4 Essentials in Biblical Counseling
Biblical counseling can be one of the most overwhelming and neglected ministries in a church. Many pastor-friends I know, and even their church members, do not actively engage in Biblical counseling. Many consider themselves to be highly inadequate for such a task. Some people do not see the necessity for Biblical counseling. However, I believe that this is just giving ground to the enemy. The Apostle Paul himself gave us a clear command and instruction from the Lord, within the context of the church, “to bear each other’s burdens.” He said under apostolic authority, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Believers can frequently be tempted to bear the heavy burden of sin and unbelief in such a way that they do not carry those burdens to Christ which can cause all sorts of ongoing problems. That is when we must love them enough to point them to Christ, for He is the ultimate burden-bearer. The way we do this is primarily through biblical exhortation; whether one-on-one in a counseling office, or after a service in the parking lot, or even on the porch of someone’s home. This is why the writer of Hebrews instructs and warns us in Hebrews 3:12-13 to, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Not all counseling issues or problems require a “professional counselor.” Some clearly do, but many are the result of sin and caused by the root of sin: unbelief. I’m not saying that all counseling issues are related to sin and unbelief; but many times the root issue in grief, depression, anxiety, anger, lust, or addiction is the problem of unbelief. You can read more about this in John Piper’s Book, “Battling Unbelief”, which I highly recommend to you and which has been an indispensable resource in battling unbelief in my own life. The problem is that too many people in church are carrying around burdens of unbelief and sin which are too heavy for them to carry, and Christians are by enlarge not exhorting and pointing one another to believe in the Gospel and the promises of God. We should exhort people, speaking the truth in love, because we know what it’s like to carry burdens that we shouldn’t, and we know how Christ lifts those burdens through the promises of the Gospel. We should never neglect doing this simply because we feel overwhelmed, inferior, or indifferent. God calls each of us to do this daily and it is our duty to fulfill the law of Christ. So if we will engage in biblical counseling on any level and begin exhorting one another daily to not fall away through an unbelieving heart, what are the essentials?
To Counsel, You Must Understand Justification Firstly, if you are going to counsel someone, you yourself need a robust understanding of the doctrine and application of justification by grace through faith alone. Justification is the ground for all Biblical counseling because it is the basis for our salvation and sanctification (see the entire book of Romans!). If you do not understand Romans 5 and how the gospel promise of justification is applied to all aspects of a believer’s life, then you will not be helpful in biblical counseling. For instance, we need to show people when their unbelieving thoughts of depression or anxiety arise the superior promises of the Gospel, reminding them of who Christ is, and how their forgiveness and righteousness has been secured by the death of Jesus. We need to show them the necessity of faith in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness so that they will stand firm in the gospel without wavering. Unbelieving thoughts can control depression such as telling yourself consistently “I have nothing,” but on the basis of justification by grace alone, believers can remind themselves “I have everything I need in Christ alone.” Instead of unbelieving thoughts controlling them in anxiety such as, “I will lose something in the future,” they can remind themselves on the basis of justification by grace alone that, “My future is secured by the righteousness of Christ.”
Counseling by enlarge is helping believers remind themselves of that which they are so easily prone to forget. It is teaching them how to exhort themselves in Gospel truth, the warnings and promises of God, which help them persevere by faith. This leads us to the absolute essential of showing people how to preach to themselves the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone. An excellent resource on how to accomplish this is Martyn-Lloyd Jones’ book, “Spiritual Depression” in which he looks at David’s example of preaching to himself in Psalm 42. Another smaller but immensely helpful book I recommend to people is, “Note to Self” by Joe Thorn which takes the same approach. Both books discuss the importance of preaching justification by grace through faith alone to yourself. The biggest problem I have encountered in my life and in counseling others is that we talk and listen to ourselves all too much. As a result, we put confidence in our own unbelieving thoughts too often. We easily believe in the inferior, false promises of sin instead of placing our confidence in Christ and His superior promises. However, God produces deeper faith and spiritual endurance in people who preach the gospel of justification to themselves when they are tempted to unbelief. This is why Peter states in 2 Peter 1:4 “he has granted to us his precious and very great and promises”. This is an indescribable gift for the one who has learned to frequently remind themselves of the gospel benefits and promises of justification.
A Counselor Must Hold to the Absolute Authority of the Word Secondly, people cannot be taught to preach to themselves unless the counselor is holding to the centrality and absolute authority of the Word of God. Biblical counseling should not resemble secular counseling, in that we just listen to people and their problems while they sit or lie down on a couch and tell us “how they feel.” Biblical counseling uses the Word of God to stir up faith in the heart of the believer, exhorting and teaching them how to believe in the superior promises of the gospel. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). If counseling isn’t showing people how the Word of God can change their thinking and activate deeper faith, stirring their affections for God, nothing will change. If we want people to “feel” or “behave” differently, then they have to think differently. This is why the Word of God is central and must be used in counseling to “renew” minds (Romans 12:2). The majority of the time that I spend in counseling is showing people from the Bible how to battle against unbelief in their particular problems. While we listen to them attentively, it is vitally important they learn to listen to the Word of God, which has the power alone to stir faith and enable repentance.
You Must Have a Robust Understanding of God's Sovereignty in Suffering Thirdly, you have to have a robust understanding and application of the sovereignty of God in suffering. If you cannot tell the person you are counseling how God is good, despite the fact that they lost their spouse to a drunk driver as they wrestle with the issue of, “how could a good God allow this?” then they will lose hope. We have to show people that which Joseph believed by faith: “What you meant for evil…God meant for good” (Genesis 50:20). Again we show them that the eternal promises of God are yes in Christ Jesus, and the grounds for God to work all things together for their good is their justification by grace alone through faith alone. If you cannot show people in the Bible how God works the pain and suffering of Joseph, Job, Elijah, and Paul for good through Christ, then your counseling will fall short. Their confidence will not be in the future grace and glory in Christ Jesus, and they will be tempted to fall away in unbelief. Another resource I encourage you to look into is the book, “Suffering and the Sovereignty of God” by John Piper, and RC Sproul’s teaching series which also has the same title and is most helpful.
You Must Battle Your Own Unbelieving Thoughts Lastly, you need to be studying the Bible for the purpose of preaching to yourself, and you need to be battling your own unbelieving thoughts. The most effective people I know who have counseled others are not people who had a degree in counseling or people who had read great books; rather, they are those who God taught in his grace and discipline how to cling to and fight for faith with the promises of God. If the Lord has taught you how to kill the unbelief of lust with the Sword of the Spirit, then that is something you need to share with someone who is struggling. If the Lord has taught you through His precious promises how to climb out of the pit of depression, then that is something you need to share with someone who is struggling. If Jesus has taught you from Matthew 6 how to battle against anxiety, then that is something you need to share with someone who is struggling. Through battling against your own unbelieving thoughts, you know how much the promises of the Gospel in the future grace and glory of God (guaranteed through justification alone) has helped you find victory when you needed it most. Time and time again, Romans 8 has helped you to believe when you felt so far from the Lord. Aren’t we ourselves just like the man who Jesus encountered in Matthew 9:24, “Lord I do believe, help me with my unbelief”? Since I am assuming that we are just like that man and we have been justified by grace through faith alone, then we need to share with people how God helped us in our unbelief. I’m not saying that you need to share all the details of your private struggles with people, but rather show them what the Lord taught you about your own unbelief, how Christ counseled you in His word, how you preached to yourself, and how you found hope in the superior promises of Christ.
These are just a few thoughts on how anyone can be an effective counselor from a guy who simply desires to be an effective counselor. We have a responsibility to exhort people outside of the pulpit just as much as in the pulpit. We have a responsibility to teach our people to counsel one another as well. No one in the church is exempt to the command “bear one another’s burdens” and “exhort”. We are fellow battlers against unbelief. You’ll be effective in counseling because you are battling unbelief in your own life. So please, brothers and sisters, battle today by believing the superior promises of Christ and preaching them to yourself, and then exhort someone to do the same - while “today” is still called “today.”