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The Goal of Biblical Counseling

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I am once again joined by Dr. Sam Stephens, who is our Director of Training Center Certification. If you recall, last week we were discussing the definition of biblical counseling—or at least one that that Sam and I have proposed. I’m going to read through that again because this is a continuation. We’re going to look at the second part of that definition and dissect that to describe a little bit more detail what we intend to say by this definition.

I’m going to read the whole thing and then that’ll give you an opportunity to sort back through and remember some of the things that we discussed on last week’s podcast and then we’re going to we’re going to hone in on that second section. Here’s the definition that we are proposing:

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.

Sam, this week, what we want to do is focus on that second section. If you remember last week, we tried to begin the process of talking about the nature of biblical counseling: What it is, what it isn’t. This week we want to focus a little bit more on the goal. What is it that we’re aiming at? What are we trying to accomplish? What are we setting out to do in the counseling room? I think this is important as well. It’s really critical when we talk about the goal of biblical counseling that we have biblical aims. It’s very easy, if we define a problem a certain way, that we can utilize worldly language to aim at a goal that actually is logical and makes sense even if we define the problem in a wrong way.

In counseling secularly, a lot of the aim in their counseling is to just make a person feel better. Well, that’s wonderful, but that’s not the full-orbed aim that we see in the Scripture. The Bible says it’s better for a person to gain access to heaven even if they’re missing an eye or an arm or anything like that. We have more of an aim than simply feelings. It’s not that we don’t want people to feel better, but we have a distinct goal and it’s important that we set that out at the beginning. Let’s dissect this. Sam, I’m going to defer to you as we hone in on this second part, which says, “biblical counseling seeks to reorient disorder desires, affections, and behaviors.” What do we mean when we’re talking about biblical counseling seeks to “reorient” these aspects of the heart of a person?

Sam Stephens: I think that’s extremely important. Actually to speak to what you just said first, when I look at different counseling theories—whether that be secular theories or attempts at integration—I always ask the question, “What is the aim or the point of this approach?” That is actually a great place to start. It helps identify the thrust of the counseling, why certain terminologies or frameworks were used, and very quickly you can discover—especially as you’re comparing it to the Scriptures—if it’s a biblical approach or if it’s weighted down by different approaches to knowledge or views of man that would distract from what the Bible teaches is our aim and function.

The choice of the word reorient is actually very purposeful. It is packed full of many truths, one being the most obvious that we are fallen people. Secular approaches, by and large, view people as either neutral or good. This is the opposite of how the Bible depicts us from Genesis 3 onward, of course. In fact in biblical theology, the whole message of the Scriptures, you can’t miss this point that we are fallen people.

I’m reading through 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel right now. Even David, a man after God’s own heart, is plagued with sin. We know from the very beginning when our counselees come in, we have the task of reorienting something that has broken. Their desires, their affections, their mind, their behaviors, all of these things that make up who they are, are pitched towards themselves, towards sin, towards disobedience to God. This is our default. As biblical counselors in bringing the truth of the Scripture, the tools and resources that God has given us in His Word through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are working from moment one to highlight our Lord and Savior, the perfect man Jesus Christ. Then we talked about also the goal. They are intricately tied together.

As Randy Patten says, we need to counsel with the end in mind to keep our counsel on the right path. And what is the end? The end for biblical counselors is transformation and conformation. By conformation I’m talking about being conformed into the image of Jesus, who perfectly reflected God. That’s what we’re working towards. We are person-centered in one aspect. The person we’re centering on is Jesus. We’re not trying to conform our counselee into a better image of themselves (“their best life now”), we’re not even trying to orient them around us as the counselor. We have to be very Christ-centric here in our focus, so that’s where reorientation comes into play.

Dale Johnson: I think that’s so critical. The place that we begin in biblical theology is to begin with the idea of the way God created us and then because of the fall, it’s impacted every aspect of our being. If you think about the doctrine of depravity, we don’t believe man is as bad as he possibly could be, but we do believe is that every aspect of man is affected by sin. This gets into the noetic effects of sin, how sin affects the mind. It affects every aspect of our being. This is what we’re getting at here when we talk about disordered desires, affections, and behaviors.

This is not something that’s just simply true about counselees, as if they’re in some sort of category of abnormal people who are much lesser than the rest of us who counsel. That’s so not true.

This is something that has affected us all. The same things we as the counselors are aiming at in our own life to reorient our disorder desires, affections, and behaviors toward the Lord, is the same need because of their humanity that the counselee walks in the room with as well. Every aspect of their being has been affected. One of the mistakes I want to point out in this particular section that counseling systems often make—even we in biblical counseling sometimes have a tendency to make this mistake as well—is we will unnecessarily focus on one aspect of a person. We may try to reorient their disordered desires, their disordered affections, their loves, the things that they want, or their behaviors. Here’s the thing: All of those things need to be reoriented. When we think about dealing with the whole person, we’re not just to focus on one aspect. Yes, there is a flow from the inside out—from desires to affections, then toward behaviors. There is a flow in the Scripture of how that works. However, we’re to make sure that we’re clear that we’re dealing with disorder desires.

Here’s one example as to why. We can change the outward behavior of a person, but if we don’t change the motive, God is actually concerned with what goes on in the heart and why we do a certain thing. There were tons of people—Pharisees and Sadducees in the Scripture—who did right things outwardly. God was still very displeased with them. By the same token, we can flip that idea. We can have people who overtly say they desire to do the things of God, but if they’re not walking in holiness, that’s also a problem. We see this picture for us to reorient the whole of the person—every aspect of their being, because every aspect has been affected by sin in some way, shape, or form. Our responses are often in that direction posture toward sin. It’s important that we think about that our goal is to reorient back to what God originally designed.

That’s the second part that we’re getting into here: “toward a God-designed anthropology.” Now, we don’t want for people to get confused, or to press pause, or to disengage when we use the word anthropology. We’re trying to make crystal clear one area where we see biblical counseling and the modern church being attacked is this definition of who man is. What we’re trying to say is that we’re not just trying to do self-improvement as most of the world does, because the secular psychological world definitely defines man in a very different way. That’s all anthropology is: trying to understand who is man. When we begin in biblical counseling, our doctrines that we believe to be true about humanity have to be consistent in the way that we think about counseling, and in the way that we practice counseling.

When we talk about a God-designed anthropology, this is a statement that tries to make crystal clear who we are, what we’re about, what we’re aiming at, as opposed to what the secular counseling models uphold, which is a faulty anthropology. They began in the wrong place, and therefore their goals become faulty and really not useful to us—quite detrimental, actually, in the model of biblical counseling. Can you speak just for a second about this idea of a God-designed anthropology?

Sam Stephens: It goes back to what we’ve said earlier—the human story, the human timeline, the human problem cannot be separated from the fall of man. We cannot ignore that. We can’t emphasize that enough. A lot of the critiques that we have, often from integrationists and secularists, is that we focus too much on sin and everything’s about sin. Well, when you read the Bible, sin is a central player. Our fallen nature, our need of saving is central. A big part of biblical anthropology is recognizing the fact that we are creatures in need of saving. One critique that is often lobbied against biblical counselors is that we’re reductionistic in this approach. I would disagree. It’s not reductionistic for us to bring to the forefront for our counselees the fact that they are plagued by the curse of sin and that it touches every aspect of our life.

Think about James 3:16, “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I think that covers a pretty wide gamut of life issues. Jealousy and selfish ambition mark many aspects of my life, so disorder and every evil thing exists. This is in the context of comparing worldly wisdom, that is faulty and non-saving, with God’s wisdom, which is pure, right, good, and leads to a true solution. In this, we recognize that as creatures in need of saving, we have everything that we need in Jesus Christ. He is the Creator, who is the Healer. He is the Creator, who is the great physician and we are not. That distinction is laid out very clearly for us. I think that is a big part of understanding who we are as people right there: our identity. The problem has been laid out already, sin and all of its impacts (whether we suffer in this life due to other people’s sin or our own sin) the struggles that are there, but then also the solution. This is going to be very distinct in biblical counseling versus other approaches. We talk about repentance because it’s needed. We talk about forgiveness, not just us forgiving other people, but our need of forgiveness because we have come up against the knowledge of God so often in our fleshly pursuits. Then ultimately reconciliation with both God and man.

Dale Johnson: That’s right. I think if we were to continue that same thought, when we think about God-designed anthropology, it’s important that we look at the secular world and they really don’t have a definition of what normal humanity ought to look like. They look culturally and identify things that are unwanted. We don’t like this feeling, so we make it a disorder. We don’t like this attitude, so we make it a disorder. We don’t like the way people act in this way, so we categorize it with criteria. When we think about biblical anthropology, we have to think about what God designed. We begin in the image of God. We have an idea of what God intended for humanity. We see the impact and effect of sin.

I think sometimes integrationists, as you mentioned when they critique us here and they call us reductionistic, I think they’re reducing a view of sin as if it only impacts a “spiritual aspect” of a person, and that’s a faulty idea when we talk about depravity. It’s affected and impacted every aspect of the human being. The good news of the gospel of Jesus is that He restores the fullness of who we are. That’s a part of the process that’s happening. When we talk about a God-designed anthropology, we in the Scriptures have a definition of what normal looks like, by Jesus in the New Testament specifically. We can know what God intended for humanity.

The beauty of the gospel is not just salvation, that we get to gain heaven and be with God forever, but it’s the fact that God is now conforming us—to what? To that beautiful image that was intended from the beginning. That demonstrates God’s power that He’s conforming us and transforming us to the fullness of God’s image, which is what He designed from the beginning. This is why this is a proper biblical goal. Anything that steps outside of that becomes something that I would categorize as being unbiblical, and therefore unfruitful and often detrimental.

Hopefully that brings a little bit of clarity. We are building toward a crescendo in this section. This section is to help us to understand that all of this is moving toward what God expresses as the primary ideal for us as humanity. That is, “in an effort to restore true worship of God and right fellowship with others.”

Sam, can you talk about that idea that we’re aiming toward true worship in right relationship vertically with God and horizontally with others?

Sam Stephens: I think there’s one verse actually in James that really sums this up nicely. There’s several passages that speak to this since it’s a large theme in the Scriptures, but one that I really appreciate is this last verse in James 1, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

I think I find that fascinating, because there could have been so many things written there about what true worship looks like. What do we see? We see two things pointed out here. One is a love of others, specifically in the context of orphans and widows—the least of these. But where’s that born out of? That is born out of love of God, keeping oneself unstained by the world. First John talks about this at length, it’s in the writings of Paul. It’s all over the Bible. Even the laws that God gives to the Israelites in the Old Testament. All of these things are ways for us to keep ourselves unstained by the world.

We are still in a fallen world. We still have a sinful flesh, and yet the command by Christ to live holy is possible because of the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is a big part of what true worship is. Again, we mentioned this is opposed to false worship. I see this so often and it’s manifested in many different ways where people are trying to save themselves. Their confession wouldn’t match up with that, but functionally the way they’re living their lives, they’re trying to be their own savior and it manifests in anxiety and worry. It manifests in great depression. It manifests in a whole host of different ways because we are carrying around a burden—this burden of kingship or queenship—that we’re not designed to carry.

Orienting around true worship puts us in our right place. Some people may be offended by the idea that we are creatures. Don’t be offended by that! When you look at the story of the Scriptures and the fact that God gave us His Son as the special gift and that Christ redeems us in this very unique and special way—if nothing else it highlights His grace and mercy towards us, and that brings us to right worship.

The worship of God and the right fellowship with others are actually in tandem with one another. That right fellowship is born out of a right view of God, a theological orientation to our world in our problems and who we are. Loving others is truly born out of that.

Dale Johnson: This has been a consistent thing throughout the history of the modern biblical counseling movement, and I would argue in the history of the church in the way that they think about soul care. This is the point of primacy in the individual’s life: How are they oriented toward God in relation to worship? We see that fleshed out sociologically in the way that we relate to others.

This is the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Jesus describes the decalogue in this way, some set up that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we shall love our neighbor as ourselves.

He boils that idea down and that is the sum total, our Lord has said this. We must not be deceived by the systems of the world. None of us are outside of this proclivity toward being deceived by the “religions,” if you will, of the world. I would categorize secular counseling theories much the way Paul Vitz did in 1979, as posing as a religion. It’s an alternative. It is not a complimentary exploration. It is something that is contradictory. Listen to Paul in Colossians 2:21. He says, “‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

We see Paul’s focus on what God makes primary, we must also make primary, and not be deceived and confused about human knowledge that tries to achieve something that’s put in the category of religion, even if we think it’s good religion. We must stick with what God describes as helping people overcome these indulgences of the flesh that all of us are prone to. This is really the goal—to orient people’s hearts and minds and behaviors back toward the way God intended. This is God’s will for us, for sanctification to conform us to the image of God so that we worship Him rightly and we live in peace with others as well. That is the goal of biblical counseling.

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