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.


Think About This

Many come for counseling who have never been to a counselor before. They have problems, probably serious ones, or they wouldn’t have come. It’s a fearful experience for many such persons. They may have difficulty, but they are genuinely seeking help. For others, however, it’s a time to air some dirty linen in order to punish a spouse. For still others, it’s an opportunity to put somebody else on the spot: “I’ll drag him out on the carpet in front of the preacher.” You are considered a weapon in their hands.

Of course, there are any number of other ways in which people arrive. But that is the point. Don’t assume that everyone who shows up on your counseling doorstep really wants counsel. It will be important early on to determine whether or not your “counselee” is a true counselee or not. How do you do so?

You can find out in several ways but, perhaps, the surest way to be sure (sure!) is to give homework that’s based on what they tell you. If a counselee isn’t a valid counselee he will probably

  1. balk at the homework (the most common response), or
  2. merely give it a lick and a promise.

In all cases where homework is rejected or isn’t done with any earnestness, check to see if this is one of those instances where counseling wasn’t your counselee’s object anyway.

This very brief note is just that-something to take note of—that’s all. Hope it helps the next time you encounter an insincere counselee. Perhaps, by pointing out his ugly goal you can bring him to repentance and turn him into a genuine counselee after all.


Commiserating doesn’t help!

“What’s this all about?”

It’s about entering into a person’s problems in such a way that all you do is agonize and “feel his pain.” Some think that this is the way to help. Take it for real—it isn’t. All you do—supposing your feelings are genuine—is indicate that you recognize that the situation is serious (something that the one with the problem knew already). But, you do more than that: in addition, you help galvanize his belief that it is also hopelessly unsolvable.

“How so?”

By commiserating, you have made it clear that you have no help to offer. You’d do so, unless you were insufferably mean, wouldn’t you? So, obviously, he concludes, the best that you can do is to suffer along with him. Otherwise, rather than sitting there weeping and wailing in harmony as the second member of a duet, you’d have said or done something that would have relieved his pain. Or—at very the least—something that would have put him on the track toward finding a solution.

But no. . . . commiserating only solidifies his conclusion that no one-not even God-can assist.

“How does it reflect on God that way?”

If you are a Christian counselor, the pitiful person with whom you are commiserating concludes, “If God had a solution to my problem, then this fine Christian would have told me about it.” He comes to you for God’s answers to his questions because you are a Christian and if God had an answer, surely you’d supply it. But commiserating is not an answer. It is but a non-answer, indeed, an enlargement of the problem. Granted, he shouldn’t equate what God can do with what you tell him to do, but people don’t always think logically. They identify you with your God. And, in one sense, they are right—you ought to be able to offer biblical solutions that God set forth to meet situations such as the one you and your counselee are facing.

So, don’t think that you have solved anything by joining the chorus of those who wail and gnash their teeth. You only enlarge problems by doing so. Learn, rather, what to do and say when faced by one who is in agony. That’s God’s way. He never commiserates!

What Is She to Do?

The following article was written by Dr. Adams 25 years ago. It is provocative and deals with an issue every pastor must be ready to face. We present it now in hope of provoking thoughtful interaction not only with Jay’s article but with the Scripture he cites. ______________________________________________________________________________________________

Okay, so I’m ready to bite the bullet! I’ve avoided the issue long enough. Not because there wasn’t an answer, but because of the answer itself. I simply didn’t like it. I had been hoping I could come up with a different or, at least, slightly modified answer. But I haven’t been able to.

Every week, it seems, someone writes, phones, or otherwise tells me about an instance of it. Evidently the problem has grown in proportions or, at least, people are more willing to talk about it than ever before.

Just what am I talking about? Wife-abuse, that’s what!

Millicent was “head over heels in love.” She met Phil at Bible college, they dated on and off for the better part of a year and then, upon graduation, they decided to marry. In every way Phil was her ideal: captain of the football team, well liked on campus, you name it. It’s true, there had been some early warning signs; Sally pointed out certain flaws, noting especially his temper whenever he didn’t get his way. “But Sally,” thought her best friend, “is jealous. And, anyway, Phil has never shown any signs of violence toward me.” That’s how Millicent reasoned. As she now looks back, however, she says, “I saw things the way I wanted them to be!” Too frequent a story to ignore.

One thing I no longer fail to ask during premarital counseling sessions is, “Have either of you seen even the slightest evidence of uncontrolled temper in the other?” (I don’t use the word “violence” because few people seem to describe their actions, or those of their loved one [prior to marriage], by the term, no matter how vicious the action.) If I get even a hint that there might be something there, I will spend time probing until I am satisfied that either there is nothing to it or the problem will be dealt with in counseling before marriage (for help in this see the section on anger in The Christian Counselor’s Manual). It is far easier to deal with the problem at this point than later on and far less agonizing for all concerned. Don’t fail to include this matter in premarital counseling. You will be glad you did.

“That’s all well and good, but what about those who are already married? What does the Christian counselor do when he encounters a case of wife-abuse?” The first question to consider, as in all counseling, is whether the abuser is a Christian or at least professes to be one. This is altogether important. If he is a member of a Bible-believing church, then you may take one course of action; if he does not profess Christ, then you would take another. In either case, you are able to offer him help: in the latter case help will be the presentation of the Gospel, while in the former case, instruction in the way of overcoming anger and violence through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. An unbeliever cannot overcome his anger in ways that please God (Romans 8:8). Even if he does overcome it out of fear of the consequences, out of compassion for his wife, out of embarrassment, etc., he will not be doing so in a way that honors Him. It is not your task, as a preacher of the Word, to reform him; you are called to evangelize him. By leading him to Christ, you can not only help him overcome the immediate problem but place him in a condition to overcome all sorts of problems as well, in ways that do please God. Before trying to change his behavior, then, help him to make that basic change which will allow you from that time on to help him at a deep level. Never settle for superficial change.

You must tell him that wife-abuse is sin, a breach of the sixth commandment, with which he must deal at the root by the redeeming work of Christ. Such behavior simply may not be glossed over as inappropriate or even harmful action that must be replaced by more appropriate, helpful ways of handling anger. The very sin itself (which you must remind him is sin against God as well as against his wife) is clear evidence that he needs to be saved; only in the solution to that root problem is there any hope of making any lasting or eternal change. Take advantage of the situation to help bring him to Christ.

“What if he doesn’t trust Christ as Savior?” you ask. Then, he, being an unbeliever, may be taken to the legal authorities (1 Corinthians 6 deals with this); for his own sake, for the sake of his wife and anyone else involved, the state may be called in to restrain and, if necessary, punish him. Clearly, the wife should be informed about this option; indeed, it is often the only one available.

“What about divorce? Separation?”

Here is where I find it hard to give the biblical answer. If I had my ‘druthers,’ I’d say, “Yes” to either one or both of the above, but I can find no biblical warrant for doing so. Abuse is not among the legitimate reasons for divorce found in the Bible; and separation is never an option (see my book, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, for the exegetical and theological justification behind these two assertions). Of course, if a husband comes home drunk and begins to smash everything in sight, it would not be wrong for the wife to put one night’s clothing in a bag and head with her children for a neighbor’s house. That is not separation; it is akin to ducking, were he to throw something at her.

“But why is she required to remain with such a man?” Not only does the Bible hold out the hope that she may win him to Christ (1 Corinthians 7:10–14 and 1 Peter 3:1); it also has a good bit to say about enduring unjust persecution. In particular, I refer to 1 Peter 3:13, 14:

And who will harm you if you become enthusiasts for good? Yet, even if you should suffer because of righteousness, you must be happy. In fact, you must not even fear their threat, nor be upset.

As I said previously, I do not like that. It is not the response, when left to myself, I would give. But I don’t see how I can avoid it, so let’s consider it, at least in a preliminary way. First, notice that it is when and in doing good that the suffering is encountered. Suffering that one brings on himself is not in view; rather it is unjust, unprovoked suffering about which Peter is speaking. Indeed, his comment is that those who enthusiastically pursue good rarely encounter such suffering. That is the place for the counselor to begin.

I vividly remember calling at a home one summer afternoon. It was hot and sultry; the door and windows were open. As I approached the home, I could hear the wife shouting at her husband a block away. Here was a wife who represented herself in church as the poor, sweet, put-upon spouse of a vicious husband who, for no reason whatsoever, from time to time would clout her. The facts turned out otherwise: she was a regular ‘hussy’! She provoked him to anger most of the time. Now, of course, he never should have responded as he did; that was his sin, a problem with which he had to deal. But on the other hand, her sin was egging him on by her violent tongue. It is not always a one-way street; among other things, that is the insight that Peter gives us. Rarely does harm come to those who enthusiastically (not grudgingly) do good. Remember, “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).

Then notice also that even in those rare cases, where violence was not provoked, one is not told to leave but to endure without fear (verse 14). This is the hard part, but it is biblical. How does Peter conceive of this? Well, his answer is that the believer does not shirk his responsibilities because another treats him badly. In 3:19 he says:

So then, let those who suffer according to the will of God do good and entrust themselves to a faithful Creator.

Peter is saying those who suffer must continue doing what is right, assuming all their responsibilities (in this case that means fulfilling the marriage vow, which included the promise “for better or for worse”) and leaving the outcome to God, who not only, as Creator, is capable of so ordering His world that He can work the matter out for good but also, as a faithful Creator, can be depended on to do so.

Now of course, if the husband is a Christian (a problem about which Peter is not writing), the wife always has recourse to the church. As a matter of fact, in such cases the Christian is forbidden to take her husband to law (1 Corinthians 6); instead, she is to call the elders of the church. They, in turn, should counsel her husband, giving him help that he needs to overcome his problem. There is great hope if he is a genuine Christian. He has within himself the Holy Spirit, who is capable of producing the fruit of gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22 and 24). But if he should fail to respond to all the help intelligently given, fail to change according to biblical principles, then the church must put him out and she then may treat him “as a heathen and a publican.” Practically speaking, that means she may call upon legal authorities if necessary to restrain him. For more about church discipline, please see my book, A Handbook of Church Discipline.

You don’t like my explanation? Sorry about that. Neither do I. But, until you can suggest a better one (i.e., one more biblical), I’m afraid I’m stuck with it. In all ‘high risk’ situations it is difficult to recommend endurance, the maintenance of duties, and trust as the solution. Yet, throughout the ages believers have borne up under persecutions and trials of a physical nature, even involving death, for Christ’s sake. Is my aversion to the biblical solution I have given merely evidence that the softness of our present age and the flabbiness of modern Christianity have gotten to me more than I realize? Perhaps so.

Take Note of This

Do you forget facts about your counselees? Unless you are highly exceptional, you will. That is to say, you will unless you do something to forestall forgetting. It’s important from week to week to be able to refer to what you learned before. That is one way to measure progress or the lack thereof. Moreover, unless you keep a running agenda of items to discuss, you will be likely to forget some essential items on that agenda. But to hold all of that in your head from week to week, together with much happening in between sessions, and in addition to the new data coming to light at each week’s session, you would have to be a genius. No, most of us aren’t able to do that. What then should we do?

Take and keep notes—that’s what! If you don’t take notes in counseling, you are remiss. Note taking is an essential element in the process. It is orderly and helpful. How shall you do so? Should you wait until the session is over, and then write out all that you can remember of the session as some do? Why would they do that? Well, they think that taking notes during sessions can be distracting both to the counselor and to the counselee. And some think that the counselee might be hesitant to say certain things if he sees you taking notes. But, for many years I have taken notes, taught others to do so, and have had no such problems. One thing, however, that I do consider important along the lines just mentioned: if a person is speaking of illegalities in which he is involved, I usually put down my pen and listen. Then, after the session I write out what I learned. That is the only time I think it is important to hold back on note taking.

“How do you take notes? Isn’t it difficult to do so and listen at the same time?” Quite to the contrary. I find that taking notes makes me concentrate on what is being said. In addition, taking notes requires me to make sense of what I have heard. I have to understand—at least to some extent—merely to do it. And taking notes enables me to be sure that I have things straight. I find myself from time to time saying a counselee, “Now let me get that straight. You said . . .” Then I carefully copy what is said into my notes. I do this whenever I think that the counselee wants to be sure that I have understood something or other. Indeed, I have had counselees lean over and look at the notes and say, “Be sure you get that down.” I use the notes also as a means of reminding counselees in weeks following what they said before. This is important if they are now denying what they said then. It is especially useful to put important data in quotation marks so that you will have exact material to refer to.

There are times when a thought or statement in the discussion distracts you from the course you want to take. If you have been taking notes, once you have finished dealing with that, your notes will remind you about where you left off. Thoughts about items you will want to deal with later also come to mind while talking. A short note to this effect will help you not to forget so that you can raise the issue when later on you have an opportunity to. I find the practice especially helpful in that regard.

Note taking is not difficult. Once you have done it for a short while you will find that it comes easily and that you will not want to counsel without doing so. Notes retained, carefully coded and filed, will become a means for you to remember and study your own counseling. And, should the counselee turn up again at a subsequent time, you can always turn to your notes to refresh your memory. Try it, you’ll like it!

About Counseling

Counseling is difficult work when done well. It’s not a shrink sitting leisurely in a soft chair taking notes, while a counselee spills the beans about his past life.

“Sometimes I get that picture of it—indeed, it’s often what you see in cartoons and elsewhere.”

Right. But, though that sort of thing may be true of the few psychoanalysts that still exist, it isn’t what you’ll find many other places.

“Oh? What is it like?”

Well, I can only tell you a bit about true, biblical, nouthetic counseling—but, above all, I can tell you that it’s hard work!

“How so?”

We sit at a desk, where we take notes, use the telephone when necessary, lay our Bibles for use, write out assignments, place hand-out pamphlets, and so forth. Instead of the shrink, get the picture of someone who means business and who is hard at work doing it!

”That does change the picture radically! Tell me more, please.”

Well, for one thing, in data gathering, we carefully follow the principles of listening in Proverbs 18:13, 15, 17 which insist that 1) you listen for all of the facts essential to the difficulty before giving any advice; 2) that you actively help gather facts when it is difficult for counselees to remember or verbalize them; 3) that you gather data from all who are involved in the problem. Then, these must all be considered in the light of the Bible’s teaching. And . . . well . . .I’m afraid that’s a process that would take too long to describe here. That’s just for starters.

“Do you counsel husbands and wives separately, or together?”

You don’t put people back together by keeping the apart! That Proverbs 18:17 verse is important in this regard; you ought to look it up sometime. If you don’t follow it, you’ll obtain distorted, incomplete, or otherwise flawed data. And you can’t work very well with those data. Of course, we counsel them together—if we can get both to come.

“What do you do if only one will come?”

There are many important considerations to keep in mind when that happens. For one, we allow no gossip about the party who failed to come. Gossip—even about one’s husband or wife—is sin. And, then in order to try to get the missing party to appear we. . . But, here, this is getting too long. Let me suggest that if you really want to go into such matters in depth, you ought to take our course.

“What if someone can’t afford it?”

Well, it is far less expensive than you might think—and surely, than most other programs. Go to our website and check it out.

Preaching Isn’t Counseling!

Unfortunately, some fail to recognize the fact. Or, at least they seem to do so from the way in which they write about the two.

When they utter or write the old worn-out phrase “The primacy of preaching,” for instance (as indeed some still do in spite of all that’s been said to refute that foolish notion), they betray their misunderstanding of the difference between the two ministerial activities.

What these traditional old-line pulpit orators are saying—whether they realize it or not—is that preaching is more important than other ministries of the Word—including counseling. Is not all ministry of equal importance?

Some of these “thinkers” have gone so far as to declare that their people don’t need counseling because of the excellence of their preaching which adequately deals with all of their problems! One would have thought that Paul would not have spent so much time counseling if that ever could be true. Yet, he tells us that he counseled each one of the Ephesians during his pastoral ministry there in Ephesus, and that he engaged in the activity day and night (Acts 20:20). Do they think his preaching was so poor that he had to make up for it by counseling? Do they think their preaching superior to the apostle’s?

Away with this talk! Counseling and preaching are distinct activities. One ministers the same Word, it is true, but I quite different ways. Let young preachers understand this and take heed. They should learn how to counsel—not merely learn to preach. The preacher, for instance, knows (or ought to) what he is going to talk about when he preaches. His knowledge quotient need be less than the counselor’s who never knows what issue may arise in any session, and so must be prepared for everything!

Pigs and Dogs

pigs dogsJesus made it clear when He said not to cast pearls before swine or give holy things to dogs.

What was he talking about?

The same thing Paul meant when he told us not to judge unbelievers, but to take care to judge our own.

Jesus was speaking of judging. Clearly, He meant to judge properly. He didn’t forbid all judging when in Matthew 7:1. He said, “Judge not,” else how would we determine who is/isn’t a pig or dog? Elsewhere in John, He also told us to “judge a righteous judgment.” So don’t let people tell you all judgment is wrong.

“But what about the pig and dog?”

They will respond wrongly to truth and to you!

That’s how unbelievers act when you attempt to reform them. It’s not our job to reform the world—just to witness to it about the way of salvation.

There are Christians who waste valuable time and money seeking to do what Jesus forbade. And what do they get for all their trouble? Just what Jesus said pigs and dogs would do!

Why then? Why disobey? Why cause yourself such misery? It’s wrong—and, therefore, it’s stupid!

Whoever reproves a mocker gets insulted,
and whoever corrects a wicked person invites bruises.
Don’t correct a mocker or he will hate you;
correct a wise man and he will love you.
Proverbs 9:7-8

Remember, it can be dangerous to try to reform unbelievers!