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Counseling from Biblical Narratives

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I am delighted to have with us Dr. Keith Palmer. Keith is a dear friend of mine and has been for several years. He is down in the Fort Worth, Texas area. As matter of fact, he’s an Associate Pastor at Grace Bible Church in Granbury, Texas. He helps to lead the CBCD, one of our training centers down in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Any of you who are down in that area, I would recommend that you go find some training down there with Keith and several other guys who represent our training center there. He’s married to Lisa, has three kiddos, and he’s one of our board members and fellow. So, in effect, he’s sort of one of my bosses. So this will be a fun conversation as we talk about biblical narratives.

Keith, you know what’s interesting is, we talk often in biblical counseling about needing to counsel from the whole of the counsel of God’s word. Sometimes we fail to do that, right? We like to run to the imperative passages. We like to run to the promises of God. We often forget that much of the Bible is written in narrative form and the Scriptures tell us that it’s for our instruction as well. So, I want us to talk through this today about how we use the whole of the counsel of God, particularly the narratives, and how do we counsel from the narrative? So let’s start by just saying, what in the world are we talking about relative to narratives in Scripture? 

Keith Palmer: Thanks, Dale. It’s great to be with you as always. You know, if you think about it, not only does the Bible have a lot of stories in it, the Bible, comprehensively is one big story. It’s creation, fall, and redemption. Sometimes we summarize it in that way. Then within that larger story are these historical narrative accounts of God working in the lives of people. So when we’re thinking about biblical narratives, we’re thinking about the stories of the Bible. It’s the retelling of events and various situations, and these are true historic accounts of events—although occasionally Jesus might tell a parable that’s hypothetical—but these are historic stories in Scripture and I think most of us would be familiar, at least with some of those, as we read the Bible. 

Dale Johnson: What’s interesting when we talk about narratives is, we appreciate the experience that people have in them, but maybe sometimes in counseling we stay away from them because we’re afraid that we’re going to misinterpret what the Bible says because we know it’s really important that you can’t give an application to someone if you don’t interpret what the Scripture is saying rightly. So help us to navigate some of that. What are some mistakes that people make often when trying to utilize narratives or trying to understand or interpret narratives and how do we avoid those mistakes? 

Keith Palmer: Yeah, biblical counselors have to be skilled in rightly dividing the word of truth. That’s a biblical command for all Christians and particularly those of us that are going to minister the Word of God. Really, biblical narratives have a way of revealing the complexities of life and human nature in the context of the grander purpose of what God is working in the lives of people, so there’s a huge opportunity there in the counseling room, but as you’re indicating, often we get those narratives wrong. We misunderstand them. In fact, I feel like maybe biblical narratives are the most abused form of genre in the Bible. Maybe growing up we get some of this. I think some of the children’s ministry material, as much as we love children’s ministry, can get those wrong. David and Goliath—It’s all about David’s courage, and the underdog winning kind of thing, right? We think of, you know, dare to be a Daniel and being like these men and women in Scripture and just sort of turning them into superheroes. I remember one time seeing an advertisement for the book of Ruth and it was Ruth: A Love Story. I’m not sure that’s the intent of the book of Ruth.

Dale Johnson: You sounded kind of sure about that.

Keith Palmer: No, I’m sure. I think, Dale, the reason that we stumble over narratives are in part because we learned the stories as kids, and sadly, oftentimes, the stories just get moralized as kids. If you look at a lot of children’s ministry material, they rip out all the good stuff. They rip out theology. They rip out what it’s teaching us about God and His purposes in our life and it gets turned into a little moral lesson.

So some things we want to avoid are that moralizing, like in the Joseph narrative when the cupbearer forgets to tell the king about Joseph when he’s in jail and we think, okay, well see, forgetting is bad because other people can get hurt, or allegorizing Scripture. Sadly people do that with the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2. That’s a historic narrative. That’s a really true retelling of how God created the world, and yet sometimes that gets allegorized. We can spiritualize the text. You think of David and Goliath and the five smooth stones. We’ve probably all heard Paul’s sermons on those five stones and what they represent, courage and valor and trusting God, when the reality is that he just picked up five rocks from the riverbed there. I think another is inappropriately personalizing. I was actually visiting a church one time that took some of the tabernacle narrative in the book of Exodus and used that as a basis for a church-building campaign. The tagline was, let’s go furnish the tabernacle, and it was horrible.

So those are some things—looking for hidden meanings, reading too much into details, importing meaning, things like that, not honoring the historic and cultural context—those are some things we want to try to avoid. 

Dale Johnson: Those are extremely helpful. As I’m listening to you describe that I’m thinking, these are pitfalls of the spirit of our age too. We are experiential people. We like to try and make meaning out of people’s stories and we read that as if it’s some sort of fairytale novel trying to import meaning into our own life. Man, there’s a huge danger there. It is intended to reveal God, to help us to understand how He relates to His people and His world, and so on. Those are critical.

So let’s turn the corner. We’ve talked about some pitfalls, some things to avoid, which I think are really helpful, but now let’s talk about principles of interpreting narratives appropriately because the end goal, again, is, how do we counsel using these things? This is a necessary step in interpreting these things rightly. So what are some of those principles? 

Keith Palmer: Yeah, I’ll just do a few of these. I mean, I think we start with the basic goal of hermeneutics and that is to understand the intent of the author, what we call authorial intent, right? What did the author mean to the audience that he wrote to? That’s how we interpret the whole Bible and that obviously applies to the stories. So what did the author mean in giving the story?

Within the genre of narrative, we’ve got to remember a few things. Number one, God is always the main character and the hero of the story, even when there may be other players that are commendable or exemplary. God’s the hero and the main character even when he’s not seemingly there, like in the book of Esther or like in other narratives where He doesn’t show up as overtly as maybe in other stories. We also want to remember in narratives, the overall point or purpose of the story is usually in the big picture, not in the details. You know, think of reading a novel. Think of watching a movie. It’s the overall message that we’re looking at. We’re not looking at one scene and looking at it over and over and trying to get some significance in the details. What we’re looking for is how those details serve the overall message of the book itself.

Some neat things about what to pay attention to—pay attention to the narrator, the one that’s telling the story. The narrator often gives hints or clues to help the reader know how to think about or interpret the various events that happen in the story. So, for example, when we read about King David and his account with Bathsheba, the narrator starts off by telling how it’s that season when the kings were supposed to be off in battle. That’s just like a side note, right? That’s actually telling the reader, hey, David’s not where he’s supposed to be. It’s a setup, so to speak. So the narrator gives us background information about that.

The narrator also gives us God’s perspective on the story. This is really interesting. So, for example, in Luke 18:9 where Jesus is going to give the story about the Pharisee and the tax collector, it tells us that Jesus told the parable for those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt. Well, that’s the whole point of the story. That’s God’s perspective and then Jesus tells the parable, so we don’t have to do a lot of, you know, what does this mean? God tells us through the narrator what He means. And then another thing about the narrator is that he speaks with divine omniscience. The narrator knows things that nobody else knows, right? So, like in Job 1 and 2, the whole account of the sons of God going before Him and Satan coming, well, you know, Job, never knows that, all his friends don’t know that. So the narrator tells us things that only God knows.

For example, in Matthew, with the healing of the paralytic where the narrator tells us that Jesus knew their thoughts, what was going on in their heart, again, giving us God’s perspective, divine omniscience there. So, there are so many more things we could talk about—paying attention to the dialogue, the back-and-forth character contrasts. You know, David and Goliath is really about the contrast between Saul and King David and the transition there where God removes the Kingdom from Saul and gives it to David, and that story illustrates the fallacy of Saul and the heart of King David toward the Lord. So those character contrasts are a feature there. Word pairs, questions—Look for questions that happen. In the book of Job, one of the points that we’re supposed to get in the book is that suffering causes us to ask questions that we ordinarily would not ask. If you chart the well over 100 questions that happen in that book, you realize some of the incredible things that God does in suffering to cause us to ask really important questions. So those are a few things we can pay attention to. 

Dale Johnson: All right, so this is sort of like we’re in counseling and we’ve gathered data, right? So we’re learning from the narrative passage. We’ve used principles to interpret the passage well. Now, what do we do with it? That’s really the question. It’s, okay God, you’ve taught us about who you are. Your Word has been helpful. You’ve used what you’ve instructed your people with in the past. Now it is good instruction for us. So how in the world do we take some of those principles and what we understand from Scripture and now begin to use that in the counseling room?

Keith Palmer: Yeah, the first thing we need to do is pick the right narrative which means we have to know our Bibles. We have to do all of this study ahead of time, the things we just talked about, so that we have some narratives that we really, really know well. We know their purpose. We know what they mean. We know how to teach them. So that’s really step one. We have to choose a narrative.

So some examples would be maybe a passage that reveals the character of God to a person who’s struggling to know God accurately. I think of Exodus 32-34 where the Israelites commit this great blatant idolatry with a golden calf and God re-gives the ten commandments and reiterates His character to Moses, a God of compassion and grace who’s slow to anger, in the context of this horrible sin. So that would be a good passage, or maybe a passage that reveals a situation which connects with the counselee’s situation, like somebody who’s struggling with bitterness looking at Ruth 1 with Naomi’s bitterness and how God worked in that particular situation. Or, this is moving away from the main point of the story, but maybe just a passage that illustrates how people respond to various life challenges, like in Genesis 4 when Cain responds to disappointment with anger and depression.

So we want to pick the right narrative, then we want to, obviously, know the point, know the story, study it as I mentioned, and then—be careful here because if we’re committing to narrative, what we’re saying is, we need to pick probably a larger chunk of Scripture. This isn’t like an epistle where, you know, you can take one verse that has a great principle. It may be the Joseph narrative, chapters 37-50. So, a larger portion, make sure you’re committed to doing that in counseling. It’s worth it, but just make sure you know what you’re getting into.

Then I would just encourage you to, with the counselee, read and reread the story, looking for some of these features, and as you read and reread the story, like watching a movie over and over, you see the points emerge and then from that you move into appropriate application just like we would in normal ministry of the Word. That’s sort of what I would do in using narrative in counseling. 

Dale Johnson: See, I love the way that you just talked about the preparation beforehand. Biblical counseling is not just about, hey, I’m going to remember sort of the surface things that I remember about the Scriptures and just talk about those with the person who’s hurting. It takes diligent work. It takes diligent study, especially if you’re not the expert, and we’re not as biblical counselors. We are those who try to be faithful to study the Word. Narratives can be so rich in people identifying that they’re not in isolation, they’ve experienced something that people experienced in the Scriptures, and that this God is the same God. He has not changed from what we see revealed in Scripture. What a helpful and hopeful thing.

Keith has been good. One of the things that we struggle with, that we need to grow in, is even our hermeneutics, the way that we understand the Scripture so that we rightly apply it. It is a necessary, not an optional, step. It is a necessary step that we learn how to interpret the Scriptures well in order to apply it appropriately to our own life and into the lives of other people. So, brother, thank you for helping us to understand narratives a little bit better and appreciate those and use the whole counsel to counsel.