So often when someone reaches out for help, they are like parched ground. Confused, hurting, worn out from effort – without hope. They aren’t quite sure how they got to this scorched land, but they feel the drought and the resulting dehydration. Often they sense it is life-threatening and the truth is, this may actually be so.
In these moments God is faithful to remind me that I (the biblical counselor) am not the solution for their thirsty soul… read more.
Biblical counselors would be the first to affirm that God’s Word is the source of our counseling and the Spirit’s agent for change. But are we communicating that in an effective way to our counselees in our actual practice? Are we really depending on the power of God through His Word to arrest, comfort, and transform hearts? Do those who minister in a more informal way in our churches understand the value of pointing to the Word, before they offer an outside resource?
I’ve noticed as I have supervised students being trained in biblical counseling that they are quick to assign as homework supplemental material, and slow to actually open the Word with their counselees in a significant way.
To read more from Stuart Scott on this topic click here.
Faithful counselors are conscientious; they exercise great care in guiding others with the Word of God. Additionally, they seek to listen well, speak truth graciously, and rely upon the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish His transforming work in the hearts and minds of those whom they help. However, as admirable as all of this is, the neglect of our own obedience is a real danger. It is possible to go through the motions, teaching what we know is good counsel while at the same time failing to consider the relationship that our own personal Bible study and daily walk with the Lord have upon the effectiveness of our ministry. For this reason, I’d like us to ponder one simple verse hidden away in one of the books of the Minor Prophets. Ezra 7:10 reads, “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”
One of the most powerful tools in the Biblical counselor’s tool box is the ability to listen well. Good counsel begins with good listening. The scriptures even teach us that without good listening, there is no such thing as good counsel. Proverbs 18:13 is the biblical counselor’s friend: If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame (ESV).
The scriptures abound with instruction to practice good listening. One of the most memorable instructions occurs in the context of God’s revelation of Himself to Israel. Not only is this instruction repeated as a prayer by pious Jews even to this day, it is also placed inside the Mezuzzah, the small container fixed on the door post in every observant Jewish home. The “Shemah,” (taken from the Hebrew verb “to hear”) is found in Deuteronomy 6:4, Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, The Lord is One.
Imagine being surrounded by constant reminders to listen. Would it surprise you to know that even if you are not an observant Jew, you are surrounded by reminders to listen?
Throughout the Old Testament, the instructions to hear are relentless. The verb “to hear” is one of the most common in the Old Testament. Often God commands His people to listen.
Sometimes those words appear in a Psalm, Hear, O my people, while I admonish you! O Israel, if you would but listen to me! (81:8)
Sometimes they appear in the words of a pleading prophet, Hear the word that the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel. (Jer.10:1)
In the New Testament, the same emphasis is present.
James teaches us that our desire should be to hear, more than to be hear. Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger (James 1:19).
Beyond just commanding us to hear, and to hear well, the Bible also provides us with another layer of understanding. The scriptures reveal God as a God who hears. Hebrew writers love a play on words. In Genesis 16:2, Abraham listens to his wife and Ishmael is born (I’m summarizing). When Hagar flees with Ishmael to the wilderness, the Angel of the Lord appears and says to her that she has been heard in her affliction. God is the God who hears (Genesis 16:11). It’s what Ishmael means. In listening, God invites to be as He is. He is a listening God.
Nowadays, it is hard to listen well. So many things distract us from that pursuit. But in counseling, few things are as essential. Do what you can to minimize distractions while you counsel. Turn off the phone. Find an office free from distraction, or a room where you are unlikely to be interrupted. Learning to listen can sometimes be a matter of preparation. We often spend all our time preparing to speak, but seldom prepare ourselves to listen.
Listening is even essential to the gospel because the Father heard the son. Hebrews 5:7 – In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.
As you counsel, remember…God hears. He listens. Listening well then, is doing the work of God.
When I first began reading through the Bible I looked for some unifying themes. I concluded that there are many, and that if we make one theme the theme (such as “covenant” or “kingdom”), we run the danger of reductionism.
However, one of the main ways to read the Bible is as the ages-long struggle between true faith and idolatry. In the beginning, human beings were made to worship and serve God, and to rule over all created things in Godʼs name (Gen. 1:26–28). Paul understands humanityʼs original sin as an act of idolatry: “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God . . . and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:21–25). Instead of living for God, we began to live for ourselves, or for our work, or for material goods. We reversed the original intended order.
And when we began to worship and serve created things, paradoxically, the created things came to rule over us.
Instead of being Godʼs vice-regents, ruling over creation, creation now masters us. We are subject to decay and disease and disaster. The final proof of this is death itself. We live for our own glory by toiling in the dust, but eventually we return to the dust—the dust “wins” (Gen. 3:17–19). We live to make a name for ourselves, but our names are forgotten.
Here in the beginning of the Bible we learn that idolatry means slavery and death.
Although I am not a professional counselor, I am involved in the translation and publication of Biblical counselling books into French. This opportunity has given me a chance to read and interact with many books and authors.
Probably the most insightful truth that I learned through my reading was found in Mike Emlet’s book, Crosstalk. If you have not read this book, I encourage you to get it.
Here is what I learned;
Michael Emlet encourages those who help people to approach them as “saints, sufferers, and sinners.” The order is intentional as it helps the counselor prioritize the work of God in the person’s life, and gives context to their sin.
Practically, each of the categories require a different helps from the counselor; either scriptural passages that remind a person of their identity in Christ, console them in the dark day of suffering, or confront them for their unrepentant sins.
Meeting someone as a saint
As “saints,” we need to be reminded of our relationship with God through Christ. Our identities are not bound up in what we do, who we know, what we have, or our skills and abilities. Our identity is found in Christ. During this time, it is import to acknowledge signs of God working in their life, even if it is small and seemingly insignificant. Even the desire to change without any apparent fruit is a sign of God at work in the life of the believer.
Meeting someone as sufferer
As “sufferers,” we need to be reminded of the fallen world we live in, and often we deal with the consequences from other’s actions. Contrary to what many people believe, suffering is not necessarily a sign that we have done something wrong, instead, it is often the mark of God’s people. “Scripture assumes that, since the fall, the people God has chosen are sufferers” (Crosstalk, 76).
When we meet someone as suffering, we learn that when people are cut they bleed, and real pain is experienced when we are sinned against.
Meeting people as sinners
As “sinners,” we need be reminded that we will continue to struggle against sin until the day Christ completes His work in us. After following the suggested order Saint, Sufferer, Sinner, we have acknowledged God is at work in their life, that they are dealing with the consequences of living in a fallen world, that when we meet them as sinner, we can sympathize that they have been sinned against, but that ultimately they sin because they are a sinner in need of Grace and that the situations they have experienced was just the situation that allowed the heart to reveal itself. Having acknowledged their suffering, they know that we care, and it makes the job of confronting sin much easier.
I have used these categories when I disciple and help people grow in Godliness in the Christian life. It has helped me have more compassion in the slow process of helping people change.
A woman who lost her husband recently shared of a particularly difficult night of despair and hopelessness. It was a night of desperate loneliness. That same night someone happened to call her and she shared her deep grief. As the person listened, they concluded this woman ought to see a counselor.
As she shared her story with me, I wondered if she really needed a counselor.
A great question from our conference. The question was general enough that we felt two different perspectives might be helpful.
Q: Can biblical counseling, without an understanding of the deep-seated effect of trauma, work to guide someone to a place of liberty in Christ?
Wendy Bowman’s Answer:
This indeed is a raw yet very real question. Does the Word of God address suffering to the depth of the horrible and life altering trauma that so many people have endured? Yes, biblical counselling can and does speak tenderly and completely to the deep and painful and dark places of trauma. To begin with, I never presume that I, as the counsellor understand fully another’s trauma, but my Jesus, who suffered so much at the hands of many, does. He not only gives us manna (living Word) daily, but Himself to journey through the deep waters of suffering.
With that, we turn to the scriptures, and go to places like Psalm 88, and find another human who, in the depths of his own suffering laments, ‘darkness is my closest friend’. His heart cry is a gift from God, being offered to the heart of a fellow struggler, a soul that we can truly resonate with. David also recorded many Psalms where he speaks of being hunted, even by a son seeking to kill him, and after his honest soul wrestling will close with, yet I will trust You oh Lord for You alone can save me, Psalm 4. How ever do they do this? In our flesh, it is indeed, impossible, but with the Spirit, all things are possible.
As I journey with one struggling under the weight of trauma, we look to the scripture to grow to know that the character of the triune God offers the stability and stamina to stand under the weight of their burdens. We might talk about the truth that God reassures us over and over that “He will never leave us or forsake us”, even when the evil of this world seems to have the upper hand, this can serve to root us in solid ground.
The character of Christ offers much to the understanding of living victorious in trauma thus, examining His responses can be helpful. We could go to places like Hebrews 5:7-8 where we hear Christ “offering loud cries and tears in prayer and supplication”, yet remained obedient in His sufferings.
When God calls me to walk with those who suffer, I will also want to communicate the essential nature of letting the body of Christ -beyond me- share the burden they carry. Again, the bible is rich with examples of not only Christ’s tender care for sufferers, but the body of believers encouraging and caring for others. Perhaps the most dramatic of all such examples is the story of the paralytic whose friends went to great length to help him in his suffering. Ed Welch’s book, Side by side develops this well.
These are just some of the ways that I believe biblical counselling not only understands and speaks to trauma, but offers a person victory.
Cam Barnard’s Answer:
What importance does a biblical counselor place on the past?
On one hand, we are keenly interested in this past event as an important part of information gathering. For someone who has experienced significant trauma in their past, we want to understand how they are thinking about the event, how it has changed their thinking about God, about their relational communities, about themselves. All this and much more is part of being diligent in information gathering and really understanding the person we are counseling to ensure that our counsel is relevant and properly applied.
On the other hand, biblical counselors don’t believe that the key to freedom and change is located somewhere in the past. Too often in other philosophies of counseling the past is revisited again and again because the counseling methodology believes that the key to the future is found buried in the past. One very real danger in this is reinforcing a mindset in the counselee that they are unique or different from everyone else in a way that puts them out of reach of God’s help and hope. We instead want to lovingly bring a counselee to understand that everyone has a past, that everyone interprets and responds to their past, and that ultimately all we experience and struggle with is ‘common to mankind’ (1 Corinthians 10:13).
While relevant to a loving understanding of the counselee, the past doesn’t hold the answers; the Word of God empowered by the Spirit of God is what renews us and transforms us into the image of Jesus Christ for our good and God’s glory.
In short; listen carefully, love genuinely, and learn all you can while you gently refocus the counselee’s gaze upon the perfection of Jesus Christ.
Q: Most of the people I am around on a daily basis are not Christians, and yet these are the people who are opening up to me about their lives, hurts, and struggles. I struggle to know how to offer help and hope to those who don’t know Christ and in some cases have stated that they are not interested in Him. Any advice on how to help people who don’t have that Biblical foundation?
This question was asked at our recent Canadian Biblical Counselling Coalition Conference. As I read the question I can hear the compassionate desire to help and share the hope of the gospel. This should be tremendously encouraging as you are seeking to connect the gospel to broken people. God is gracious to plant this seed in your heart and you can be confident the Lord will grow His fruit from that seed. Included are four general thoughts to help further your conversation of sharing hope to unbelievers who are hurting.
The struggle to know how to offer help and hope to those who don’t know Christ is a larger question of how to share the good news in this world. This is encouraging as the Bible has a lot to say when it comes to helping the hurting and the hardened. Abraham was found as an idol worshipper, Matthew a tax collector, the Samaritan woman a serial “manizer” and Saul a persecutor. In each case, the gospel naturally engaged broken people. Abraham was introduced to the one true God, Matthew followed Jesus, the Samaritan woman worshipped the Christ and Saul bowed his knee before the Lord. While not minimizing the struggle on how to offer hope and help, the Bible rephrases the question to I may struggle with how to offer help and hope but I do have confidence Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit offer true and living hope.
Be encouraged your non-Christian friends, even those who have stated they are not interested in Him, are opening up their lives to you and asking for help. What a testimony of the power of the loving gospel. Why are they coming to you? What (or who) do they see in you? Why would they look to you for help and hope? Your story is somehow different and they see hope in your life. In other words, the encouragement is they cannot help “hearing” about help and hope through your life. Our God is an amazingly winsome God.
A natural way to include the gospel is to begin with your story of helplessness and hopelessness. We’ve been there with others so we don’t skip over the pain and suffering. We don’t forget to mention the last words of Psalm 88 when the Psalmist says darkness is my closest friend. We weep with them because we have known tears and betrayal and injustice. We let them hear that we still don’t have it all figured out. But we have hope even in our darkness. We begin to share why we have comfort in one who understands perfectly and has promised to show mercy and never leave. They may not understand … or they might but that is God’s work.
Most importantly, as we travel through pain and suffering, hurt and helplessness, are we those who grow in hope and love for our Saviour? I believe this is important because if we are captivated by God’s goodness and compassion, an overflow of our heart will be to naturally talk about Him. It won’t come from saying the right words or having the right technique. Rather, it will come from a heart that has experienced the gospel in rich and deep ways. They will be words of hope because that is what we received from the Lord. And because they are words of hope, they will help. In other words, as we are captivated by God for God the question disappears and we count it a privilege to naturally and wisely share of God’s comfort.