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Do We Need More Than the Bible for Biblical Counseling?

The Bible is sufficient for the work of counseling.

Oct 27, 2017

In a recent post, Dr. David Murray asks the question, “Do we need more than the Bible for biblical counseling?” The emphasis of that statement is on the word “need” and Dr. Murray recognizes that when he says, “The debate is not about whether sources of knowledge such as science, sociology, etc., can be helpful. The debate is usually about whether they are necessary.” Well said! We biblical counselors readily admit that non-biblical sources of knowledge can be helpful, but we also say that they are not necessary. When a biblical counselor like me says “Scripture is sufficient for the counseling task,” I mean that non-biblical sources are not necessary.

Professor Murray disagrees with that definition of sufficiency and he makes his point with a thought-provoking analogy. If you would ask a pastor if he needs more than the Bible for preaching he would reply, “Well, no and yes. The Bible is sufficient to proclaim truth that transforms, so, ‘No,’ you really do not need more than the Bible.” However, as you look into his office, you see commentaries, Greek and Hebrew concordances and grammars, theology texts, biographies, Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, history books, magazines with analyses of modern trends and even the Logos program on his computer. “But yes,” the pastor replies, “I do need more than the Bible for preaching, in that I could miss some crucial insights or misinterpret the text if I don’t know the cultural background of the biblical narrative or its grammar and syntax.” Thus, the Bible is not sufficient for the task of preaching if you mean that you use the Bible alone.

Let me propose another analogy that might help us understand sufficiency. Suppose you are a doctor who has responded to an appeal to help a people group ravaged by disease on a remote Pacific island. Do you need more than your medical knowledge? “No and yes,” you reply. “In one sense, ‘No,’ because the human body is the same no matter where you go. On the other hand ‘yes’ it would be helpful if I knew something about life in their villages, tribal dynamics, what their diet is like and how they’ve dealt with their particular diseases.” So you study everything available on those people. An anthropologist, having lived there, has written a book about tribal life and you note with interest that social status is measured by the fact that one can afford shoes. Sexual promiscuity is part and parcel of the culture and even has religious undertones to it. They are animistic and often go to the shaman for help, especially when the children are sick. Modern conveniences are rare. When you arrive you find that hookworms and STD’s are rampant on the island. Of course, the shaman’s solutions have no effect at all. You’re not surprised at what you find, since hookworms thrive in places that do not dispose of human waste well and is introduced when the larvae connect to bare feet and the culture and religion facilitate STD’s. You know that you have to talk to tribal leaders about footwear and the causes of these sexual diseases. Now, does the addition of that anthropological and sociological information change anything that you would do? No. Does it supplement your medical expertise, that is to say, does it improve the cures for the diseases? Again, no. What difference would it have made if you had done no research before you got there? The only difference might be that it would have taken you longer to figure out why poorer people had hookworms or why the STD’s were so common. The research merely helped you target your care more specifically. But none of that information would have changed the cure for those diseases; none of that information would have improved the life-saving effects of your medicine; none of that information would have made you say, “Oh my. My medical knowledge is not enough to cure these diseases.” Was the research necessary? No. Was it helpful? Sure.

As it is with doctors, so it is with pastors and biblical counselors. All of those books on my shelves, the magazines, the textbooks and the computer programs help. But how? They help me minister God’s truth more effectively, but they don’t supplement or improve the life-changing message in any way. Helpful, but not necessary. Many of the anthropological, sociological, and psychological observations may be helpful to counselors, but certainly not necessary. It may help the counselor see things quicker, but it is not necessary to truly help people.

Let’s leave the land of analogy and come to my office as Joan, a 17-year old teenage girl, enters weighing all of 85 pounds. She struggles with “anorexia.” Now the psychological observations about anorexia I have read may be helpful. I’ll be alerted to the fact that many of these girls are angry, bitter and vengeful. They may struggle with how they view their bodies in this “body-shaming” culture. They may try to deceive the counselor into thinking they’re doing well by hiding appearances in baggy clothes or carrying “weights” in their pockets when you weigh them. Deception is a part of their lives. That is helpful. I can see things quicker and where to go sooner than if I only counseled two anorexic girls a year.

But are those psychological studies necessary? Doesn’t the Bible say enough about the heart and its motivations (Proverbs 4.23; Mark 7.18-23) to expose, unravel and heal Joan’s straying heart? What amount of studies could ever add something better to God’s revelation of the human heart (and it must be “better” if the Bible doesn’t quite have enough to help her)? Did anorexia invade the human experience in the 50’s or did people struggle with it in the past? It may have been called something different, but it most certainly was a struggle. Well then, did Jesus leave the church ill-equipped for two thousand years to help people in that struggle until the latest research on the human heart was published? If the Bible does not have enough to help Joan, and we need other sources to help her, then the Bible is not sufficient to help her; it does not have enough truth to do the job.

In order to help us further understand his conception of sufficiency, Dr. Murray, in a subsequent post, engages in a conversation with “Pastor N.T. Grayshon” (I must admit I love that wonderful play on words!). N.T. has counseled one of his young people who, for a while, had become angry and bad tempered; he wasn’t eating or socializing; he was losing his concentration and seemed to avoid his family. His Christian growth had slowed. There was much concern for young James. But it wasn’t, as N.T. originally thought, because he was viewing porn resulting in guilt-fueled anger, anxiety, loss of appetite or academic decline, as originally thought. Rather, he was sleeping less than six hours a night, often irregularly, reading a great deal of Christian literature in preparation for entering a Christian college and eventually seminary.

Pastor N.T. shared some Scriptures about sleep as a gift of God, and that James shouldn’t deprive himself of sleep, but James was not convinced that he needed more sleep. “I couldn’t think of anything else in the Bible that would convince him he was damaging himself and needed more sleep.” So, the pastor gave him some books written by psychologists outlining the effects of sleep deprivation. James saw the light, as it were. A few weeks later N.T. saw him and “could immediately see he was a changed person.” He was back to his old self, growing spiritually again. And so, Murray concludes, “Sometimes God’s truth found outside the Bible is necessary if we want to provide maximum spiritual help to people.”

But I would also like to spend a few minutes with Pastor N.T. Grayshon because I don’t think he quite understands biblical counseling. “N.T., you did a good job ‘gathering data’ (as some of us biblical counselors call it) about James’ anger, loss of appetite, etc. You found out that this was caused by lack of sleep. So you ministered to James with what the Word says about sleep. But that wasn’t convincing, so you turned to other sources of help since the Bible’s truth about sleep didn’t seem to address the problem. But that doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t sufficient for this task. It means that you were not using the Bible in the way it was intended.”

“You see, N.T., you missed a golden counseling opportunity with James. You found that James seems to be compelled by a desire to get into a Christian college and seminary, but you did not explore that with him. After all, the Bible says, ‘The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out’ (Proverbs 20.5). That’s your job as a counselor. Hasn’t Jesus taught us that everything we do, all our behavior comes from the heart (Mark 7.14-23)? What’s motivating James’s behavior? Could it be that his definition of success is to get into Wheaton so he must take all this extra time to read? Maybe he’s trying to please his parents and so spends all this time studying? Could it be that . . . .? But N.T., you don’t know what motivated this young man and because you don’t know you’ve jumped to extra-biblical sources; and because you never explored what the Bible says is most important, the heart, you’re not aware of the vast horizons of biblical truth, yet unexplored, that could address James. If you had done that, you might have solved his sleep problem in the process, for he would have seen what was behind that behavior. I would also add that you mistakenly made your counseling just about James and his sleeping patterns. Counseling is all about living for the glory of God (Matthew 5.14-16). Consider the great discussions with James and the biblical truths you might have unearthed if you had begun that way.” You see, if we counsel the way the Scriptures say we should, we will find that it says much more than what we expected.

So then, while saying that the Bible is “sufficient,” Dr. Murray still insists “that non-biblical sources of knowledge are more than just helpful for preaching [and counseling]; they are necessary. They are necessary if [the counselor] wants to do maximum good to broken people in a broken world.” But what does that really mean? It means that the Bible is indeed insufficient for counseling. It is not helpful, then, to redefine sufficiency.

I believe that Dr. Murray has helped the discussion on sufficiency by asking the right question, “Do we need more than the Bible for biblical counseling?” However, the answer is an unambiguous, “No.”