Thursday, April 27, 2006

Counseling is a Theological Matter

A seminary student preparing for the pastorate expressed to me his passion for preaching and one-on-one discipleship. When I asked him what involvement he foresaw himself having in counseling, he replied that while he saw it as an important ministry, he didn't have great interest in it nor did he think he was particularly gifted at it. I followed up by asking him what distinction he made between counseling and the personal discipling about which he was enthused. His knitted brow indicated that he was seriously pondering the inquiry and after a few moments he admitted that he really didn't know.

As is the case for many Christians, this young man was operating with a conception of Christian discipleship and counseling as two distinct tasks. According to this way of thinking, discipling someone involves teaching them how to grow in their relationship with God. This includes instruction in such things as how to interpret the Bible, have personal devotions, witness, and practice other spiritual disciplines. It might also entail helping someone overcome overt patterns of sinful living and thinking. Discipleship, in other words, deals with the "religious" or Godward dimension of life.

Counseling, on the other hand, concentrates on the resolution of intra- and interpersonal problems that we face in the rest of our lives; things like marital conflict and disappointment, depression, anxiety, parenting issues, addictive behaviors, etc. We might say that whereas discipleship addresses a person's relationship with God, counseling focuses on his or her relationship with himself and others. Items in this category are the province of therapy and must be handled by those with formal clinical education in various psychotherapeutic models of human personality and motivation. 

When stated in this manner, the false dichotomy should be apparent. To slice life and people up into religious and non-religious compartments lacks biblical warrant. All of life is infused with religious significance because it is lived coram Deo, before the face of God. Nevertheless, I'm convinced that more believers than we'd like to think operate with this truncated view of discipleship with the tragic consequence that the gospel seems woefully irrelevant to where most of our lives are lived. Oh, we may look to the Bible for inspirational nuggets of consolation and general encouragement. But we don't expect it to speak to the details of our lives with potent specificity. We doubt its adequacy to diagnose and transform us. We have learned the ways of the therapeutic nation well.

I'm in the midst of doing a lot of reading and reflecting on the relationship between theology and counseling. One of the articles I reread this week is David Powlison's Answers for the Human Condition: Why I Chose Seminary for Training in Counseling Powlison makes the case that counseling is essentially a theological matter and offers a broad and narrow definition of what counseling is:

Broadly speaking, from God's point of view, counseling is as broad as "the tongue." Every word out of every mouth communicates values, intentions, and worldview; "the mouth speaks out of what fills the heart." All human interactions are essentially counseling interactions. Counseling, then, is either wise or foolish. Some words are rotten, destructive, misleading, unnourishing (Eph. 4:29a); other words are constructive, timely, true, loving, grace-giving (Eph. 4:15, 29b). No words are neutral.

More narrowly, counseling is any conversation intended to influence, guide, or help another person solve a problem in living. A lawyer, a financial advisor, a college counselor in high school, a friend to whom you pour out your heart, a pastor, and a psychotherapist may each offer counsel (the explicit or implicit content) and do counseling (the relational and change processes).

Commenting on the inherent moral and theological aspects of all counseling, Powlison notes:

All counseling uncovers and edits stories; what is the true "metanarrative" playing in the theater of human lives? Stories differ. All counseling must and does deal with questions of true and false, good and evil, right and wrong, value and stigma, glory and shame, justification and guilt. The answers differ. All counseling explicitly or implicitly deals with questions of redemption, faith, identity, and meaning. The redemptions offered differ.
The article is worthwhile reading for all believers but those considering a seminary education in counseling should profit from the list of sample questions Powlison suggests prospective students ask of faculty and students.

Speaking of theological education as it relates to counseling, not long ago I lauded Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for revising its counseling program to train students in biblical counseling. I was pleased to learn from a friend (Thanks, Hans!) earlier this week that two lectures David Powlison gave to SBTS counseling students earlier this month are available as MP3 downloads (Lecture 1, Lecture 2).

Powlison had invited students to email him questions, concerns, criticisms, and objections about biblical counseling before the event so he could respond to them during their meeting. He arranged the issues they raised into the following six categories:

1. The nature of Scripture: Is Scritpure a manual for counseling?
2. Biblical counseling and medical/biological problems
3. The relationship between David Powlison/CCEF and Jay Adams/NANC
4. Common grace, science, and general revelation
5. Employment opportunities for biblical counselors
6. Intra-departmental tensions at Southern

Powlison gave thoughtful and thorough responses to all of these areas except the sixth since he did not have firsthand knowledge of the specifics involved. After each of his presentations he also responded to questions and comments from the audience.

In all likelihood you won't be able to listen to all that Powlison has to say in one sitting but I encourage anyone interested in offering Christ-centered counsel to make time to listen to and seriously consider his.

1 comment:

Mercy Now said...

You are right in that there's no separation. Discipleship is counseling, counseling others with a Biblical perspective.