Dale Johnson: I’m excited that Scott Mehl is here with us today. He’s an elder at Cornerstone Community Church out in California, and has been there 15 years. He’s an ACBC certified member. He’s also the author of Loving Messy People and I’m excited to announce that IBCD, one of our Certified Training Centers, worked with Scott to turn that book into a small group curriculum that released in October.
We’re excited to announce here on the podcast, Scott also teaches biblical counseling at Eternity Bible College in Simi Valley. Scott, we’re so grateful that you’re here, brother, to talk about this very important topic that we need to continue to keep fresh in our minds. Thank you for being here.
Scott Mehl: Absolutely, it’s great to be here.
Dale Johnson:Now, as we think about biblical counseling, I just mentioned that all of us would respond to say, “Yes, of course, we should do Spirit-empowered counseling.” But the more and more we do this—Scott, you and I both know how easy it is to think that maybe we’re doing this on our own. Or we start to utilize different things that are out there that move us away, ever so slightly, from a dependence upon the Spirit. If we talk about biblical counseling, we assume this ought to be Spirit-empowered, but sometimes it’s not. Is not all biblical counseling supposed to be Spirit-empowered?
Scott Mehl: This is such a great question because I think that we assume a lot of things. When we assume that it’s included, when we assume—really when we assume anything—that is ultimately biblical, ultimately God-honoring about our biblical counseling, we are in danger of forgetting and engendering it in our counseling. This is true simply about biblical counseling. If you’re a Christian all counseling should be biblical, but we’ve needed to clarify to say, “Wait, counseling needs to be biblical in its content.” I think we need to clarify and make sure that we’re talking about how if counseling is biblical in its content, it also needs to be Spirit-led, Spirit-empowered, Spirit-filled because the Word of God, if not empowered by the Spirit of God, falls flat—it’s actually powerless.I think we can even misuse the Bible by using it the correct way content-wise, but using it in a way that depends on ourselves instead of depending on God for the transformation that only He can do. Click To Tweet
I think sometimes we can just assume that, “Because I’m using the Bible, because I’m telling you verses, then the Spirit of God is just going to work. I’m depending on the Spirit of God.” I think we can even misuse the Bible by using it the correct way content-wise, but using it in a way that depends on ourselves instead of depending on God for the transformation that only He can do.
Dale Johnson: That’s right—where we make the counselor the focal piece in this whole process of change, as if we’re the agent of change by our knowledge of Scripture or our skill in utilizing the Scripture, as opposed to really being dependent upon the Spirit. I think we as counselors should always be examining ourselves. What are some of the symptoms that we see, where we see ourselves becoming less and less dependent on the Spirit of God?
Scott Mehl: Well, I think that the single most significant symptom of a lack of Spirit-empowered counseling is prayerlessness. When we fail to pray, even when we look back at our counseling, and maybe recognize that we had failed to pray. Maybe I didn’t pray in preparation, maybe I didn’t pray even in my own heart while I was counseling, while we were talking. Maybe even in a week between when I met with someone once and then met with him again, I forgot to pray. If we’re forgetting to pray then it becomes very obvious what it is we are depending on for transformation.
It’s like forgetting to meet with someone. If you met with them one week and you say, “We’re going to meet next Wednesday,” and then you forget to meet with them, that would be a huge signal you. You would think something’s wrong here. “I forgot to meet with the person—I’m not doing this right!” But if I’m not meeting with God about the person that’s a huge red flag that says what I think can change them, what I think can transform them, what I think can bring about the change that they need is something other than the work that only God can do.
I think this this manifests in other ways as well. I think it manifests in overconfidence, when we walk in and think, I’ve seen people change and so I’m just going to use the verses I’ve used last five times, and this should work well. We can really subtly begin to depend on ourselves, to depend on our skills. Even just even when we get an overconfidence in particular parts of Scripture. When we think, “This transformed me. I’m just going to give it to you and boom we’re going to be done.” In one sense, yes, the word of God is transformative. But it is always and only the Word of God empowered by the Spirit of God.
Part of why this is so important to me is I’ve been deeply convicted over how much of my biblical counseling can devolve into a dependence on myself—using the right words, doing the right things, but not depending on the Spirit of God. If the Spirit of God doesn’t work, nothing is going to happen. No matter how good I say it, no matter how many Bible verses I use. There’s a desperate dependence that ought to characterize our counseling and I think it’s really tempting for to not.
Dale Johnson: I think that’s so important to acknowledge. We want to grow in skill, that’s important. We want to grow in our knowledge of the Scripture, that’s crucially important, but to think we can make things happen or allow change to occur based on our own abilities and skill—we’re not recognizing our own limitations.
Now, Scott, you used the term desperate. What a critical picture for all of us, that we are utterly dependent upon God literally for everything. Jesus says, “What do we have that we did not receive?” and that is so true. Now that we find ourself in a desperate place, the Word of the Lord is beautiful in that He gives us consistent hope.
For us as we find ourself in that desperate place—which we should often—how do we begin to engender that Spirit-dependence in our counseling process?
Scott Mehl: I always come back to John 15. It begins with abiding in Christ, where Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes.” He says, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” I think it starts with our relationship with God. Spirit-empowered counseling is the natural overflow of a Spirit-empowered life. Spirit-empowered counseling comes from walking with God, walking with the Spirit, abiding in Christ. No matter what we’re doing—in our parenting, in our eating, in our studying. If we’re living Spirit-empowered and Spirit-dependent, then our counseling will be Spirit-empowered counseling. It starts in a holistic way by striving to abide in Christ. I also think it looks like turning to Christ, turning and approaching Him for all sorts of different things we need in counseling.
I think of turning to Him for remembrance. John 14 tells us that the Spirit of God is going to teach the disciples everything, and He’s going to bring to remembrance everything that He said. Every time I’m in counseling and I have the ability to remember God’s Word and I speak it to someone else, I don’t credit that to my memory. I don’t credit that simply to my study. I credit that to the Spirit. The Spirit of God is working. He’s working in me, He’s working in the relationship.
Turning to Him not just for remembrance, but returning to him for wisdom. James 1 tells us that if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God and he will give it. I feel like I lack wisdom in every counseling situation, right? I am in desperate need of wisdom. I’m constantly feeling like, “I don’t know exactly how to handle this.” And so I turn to God for wisdom.
Ultimately, I think turning to God for change. Then this is where that symptom of prayerlessness is such a big deal, because what we want in people’s lives is not just to help them feel a little bit better. We want to help them become more like Jesus, no matter what the struggle is, no matter what they’ve presented with. Biblical counseling is about helping people become more like Jesus. We want them to be more loving and joyful and kind, have more peace, gentleness, self-control—and these aren’t the fruit of biblical counseling. Biblical counseling can help bring them about, but ultimately these are fruit of the Spirit. These are the things that only the Spirit can do, only the Spirit can bring about. We need to both beseech God for that change in those we’re counseling and beseech God for that type of change in our own lives, so that our own counsel might be increasingly loving and peaceful and kind and gentle and self-controlled.
I think as we depend on the Spirit ourselves and as we depend on the Spirit in the lives of those we’re ministering to, the beautiful thing about the Spirit and the beautiful thing about God is when we seek Him, He answers. He responds, He’s there. So really for Spirit-empowered counseling all we have to do is turn to Him.
Dale Johnson: I think this is one of the types of subjects that when we initially hear about it, we think, “Well, this is so basic, why are we revisiting it?” But this would be a topic that we replay this podcast once a quarter. I mean honestly, where we need to be reminded consistently. One of the areas that I see on a regular basis, where counseling in general (all the philosophies that we see out there that are trying to approach people and help people), when it boils down to it, it’s an attempt to hijack the role of the Holy Spirit in the changing of the lives of people. Biblical counseling has something significant where we land on, stand on, firmly this idea that we are utterly dependent upon the Spirit of God by the Word of God to accomplish the work of God in the hearts and minds of people. For us to constantly, intentionally position ourselves in this way is so important.
But there’s a danger. Not just of us becoming dependent on ourselves, but also that the Scripture warns consistently over and over again. I’m thinking of place like Deuteronomy 6-8, where he tells the children of Israel, he reminds them of his commands. They’re going into the Promised Land and he talks about the blessing that’s going to happen. But then he warns them, “Do not forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” He says to remember the Lord your God who did all these things for you in the land of Egypt.
Why is it so easy for us to forget some sort of basic truth like this? That in biblical counseling we’re supposed to be driven by the Spirit. Why do we forget that He’s the agent of change? He’s the one that can change people.
Scott Mehl: In one sense, I wish I knew because this is a struggle that I continually have. I continually recognize in my own heart this pull away to do things on my own. But when I see it in myself, when I see it in others, I really do attribute that to my flesh. I think we need to recognize that. I think sometimes we downplay weaknesses like this by saying things like, “Well, you know, prayer just isn’t my strong suit.” “I know it’s important, but it’s a little bit harder for me.” And then we get more serious about maybe more obvious sins of the flesh—adultery, lust, or hatred, things like that.
Really any time that I’m turning away from a God-centeredness, towards anything that has me at the center, that’s a manifestation of my flesh, of my pride. That doesn’t just need to be “worked on,” it needs to be repented. I’ve been thinking about this, even particularly over the last year or two, every time that I sit down with a counselee and it strikes me: “I haven’t been praying for you.” We’ve talked a lot. The last few days, I mean I thought about making an appointment with you. I thought about some homework assignments for you. But I haven’t been praying for you. I need to do more than just “work on that.” I think God in that moment is calling me to repent, to repent of that self-dependence, to repent of that of that pride, and to turn back to Him again.
Biblical counseling not only has the transformation of people as its goal, but it has the glory of Christ as its ultimate goal. Anytime that even in my own heart, my flesh steals that or turns it away from that, it’s a call to genuine repentance.
Dale Johnson: Scott, this has been helpful and thank you brother for visiting with us today to remind us of what I would consider to be “first things.” Of first importance. All of us can drift, just like we see the churches in Revelation chided, rebuked for forgetting first things. It’s important for us to consistently remember things that are of first importance. Thank you brother for reminding us of that today.
Scott Mehl: It’s my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.