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The Method of Biblical Counseling

Truth in Love 270

The Scriptures can be applied to everything that we face in this life. There is great comfort in that.

Aug 3, 2020

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, we are continuing to discuss the definition of biblical counseling. We have broken the definition up into three portions. Dr. Sam Stephens is here with me, our Director of Training Center Certification, and we are discussing this idea of the definition of biblical counseling. We do this to attempt to make clarity. Again, we’re not perfect. I’m actually a little disappointed, Sam, that our definition is not in longer so we can have this discussion for more weeks because this has been quite fun.

We get to the third section where we try to describe the method. We try to describe what this looks like. Often, we are critiqued in the biblical counseling world from those who practice integration—or even the secular world—who say that biblical counseling really doesn’t have a methodology. The Bible doesn’t explain what we should do in a counseling setting.

I think that’s an unfortunate perspective and we try to address that in simple terms here. I’m actually working right now on fleshing that out in more of a full-length book that I hope to to release sometime next year. When we think about this idea of the goal and what we’re aiming at, there has to be a means by which we do it. When we say the Bible is sufficient we would argue that the Bible does have methodology.

The reason that we get critiqued on this often I think has to do with the lens by which we’re seeing. We think that the methodology that has been given to us by secularists in their terms of techniques and methodology and approaches is the same sort of way that has to be dealt with in the Scriptures. I would argue that sort of gets the cart before the horse. Our experiences should not be compiled into a system that we superimpose onto the Bible. Actually, what should happen is we look at the Scripture for methodology and for understanding of humanity. Then that should inform the way that we interact with anything outside of the Scripture. That’s really in simplicity what we’re trying to do here when we talk about the method of biblical counseling.

I’m going to read the definition and we’ll get to that final section, just so that that our listeners can be reminded of what we talked about in previous weeks. The definition goes like this:

Biblical counseling is the personal discipleship ministry of God’s people to others under the oversight of God’s church, dependent upon the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word through the work of the Holy Spirit. Biblical counseling seeks to reorient disordered desires, affections, and behaviors toward a God-designed anthropology in an effort to restore true worship of God and right fellowship with others. This is accomplished by speaking the truth in love and applying Scripture to the need of the moment by comforting the suffering and calling sinners to repentance thus working to make them mature as they abide in Jesus Christ.

In fact, our podcast is named after this very verse and the desire of this very verse: to speak the truth in love. That is one of our primary guiding factors when we think about method of biblical counseling. Click To Tweet

We want to turn our attention to the final portion here where we’re describing the method. How is this accomplished? What do we actually do? And the first section that we want to talk about is something that we’ve used for quite some time, in this world of biblical counseling—particularly in the modern biblical counseling movement. In fact, our podcast is named after this very verse and the desire of this very verse: to speak the truth in love. That is one of our primary guiding factors when we think about method of biblical counseling. We want to approach this by speaking the truth to our counselee in love. Can you talk about why that’s an aim of ours when we talk about counseling?

Sam Stephens: We could have an entire podcast just on that phrase. You joked about us making this definition long enough. I think many of our co-workers thought this is kind of part and parcel with what we do. I’m not too surprised by that. Speaking the truth in love—there’s so much to unpack here. This very much speaks to the means, matter, and mode of our counseling. We can unpack this further, but we’ll stick with the surface level for the moment. When we about this practically speaking, regarding the means of counseling, biblical counseling as a distinctive is didactic in nature. What I mean by that is it’s instructional. We are teaching. We are training. This is discipleship, like we talked about in our first podcast of this series.

Dale Johnson: That’s actually in comparison to some of the secular models that have gained ground in Christian thinking. For example, in Rogerian therapy it’s really intended to have the counselor be a facilitator and you allow the person to have some sort of self-discovery and process along the way. You’re client-centered and person-centered, not giving any type of instruction at all. That’s seen as authoritarian and and not healthy. We’re saying something different.

Sam Stephens: Even in the other two waves of psychology as well—behavioristic approaches and even depth psychology, where you’re plumbing the depths of the unconscious and things like that—it gets really messy. At the end of the day there’s no plumb line. We are saying objectively there is something we are seeking to realign and reorient our lives to. And that’s what makes biblical counseling distinct. This is a truth claim—that all of wisdom and truth is found in God, the all-wise one and the Word is His means of revealing that truth to us. That’s what we’re doing.

Now, this doesn’t ignore the fact that we are wise listeners. I often tell my counselees early on, “I’m going to be doing a lot of listening in the first few sessions.” Especially if they’ve had any secular counseling, I want to make sure they understand that listening is not going to be in the humanistic vein, where I’m listening and repeating back and just going to be basically reshuffling what they’ve already told me. I’m listening with a purpose. I want to listen with care. I want to listen with compassion and concern, but I also want to filter their worldview through what the Bible says. That’s going on, of course, all the time, but even in the first session, I’m giving them hope. I’m giving them the gospel. This goes back to our first session as well—the wisdom of counseling in the protection and the integrity and the in institution of the church is that I can give people Jesus first, and I don’t have to be apologetic about it. I give them the gospel and I don’t have to wiggle around it. It’s the church. This is what we’re doing—soul care is the practice and the purpose of what we’re doing.

It’s didactic, that’s the means of it. The “matter” is the Bible and the Bible alone. We’ve talked about secularists, integrationists, and of course, the secular world is against what we’re doing. The kingdom of the world is often depicted in conflict with the kingdom of God as we know it today, but I find that by far our loudest objectors and critics are people in the church. This saddens me. It grieves my heart. I can’t tell you how many nights I’m very grieved to my heart. One of the biggest critiques I hear in different ways that it’s expressed is that we use the Bible too much. I’ll never fully understand it to be honest with you, why that’s such a large critique, but I think it’s born out of a misunderstanding of sufficiency, and actually inerrancy as well.

We go to the Bible for not just practical application of means, but this is the goal of biblical counseling. Click To Tweet

We go to the Bible for not just practical application of means, but this is the goal of biblical counseling. We don’t worship the Bible. This is what’s often lobbed against people who would be identified as fundamentalists or biblicists, or words that have been used unfortunately in negative ways in the past. We don’t worship the Bible, but the Bible is the means of revelation. God gave us the Bible. Without the Bible, we wouldn’t know the Christ of the Bible. We wouldn’t know who Jesus was or our need for Him. As biblical counselors, we should stress and we should emphasize, the content by which we’re translating in counseling should be born out of biblical language, terminologies, concepts, and frameworks.

Dale Johnson: That’s exactly right. As John 17:17 says, “Sanctify them in the truth. Your word is truth.” When we talk about this aspect of speaking the truth, it is something specific. We are talking about the words that come from God because He is the only true being. He’s the only true one. He consistently tells the truth—that is His character. He is the truth. It’s His being. When we talk about speaking the truth, that’s what we mean. We are talking about that which God, in His kindness, has given in revelation to us. If we can’t see that in the modern world right now, that it’s the only clarifying saying that we have in humanity, culture is running amok. It is so chaotic and confusing, but the Scriptures speak the truth.

There’s a danger here. I want to speak to our counselors. I think this is a wise warning that our definition helps to hold us accountable as individuals. The pitfall is that we speak the truth not in love, or the opposite, that we speak love with no truth. All those things can be done with well intention, but we have to be careful that that’s not the method of the Scripture. The method of the Scripture ties these two things together. In the same way in which we worship God in spirit and in truth, we are also to counsel methodologically by speaking truth in love, motivated by love, care, compassion, and kindness toward the person. Sometimes speaking the truth is hard, but we always ought to do that with the person knowing full well that we have their best interest in mind, that we love them deeply, and we want to see the Lord do a mighty work in their heart and mind.

The flip side is also true, where we want to speak in love. We’ve heard the critiques of the biblical counseling movement, with people saying, “You guys speak too much truth, you’re very harsh,” and all this kind of stuff. And we react by wanting to be overly loving. Now that’s important and I’m not minimizing that we need to be loving. That is absolutely critical. But by the same token, we also have to be careful in the way in which we go about doing that. If we’re just loving the person without speaking the truth, we’re giving them no guidance. That, by definition, is not really loving them. We have to make sure that we couple these two things together.

That’s something that’s a warning for us who are committed to biblical counseling. We can get into tendencies, if you will, where we allow the seesaw to sort of swing in one direction as opposed to another. We have to be careful to make sure we’re tethered to both, by the Word, speaking the truth in love.

Now, we move forward and the goal then becomes as we speak the truth in love to help the person apply Scripture to the need of the moment. Those clarifying clauses are really important. Sam, talk for a minute about applying the Scripture to the need of the moment.

Sam Stephens: The Bible is personal and practical, and so should we be. Biblical counseling is theology applied. We are, of course, teaching various doctrinal truths. We want to make sure that their confession is correct, but we want to make sure that they are living out that confession. Often we see that disparity. Something that they say they believe, but it’s not practiced in their life in some way.

But the Scriptures can be applied to everything that we face in this life. There is great comfort in there. Click To Tweet

I love the way that we phrase this in the definition, “applying Scripture for the to the need of the moment”—that covers life. We’ve mentioned this time and time again. So often we talk to people and when they describe their problems (as unique as they are), they’re shocked many times when we say, “That is the stuff of life. Life is truly hard.” I’m not being ironic with that statement. I often get a sigh of relief from counselees, who say, “Thank you for agreeing with me. This is hard.” But the Scriptures can be applied to everything that we face in this life. There is great comfort in there.

But also as you mentioned in speaking the truth in love, there’s also a calling out and a confrontation of sin. To go back what you said, truth and love, these are united sisters. These are not two opposing thoughts. We see them united together in Scripture. My goodness, read Paul. Paul spoke forcefully and truthfully, but with such compassion and weeping over the people who he might be at that time chiding. But again, the goal of biblical counseling should always be in mind, that the counselor and the counselee are both striving to grow in maturity. We’re striving to become more and more holy. We’re united in that effort.

Biblical counseling is not clinical. This is a big temptation that really modern soul care has always struggled with—this desire to look very much like professional, credentialed, well-respected, if you will, counseling approaches, so we have to be clinical in our approach. I’ve actually had trainees ask me, “Sam, is it okay for me to counsel my family members?” And, of course it is! That’s our responsibility as believers. But there’s this distance and this professional context that we’re trying to set in place. But when we think about applying Scripture to the need of moment, we’re thinking about uniquely Christian ministry. We’re thinking about transparency. We’re thinking about carrying one another’s burdens. We’re thinking about correcting and teaching, but again with purity and reconciliation and restoration in mind. All of those things are bound up in the purpose of the Scriptures.

Dale Johnson: That’s right, and it’s important for us to see. Biblical counseling has been criticized in some circles who characterize our approach as, “Take one passage of Scripture, go read this, and call me in the morning. We’ll see how you’re doing.” That is not the idea of biblical counseling.

The Bible is a book of wisdom—God’s wisdom. It’s delivered to us in precepts, principles, commands, promises. It is a book of wisdom, by which we don’t take everybody in some sort of professional mentality where we say, the way we treat anxiety is Step 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Or the way we treat this issue of depression is Step 6, 7, and 8. That’s not how the Bible works. You can’t just take Philippians 4:6-7 and regurgitate it in the same language with the same script for every person who’s struggling with the issue of anxiety.

We’re taking the truth of Scripture and making sure that we’re applying it into the case context of this person’s life. This person’s story, although they’re exhibiting similar manifestations of their flesh (like any of us would) their story and how they arrived at that is is a very different puzzle that’s been put together, in the way that their life has been lived—the experiences that they have, the knowledge base that they have at this moment, where they are in their walk with the Lord, how mature they are or not—all those things come to bear. When we talk about Scripture being applied to the need of the moment, Scripture is not just intellectual and we conform our mind to that and that’s it. It is something that is to be applied to life, teaching the person how to take this Scripture in the context of their life where they are at this particular moment at this crossroad in their life and teaching them to walk by it. That’s what we mean when we say “for the need of the moment.”

We wanted to make some clarifying statements here: “by comforting those who are suffering and calling sinners to repentance.” We do see those two categories in the Scripture, that’s undeniable. When we talk about sin, all we who suffer or have personal sin, we’re under this guise of the effect of the fall—what I call the corporate sin. When we talk about suffering and we talk about our personal sin, it’s all under the guise that we struggle with sin and the curse of it. We wanted to make sure we included these two categories for the purpose of clarifying.

We’re trying to comfort those who are suffering. That’s the appropriate posture of Scripture; something like Paul would describe in 2 Corinthians 1. But then also calling sinners to repentance. Those two things, again, are like a seesaw where sometimes we have the tendency to swing in one direction or the other. I think that’s biblically inappropriate. We have to really focus on in this need of the moment, what is this person’s issue? We have to approach this person in both of those ways.

We're not calling a sufferer to repentance.  We're calling those who respond in sin to repentance. We're not calling a sinner by comfort. We're calling them to repentance. Click To Tweet

Let’s take, for example, somebody who has been abused. It could be very clear that they are absolutely suffering, but they may have responded in some sort of sinful way. We have both of these elements existing and we have to respond scripturally to both of those categories. That’s a very important approach as we think about methodology in the Scripture. We’re not calling a sufferer to repentance.  We’re calling those who respond in sin to repentance. We’re not calling a sinner by comfort. We’re calling them to repentance. These categories are absolutely critical.

Sam Stephens: To be to be practical in the moment regarding this, one thing that I find is very helpful—going back to our podcast last week on the goal of biblical counseling—when I keep that goal in view, regardless of if I’m dealing with a sufferer or sinner (often combination of both), they understand that I truly care and love them. I find a heart that’s much more receptive. If I treat someone very statically, in that clinical context type of way, there’s no by in, there’s no relationship. But when they see that we’re both sojourners on the same journey, and we’re both traversing the difficulties of this life just trying to be faithful day-by-day, there is a brotherhood there. There’s family there. Again going back to the church, you can’t emphasize that enough, we are a family on that same journey with the same hope.

I was reading in the Psalms this morning, “Where does our help come from?” We’re looking to the hills where our help comes from, and that is the Lord. I find that regardless of how we’re counseling and in what situation our counselees are in, when that goal is kept in the forefront of our minds we can walk that path together.

Dale Johnson: We come to the conclusion of our definition with this final statement: “thus all of this working together to make the person mature as they abide in Christ.” That’s really the issue when we boil it down. I believe a healthy person is someone who is consistently growing in maturity. It doesn’t mean that they’re fully mature right now. It means that we are in that process of being conformed to the image of Christ, and we’re growing in maturity as Hebrews 5:14 talks about. We’re growing in our ability to discern because that’s what maturity is. Discern the difference between the deception of the world and the truth that abides in the Scripture that God has given us to anchor our soul (Hebrews 6:19).

We want to teach them—not just catch fish for them, we want to teach them how to fish. We want to help them in this situation to grow to maturity. But then also to teach them (as Jesus would call us to in the Scriptures) to abide in Him so that in their life they can deal with the trouble that we know will come in the future.

That's really what this all about. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. We are not the vine. That distinction is laid out before us. Click To Tweet

Sam Stephens: And do you know what you just described? Personal discipleship. It goes right back to the very beginning of our definition. Beautiful book ends here—that we’re on that journey together. I often articulate it this way, that we are striving together in the faith. We’re pressing in. It’s not perfection. We’ve got to get that straight, it’s sanctification. Don’t get that confused with your justification, but that we’re striving together. When we do fall, you’re seeing these efforts to get back up, to press into the Holy Spirit, to study in the Scriptures, to learn more, to grow and mature. That’s really what this all about. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. We are not the vine. That distinction is laid out before us.

Another theme that we see in the Scriptures: God is God and we are not. That’s a beautiful distinction that we can rest in.

Dale Johnson: That’s right. This isn’t an exhaustive expression of the method of biblical counseling. Certainly, the Bible has many more detailed expressions. What we’re trying to capture is sort of in a broad nature that the Bible does have a method. It does have a flow of how we accomplish these things. We just wanted to articulate that. I hope you’ve enjoyed the last several weeks as we’ve tried to nail down this idea of of the definition of biblical counseling and particularly this week on the method.