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Four Ways to Grow in Counseling Practice

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I am joined by Dr. Stuart Scott. He is a Professor of Biblical Counseling at the Masters University. He’s also on staff here at ACBC as our Director of Membership Services. Stuart’s been a member of ACBC for many years. He’s served as a Fellow for many years. This week we want to try to provide some encouragement to our counselors—particularly our members—as we think about some best practices in biblical counseling. What are some ways we want to continue to encourage our people to counsel with excellence? There are several ways that we can accomplish excellence in counseling.

I think, Stuart, sometimes what happens when we’ve been doing counseling for quite some time, or maybe we’re starting out and we just finished certification, is we become content with where we are. We’re going to counsel with what we know. Even if we’ve been doing it a long time, we feel a little bit more comfortable, and sometimes we cease growing. Paul seems to encourage us to continue our growth in knowledge and understanding of the Scripture, in the application.

I think from where you sit and what the Lord has done in you and through you in our organization—as a Fellow you supervise a lot, as Director of Membership Services you’ve heard complaints from many of our counselors. And let’s be honest, even though we pursue excellence and we have a certification where we’re seeing people meet certain standards, our counselors are not perfect. We acknowledge that. We want to encourage people to grow in best practices. We want to have a brief discussion about what some of those things might be, some ways that we can encourage growth.

One of those things that you and I have talked about is the issue of sanctification, and how we go about helping our counselees pursue sanctification. Can you talk about that for a minute?

Stuart Scott: Thank you, Dale. It’s a blessing to be here on the program. I think back over the years—both the teaching, supervising, counseling, reading, getting questions that come into our office, complaints that come into our office—it’s a sobering reminder that we need to continue to be humble and teachable, examine our own ways and see if there’s some changes that need to happen in our own lives.

Avoiding Sanctification “Plus”

In the area of sanctification, all too often (more than I would like to see) those who are committed to Christ and His Word lose sight that God has given us the resources we need to be sanctified. He has given us the resources we need to be justified, to be saved; and sanctified, to grow in the Christian life. We don’t have sanctification “plus.” God has given us sanctification—how to be more like Christ. “Sanctify them by thy truth: thy word is truth.”

You want truth plus something. I sometimes see well-meaning people who have a zeal to help. They usually get an experience (someone close to them or maybe themselves) where they maybe didn’t really use all of the means that God has given us to work through issues. For example, it could have been some issue in their past—some traumatic issue or event that happened. They they say, “Reading the Bible just didn’t change it. Going to church didn’t change it. I needed to add something to it.” And now they’ll bring in various practices from human wisdom and human theories, like personality theories for example. They’ll want to combine cognitive-behavioral therapy with the Bible or EMDR—all kinds of things.

Every year it seems there’s another a wave coming through. None of these practices originate or come out of Scripture. They’re always read into (eisegesis) not out of the Scripture. They’ll say, “Yeah, but it helped. It worked.” My reply is, “God gave us what we really needed. Maybe it wasn’t handled well. Maybe your counselor didn’t skillfully use the resources God has given us. It’s not a cursory read of Scripture that’s going to change you, or just hearing the Word. It’s working through it. It’s the Spirit of God with the people of God.” I’m trying to help God’s people see the wealth and it’s sufficient alone without having a plus factor.

Whenever you add to Scripture, you take away from it. Now it’s no longer the tool the Spirit wants to use and has committed to using—His Word. Now you’ve added something so you’re actually taking away from it. We’ve seen this as well: Whatever you add will become what’s most important to you. When people are asked about changing and growing in sanctification, they go quickly to whatever the plus factor is, rather than to Scripture that lifts up Christ.

Dale Johnson: I think what happens as an unintended consequence is that discipline, theory, or practice now becomes the focal point as opposed to the Scripture. Then the statement by implication that has to be made is this program or this style of therapy becomes necessary as an addendum to Scripture. That in itself makes a statement about Scripture, to say that it’s insufficient. I do think the point that you’re making is a good one. We have to be cautious and careful that the means that God lays out for sanctification is by His Word. When we talk about the work of the Spirit, we call this Word His sword. He’s not using other humanly formed ideas to create this type of change and growth in the heart of man. I think that’s critical.

Resolving Past Events

You mentioned issues in the past. Sometimes, I think we see this in counselors as well, where there’s some sort of fear or a lack of desire to want to deal with issues that come up in the past. But the Scripture is unafraid to talk about and help us to deal with baggage, if you will, from our past. How do we deal with those types of things? Let’s help to settle the score for our counselors. Whatever hesitations we have about issues in the past, biblically how do we deal with those?

Stuart Scott: As counselors, I think we need to take more time in letting a person tell what’s happened in their past. I don’t mean any of the sordid details that we don’t really need to get into reliving in someone’s horrific past. But at least the details enough to say, “Have things been resolved?” before saying, “Let’s reshape and start building more Christlikeness in the present and future.”

I hear quoted often Philippians 3:13, which says, “I forget what lies behind. I press forward.” In the context Paul is saying, “I’m forgetting what I used to put my confidence in: my own righteousness and my own achievements. Now, it’s just Christ alone and his achievements that my confidence is in.” I think maybe there’s been a reaction in the counseling world where people think, “I don’t want to get to Freud. I don’t want to go digging around in my past and blame somebody, or say something must have happened when I was a child that I don’t know about.” Rather than that, we’re talking about clear events that have happened in your past. Have they been resolved? Have they been resolved with people if they’re still living? If I sinned greatly, have I dealt with that before God and the appropriate person?

There’s just a sphere in counseling of, “I don’t want to get into the past.” Yet, you can’t really change in the present and build if there’s all kinds of unresolved rubble that makes it difficult to build into Christlikeness.

Dale Johnson: That’s exactly right. I think you’re right to say that the issue of Freud has made us quite leery about looking back in the past. That’s not what we’re saying. There’s a proper way to deal with the issues of the past so that we can move forward in our walking with the Lord and to do things rightly. The good thing about that is God helps us to deal properly with the past. Not sweep it under the rug, not expect someone else to do the same, whatever kind of issue that we’re talking about. He helps us to deal with it appropriately and properly through His means of forgiveness and restoration, which are helpful in healing, God says.

As we’re talking about best practices here, as we think about biblical counseling and where our organization began as the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors. Nouthetic counselors can get this wrap where people say they’re harsh, mean, or rude because all they want to talk about is admonishment. There is a certain degree to which the Scriptures call us to admonish. We can’t deny the fact that the Scriptures call us to do that. During the era that Jay Adams was writing, humanistic psychology was never about to think about confronting somebody. It was all about person-centered and non-directive style counseling. Jay made clear—which is still true regardless of whether Jay said it or not—the Scriptures are clear that we are called to admonish one another. But I think it’s important for us, even as counselors, to grow in this because we have a tendency almost like a seesaw to swing in one direction or another.

Even as counselors, we get into that kind of practice and can think, “Well, admonishment is bad. We’ve got to do something else.” We can’t do that when the Scriptures clearly call us to it. What are some of those problems that you might see with this idea of admonishment?

Balancing Correction with Encouragement

Stuart Scott: We see problems in counseling. Counselees come in and oftentimes they’re struggling with something. It’s almost like parents, you can only see the problems with your kids—that’s not hard to do. At times, we’re too quick to to deal with those issues. It’s hard to swallow if you’re on the receiving end. You may already feel bad about what’s happened. Now you’re getting called out in a very corrective way. That’s a major point of how to help people is to help correct them. The term means help put in their mind what’s right and correct.

When you look at how Christ ministered to people, whether they were suffering with hardship or clear sin issues, He encourages. In my own devotions I’m in the last book of Revelation. I’m, again, amazed at the Lord and how He starts with encouragement—the good things that these churches are doing, what God’s people are doing in the different churches. And then he kind of comes in and says, “There’s something that’s amiss.” And it’s a pretty significant issue, like you’ve left your first love (which was Him). I would have probably started with that, thinking let’s get it on the table. This is huge. But no, He doesn’t. He starts with encouragement—and quite a bit of encouragement. Then He addresses the issue, and then He closes with encouragement.

And it was one church after another. Then you get to Sardis where they have a reputation of being alive, but they’re dead. My thought is, “Well, that’s a big problem.” The tendency—especially when exhortation is a big part of ministering to people—we want to go right to it. But Jesus doesn’t. He does deal with that problem, but He starts with, “I know your works. You have this, and you have this.”

I think it was Wayne Mack, if I’m not mistaken, who said when he looked at how Jesus addressed the churches that 80 percent was encouragement and 20 percent was admonition. What a good reminder to us who want to love God’s people, we want to love the Lord, that we look for things that we can commend them on, even when there’s glaring sin problems or numerous issues. Encouragement goes a long way of helping them and it’s more like Christ, as we have to admonish from time to time.

Dale Johnson: That’s right. I think that’s such a healthy balance. And it’s a good biblical explanation of where we see those two things intertwined together that was so critical for Christ exhorting and for Christ admonishing and correcting. I think that’s key. Even for us as counselors, we get in that vein and we want to jump in and deal with the issue. We think that’s the quickest route to change. It’s a part of the process, but encouragement certainly is something that becomes the balm for the wound that’s happening there.

Keeping Scripture Primary Over Secondary Resources

Maybe one final thing, Stuart, that we see quite a bit is a tendency to emphasize resources other than the Bible. I know, as someone who is in academia, this can be a tendency and a danger even. We may think, “I know this guy. I read this book and he said it so well. I’m not certain that I can improve upon it.” We sometimes in our counseling focus on different texts—not that those texts are bad—but we sometimes find ourselves drifting away from the primary text, which is the Bible. Talk a little bit about that as far as best practices.

Stuart Scott: This is always a challenge. I think it’s become more of a challenge today. When I first started it was pretty much Jay Adams, some of his books, and Wayne Mack. And that was it. There wasn’t much out there to refer God’s people to read other than Scripture. But now as you know, there is so much—people addressing so many issues. I’m thankful that so many things have been addressed by God’s people from a biblical standpoint.

What can happen is the first thing that comes to a counselor’s mind is a supplemental book. Rather than, “Let me first take you to these texts of Scriptures.” It’s a good wake-up call to us with so many good supplemental books, that we make sure they take a backseat and really God’s word is primary—not only in our counseling, but also in our homework assignments.

Dale Johnson: I think that’s critical. It helps to keep the focus where it ought to be. As much as I aspire to write books and other people have written good books, the primary text is the Scripture. That’s what we’re all trying to reference well, so we want to make sure that our focus remains on the passages of Scripture, because truly that is the inspired Word of God and of which the Spirit will use to change the hearts and minds of people, whether it needs to be correction, encouragement, edification, and so on. May we be saturated and filled with the Scriptures as we give counsel that comes from the Lord.

Stuart, this has been helpful and all of us need to be reminded of these things and how easy it is for for us to drift in these directions, and we should be constantly trying to refine and grow in excellence in our counseling.

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