Dale Johnson: I’m so excited that we have with us today on the podcast, Dr. John Street. For many of you who have been around biblical counseling for a long time, you recognize that name very easily. Dr. Street has been a faithful biblical counselor for many, many years. He is a professor of biblical counseling at The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, California. He is also the president of our board here at ACBC, so I have an opportunity to spend a lot of time with Dr. Street on the phone and talking back and forth, and I just appreciate the ministry of this brother.
Today, he’s going to help walk us through the importance of data gathering in biblical counseling. Often, we focus on our duty in giving counsel, and that’s critically important, but if we miss the first step of not hearing, our counsel will always be off. Dr. Street, I’m so glad that you’re here today to talk with us about this issue of data gathering. Can you walk us through some of the important factors of us gathering data well?
John Street: Absolutely. It’s interesting that as conservative Christians, we’re very good at siding with truth and communicating truth. Most guys that go through seminary are trained to preach; they’re trained to exegete the Word of God. We’ll preach the Word of God well and we’re good at that, but one of the things that we’re not very good at is data gathering. We’re not very good at listening to people. We’re taught to exegete the Bible well, but seminary often fails us in teaching us how to exegete the hearts of people well, and because of that, we tend to assume we already know what’s going on in people’s hearts and lives when we don’t.
Preaching is a monologue. It’s where you prepare a sermon and you present it directly towards a congregation to minister to them, and preaching is vital, it’s very important. Anybody in seminary or in pastoral ministry understands the importance of preaching. However, just as important is the private ministry of the Word of God. Preaching is a monologue, but counseling is dialogue. In counseling, you must sit across the table from a person and interact with a person, and sometimes they’ll give you feedback or push back on what’s being said, and they have reasons behind them for doing that. They may not always be good reasons, but oftentimes we’re not listening carefully to what is being said.
I can remember a case in my past where I had a couple come to me where the wife accused the husband of abuse, and I always take that very seriously; I want to help her if I can. She accused her husband of certain things that he had done to her, and he actually stepped back and said, “Listen, I’m not a perfect husband, but I disagree. I did not do those things.” I listened to her and I didn’t ask any further questions. Later on, during a personal disagreement that they had, she called the police and brought the police in on a situation in the home. He got taken off to jail because the police believed her. He was a big guy, he was truly just a big teddy bear, and she was a little blond-haired gal.
As a result of that, he then spent six months in jail, but towards the end of that six months, she realized that she had really lied. She became very convicted about that. She went back to the police and confessed that she lied, and they didn’t believe her. They thought that she had a “victim’s remorse” type of experience, and so they didn’t believe her. She wrote me a lengthy letter explaining how she had, for her own selfish purposes, to get revenge on her husband because he had done a couple of things that she didn’t like, falsely accused him of abusing her.
When I thought back about my own counseling and what happened there, I’m saying to myself, “I came down with both feet on her side. I erred on the side of protection.” As biblical counselors, that’s the better side to take, but I didn’t ask enough questions. I assumed I already knew what was going on. I should have pressed it, I should have asked questions, I should have listened more, and I realized that I had not really trained myself to listen or ask good questions. As a result of that, this became a very personal endeavor for me, to push forward in my own personal development in counseling, to listen to people carefully.
We have another graduate program near us; it’s an integrationist program that’s full of psychology. In fact, the whole philosophy that pervades there is a Rogerian, non-directive type of counseling, and that particular approach brings graduate students in for the first year and puts them into counseling situations. They tell them for the entire year, “You’re supposed to sit in a counseling situation and you’re not allowed to say a word. All you’re supposed to do is listen.” Some of you that are familiar with Rogerian, non-directive therapy understand what they’re trying to do there.
As biblical counselors, we’re very directive in our therapy because we have the Word of God; we’ve got God’s authoritative Word. But they are onto something really important here, and that is that people jump to conclusions very quickly. They have preconceived notions about what’s going on in the lives of other people, and oftentimes those are erroneous. We’ve got to spend more time asking good questions, listening to the answers, until we are absolutely sure we have our arms around that problem. There’s no way we are really going to be able to help people until we can really exegete what’s going on in their hearts, and you’re not going to know that unless you ask and develop the art and skill of asking good questions. That is so key.
Dale Johnson: It is key. How can we give proper counsel without hearing first? You mentioned some of those questions and the delicate situation that you mentioned in the beginning when we are asking those questions. Give us an example of some of those types of questions where you could have pressed in a little bit harder to get a little bit more data that might have led you in a different direction relative to counseling.
John Street: One of the things I probably could go back to is that counseling case that I shared. As I reflect back upon it, I should have asked the woman who was making the accusations against her husband more direct questions as to, when did this happen? How often does it happen? Specifically, what is happening? What are your personal thoughts and experiences when this does happen? How do you respond to it? When it does happen, do you get angry? Do you get frustrated, or you return violence or hateful words? This is not an effort to try to find fault with supposed victim; that’s not what I’m trying to do. I just want to understand the problem better. I’m never really going to be able to help them substantively until I understand that problem, and I have all the data down and I interpret it correctly. I’m not going to get there unless I could ask those kinds of questions.
Dale Johnson: When we ask some of those questions, one of the things in the gospels that we see is the manner in which Jesus asks questions. It’s not unusual for Jesus to ask a “Why?” question, He does that on occasion, but most of the time in the gospels, He asks questions just like what you just mentioned, “How?” questions and “What?” questions. He’s asking a person what they’re doing, in part because that’s what they can see. That’s what they’re experiencing, and then He understands that there’s something behind it. Describe, in those terms, some of those good “How?” questions and “What?” questions that really drive us to get better data out of whatever situation that we’re dealing with.
John Street: If you have a husband-wife conflict, and oftentimes those of you that are more experienced in counseling have sat across the table from this kind of thing, a good “How?” question at that particular point is, “How do you know that this is exactly what your spouse is thinking?” Because you’re getting at their prejudgments of that other person’s heart. That drops us right in immediately to Matthew 7 where Jesus talks about trying to pick the particle out of other peoples’ eyes, when you all along have a log hanging out of your eye. We’re very good at seeing the errors in other people, but we have a difficult time seeing our own faults. That’s why, almost universally in biblical counseling, we have people do “log lists,” because they then need to identify those logs that are in their eye that keep them from being the man or woman of God that they need to be or the husband or wife that they need to be. Then we have them do, “How?” questions like, “I want you to explain to me how you can be a better husband?” or “How you can be a better wife?”
Or, let me switch the scenario just for a moment. Let’s say, for example, you have a woman who comes in and she’s very reluctant to tell you she’s being abused, when in reality, that’s really what’s going on, and the husband is there and being very intimidating. I’m going to be asking her a lot of questions. I may ask the husband to step out of the room for a while and I’m going to talk with her personally. I’ll say to him, “The purpose of this is not to run you down behind your back. I just want to find out what’s going on in her life so that I can better be a good minister of the gospel to her.” That’s really key. Then I may bring him and talk with him personally without her in the room the same way, “How can I help him be a better husband?” In doing so, a lot of detail comes out. If you have one spouse that’s being intimidating towards another spouse, whether it be physical intimidation or maybe they have information on the other spouse that they have threatened to reveal to other people that nobody knows, that can be a power play in that relationship.
When you’re counseling people, you have got to be very careful and not take sides. If you’re dealing with a couple, Bob and Barbara, you don’t want to take Bob’s or Barbra’s side. You always want to come down with both feet on God’s side at this issue, and you need to let them know that. That’s really critical in order that you can bring them together. Sometimes I’ll say to them, “I really don’t do a lot of marriage counseling just for marriage counseling. I don’t do that. I do a lot of counseling of husbands and wives and their personal relationship with God, and the closer they are to Him, then the closer they are going to be to each other.” That’s really key, and in fact, I do draw a little triangle on the board with God at the top of the triangle and husband and wife at either end and show them that the closer that they get to God, the closer they’ll be to one another; that’s going to be my main focus there.
Dale Johnson: You’ve really helped us to think through this process. We’re so eager sometimes to get to our directive counseling, which is important and non-negotiable, but we must gothrough a very important step and we cannot miss that step in order to get proper counsel from the Word of God. Dr. Street, we’re so grateful that you were here with us today.
John Street: It’s been great. If the listeners remember anything, I hope that we remember Proverbs 18:13, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is a folly and a shame to them.” In other words, you’ve got to be able to hear, you’ve got to be able to listen.