanding chapter that could produce a paradigm shift in our counseling, or perhaps return us to where we started out but have drifted from through self-reliance or method-reliance. The most memorable quote of the chapter is:
Rather than asking about the role of the Holy Spirit in counseling, we should be asking about the counselor’s role in the Holy Spirit’s counseling!
Did that give you whiplash?
There are also two excellent sections on (1) praying throughout the counseling session and (2) how the counselor’s skill and method works together with dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
The basic point of the chapter is that while we want to offer quick practical help to suffering people, and we also want to go on to help change some of the messes in people’s lives; if we want to see people themselves changed, we need more than Scripture and skill. We need the Holy Spirit.
I think the best thing I can do to give you a flavor of the chapter is to list some of the quotables.
“Counseling that lacks this dependence on the Holy Spirit ceases to be Christian.”
“If the Holy Spirit is the primary counselor, then biblical counseling is not merely a dialogue between a counselor and a counselee. Rather it is a trialogue in which a counselor participates in the Spirit’s work already underway in the counselee.”
“The Spirit is actively engaged in counseling, working directly on the counselor and the counselee, and through each to help the other.”
“The goal of biblical counseling is to promote communication between the Spirit and the counselee.”
“It is the Spirit alone who opens the eyes of our hearts to the revelation of God, and it is He who accomplishes something in us by this revelation.”
“To be counseled biblically is to receive God’s Word more and more deeply as the Spirit drives it deeper into the heart.”
“The Spirit illuminates the Word for believers so that they might understand it spiritually, leading to a knowledge of God and to Christ dwelling in their hearts by faith.”
“The Spirit works to drive the seed that is God’s Word deep into the heart where it will take root and produce life.”
“The Spirit gives us impetus to pray as well as the words and spirit of prayer.”
At the Southern Baptist Convention yesterday, Pastor Ronnie Floyd introduced “A resolution on mental health concerns and the heart of God” with these words:
Mr. President and Messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention, I wanted to appeal to you for your overwhelming support of this motion. Jesus called us to care for the suffering, “the least of these.”
We often overlook them. At times, their lives are so disrupted and severe they require intervention. These people and their families are often isolated, stigmatized, and rejected. They are referred to as “the mentally ill.”
Our churches and communities are filled with people who need us to minister to them and their families. 58 million Americans and 450 million people globally meet criteria for a mental disorder. These are often chronic conditions that must be managed, not cured. One million of these individuals around the world die as the result of suicide annually.
In recent years and days, we have seen mass shootings and disturbing events that have left us stunned. Even some of our well-known Southern Baptist families have lost loved ones due to mental health challenges. Southern Baptist Pastor, Rick Warren tweeted recently: “Why is it…if any other organ in your body breaks you get sympathy, but if your brain breaks, you get secrecy and shame?”
The church must answer this question. We can no longer be silent about this issue and we must cease with stigmatizing those with mental health challenges. Pastors, church leaders, and all of our churches must become equipped to care for the least of these.
When that horrific EF5 tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma, our Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers were on the scene immediately. Baptist Press reported a powerful testimony of a woman who was led to Christ by one of our chaplains. She stated, “I was going to take my life today. But now I know God cares for me and people care.” When disasters occur, we do a phenomenal job as Southern Baptists in the middle of material and physical rubble.
Now it is time that we do as great of a job in our churches and our communities, demonstrating compassion in the emotional rubble that can be piled high in the people and their families who deal with mental health challenges. It is time NOW that the Southern Baptist Convention is on the FRONT LINES of the mental health challenges.
Therefore, I call upon the Southern Baptist Convention to rise up with compassion, letting America and the world know, that we will be there to walk with them, minister to them, and encourage them in the mental health challenge that plagues their lives and traps their families from the needed love and support they long for from the body of Christ.
This report says that “the resolution was debated for 15 minutes as two amendments were offered that sought to affirm the sufficiency of Scripture as the final authority on all mental health issues. Messengers defeated the amendments as discussion centered on the recognition that any mental illness, just as any other physical condition, needs medical care.” If anyone can supply me with the report of this part of the debate, I’d be very grateful.
I was so encouraged by the clear and compassionate Christian leadership in this resolution. Read down to the “resolved’s” below and hear the clarion call to Christ-like action.
The Final Resolution
WHEREAS, God made all things perfectly good in design for His glory and the good of humanity (Genesis 1–2); and
WHEREAS, Adam and Eve rebelled against Him, choosing their own way and the way of the Evil One, and consequently ushered sin and disorder into our world and the whole human race (Genesis 3; Romans 5:12–21; 8:22); and
WHEREAS, As a consequence of this Fall, humanity is subjected to many kinds of mental health problems including autism spectrum disorders; intellectual disability; mental health conditions like schizophrenia, clinical depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, and eating disorders; and diseases of the aged such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; and
WHEREAS, God did not abandon fallen humanity but loved the world (John 3:16–17) and launched a plan of redemption—a restoration that is incomplete in this age but will be perfected in heaven (1 Peter 1:3–9); and
WHEREAS, Those with mental health concerns, like all people, are crowned with honor and dignity, being made in the image and likeness of God (Psalm 8:4–6; James 3:9); and
WHEREAS, Those with mental health concerns are disproportionately represented among the homeless and in our correctional systems, indicating a tragic neglect of these persons who are made in God’s image; and
WHEREAS, Those who are struggling with mental health concerns often feel isolated, stigmatized, and rejected, sometimes resorting to self-destructive behaviors, including suicide; and
WHEREAS, Suicide is a tragedy, leaving heartache, pain, and unanswered questions in its wake; and
WHEREAS, Recent events in our nation and among God’s people have underscored the tragedy of mental health concerns and their devastating toll within our families, our churches, and our culture; and
WHEREAS, Jesus Christ spent time with and healed some of the most marginalized members of the culture of His day; and
WHEREAS, God has appointed His people to be the main representatives of His heart and values to the world; and
WHEREAS, God has called us to share the Gospel of Christ with all people, including those suffering various mental health concerns; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Houston, Texas, on June 11–12, 2013, affirm that those with mental health concerns are of immeasurable value to God; and be it further
RESOLVED, That the mission Jesus described as His own in Luke 4:18-19 should also be the mission of His church, namely to proclaim liberty to those who are oppressed by means of godly biblical counsel; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we commit to affirm, support, and share God’s love and redemption with those with mental health concerns; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we oppose all stigmatization and prejudice against those who are suffering from mental health concerns; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we support the wise use of medical intervention for mental health concerns when appropriate; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we support research and treatment of mental health concerns when undertaken in a manner consistent with a biblical worldview; and be it further
RESOLVED, That families who have lost a member to suicide deserve great care, concern, and compassion from Christians and their churches, including the assurance that those in Christ cannot be separated from the eternal love of God that is in Christ Jesus; and be it finally
RESOLVED, That we call on all Southern Baptists and our churches to look for and create opportunities to love and minister to, and develop methods and resources to care for, those who struggle with mental health concerns and their families.
The core of this chapter is a beautiful exposition of Isaiah 61:1-2 in which Christ is presented as an incredible person, with a definite pattern to His ministry, and a purpose for coming. Thus, if we are to be Christ-centered in our counseling, we must demonstrate and incarnate His person, purpose, and pattern.
The authors use Christ’s counseling of the Samaritan woman in John 4 as a pattern for our own.
Intentional: Christ’s conversations have a purpose. Every question probes for an answer.
Interactive: Jesus asks questions, engages, listens, and offers wise counsel.
Illustrative: Jesus uses everyday objects, such as water, to open the floodgates of Old Testament imagery.
Insightful: Jesus helps the woman see her heart needs are more important than her bodily needs.
Jesus’ unmistakeable goal was not primarily to advise her how to improve her living arrangements but to restore her to what she was truly designed for – to be a true worshiper of God.
Charity and Clarity
The “Three P’s” are memorable foundational principles and the “Four I’s” are unforgettable foundational practices for every counseling situation. This chapter brought me to love my powerful Redeemer more, and to pray for help to communicate more of His redeeming love in my counseling.
But I was left with an unanswered question at the end of the chapter: “Is Biblical Counseling an alternative to cognitive behavior therapy and medication, or can these all work together?”
The chapter opened by describing the failure of cognitive behavior therapy and medication in Kelli’s life, and goes on to narrate the contrasting success of biblical counseling in her situation.
Implied conclusion? We should use biblical counseling and not cognitive behavior therapy or medication.
That seems to be confirmed by the way that the authors ask at the end of the chapter: “What had been missing in her sessions of cognitive behavior therapy? Why was she left unsatisfied and empty?”
Or is that question suggesting that cognitive behavior therapy and medication are OK as long as Christ-centered Biblical Counseling is used as well, or primarily? It’s not clear.
Then Kelli is quoted as saying: “While the techniques practiced in therapy had great potential to be helpful, they lacked the substance that was able to make the program effective. Only Jesus through the power of His Word was able to break down my walls…”
There Kelli could be read as saying that her previous program was good but lacking, and only when Biblical Counseling was added to the mix did she experience healing.
This kind of vague ambiguity is common, unhelpful, and potentially damaging. If CBT and medication are always wrong in these situation, then let this be clearly stated. But, if they may be viewed as part of a holistic package of care, with Biblical Counseling as the organizing priority (which is my own view), then let’s say that clearly too.
I don’t know what’s so difficult about that.
The gospel is not just a message to believe; it is a person to follow.
We are sent on a mission to “make disciples,’ not just to proclaim a message.
Biblical counseling is broken people helping other broken people find healing through the power of the gospel and in the power of the Spirit as they apply the living principles of Scripture to life.
God not only wants to bring us to Himself, He desires to make us into the image of His Son.
[Therapy seeks] to help people become an improved version of themselves.
Piper’s Thesis: Only by uniting teaching with feeling, doctrine with delight, will the church attract people to her for counseling.
Piper’s Concern: The church, especially the Reformed church, has a reputation for teaching truth in a cold, boring, and detached way. This inevitably deters people from coming for the sympathetic and loving guidance that only the Bible can provide.
Piper’s Challenge: Preachers and counselors ought to be “joyful leaders who commune with the truths they contend for.” Know God truly and feel Him duly to give Him all His glory.
Piper’s Definition: Biblical counseling is God-centered, Bible-saturated, emotionally-in-touch use of language to help people become God-besotted, Christ-exalting, joyfully self-forgetting lovers of people.
I love Piper’s fundamental point, that preachers and counselors must work harder to combine knowledge with feeling in all their communications. I don’t doubt that many needy people turn away from the church and to the world because they want more than cold hard data, they want more than a logical and systematic presentation of the facts.
They want to talk to someone who has been transformed by what they believe, who is excited about what they say, who exudes hope and optimism, who enjoys what they do, who loves and loves being loved. But they also want someone with something to say. Delight plus doctrine. Truth plus feeling. Reflection plus affection.
This was a bit of a “heavy” chapter with which to start the book. I needed to read it three or four times before I really got what Piper was driving at. His fundamental point is quite simple (and profoundly helpful), but the style and presentation is quite complex. For example, consider Piper’s definition of love:
Love is doing whatever you have to do at whatever cost to yourself in order to help another person stop finding pleasure in being made much of and help them get to the mature, God-exalting, Christ-besotted, joyfully self-sacrificing, self-forgetting delight in making much of God for the sake of others.
Wow! I’m not sure if I’ve ever loved.
I’m also not sure about the contrast that Piper draws here. He insists that there are “two profoundly different root sources of satisfaction. One is being made much of; the other is seeing and savoring God and making much of God.” And he asks: “Do you feel more loved when God makes much of you or do you feel more loved when God, at the cost of His Son, enables you to enjoy making much of Him forever?”
I don’t see these as opposites. I see them as two truths that must be held together. Can we not see both as true? Piper denies this. He says, “God is not into making much of us.”
Though there is nothing in the believer to make much of, God does make much of us, even when we do not make much, if anything, of Him.
If I can’t feel loved until “God, at the cost of His Son, enables me to enjoy making much of Him” then there are many times in my life when I will not and cannot feel God’s love.
The wonder of the Gospel is that God makes much of us even when we do not make much of Him. In fact, maybe I feel most loved when God makes much of me despite me not making much of Him.
On Fridays for the next several weeks, I hope to interact with the Biblical Counseling Coalition’s new book, Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling. Not sure how it will all pan out, but my plan is to take a chapter each week, summarize the main teaching points, highlight good quotes, develop some of the ideas, and offer some constructive critique here and there. Apart from a couple of weaker chapters, there won’t be too much of the latter as this is a superb book that would benefit not just pastors and counselors but anyone who wants to learn how to help others with God’s Word. Why not read along with me and add your own comments as we go? Today we’ll start with the short introductory chapter. Next Friday I’ll take a look at Chapter 1: The Glory of God – The Goal of Biblical Counseling.
Introduction: In Christ Alone by Bob Kellemen and Steve Viars
Aim of book
To promote authentic spiritual growth among God’s people in ways that are:
(1) Grace-based and gospel-centered: Not a system or a program.
(2) Relationally and theologically robust: Relationship with God through His Word.
(3) Grounded in the local church: Caring like Christ in the body of Christ
(4) Relevant to everyday life and ministry: Speaking the truth in love to meet spiritual, emotional, and physical needs.
Structure of the Book
Chapters 1-14: A practical theology of biblical counseling
Chapters 15-28: A practical methodology of biblical counseling
Authors of the Book
The coalition of 40 authors produces variety, synergy, humility, and better resources.
Biblical Foundations of the Book
Ephesians 4:1-3; 4:15-16; 2 Peter 3:18
The Introduction sets up the book well by explaining its rationale and aim. As with everything Bob writes, the chapter is clear, concise, and well-structured. If I was just beginning in biblical counseling or even just wanting to speak more helpfully into people’s lives, I’d be encouraged that this is a book for me. And yet, the more experienced pastor or counselor will also be drawn in by the promise of more substantial discussions in some chapters. Those familiar with some of the critiques of biblical counseling will also recognize the promise to address some of these issues and offer more comprehensive care for sinners and sufferers. As a bonus, there are some great “soundbites.”
“We are less interested in the number of disciples and more interested in the quality of discipleship.”
“We want to grow together in learning how to promote personal change centered on the person of Christ through the personal ministry of the Word.”
“Biblical Counseling does not offer a system or a program, but rather is shares a person - the Person – Jesus Christ.”
“Counseling is not ultimately about the counselee or the counselor, but about the Divine Counselor.”
“Our team rejects the notion that the Bible is simply an encyclopedia of disconnected Bible verses. God’s Word is less like a cookbook and more like a novel.”
“God calls and equips the church to be not simply a place with biblical counseling, but a place of biblical counseling.”
After listing various spiritual and social remedies (we’ll consider some of these tomorrow), Richard Baxter says “If other means will not do, neglect not medicine.” Just as in our own day, there was sometimes significant resistance to medication. Baxter’s solution? Force it down their throats!!
Though they will be averse to it, as believing that the disease is only in the mind, they must be persuaded or forced to it. I have known the lady deep in melancholy, who a long time would neither speak, nor take physic, nor endure her husband to go out of the room, and with the restraint and grief he died, and she was cured by physic put down her throat with a pipe by force.
While we would probably end up in prison if we tried such methods, Baxter’s basic insights on the role of medication and doctors are sound and have abiding value:
1. Choose a physician who is specially skilled in this disease, and has cured many others. He advises against consulting young men and busy men who don’t have time to sit down and carefully listen to the depressed person’s story. Interestingly, Baxter didn’t have any hang-ups about calling this a disease and grouping it with other physical illnesses: “The thinking faculty is diseased and become like an inflamed eye, or a foot that is sprained or out of joint, disabled for its proper work.”
2. Medicinal remedies and theological are not usually to be given together by the same hand. He does allow for exceptions to this, but as a general rule he says that if you have access to “an ancient, skillful, experienced, honest, careful, circumspect physician, neglect not to use him.”
3. The root of depression is in the blood and is often accompanied by other physical problems. Baxter believed that the blood carried the human spirit, and that if the blood was diseased, so was the human spirit, and other organs that the blood served. Although we might laugh at Baxter’s archaic understanding of the human body, his instincts were right, in seeing physical causes and consequences of this “mental” disease [and maybe he's not so far off the truth after all: A blood test for mental illness]
4. Sometimes depression is caused by sudden shock. Baxter had seen otherwise sound-minds “suddenly cast into melancholy by a fright, or by the death of a friend, or by some great loss or cross, or some sad tidings, even in an hour.” Baxter said that this proved that the cause was not always found in the body, but his understanding of the mind/soul/body connections helped him to see that even the shocking impact of such news or events on the mind impacted the body too.
But the very act of the mind doth suddenly disorder the passions, and perturb the spirits; and the disturbed spirits, in time, vitiate the blood which containeth them; and the vitiated blood doth, in time, vitiate the viscera and parts which it passeth through; and so the disease beginning in the senses and soul, doth draw first the spirits, and then the humours [bodily fluids], and then the parts, into the fellowship, and soul and body are sick together.
5. The physician and pastor need great skill to know where the depression started. He must find out if it began “in the mind or in the body; and if in the body, whether in the blood, or in the viscera, for the cure must be fitted accordingly.”
6. Even if the depression have a psychological cause, medication can still have a role in curing it.
Though the disease begin in the mind and spirits, and the body be yet sound, yet physic [medication], even purging, often cureth it, though the patient say that drugs cannot cure souls, for the soul and body are wonderfully co-partners in their diseases and cure; and if we know not how it doth it, yet when experience telleth us that it doth it, we have reason to use such means.
7. Even if the depression was caused by demonic influence, medication may help to drive the devil out.
It is possible physic might cast him [the devil] out, for if you cure the melancholy, his bed is taken away, and the advantage gone by which he worketh. Cure the choler, and the choleric operations of the devil cease. It is by means and humours in us that he works.
One modern editor of Baxter’s writing says of this section: “Of course Baxter was as unaware of modern biochemisty and physiology as he is of modern pharmacology. Nevertheless his insights are still valuable today…It may be appropriate to summarize this section of Baxter’s work as follows: those with depression of a spiritual nature, require spiritual counsel. Those whose depression is a result of somatic illness need medical care to correct that cause. People who suffer from endogenous depression may require both spiritual and medical treatment, depending on their case. Baxter’s advice about physicians is pertinent at this point.”
“Depression is simply a modern idea dreamt up by God-defying psychiatrists, soul-denying psychologists, money-making drug companies, and blame-shifting sinners.”
You’ve almost certainly heard it.
However, depression has been around for much longer than you might think, and it has been accepted as genuine and treated seriously by some of the greatest Christian experts in soul care that God has ever given to His church – the Puritans. Yes, way back then, in days of spiritual revival and reformation, these spiritual giants and geniuses had deep insights into depression’s causes and cures that we would do well to learn from.
“Ah-ha! See. By faith. They saw it as a spiritual problem with a spiritual cure! So much for the Puritans backing up your modern theories.”
Read on, my friend. For sure, most of Baxter’s book is taken up with describing and curing spiritual depression. However, he does this only after carefully distinguishing spiritual depression (which is cured by faith) from physical depression (which is cured “by physic,” or as we would say, “by medicine”). In fact he has a whole section on “Medical care for those with depression” which we’ll get to tomorrow.
Causes and cures
Baxter asks, “What are the causes and cure of melancholy?” and answers:
“With many people most of the cause is in distemper, weakness, and disease of the body, and by it the soul is greatly disabled to any comfortable sense. But the more it comes from such natural necessity, it is the less sinful, and less dangerous to the soul, but still just as troublesome.”
He then goes on to identify “three diseases that cause too much sorrow.”
Those that consist in such violent pain as natural strength is unable to bear.
A natural passion, and weakness of that reason that should quiet passion (often seen in the elderly or debilitated).
When the brain and imagination are impaired, and reason partly overthrown by the disease called melancholy, or depression.
Baxter then goes on to list the signs and symptoms of this third category of disease.
Symptoms of clinical/medical depression 1. The trouble and disquiet of the mind becomes a settled habit. They can see nothing but matter of fear and trouble. All that they hear or do feeds it…In a word, fears, and troubles, and almost despair, are the constant temper of their minds.
2. If you convince them that they have some evidences of Christian sincerity, and that their fears are causeless, they may not disagree, and yet it does not take the trouble away, for the cause remains in their bodily disease.
3. Their misery is so much that they cannot but think of it. You may almost as well persuade a man not to shake in an fever, or not to feel when he is pained, as persuade them to cast away their self-troubling thoughts, or not to think all the enormous, confounding thoughts as they do, they cannot get them out of their heads night or day.
4. And when they are grown to this, they often seem to feel a voice within saying this or that to them, and they will not believe how much of it is a diseased imagination.
5. In this case they often think they have had revelations from God, often confusing Scripture or falsely applying it, and sometimes taking up errors in religion.
6. But the sadder, better sort, feeling this talk and stir within them, are sometimes apt to be confident that they are possessed by the devil
7. Most of them are violently haunted with blasphemous suggestions of ideas about God or Scripture, at which they tremble, and yet cannot keep them out of their mind.
8. When it is far gone, they are tempted to lay some law upon themselves never to speak more, or not to eat, and some of them starved themselves to death.
9. And when it is far gone, they often think that they have apparitions or some spirit touched or hurt them.
10. They avoid company, and can do nothing but sit alone and muse.
11. They cast off all business, and will not be brought to any diligent labour in their callings.
12. And when it comes to extremity, they are weary of their lives, sometimes become strongly tempted to take their own lives, which, alas, too many have done.
13. And if they escape this, when it is ripe, they become quite distracted.
Tomorrow we will look at the cures Baxter suggests for this kind of melancholy, but note that at least part of it is medical. He says: “Choose a physician who is specially skilled in this disease, and has cured many others.” He advises against consulting “young, unexperienced men” and “hasty, busy, over-worked men, who cannot have time to study the patient’s temper and disease, but choose experienced, cautious men.”
No credible Christian I know of says that all instances of depression, anxiety, etc., are always mental illness and never the result of personal sin. Yet sometimes that impression is given because of language and emphasis.
Similarly, no credible Christian I know of says that all instances of depression, anxiety, etc., are caused by personal sin and are never the result of mental illness. Yet sometimes that impression is given because of language and emphasis.
As we saw yesterday, part of the reason for these false impressions is the absence of mutually agreed terminology that would cover both physical and spiritual causes. However, there are steps we can all take to bring Christians who disagree on these matters a bit closer together.
I’m going to ask “mental illness maximizers” (those who speak mostly in illness/disease categories) to reach out to “sin maximizers” (those who speak mostly in moral categories), and then I’m going to reverse the process. I realize that these are not two totally distinct groups and that most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum between them. But, wherever we fall, we can all make an effort to bridge the divide and work more cooperatively and respectfully.
Mental Illness Maximizers
Christians who use mainly “mental illness” language and fully accept the possibility of physical damage and disease in the brain’s ability to process thoughts and emotions, should:
1. Be careful not to give the impression that “mental illness” is all we believe in. While offering compassionate help to those who suffer due to having fallen bodies and brains, or because of factors outside of their control (Job 1), or because of direct divine intervention (John 9), we must also carefully identify where people have brought much or all of their suffering upon themselves due to sinful personal choices, and adjust our language, counsel, and help accordingly.
2. Even where there is a physical cause or element to a person’s suffering, we should still allocate time and energy to helping sufferers respond to these physical issues in a spiritually beneficial manner, reserving an important place for God’s Word in the healing process.
3. We should usually not run to the “medical model” too fast, too over-confidently, or to the exclusion of spiritual factors. Where medical intervention is necessary, we should make clear that it’s very rarely a full cure on its own.
4. Even if there has been physical damage to the brain, undermining its ability to process thoughts and emotions, in addition to medical treatment, we must also have confidence in God’s Word playing a role in reversing bad thinking and feeling patterns, and substituting them with biblical ones.
5. We need to be sure that we are also helping people to get spiritual benefit from their suffering. While we do not agree with the idea of somebody suffering depression to the maximum to get the maximum spiritual advantage (who would do that with a broken leg or cancer?), yet we must question the common demand for the speediest and most complete deliverance that can be found in this world.
6. While being open to medical research, we should be more discerning in reading and believing it due to the secular assumptions that drive most scientific work.
7. If we involve other caring professionals we must stay involved in the caring package and ensure that people are not led astray by false philosophies or dangerous therapies.
8. We must keep the local church, Christian fellowship, the means of grace, and prayer central in all care packages.
The vast majority (95%+) of biblical counselors I speak to accept the existence of “mental illness” to some extent. However, some of them are (understandably) so afraid of losing biblical categories of “sin,” “redemption,” “sanctification,” etc., that they sometimes give the impression that there is no such thing as “mental illness,” or that it’s so extremely rare that it’s hardly worth a cursory glance.
I know this impression is often unintended and sometimes denied, but it’s the impression I and many others have at times received. As someone who sadly used to be 100% in the “denial of all mental illness” school, I’m probably more sensitive to this impression than others, but I know that the impression is widespread among a wide range of people. And we’re not all dummies.
As the effect of this impression is that many people who desperately need at least some spiritual help turn away from Christian pastors and counselors, and go to more “compassionate” secular counselors, I would offer the following suggestions to lessen this impression and hopefully increase the involvement of biblical counselors in these situations:
1. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, try not to state that in very small print, with very few words, and with a very quiet voice. If you do, don’t be surprised if people think that you in practice deny it.
2. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, don’t allow any other statements in your speech or writing that seem to deny it. People will see the inconsistency and make their own conclusions about what message is really intended.
3. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, don’t limit root causes to one or two glandular problems. This not only makes it look like the last medical research you read was 30 years ago, it also effectively reduces the number of “genuine” mental illnesses to a negligibly small number.
4. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, provide holistic help to people by going beyond searching for sin and calling to repentance.
5. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, do not indulge in generalized criticism of psychiatrists, psychologists, pharmacists, etc., unless you really know what you are talking about. If there are things to critique – and there are – be specific, but also recognize the valuable contributions that these other caring professionals can make.
6. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, build relationships with trustworthy professionals in those fields, so that you can confidently involve them (not “punt” to them) in caring for sufferers God has brought into your life.
7. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, don’t insist that a person who is suffering in this way endure it as long and as deep as possible in order to get maximum spiritual advantage. You wouldn’t do that if he had cancer. Remember that the person’s family members and churches are often suffering the consequences of waiting for the sufferer to get his “spiritual growth.”
8. If you accept the possibility of mental illness, be open to reading current medical research and learning about the knowledge God is sharing with scientists for the benefit of His church. Try to avoid latching on to a few pieces of research that prove your prejudice against, say, medication. If you are going to quote research, make sure you read a breadth of material and stay mainstream. There are quacks on both extremes of this divide.
If there’s one thing we can all do, it’s to avoid making our own experience the rule for others. That’s the most common mistake I’ve seen people falling into here (and I’ve done it myself as well). Just because medication worked for you, does not mean it will work for everyone else. Just because biblical counseling alone worked for you, doesn’t mean it’s the answer for everyone else. Just because you’ve never been depressed, doesn’t mean depression does not exist. Cases are so different, and causes are so complex, that we need to exercise charity, sympathy, and patience in all our dealings with one another.
What else can we do to bridge the gap and communicate more clearly? This is no academic question. It’s sometimes a matter of life or death.
I wish there was a word or phrase to cover the mental and emotional disorders (e.g. depression, anxiety, schizophrenia) that result from both personal sin (for which we are responsible), and personal suffering (for which we are not – or not wholly – responsible).
For example, when I sometimes write about “mental illness,” some Christians hear such “disease” terminology as denying sin, minimizing personal responsibility, undermining the sufficiency of Scripture, and ignoring the divine provisions of repentance toward God, faith in Jesus Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That’s not my intention.
On the other hand, I and others react against the way some Christians reject all (or most) “mental illness” categories. We see this as a serious denial of biblical anthropology, a denial of the extensive damaging effects of the fall upon humanity. Our reasoning for believing in such damage is rooted in Scripture and goes something like this:
Step 1: As a result of the fall, my body’s chemistry, physics, and electricity are damaged.
Step 2: My brain uses physical structure, chemistry, and electricity to process my thoughts and emotions
Step 3: My brain’s ability to process my thoughts and emotions will be damaged to the extent that my brain is affected by the fall.
Step 1 is a biblical fact. Step 2 is a scientific fact. Step 3 is the logical result of Steps 1 and 2.
There are three additional complications to contend with here. The first is that the brain acts as a bridge between our spiritual and physical worlds (our soul and our body) in a way that no other body part does, making it difficult to achieve clear distinctions between what is spiritual and what is physical. Second, the brain is the most complex organ in our body, with so much still to be explored, discovered, and understood that some scientists call it “the last frontier.” Third, just as with all areas of my body, the “natural” damage to my brain in Step 1 can be increased by three aggravating factors:
Factor A: Damage outside my control (e.g. genes, brain injury, aging, abuse**, shock, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, etc.)
Factor B: Personal sin which is my responsibility (e.g. substance abuse, the deliberate choice to think sinful thoughts/feel sinful emotions, the refusal to trust/obey God, rejection of the means of grace, etc.).
Factor C: Direct divine intervention (i.e. God, in His sovereignty, may impact my brain processes: as a chastisement to correct my faith, or as a test to display my faith – as physical suffering did in the case of Job).
As the damage under Step 1 is increased by these three factors, so the disabling suffering in Step 3 will also be increased. But what should we call the mental and emotional disorders/effects in Step 3?
Misleading and harmful
Given that sometimes the disorders in Step 3 are the result of personal choices (Factor B), to use only “mental illness” terminology can be misleading and harmful.
But given that sometimes the disorders in Step 3 are the result of a fallen brain, or damage outside of my control (Factor A), or the direct intervention of God (Factor C), to use only “personal sin” terminology can be equally misleading and harmful.
So what do we call the disorders? “Sin” is too narrow in many cases. “Illness” is too narrow in other cases. Use of either category exclusively is inaccurate, provoking suspicion and often hostile reaction.
In the ongoing absence of mutually acceptable terminology that would allow us to speak more accurately and comprehensively, I have a number of suggestions that I hope might help to bring Christians a bit closer together as we discuss these vital matters that impact millions of suffering people. Tune in tomorrow for more details.
I am sure we all grieve deeply and pray earnestly with Rick and Kay Warren, as they mourn the shocking loss by suicide of their dear son, Matthew, after many years of struggle with mental illness. Perhaps pray especially for Kay as she has had her own battles with depression.
From all that I can gather of the circumstances surrounding this tragic situation, I believe that Rick, Kay, the church, and the caring professions did all that they could to prevent this happening, and should not blame themselves. As many of us have also experienced, when someone’s mind has gone so far and their emotions have sunk so deep, and they are determined to end their life, it’s virtually impossible to stop.
As well-publicized suicides tend to increase the suicide rate quite dramatically, I thought it would be good to address seven of the questions that arise in our minds at times like this.
How common is suicide?
It is estimated more than one million people die by suicide each year in the world, or more than 2,700 people per day
There has been a 31% increase in the number of suicides in the U.S., from an estimated 80 a day in 1999 to 105 a day in 2010.
Nearly 20,000 of the 30,000 deaths from guns in the United States in 2010 were suicides, according to the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Suicidal acts with guns are fatal in 85 percent of cases, while those with pills are fatal in just 2 percent of cases, according to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.
465,000 people a year are seen in ER for self-injury.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for teenagers.
7% of 18-39 year olds said that they had seriously considered suicide in the last year.
In 2010, the last year for which figures are available, 22 veterans took their own lives every day, with the largest number occurring among men between 50 and 59.
Depression is the key indicator in two thirds (@20,000) of all suicides
Other key indicators are childhood abuse and confusion over sexuality.
How do I know if someone is thinking about suicide?
What should I do if I’m worried someone I know is going to commit suicide?
Although it’s counter-intuitive, the most important thing to do is to ask the person if they are thinking about taking their life. Do so in a non-threatening, non-confrontational way, to make it as easy as possible to speak openly about their thoughts and feelings. “I see you’re hurting very deeply. I’m so sorry and really want to help. Is it bad enough, that you’ve been thinking about taking your own life?” Rather than plant suicidal thoughts in their minds, this may allow the suicidal person to admit it and to seek professional help. This is vital and urgent if they tell you that they have got to the stage of making a plan. One of the best short pieces I’ve read on this is 8 Things you need to know about suicide prevention.
Trying to locate blame is not usually helpful when seeking to understand why a person has chosen to take his life, especially when that locus of blame is sought by outside observers. The reasons are never immediately obvious, even to those within the closest circles of family and friends. Moreover, the problems are never one-dimensional or easily fixed. I believe firmly that survivors of suicide heal in part as we learn to refuse the responsibility for the choice our loved ones have made.
In Broken Minds, Pastor Steve Bloem gives a number of reasons he has, at times, used to convince himself not to commit suicide:
It is a sin and would bring shame to Christ and His church.
It would please the devil and would weaken greatly those who are trying to fight him.
It would devastate family members and friends, and you may be responsible for them following your example if they come up against intense suffering.
It may not work and you could end up severely disabled but still trying to fight depression.
It is true – our God is a refuge (Ps. 9:10)
Help is available. If you push hard enough, someone can assist you to find the help you need.
If you are unsaved, you will go to hell. This is not because of the acts of suicide but because all who die apart from knowing Christ personally will face an eternity in a far worse situation than depression.
If you are a Christian, then Jesus Christ is interceding for you, that your faith will not fail.
God will keep you until you reach a day when your pain will truly be over (59-60).
What can the church do to prevent suicide?
The single biggest thing the church can do to reduce the suicide rate is to admit there is such a thing as mental illness. The second biggest thing we could do is for pastors to admit they need professional help from other disciplines and caring professions to minister to all the complex needs of those suffering such indescribable agonies. As Adrian Warnock, a psychiatrist by training wrote:
Please, if someone you know and love is suffering in a similar way, don’t let anyone persuade you not to reach out for everything medical science can offer. In many cases it can be literally life saving. Too many of us don’t understand just how serious these illnesses are. I pray that this shocking news may help thousands realize that although faith may be protective in such situations, medicine is often also needed to help.
Judgment Day alone will declare how many people took their lives because they were too frightened of the condemnation that would be heaped upon them in the church if they admitted to struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts. If there’s one thing that infuriates me (usually holy anger, sometimes not so holy) it’s the ridiculously ignorant and horrifically insensitive statements that some pastors and Christians make about depression and mental illness.
The church would do well to recapture the Puritan’s motto in all their counseling: “A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench” (Matthew 12:20). Sometimes, however, as Matthew Warren experienced, even the most tender and loving of human care is not enough to keep us in life. But nothing shall pluck us out of our Savior’s hand (John 10:28).
UPDATE:Here are some of the best articles I’ve read on this subject in the last 24 hours.
A Christian family who have seen family members suffer with mental illness, including schizophrenia, have donated a substantial sum of money to Puritan Reformed Seminary to direct research into the complex question of how much does a mental disorder like schizophrenia affect faith, personal responsibility, etc.
I do not have the time nor the expertise to conduct this research myself, but I’m inviting interested and qualified applicants to submit proposals for part or all of this research grant.
The particular question as framed by the donor is:
Since acute mental illness and schizophrenia affect a person’s ability to reason out his faith day by day, with the result that the fruits of the Spirit are often absent, to what extent is the Church able to bring comfort to the family of the sick person regarding his salvation?
1. The research would begin by examining the premise. In what ways does schizophrenia affect a person’s ability to reason out his faith day by day?
2. The study would need to determine what mental abilities are needed to have faith as the instrument which leads the elect to Christ.
3. Does the lack of these mental abilities preclude a personal and saving relationship with Christ.
4. Does the person being a baptized member of the covenant community have any bearing on the question?
Although the donor’s last question is coming from a paedo-baptist perspective, it does not rule out credo-baptist researchers who would be sympathetic to exploring this question.
We envisage a three step process in advancing this project:
1. We invite applicants to submit 2-3 page proposals for the study of this question. This would outline the thesis, the questions to be answered, research methods, estimated budget, etc.
2. We would select one or more of these proposals for further development. Each approved proposal would attract a grant of $3000 to produce a 20-25 page initial findings submission.
3. We would then hope to be in a position to offer up to $30,000 for twelve months work on completing the work and producing:
A 100-150 page academic paper containing findings and proposals
A popular level book that would help the church minister to believers suffering with schizophrenia and those who care for them.
If you have any other ideas for how to proceed, I’m very open to your suggestions.
For further details, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Until the late 1990’s “there was a 17-to-1 negative-to-positive ratio of research in the field of psychology. In other words, for every one study about happiness and thriving there were 17 studies on depression and disorder” [The Happiness Advantage, 11].
Consequently, most psychologists spent their time helping people with problems get back to an “average” human experience. Their aim was to help people who were operating at sub-normal levels to get back to normal (e.g. sober up the alcoholic, remove anxiety, etc). Little attention was given to making people happy and optimistic, to lifting them above the average.
In 1998, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, rebelled against this imbalanced negativity and led a shift to studying the positive side of the curve, the above average, the “abnormally” happy, etc. Thus, “positive psychology” was born with the emphasis being “what works” rather than “what’s broken.” 
Instead of traditional psychology’s focus on “Why are people unhappy?” and “How can we help them out of the slough?” positive psychology asks, “What makes people happy?” and “How can we help them flourish and excel?”
Positive Biblical Counseling
As I survey biblical counseling literature, the ratio seems to be at least 17-1, negative-to-positive (and I’ve contributed to that imbalance.) If you asked most people what words comes to mind when they think of a biblical counselor, I don’t think “smile,” “laugh,” and “enthusiasm for life” would trip off the tongue (although there are some wonderfully cheery exceptions).
Isn’t it beyond time for biblical counseling to become a more positive movement? Yes, of course we must continue to get involved in the mess and rubble of people’s lives. But what about forging an additional positive path? Building another brighter dimension to the movement? Adding the banjo to the violin? Getting on to the front foot and leading people proactively rather than waiting for disasters and then reacting?
I’d like to see Biblical Counseling change the ratio by:
Getting Christians through the dark valleys AND leading them beside green pastures and still waters.
Wiping away their tears AND teaching them how to rejoice.
Fixing spiritual problems AND promoting spiritual flourishing.
Targeting sins for demolition AND graces and gifts for strengthening and exercising.
Pulling the backslider out of the filthy ditch AND showing the godly new vistas of spiritual beauty.
Puncturing the pride of the arrogant AND building up the faith of the meek.
Removing despair AND instilling hope.
Quenching hate AND inflaming love.
Such pre-emptive, pro-active, and positive biblical counseling would not only enhance and strengthen an already strong and useful movement, it would also hugely bless God’s people, many of whom are tired with “average,” and who long to flourish, excel, and soar.
Have you ever dealt with someone who will not take responsibility?
No matter what happens, someone else is always to blame.
They have a deep sense of injustice over the way life is unfolding for them.
They feel unfairly treated in every area of life: work, school, relationships, sport, family, etc.
They’re not prepared to work particularly hard in any of these areas, and yet expect to have the best job, the best results, the best friendships, the best scores, etc.
The core belief is “I deserve better.”
How do you deal with this? How would you help this person?
I want to change their core belief to, “I get what I deserve.” I feel this would make them take responsibility and stop blaming everyone else when things don’t work out.
“If I don’t get a job, it’s because I didn’t look hard enough. If I fail my exam, it’s because I didn’t study hard enough. If I don’t have any friends, it’s because I’m not friendly to others. If I don’t win, it’s because I didn’t train hard enough, etc.”
I want to burn into their soul, “I get what I deserve. I get what I deserve. I get what I deserve.”
Because that’s generally how the world works. At times we might suffer a bit of unfairness, and at other times we might enjoy more success than we worked for. But, in general, hard work is rewarded and laziness is punished. We get what we deserve.
And yet. And yet. I hesitate. At least I hesitate to press this too hard.
Because I don’t want to undermine the principle and power of GRACE.
I want this person to be converted to Christ. I want them to embrace salvation by grace, I want them to enjoy the magnificent mercy of being saved despite what we deserve. I want them to experience the exhilarating exchange of “I got what Jesus deserved, and Jesus got what I deserved” (2 Cor. 5:21).
I want them to get the principle and power of GRACE in salvation more than anything else in the world.
Yet I also want them to get the principle and power of JUSTICE in vocation, education, etc.
How do I balance this? How do I prioritize? How do I avoid the “dangers” of grace? How do I avoid the dangers of justice? A life is passing, attitudes are hardening, habits are setting, worldview is engraining.
The more I study the brain, the more awed, humbled, and worshipful I become. As Tim Challies said a week or so ago, it truly is God’s Masterpiece. So relatively unexplored and understood is it, that some scientists are calling it “the last frontier.”
Recently the BBC published photos and a video of the most recent scientific research on the brain. The scanner that produced the pictures needs 22MW of electricity – enough to power a nuclear submarine! Not sure I’d subject my brain to that, but a brave BBC journalist did and the results are staggeringly beautiful. I’ve attached a few photos to this post but I’d highly recommend the video here.
When we look at these images, we must surely bow down and worship the God who created this galaxy within each one of us. But as Christians who believe that the divine curse on sin has impacted every part of the human body, we should surely also be more open to accepting that many people’s emotional or cognitive problems may also have a physical component.
Look at the complexity of these fibers and connections and consider how the fall has inevitably damaged and confused them. Add to that the evidence that our brain wiring is not fixed, but is changed by different experiences we pass through, especially the traumas of abuse, deprivation, and loss. What was once a pristine perfect electrical superhighway is now a tangled confusion of short-circuits, overloads, disconnections, and fuse blowouts. As our thoughts and emotions are processed, they sometimes come to dead-ends, they go round in circles, get diverted, and lost, etc.
That knowledge and understanding should make us more patient, more sympathetic, and more gracious in our dealings with those who suffer with depression and some other mental illnesses. There may well be a physical cause at times. There are almost certainly physical consequences.
But there is also hope in this science. Just as the brain’s wiring can be damaged by sin and painful experiences outside our control, so we must believe that the Gospel can begin to rewire us, repair us and renew our minds. It may take more than the Gospel (e.g. medications and cognitive training might help to rebuild the superhighways within) but the Gospel can surely play a large part in this physical healing too.
I’d like to take a survey of the most common counseling issues pastors are facing in their daily lives. Would you write in the comments the problems you are most frequently encountering and then I’ll try to set up a Top 10 survey with the answers. One of the reasons behind the question is my concern to ensure that seminaries are preparing men adequately for the problems they will come across most.
The basic question is: If you had your seminary training all over again, what issues would you like to have the greatest focus? It could be more modern problems like anorexia, abuse, etc.; the more “regular” issues like bereavement, pain, depression, fear, etc.; or the deeper, longer challenges like unbelief, doubt, discontent, temptation, chastisement, etc.
If you’re not a pastor, why not answer it along these lines: If you had the opportunity to have your future pastor trained to counsel in certain subjects, what would you choose?
Thanks so much for your contributions and interaction.
How would you like to write an article on the weaknesses of your family? That’s how I feel in responding to this request to write an article on the weaknesses of biblical counseling. I am a biblical counselor, and biblical counselors are my family. I know and love many of them; I read their books; I listen to their lectures; I value their counsel; and I rejoice at how God is working in them and through them for the benefit of his church.
Like all families, the biblical counseling family has strengths and weaknesses, but how do I identify particular weaknesses without naming particular people on the one hand, or being too general and lumping everyone together on the other hand? Both will result in family uproar, and maybe a homeless orphan too!
So let me first prove my familial love, by highlighting what I value about my biblical counseling family:
(1) I appreciate my family’s emphasis on counseling presuppositions. Biblical counselors have exposed the dangerously unbiblical presuppositions behind much secular counseling today (and some Christian), and have re-built biblical counseling on biblical presuppositions resulting in more biblical aims and methods.
(2) I honor my family’s courage in boldly re-claiming pastoral care, so much of which has been usurped by secular counseling in our day.
(3) I value my family’s emphasis on the power and suitability of God’s Word in addressing people’s problems. They have inspired and trained many Christians to use the Bible to diagnose the roots of problems and to prescribe lasting solutions.
(4) I admire the way my family has restored the biblical vocabulary of personal sin and personal responsibility, giving huge hope of forgiveness and change.
(5) I’m stunned at the quality of the theological and practical resources my family has provided for the church to address a vast range of life problems.
(6) I welcome my family’s stress on the necessity of the Holy Spirit, prayer, and the Christian community to effect long-term transformation.
(7) Above all, I love my family’s compassion for people and the multiple hours they invest in repairing broken lives.
It’s a great family, and I’d encourage many more to join it. However, we’re still quite a young family, and as such we’re not perfect. We still have much to learn from one another and from those outside our family. Biblical counselors still need biblical counseling!
Change the Name
So what counsel would I give to my biblical counseling family? I want to give only one piece of very simple yet very radical counsel: let’s change our name. Actually, to put it more accurately, let’s change the understanding of our name, especially of our first name, “biblical.” Many of our family’s internal squabbles, and some of our confrontations with other families, could be solved by clarifying this meaning.
For some in our family, “biblical” means “Bible only.” For them, biblical counseling could be more accurately renamed “Bible counseling.” In principle, it means they use only the Bible in counseling people; nothing else is helpful, and anything else is compromise. That, however, is not how “biblical” has historically been understood. In the past it has meant that something is either contained in the Bible or consistent with the Bible. That’s based on the belief that God has revealed truth in two places: in his Word and in his world. We therefore discover God’s truth by reading God’s Word and by reading God’s world through the lens of God’s Word.
Take, for example, “biblical preaching.” “Biblical” here does not mean we only use the Bible in sermons. Biblical preaching expounds the Bible, but it also draws from non-biblical sources—some of them authored by unbelievers—such as syntactical, grammatical, lexical, and textual guides and commentaries. We often incorporate historical, geographical, sociological, and cultural research. We regularly draw from current scientific findings and the modern media to teach, explain, or illustrate a point. Even the form and communication style of most modern sermons has been derived largely from ancient and modern philosophical and political speech forms.
However, although some of the content and form of biblical preaching is drawn from outside the Bible, we believe that God has provided a Bible that is up to the task of filtering out the false and admitting the truth of God that he has graciously placed in the world. Similarly, “biblical education” does not mean an education that only teaches the Bible. It teaches the Bible, for sure; but it also teaches other subjects like history, geography, science, math, and English, and it does so in a way that is consistent with Scripture.
The unfortunate narrowing of “biblical” in “biblical counseling” results from a limited view of the sufficiency of Scripture; it takes the sufficiency of Scripture to mean that Scripture is all we use in counseling and that to include any other resource introduces unmanageable danger.
Of course, we approach extra-biblical data and research with caution, recognizing that the authors are often unbelievers. And we do not make extra-biblical sources foundational, primary, or authoritative. But neither do we run away from knowledge outside the Bible that God has given to the human race and unintentionally imply that the Bible is insufficient to guide us away from error and towards His truth.
This broader definition of “biblical” is especially important in areas that God has not addressed directly or extensively in his Word. God’s Word-based revelation includes truth about spiritual problems such as sin that we could never have discovered any other way. However, we can discover other aspects of humanity by diligent research. In these areas, God invites us to work and struggle towards his perfect and comprehensive knowledge of human beings through thinking, hypothesis, experimentation, logical analysis, peer-review, and so on, along with scriptural exegesis.
Thus, for problems that are not purely spiritual, where other factors contribute (such as genetics, biology, physiology, nutrition, chemistry, sociology, and psychology), we should not expect the Bible to supply the non-spiritual information that can be helpful in dealing with certain problems. Rather, we should expect the Bible to be a sufficient lens to read the information supplied by these disciplines, enabling us to find and use only what is consistent with Scripture.
If my biblical counseling family would return to this broader and more biblical sense of “biblical,” seven major benefits would follow:
(1) It will restore a more comprehensive understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture. Rather than using a truncated (and unreformational) view of the sufficiency of Scripture that might legitimate our ignoring of contemporary science, we should use the concept as a divinely provided and effective weapon enabling us to plunder the knowledge that God has made available in his world through his common (or creation) grace.
(2) It will make us more honest. In practice (as evidenced in some writings), even “Bible-only” counselors sometimes use extra-biblical help and resources. However, we should have the integrity to consistently admit that fact in our presuppositions and public statements as well.
(3) It will help avoid misrepresentation of our position. If we spend much of our time creating an unbiblical dualism between the Word and the world, decrying all worldly sources of knowledge in principle, and then in small print, or in vague language, whisper, “Actually there is some helpful information outside the Bible,” we shouldn’t be surprised or offended when people misunderstand us.
(4) It will help us avoid simplistic diagnosis and prescriptions. If we stick to Bible-only approaches, we will only deal with the spiritual side of problems. That’s fine if the problem is purely spiritual, if it’s 100 percent related to personal sin. But if the problem is more complex, perhaps involving body issues such as genetics or biology, or social issues such as one’s environment or family upbringing, or psychological issues such as child development or habitual thought-patterns, then a simplistic approach will have limited benefits. It’s like trying to rebuild a broken down house by employing only a plumber.
(5) It will help us to avoid approaching our counselees as if they were merely souls. They are persons—whole persons in their whole life. Instead of seeing people just as souls with sinful hearts, we will also see them as people with bodies, histories, relations, and suffering.
(6) It will keep us from writing off and misrepresenting other caring professionals just because they do not use only the Bible. Instead we could manifest a more humble appreciation for the contributions of others in the caring process. It will help prevent us from over-reaching , and give us the confidence to involve other professions in our work with people when advisable (e.g., dealing with someone having a psychotic episode).
(7) It will enable us to welcome research that God has graciously provided for us to help care for people in a holistic way.
Overall, correcting this misunderstanding of “biblical counseling” will improve our family’s relations with one another, with others outside our family, and above all with God as we honor him in using all the resources he has provided to care for his sinning and suffering creatures.