Tell Me What to Do

“Tell me what to do when I counsel a person.”

What, in particular, do you want to know?

“Oh, you know—just what you do when you counsel someone.”

Well, I’m afraid I don’t know how to answer that question. There is a lot to counseling—one way of approaching people will not do—one size simply doesn’t fit all.

“Yeah, but what do you do?”

The fact is I do all sorts of things—a lot more than I could begin to mention in this Q&A session.

“Let’s say the person is considering getting a divorce. How do you handle that—do you tell his wife or not?”

Well, since I’d have both of them present [if possible], I wouldn’t have to tell her. Counseling people who are both involved in a problem apart from one another is foolish; you don’t bring people together by taking them apart.

“Yeah, but what do you say? How do you go about the counseling itself?”

Listen, friend, you don’t seem to understand how much goes into counseling or I expect you’d get more specific in your questions. I say all sorts of things depending on the situation. They just have to be biblically based.

“But counseling is so much easier than preaching–you ought to be able to tell me what to do.”

I guess this has gone far enough. Let me suggest a few things at the outset:

  1. Counseling is much tougher than preaching. A preacher knows what he is going too talk about (at least, he ought to). On the other hand, the counselor never knows what will come up in a session–so he has to be ready to handle anything—indeed, everything!

“Oh—I never thought about that!”

  1. A counselor also has to gather lots of information before he is able to begin following a particular course of counsel. That’s why I can’t answer the sorts of questions that you’ve been flinging at me. I believe in serious data-gathering. Sometime, read and consider Proverbs 18: 13, 15, 17 and I think you’ll see what I mean.

“Hmm . . .I’ll have to do that.”

  1. Let me just mention one more thing (I could go on listing lots of other points): But consider this: before I can really begin (assuming the person is a Christian) I will want to know whether or not he is interested in getting relief from his problem(s) or (at bottom) he is interested in learning how to please God in his handling of the problem—whether he gets relief or not.

“I never thought of that.”

And I can tell you there probably are many other things that I can see you haven’t thought about as well.

“Yeah—probably there are.”

Let me suggest that you take our course in nouthetic counseling and systematically learn about some of them.

“How do I do that?”

Thought you’d never ask—the answer is contact Donn Arms at He’ll lead you the right way.


Why Do You Want to Counsel?

Is it because you see the need in the church today? Is it because of some situation that you were involved in where you saw that counseling was not provided when it ought to have been? Is it because you have always had a desire to minister to others? Is it because you like to be authoritative and tell others what to do? Even from these few suggestions, obviously, you can see that there are many reasons why someone might want to counsel; some laudable, some not. What are yours?

Perhaps you don’t even know why you are becoming interested—couldn’t spell out the reasons out if you were forced to do so at gun point. There simply may be something about counseling that entices you that you are unable to articulate. Perhaps you believe that you have gifts that seem to point you toward counseling. Whatever the reason—or reasons—you ought to sort them out. Why? Because the time will come when you will have to ask yourself whether or not your reasons are sufficient to sustain your interest in counseling. Counseling can get wearisome at times. It can become demanding, discouraging and time-consuming. It is in times like those that a proper, biblical motivation will enable you to endure.

If you are a minister of the Gospel, you have a flock and, of course, your motivation ought to be to fulfill your responsibilities to the flock—many of which will involve both informal and formal counseling as a part of the office to which you were ordained. If you are called by the church of Christ to minister; you are called to counsel. It goes with the territory.

What of you—a layman who has no flock, who is not ordained to a shepherding ministry? You too are required to counsel—informally. Galatians 6 puts you in the business of doing such counseling. If after reading the first verses of that chapter you don’t understand your place in counseling, you might want to read my explanation of it in the book, Ready to Restore.

All I’m saying is if you are going to counsel it ought to be

  1. because God requires it of you
  2. because you care about your hurting brothers and sisters.

Any lesser motives ought to be expunged from your thinking and, instead, the proper ones must take their place. Otherwise, your counsel is likely to falter, fail, or be seriously flawed. Why not take time to think these things through, pray about them, read again Acts 20, Galatians 6?

Is it time for you to check out your motives? Then, to do so, without distraction. In the long run, you will be glad that you did—and so will your counselees.

The Issue and the Relationship

Most counseling cases involve more than one person. There are exceptions, of course. But they are few and far between. Even when it appears that but one individual is involved, upon further investigation, you will frequently discover that there is a mother or father, a relative or friend—or someone else—who plays an important role in the counseling problem you are considering. Because of this, it is important to understand the basic dynamic that underlies many of the interpersonal difficulties that you will encounter.

I have titled this posting “The Issue and the Relationship” because it sets forth the two essential factors that you will always have to consider when counseling more than one person. More often than not you will find that the husband and wife, parent and child, neighbor and neighbor, church member and church member, will present the principal problem in terms of the issue: “He wants to buy a boat when he knows that we simply can’t afford it!,” “He cheated me in a business deal,” This kid is incorrigible—she drinks, does drugs and plays around with any stud who comes along.”

The issue is always intriguing and tempts a counselor to focus on it at the outset. Usually, it is clearer than the relationship, so it protrudes in the initial description of things. And yet, you will learn that until you have dealt satisfactorily with the relationship, you will not be able to help counselees solve issue problems. In addition to the tempting nature of issue problems, counselees will often pressure you to handle them, sometimes protesting if you turn first to the relationship. In such circumstances, it will be necessary to explain why you are doing so (“You two are in no shape to consider the issue”). I want to suggest, therefore, that in most instances it is fatal to attempt to solve issue problems until relationship problems have been satisfactorily cleared up.

“How is that? I’m not sure that I fully get your point. If the husband and wife mentioned above would only come to a conclusion about the boat, the matter would be ended, wouldn’t it?”

Probably not. You see, one or the other—or possibly both—would go away from dealing with the issue with sore feelings toward his spouse. That is, if they could even discuss the issue civilly! Their problem has grown to the point that they have come for counseling—evidentially, they failed to solve it on their own. Here is the fundamental problem: most of the time until you have dealt with the relationship, no matter how simple the solution to the problem may be, the parties involved will not handle the issue sensibly (let alone biblically). Once I counseled a couple who, among other things, were fighting over the way each left the toothpaste tube after using it. One squeezed it in the middle (I think that was the husband) and the other left the cap off (I think that was the wife). Now, you would suspect that so simple a problem could be easily dispensed with. But, Oh no! Not on your life!

“Wait a minute, that’s an easy one to figure out. All they had to do is buy two tubes, and after the first use you’d know whose tube is whose.”

Very astute! Indeed, in the end, that’s exactly the way that we solved it. But it didn’t happen as readily as you might suppose. You see, they were in no mood to think rationally. Whenever she went into the bathroom and saw the squashed tube, she said to herself, “That man’s been at it again!” Whenever, he saw the cap removed and found toothpaste hardened at the end of the tube, he thought “Ugh! She doesn’t even care enough for me to put the cap back on. She knows I can’t stand it that way!”

Now, surely, you will notice that the problem wasn’t the tube. Both husband and wife were sharp enough to figure out the very solution that you suggested on their own. But if they did so, they probably wouldn’t have needed counseling. The problem wasn’t the toothpaste tube—as I said—it was a marriage so badly on the rocks that the tube had become a symbol of the other interpersonal problems that they had. And, until I was able to bring them into a proper biblical relationship with one another, they wouldn’t even try to seriously deal with the toothpaste tube issue. Having done so, at length, toothpaste tubes were no longer a symbol of larger problems between them, but symbols of those problems—solved.

So, don’t be misled into thinking that if you deal with the issue you will have helped your counselee. Ordinarily, you will soon discover that you can only deal with it after the relationship has been righted biblically, by repentance before God and reconciliation with one another. Always ask yourself, “What in the relationship has become a complicating factor?” What is keeping them from solving the issue? In response, you will find yourself confronting sinful attitudes that need changing, instructing counselees in ways of speaking to one another that honor God, unearthing long-standing grudges, clearing up misunderstandings that have led to bitterness, and so on. When these have been eliminated and proper biblical ways of relating have been learned (usually over a number of weeks), then all sorts of issues will dissolve as if they had never existed. That is not to say that some may not remain. But when they do, it will be two persons bent on pleasing God who will be resolving them; not two who are hostile, and who, in their self-centeredness, have been ignoring God. So, I urge you to think of each situation in terms of issues and relationships, and you will rarely go wrong.

That First Session

What should your goals be in that first counseling session? Let me list five goals for you. But remember, no two sessions are alike. When you think you’ve seen ‘em all, along comes a “doosey” that you never dreamed of, let alone expected to encounter. So, what I am speaking about is nothing more than the “ordinary’ things to shoot for. In the more-or-less ordinary cases that are never really ordinary at all. In other words, each case is unique. You should treat it as such. So, the goals I set forth here are ideals rarely to be attained in toto.

First, remember, the first session—whether you like it or not—will set patterns. That’s why you ought to consciously aim at good patterns. If you’re going to expect homework in later sessions, for instance, don’t wait until a later session to assign it. You can always assign a data-gathering homework assignment, if nothing else.

Second, you will gather facts. Of course, preceding the session itself, you will have the counselee fill in a Personal Data Inventory form [you can find a sample in The Christian Counselor’s Manual]. But in the session itself, you will want to expand your understanding of what he has written. Further probing will gather much additional data which you will need to feed into the mix in order to determine how to go about handling this case.

Third, You will want to give hope. A counselee without hope is usually a counselee lost. Why should he return if he has no expectation of receiving help? There is every reason for a biblical counselor to offer hope. He counsels believers who are capable of pleasing God [unbelievers are not—see Romans 8:8]. God has made promises [such as those in Romans 8:28; I Corinthians 10:13], and the Word of God has everything necessary for life and godliness.

Fourth, you should strive for a commitment to counseling itself. This will be a commitment to come to sessions regularly, and to do whatever God requires. The commitment ought not to be to do what you say or think, but to do what God demonstrably requires in His Word. Obviously, the commitment may not involve much detail at this point, but to the extent that you can frame anything that God does want at this early point, call your counselee to commit himself to it. If the Scriptures insist upon it, you should ask for commitment to it; there is no reason to hesitate to do so.

Fifth, you should create the proper atmosphere. That means that by your words and actions, you should communicate to the counselee that he is dealing with God. Yes, he must deal with a counselor—but a counselor who, himself, is under the rule and authority of God, and who acknowledges this fact in all he does and says. He should be made aware that all his decisions to obey or disobey Him are made fundamentally to God, not to you. He should be helped to understand that the Bible is the basis for all that will be done.

Of course, much more could be said. These brief ideas–and many more—are dealt with in depth in the INS course, Three Vital Sessions. Since the first session is so important for establishing patterns, it is crucial to know how to handle it. These samples are but glimpses of what ought to be known. Do you know what to do in the first session? And—what about those sessions that follow? The course just mentioned takes you through from the first to the last session. If you need it, you might want to sign up for the INS program.


anger1Not too long ago there was a psychological theory called “ventilation.” I’m not sure whether or not it has died out everywhere yet. But theory or no theory, it’s still seems to be a popular idea—if you’ve got something churning inside, you’d better get it out, for you own good.

“What’s wrong with that?”

Well, several things. I think I’ll just mention two.

First, the self-centeredness of it is apparent. Who cares what happens to the other guy when I take out my ire on him—I’m the one who counts!

“Well, I can see that. What’s the second thing?”

Let me read you what God says about the issue in Proverbs 29:11:

A stubborn fool fully ventilates his anger,
but the wise, holding it back, quiets it.

“Wow! Didn’t know God had spoken about the matter!”

Quite explicitly. Who wants to make a fool of himself? And it doesn’t hurt you to “hold it back” as the Freudians thought, either. In fact the more you work yourself up into a lather that finally spills out, the worse things get—not the better. No only for you—but for everyone around you.

And first thing you know, you have to go around seeking forgiveness. To vent your anger is foolish in every way you can imagine. For sure, ventilation isn’t an option for the believer. Something to think about, eh?


The Art and Science of Biblical Counseling

Counseling, like homiletics and most other aspects of ministry, is both an art and a science. There are specific skills to master—the Biblical disciplines of exegesis, hermeneutics, and theology, plus the counseling skills of listening, data gathering, note taking, and assigning good homework. It is an art in that each counselor brings his own personality and judgment to bear as he builds an agenda, decides when to press the indecisive, comfort the afflicted, confront the disobedient, encourage the fainthearted, or instruct the untaught.

As teen growing up in Waterloo, Iowa my pastor was David Moore. He was a kind and gentle man with a personality that embraced everyone in the room. He was not a pulpiteer but even as a young teenager I enjoyed his preaching because I knew and loved Pastor Moore and I knew my pastor loved me. I never remember a time when I met Pastor Moore that he did not give me a huge bear hug. When I left for college Paul Tassell became my pastor. Dr. Tassell was a short dynamo of a man, a powerful preacher, and a no nonsense kind of guy. He was full of joy and energy but he did not suffer a fool gladly. I never doubted his love for his people but he was not a touchy/feely kind of guy. I do not recall seeing him hug anyone—ever.

Both men were effective pastors. Their churches grew under their leadership and both were universally loved by their respective flocks. Yet they had very different styles of ministry. This will be true of good biblical counselors.

I have a friend who believes a good counselor will spend many hours with a counselee building a relationship before getting into the substance of the counseling issue. Typical counseling sessions, for him, will last 2 – 3 hours. I believe he is a good counselor and I know he has helped many. But this is not my practice nor is it what we teach our students to do. We believe it is far more loving and kind to get at the counselee’s problem as quickly as possible and get them on the way toward solving it.

Jay often tells the story an experience he once had with a dentist. Shortly after moving to California he developed a bad toothache. Since he was new to town he had not yet been to a local dentist so, upon the recommendation of a friend, he called for an appointment. He was greeted on the phone by the sugary sweet voice of a receptionist who gushed that she was so glad he had called and offered set up an appointment with plenty of time for the Doctor to “get to know you first so you will be comfortable with him as your dentist.” Since Jay needed a dentist and not a new friend he politely extracted himself from the conversation and called another dentist who, thankfully, went to work on his problem. This dentist became his friend because he was of genuine help with his toothache. It is a story Jay tells frequently when teaching students about building involvement with counselees. The obvious point being that a counselor will build involvement with a counselee naturally by offering him solid, biblical help, and doing so quickly.

I relate all this because of a document I read recently by a man who was critiquing nouthetic counseling generally and Jay Adams in particular. Referring to this example Jay often uses he wrote “Jay Adams believes good counseling is like pulling teeth! You just reach into the counselee’s life and yank on the problem regardless of how much pain it causes.”

Biblical counselors can certainly do things differently than Jay Adams or Donn Arms and still be quite effective. Biblical counselors can disagree with Jay Adams on a point of doctrine here and there—I certainly do (and I remain blissfully optimistic that Jay will eventually come around on the subject of baptism). But these kinds of mischaracterizations are inexcusable, intellectually dishonest, and cause great harm to students who read this kind of thing. Perhaps we are derelict by not responding to them more often and more aggressively.

Not Stuck After All

“I’ve about given up on that counselee!”

He’s a believer, isn’t he?

“Yeah. But he comes from a long line of loafers and no goods, and he’s inherited all their traits.”

Aw, c’mon!

“No, really. I’ve had it with him!”

Let me read you a passage from 1 Peter 1:18,19 in the CCNT/P:

. . . knowing that you weren’t set free from the useless behavior patterns that were passed down from your forefathers by . . . silver or gold, but with Christ’s valuable blood . . .

Christians are set free from their past. We’re not stuck with it. What a liberating thought—for both counselors and counselees!

“Yeah, but . . .. ”

Can’t have any buts when you’re talking about a biblical truth. Right?


Then, let’s begin by assuring you of the truth of this proposition. Until you believe it, you won’t be able to help your counselee the way you should. You need to be able instill hope in him—and that means you need the hope yourself.


Well, if you understand the biblical meaning of hope, it is nothing less than expectation, anticipation. It is expecting God to act faithfully about what He has said and promised. The “blessed hope” isn’t the blessed hope-so (we misuse the word hope to mean that). It’s the “happy expectation, the joyous anticipation.” What makes it a hope is that it hasn’t happened yet.

Now go home and pray about this passage, brother!

Past Tense Living

When do Nouthetic Counselors deal with the past—or do they?

They do not deal with the past even though at times it may appear that they do. How is that? Compare what they do with Freudian archaeological expeditions into a person’s past. Freud was concerned with digging up the past to discover what had led to his patient’s present problems. NCs do not believe that this is biblical—or even possible. To try to upturn every flat stone in one’s past to discover what vermin lives there is not only an impossible task; it is unnecessary, unproductive, and harmful.

NC deal with the past only when it is actually present.

What does that mean?

Simply this: if, for instance, a person must still repent for something done in the past, the matter has never been settled to God’s satisfaction, and is, therefore, not a past issue. It is actually a present reality. He has unfinished business to attend to. The object in such cases is to deal with the issue in such a manner that it may truly become a past issue.

Similarly, when one has had an occurrence in the past that he brings unnecessarily into the present and makes it a present reality, the object will be to help him to put it where it belongs—in the past. If, for instance, someone has been abused, and allows that tragic event to govern his present life, he has brought the past into the present. If he fails to deal with it as a believer should he may carry anger and hurt with him throughout the rest of his life. As it continues to dog his steps it will cause him to live an unhappy and unfruitful life. A Christian is able, by God’s grace, to resolve issues of this sort, so that he no longer needs to go about thinking (and speaking) of himself as “an abused person,” the way many others do. It is wrong to build one’s future life around some such event in the past.

Nouthetic Counselors help people to live in the present with an eye fixed on the future. They encourage counselees to look to the past only to remember God’s goodness to them in past times. Otherwise, it is likely that they will be of little use in the kingdom in days to come, and they will chalk out a course for themselves in which past tragedy guides them into an uncertain, but almost certainly miserable future.

Counseling and the Sovereignty of God

Today we post an important article Dr. Adams presented as an oral address to the students and faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary forty years ago this month. It is longer that our usual posts but you will be rewarded if you devote the time to reading it carefully.

A fourteen-year-old girl is abducted by a married man, the father of three children, who carries her off to an unknown destination. During the horror of the uncertain days that follow, what can sustain her parents? What is the supreme fact to which the Christian counselor can appeal that will bring hope and some measure of relief?

A family of seven, barely scraping along on the meager salary of a blue-collar worker in this inflationary era, is suddenly plunged into disaster by the closing down of the plant at which he works and his inability to obtain other work. They face the problem of survival amidst the uncertainties of a volatile world economy poorly managed by greedy and godless men. How can the family survive this blow? On what basis do they try to go on? Is there any use? Is there any meaning to it all? Any hope? To help them understand and cope with this dilemma, what does their pastor tell them? To what bottom-line truth should he point?

There is but one—the sovereignty of God.

Knowing that God knows, that God cares, that God hears their prayers, and that God can and will act in His time and way to work even in this for good to His own … that, and nothing less than that conviction, can carry them through. And what that hope may be reduced to is: a confident assurance that God is sovereign.

It has always been so.

When the problem of evil burned like an inextinguishable fire in his bones, and in the frustration of his situation he cried for a personal hearing before God in order to vindicate himself and discover why he had become the object of such pain and sorrow, Job received one answer, and one alone. From out of the whirlwind came the final unequivocal word to be spoken concerning human suffering:

I do in all the world according to my own good pleasure. I scattered the stars in the sky as I saw fit, and I created the beasts of the field and stream according to my desires. Job—where were you when all this took place? And who are you to question what I do with my own? I am sovereign.

In discussing the outcome of the remarkable course of history that through slavery and temptation and imprisonment at length raised him to the second highest political position in the world, Joseph assured his brothers: “You did not send me here but God did” (Genesis 45:8). And in a further affirmation, that was destined to become the Romans 8:28 of the Old Testament, he declared: You planned evil against me, but God planned it for good (Genesis 50:20). His firm conviction of this truth, doubtless growing stronger throughout the span of those hard days, was what made it all endurable.

When Moses protested that he could not undertake the task to which God was calling because of his slowness of speech, God did not acquiesce, argue or plead. He simply asserted His sovereignty in powerful words by means of a stinging statement: “Who made man’s mouth?” (Exodus 4:11).

Under the most extreme sort of pressure to engage in idolatrous worship, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (according to the words of their unflinching testimony) rested solely upon the sovereignty of God: “Our God,” they said, “is able to deliver us” (Daniel 3:17). And true to their word, in what may have been a preincarnate Christophany, that God in sovereign loving care walked through the fire with them.

In addition to these, others, who endured taunts and blows, fetters and prison, who were stoned to death, tortured, sawed in two, run through with the sword—others, I say, in faith rested upon the promises of a sovereign God whose Word they believed to be true and whose promise they considered to be unfailing. Threat of death itself was not enough to shake their confidence in a sovereign God.

Yes, it has always been that way; the sovereignty of God is the ultimate truth that meets human need. That is why the pastoral counselor, above all men, must believe this truth and search out its implications for each and every counseling situation.

And … that is why today, in the midst of the many modern crises that individuals and families undergo, the pastoral counselor who most assuredly affirms the sovereignty of God will bring the most significant help of all. Freudian fatalism, Rogerian humanism and Skinnerian evolutionary theory all fall woefully short of this help. Nothing less than this great truth can satisfy the longing heart or calm the troubled soul.

That is the way that it always has been, and this is the way that it always will be.

A counselor’s theology, and his use of it in counseling, then, is neither a matter of indifference nor a question of insignificance. Rather, it is an issue of the most profound importance. Truth and godliness, the reality of God and the welfare of His people are inseparable. The godly man, who copes with life, is always the one who has appropriated God’s truth for his life.

Take, for instance, the question on the lips of nearly every counselee—Why? Why did this have to happen? Why did it have to happen to me? Why did it have to happen now? Why? Why? Why?

Evolutionary explanations do not satisfy; they only aggravate. If man is no more than an animal, what hope is there? And of what significance is any attempt to change? The only value is the preservation of the herd.

Deistic determinism is no better. According to those who espouse such views, suffering merely follows as the inevitable consequence of the onward motion of impersonal law, in which the plight of the individual does not touch the heart of God since He has safely distanced Himself from His creation.

Existential embarrassment over the equivocation of a call to an authentic acknowledgment of the absurd can do no more than increase the pain.

Arminian answers that intimate that the problem may be a cause of frustration to God as well as to the counselee serve only to point the discouraged, defeated disciple to a pathway that leads ultimately to atheism.

The only explanation that can fully set to rest this insistent human inquiry into the ultimate reason for the existence of misery and death is that the all-powerful God who created and sustains this universe for His own good ends sovereignly has decreed it.

By this reply, simultaneously are swept aside all notions of man in the clutches of a blind, impersonal force, every concept of a weak and unworthy deity who is to be pitied along with the rest of us because He can control His runaway world no longer, and any lingering suspicion that the destiny of a human being is nothing more than a move in a cosmic chess game in which he is as ruthlessly dispensed with as if he were a pawn—heedless of the welfare of any other piece than the King. He is sovereign; all does exist for the King. But this kingly God of creation plays the game according to His own rules. He is altogether sovereign and, therefore, the Originator of the game as well—rules and all. And as He faultlessly makes each move across the board, His strategy for winning the game involves the blessing of His loyal subjects as well as His own glory. And each subject, whose every hair is numbered, moves as He moves in a responsible manner that He has sovereignly ordained.

So, you can see that a firm dependence upon the sovereignty of God is a dynamic concept in counseling—one that makes a difference, the difference—and, therefore, one that must undergird every effort at counseling. If, indeed, God is sovereign, ultimately all turns out well. All problems have solutions; every blighting effect of evil will be erased and all wrongs righted. The counselor who knows God as sovereign has found fertile ground in which to plant his pastoral ministry. He will soon send down a taproot through which he will draw the living waters of life for many thirsty souls. Rooted and grounded in this foundational doctrine, his standpoint allows him freedom to view and to evaluate both the grand sweep of things and the plight of a poor sinner agonizing in the throes of personal grief. The sovereignty of God is the ground of hope and order in all that he does in counseling. It is the basis for all assurance that God’s scriptural promises hold true. It is the cornerstone of Christian counseling.

But, before going any further, let me warn against two distinct, but dangerous, tendencies of those who, while superficially holding the truth of the sovereignty of God, draw faulty implications from that great teaching. The biblical doctrine lends no support whatever either to those who, with near profanity, so glibly cry, “Praise the Lord, anyway” in all sorts of inappropriate situations, nor does it provide comfort for mechanistic fatalists who wish to discount the idea of personal responsibility before God.

Taking the first matter seriously, there are at least two things to be said. On the one hand, counselors must affirm clearly that sin exists, and—along with it—that “misery” of which the catechisms so meaningfully speak. There can be no Christian Science-like denial of the stark tragedy of human existence since Adam. There can be no facile self-deception aimed at alleviating misery by attempting to conceal its true nature beneath a heap of pious expletives, symbolized in the phrase “Praise the Lord, anyway.” This vain effort, in the end, only lets one down hard. The counselor must give full recognition to sin and its terrifying effects if he wishes to be a faithful minister of the Lord Christ. After all, the Man of Sorrows, who was acquainted with grief, also believed in the sovereignty of God. Yet, He wept.

On the other hand, with equal vigor, every counselor worthy of the name of Christ must impress upon his counselees the truth that the existence of a sovereign God is truly a cause for great joy and hope in the midst of tragedy and sorrow. For if God is sovereign, life is not absurd; it has design, meaning and purpose.

Unlike existentialists, who vainly try to find meaning in man himself, the Christian pastoral counselor will show that this misdirected humanistic viewpoint is what constitutes the unbearable angst of which they so powerfully speak. Instead, the counselor directs the counselee’s attention from creatures who, in Adam, have done little better than to get themselves involved in a kind of global Watergate affair before God. It is to the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the universe, rather than to fallen creatures, that he bids the counselees to look for the final explanation that he seeks.

Apart from such a God, who knows the end from the beginning (because He ordained it), human beings cannot explain their existence because they have no eschatology; death ends all. But, in Him, there is a denouement. There will be an ultimate disclosure of the unrevealed particulars of His divine purpose. Those things that now so often seem to be but meaningless functions in the course of human activity will all come alive with significance. Each piece of the puzzle at last will be put in place—the dark purples of despair, the fiery reds of anger and affliction, the sickly yellows—and we shall be permitted to view the whole as it now exists in the plan of God alone. The comforting conviction that there is a beautiful, meaningful picture on the cover of life’s puzzle box, to which each piece of distress and pain bears a faithful resemblance, belongs solely to those who affirm the sovereignty of God. Without such a conviction, there is no hope.

Likewise, one can escape the fear of a disorderly world, relentlessly rolling on like an avalanche that is out of control, only by an adherence to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Because of the certainty of order and control that the doctrine requires, even crazy and bizarre behavior in human beings is not inexplicable to the Christian counselor. Behind its baffling facade lies an etiology that can be traced immediately to personal rebellion against God and His laws, or (as a physiological consequence of Adam’s sin) may extend all of the way back to Eden. Either way he knows that deviant human thought and action is not the result of mere chance. It is explicable in terms of a violated covenant and the judgment of a personal God.

Thus hope wells up in the heart of every man to whom God reveals Himself savingly, for there is One who came to pay the penalty for the broken law and to keep covenant with the Father. Because of His perfect fulfillment of all that God demands, men may be saved here and hereafter from the penalty and from the grip of sin. Ultimately, the evil consequences of sin will be removed altogether from the lives and from the environment of the redeemed. Indeed, so great will be the effects of salvation that those who were created lower than the angels will in Christ be raised far above by His grace. They will share with Him in His glory. So, you see, there is meaning in it all, after all. Where sin abounded, grace more fully abounds. Even the absurd and the bizarre take on meaning as the foil against which the glory of God’s grace may best be displayed.

And, lastly, there is hope also in the fact of God’s sovereignty because His is a personal rule over His subjects. The atonement, by which the redeemed were reconciled to God, was no impersonal or abstract transaction, as if Christ dies for “mankind.” He is a personal Savior, who loved particular individuals and shed His blood for them.

Cicero, in De Natura Deorum (2:66), wrote: “Magna dei curant, parva neglegunt.” (“The gods are concerned with important things; trifles they ignore.”) No such God is the sovereign God of our salvation. A sick child was of no consequence to Venus or Aphrodite. Larger questions—like some of the ongoing rivalries and disputes with the other gods and goddesses of the Greek and Roman pantheons—occupied their time and attention. Such gods brought no comfort or hope to men, because they were not sovereign. Much of creation slipped by beyond their purview.

But there is hope in the presence of the true Sovereign because He is in control of everything. Not a sparrow falls without Him. He is the God of trifles. Jesus taught us by His works and words what this sovereign God is like. The way that He put it was: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”

And, it is in that very Gospel of John in which these words are recorded that we are so pointedly shown Jesus’ deep concern for individuals—Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the blind man, Lazarus, Mary and Martha.… It is in the same Gospel that we hear Him speak of His shepherdly concern; a concern that extends to the hundredth sheep and that calls each by name. The sovereign Shepherd of Israel is great enough to care about trifles—like us. He labors under none of the limitations of the classical gods. Nor does He stand at a deistic distance in disinterest. This sovereign God is the Father of a redeemed family over which He exercises total care and concern. There is plenty of hope for every Christian counselor in that.

Moving now along a continuum full of factors that might command our attention, I suggest that we pause for a moment to urge every pastoral counselor to remember the sobering fact that the existence of a God who is sovereign neither removes nor lessens, but (rather) establishes human responsibility to that God. If He who is sovereign over all men and over all their actions has determined that they shall be responsible to Him—then that settles it. That is how it is when a sovereign Creator speaks. It does not matter whether it is difficult to reconcile responsibility with sovereignty or not, because that is precisely what God decreed: Men shall be responsible to Him! And if He sovereignly determined to create man as a being fashioned in His image and governed by His moral law … so be it! That is the prerogative of a sovereign God.

Shall the pot say to the potter, “Why have you made me thus?” When you stop to think about it, to whom could one be more responsible than to the One who created him and sustains his every breath? To put it another way—because God is sovereign, He is the only one who is not responsible to another. Did not the Lamb of God Himself, who according to the sovereign plan of God was “slain from the foundation of the world,” nevertheless declare, “It is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness”?

That statement presupposes responsibility.

It should be eminently clear, then, that God’s sovereignty neither encourages the utterance of pietistic platitudes like “Praise the Lord, anyway” as the solution to the problem of human suffering, nor does it leave us unaccountable. Indeed, it is this very truth that demands of us nothing less than a realistic, eyes-wide-open response to the existential situations of life, for God will hold us answerable both as counselors and counselees.

All counseling that measures up to the biblical standard must fully acknowledge both the tragedy of sin and the fact of human responsibility; it must reckon with God’s ultimate purpose to glorify Himself in His Son and in a people redeemed by His grace. While all things will turn out well, they do so, not apart from but precisely because of the responsible action of the Son of God who came and actually dies for those who from all eternity had been ordained to eternal life.

It should be obvious that I have not attempted to open up the many practical implications of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in any concrete way. The doctrine is so foundational that the number of such implications is large. I wish rather to invite others of you to join with me in extracting the ore from this virtually untouched mine.

The sovereignty of God has been taught and preached, largely in an abstract way—but little has been done to explore the applications of this doctrine for life, and (therefore) for counseling. Moreover, Christian counseling has failed to measure up to its name principally because its early theorists were unskilled in exegesis and theology. Largely, they came to counseling through a background of psychology. Yet as important as psychology (rightly conceived and practiced) may be, it can never be foundational to counseling, but only ancillary.

Counseling—as we shall see—has to do with the counselee’s relationship to persons. God and all the others who people his horizon are its concern. Only incidentally does the counselor concern himself with other matters. Clearly love for God and one’s neighbor is a prime interest of the minister of the Word.

That is why here at Westminster Theological Seminary over the past ten years the attempt has been made to teach pastoral counseling from the starting point of God’s sovereignty. In everything that has been done and every word that has been written, it has been our goal to take that doctrine seriously, following its implications obediently, no matter where they might lead. Often the road has proven both difficult and unpopular; yet travel along it always has been satisfying. Temptations to veer to the right or to the left have been numerous. It has not always been easy to resist them. God alone knows how well we have succeeded in doing so.

“But,” you inquire, “can you tell me more about the ways in which the doctrine of God’s sovereignty has affected the theory and practice of the teaching of counseling at Westminster?” The basic answer to your question is this: Both theory and practice have been affected in every way.

But to become more concrete, let me mention what I consider to be the most significant influence the doctrine has exerted, an influence that has had marked effect upon both theory and practice. Early in the development of a counseling stance from which to teach, the question of encyclopedia arose. To what task does the pastoral counselor address himself? In counseling does he handle a very narrow band of “spiritual” or “ecclesiastical” problems, or is his field of legitimate activity substantially larger? Is his counseling activity bordered (and thereby limited) by others from clearly distinct disciplines, namely psychologists and psychiatrists (whose titles, curiously enough, might be translated—not too freely—as “soul specialists” and “soul healers”)?

Over the years the question always has been kept in view. Gradually, the Scriptures have driven us to an answer; an answer that one hardly would have chosen by himself. The conviction has grown that it is God’s answer. And when God speaks by His inerrant Word, what He says is sovereign.

Because of the teaching of the Scriptures, one is forced to conclude that much of clinical and counseling psychology, as well as most of psychiatry, has been carried on without license from God and in autonomous rebellion against Him. This was inevitable because the Word of the sovereign God of creation has been ignored.

In that Word are “all things pertaining to life and godliness.” By it the man of God “may be fully equipped for every good work.” And it is that Word—and only that Word—that can tell a poor sinner how to love God with all of the heart, and mind, and soul, and how to love a neighbor with the same depth of concern that he exhibits toward himself. On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets. They are the very summation of God’s message to the world and to His redeemed people. And, as a consequence, it is the calling of the shepherds of God’s flock (par excellence) to guide the sheep into the pathways of loving righteousness for His Name’s sake. Putting it that way—that God’s Name is at stake—shows the importance of this task.

“All of that sounds quite biblical and … it all sounds very innocuous,” you may say. “But,” you continue, “I don’t see where that puts psychologists and psychiatrists in conflict with God. You’d better explain that one more fully.” OK. Let me screw the two things together for you so that you can see the interconnection that leads to the conflict.

In assigning the pastor the task of helping sheep to learn how to love God and neighbor, God has spoken sovereignly. If this is the pastor’s task, clearly delineated in the Bible, then he must pursue it. This puts him in the counseling business. But, immediately, upon surveillance of the field, he discovers all sorts of other persons already out there trying to do similar things and saying that to them, not to him, belongs the task of counseling. There are competitors in the vicinity. Indeed, even a cursory investigation indicates that they are not merely in the vicinity but in the sheepfold itself. And, as a result, the true shepherd soon discovers that they are leading the sheep astray.

“But,” you ask, “is there no basic difference between the work done by psychologists and psychiatrists and that done by a pastor?” There is no way to distinguish between the work of the pastor as it is sovereignly ordered in the Scriptures and that which is attempted by others who lay claim to the field. Persons who come to counselors for help are persons who are having difficulty with persons. They don’t come complaining, “You see, I’ve got this problem with my carburetor.” That is why love for God (the Person) and for one’s neighbor are such vital factors in counseling. Nothing could be more central to a pastor’s concern. Yet, it is with this concern about persons that psychologists and psychiatrists also busy themselves. They want to change persons and the relationships between persons.

I contend, therefore, that it is not the pastor who is responsible for the overlap; it is the psychologist on the one side, who has moved his fence over on to the pastor’s territory, and the psychiatrist on the other, who also has encroached upon his property. Unfortunately, until recently pastors have been all too willing to allow others to cut their grass. At long last, largely under the impetus of the Westminster emphasis, there has been a noticeable change in attitude by conservative pastors everywhere.

“Now, wait a minute. Are you saying that psychology and psychiatry are illegitimate disciplines? Do you think that they have no place at all?”

No, you misunderstand me. It is exactly not that. Remember, I said clearly that they live next door to the pastor. My problem with them is that they refuse to stay on their own property. I have been trying to get the pastor to mow his lawn to the very borders of this plot.

Psychology should be a legitimate and very useful neighbor to the pastor. Psychologists may make many helpful studies of man (e.g., on the effects of sleep loss). But psychologists—with neither warrant nor standard from God by which to do so—should get out of the business of trying to change persons. Psychology may be descriptive but transgresses its boundaries whenever it becomes prescriptive. It can tell us many things about what man does but not about what he should do.

Similarly, the neighbor who lives on the other side of the pastor’s lot could be a most welcome one with whom the pastor could live in real harmony were he satisfied to play croquet in his own yard. Psychiatrists, for the most part, are a tragic lot. I say this not only because among the professions psychiatrists have the highest suicide rate, but more fundamentally because they are persons highly trained in skills that they hardly use, and instead spend most of their time doing what they were never adequately trained to do. In the United States psychiatrists are physicians, who (for the most part) use their medical training to do little else than prescribe pills. Freud, himself, acknowledged that a background in medicine is not required for the practice of psychiatry. That is why in other parts of the world psychiatrists are not necessarily medical persons. And that is why clinical and counseling psychologists do the same things as psychiatrists without specialized training as physicians.

The pastor recognizes the effects of Adam’s sin upon the body; he, therefore, has no problem working side-by-side with a physician who treats the counselee’s body as he counsels him about its proper use. From the days of Paul and Luke, pastors have found kinship with medical personnel. Why, then, does the psychiatrist present a problem? Certainly it is not because of his medical background. The problem is that he will not stay in his own backyard. He keeps setting up his lawn chairs and moving his picnic table onto the pastor’s property.

If he were to use his medical training to find medical solutions to the truly organic difficulties that affect attitudes and behavior, the pastor would be excited about his work. But the difficulty arises as the psychiatrist—under the guise of medicine—attempts to change values and beliefs. That is not medicine. The pastor is disturbed at having residents from the adjoining lots digging up his backyard to plant corn and tomatoes. He does not object to—but rather encourages—all such activity in the yards next door.

So, in effect, the issue boils down to this: the Bible is the textbook for living before God and neighbor, and the pastor has been ordained to teach and guide God’s flock by it. When others take over the work and substitute other textbooks, conflict is inevitable. The most recent change has occurred because the pastor has taken a fresh look at his title deed and resurveyed the land. In the process he has discovered an incredible amount of usurpation by others. He dare not abandon the tract to which God in the Scriptures has given him a clear title. The idea is not to destroy psychology or psychiatry; pastors simply want psychologists and psychiatrists to cultivate their own property.

In all of this the sovereignty of God has played the conspicuous role. So often, however, when thinking of His sovereignty, we restrict our concerns to the matter of the relation of regeneration to faith. But it is not only in regeneration that God is sovereign; He is sovereign in sanctification as well. If, in order to accomplish His purposes in the believer He has given His Word to be ministered by His church in the power of His Spirit, that is how these purposes must be accomplished; there can be no other way. And pastors, as key persons in all of this, must see to it that this is the way that things are done—whether it pleases others or not. The ministry of the Word to believers in counseling can be dispensed with no more readily than the ministry of the Word in preaching.

In conclusion, therefore, I wish to emphasize the fact that what has been going on in the Practical Theology Department at Westminster in the area of counseling has issued from a tight theological commitment. The position that has been developed and articulated is the direct result of Reformed thinking. Those who hold to other theological commitments, it might be noted, have viewed the problems in the field quite differently. Because of their failure to acknowledge the sovereignty of God at other points, they cannot hold the line against the defection of autonomous thought and action in counseling either. So, if there is anything that has been done here over the last decade that is worthy of mention, it is but the natural outcome of the faithful efforts of those who labored before. For it was they who, against unthinkable odds, held tenaciously to, and in clarity and with power delineated, the scriptural truth of the sovereignty of God in all things. The principles that they taught us we now are making every effort to apply to the task of Christian counseling.

We call upon you—whoever you are, and in whatever way you can—to join with us in this work. It has just begun. During the next ten years far more can be accomplished if you do. The needs are great, the opportunities are numerous; the human resources are few. We would stagger at the enormity of the undertaking but for one fact. It is a fact that brings hope and confidence; a fact that is the source of all humility and gratitude.

It is the fact that God is Sovereign.