Conversational Ministry

What do you say when your two boys are squabbling for the third time in the past twenty minutes?

What will you say when a friend who is single shares with you about her loneliness and despair?

What advice will you give when your wife is overwhelmed with caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s?

How will you respond to your co-worker who just got divorced?

What comes out of our mouths in these situations–and a million more–is counseling. We are always counseling, though we rarely think of it in those terms. But in all of these situations, we are imparting information with the intent to help or encourage one another.

We tend to equate counseling with professional therapy, therefore unless we have a degree in psychology and an office with a couch, we don’t think we could actually counsel anyone. And yet we do so every day.

I’m currently enrolled in a training course that my church is hosting, called Gospel-Centered Counseling. The goal of the course is to equip us as Christians for this kind of everyday, conversational ministry to one another. This model of counseling can also be called Biblical counseling, since it seeks to apply the truth of God’s Word to the sins and sorrows of our lives and relationships.

So what sets Biblical counseling apart from other models? How is it distinct from other forms of Christian counseling? Here are a couple distinctives…

As I understand it, the two main distinctives of Biblical counseling are these: 1) it has as its foundation and starting point a Biblical understanding of people and of change, and 2) it is carried out in conversational ministry with one another as Christians. To the extent that professional Christian counseling starts with a humanistic psychological theory (which implies a humanistic anthropology) and then seeks to apply it through a Christian lens, to that extent it differs from Biblical counseling. And to the extent that Christian counseling is carried out only by a professional expert helping a needy client, to that extent also it differs from Biblical counseling.

According to CCEF (the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation), Biblical counseling is “a God-centered understanding of people and a Christ-centered understanding of how God redeems people.” In other words, seeing Christians as created by God, ruined by sin, saved by grace, and destined for eternity with God makes a huge difference in understanding our primary problem and our basic need. And seeing transformation into Christ’s likeness as a Spirit-empowered process that happens through the community of the local church, where every child of God is both needy and needed, levels the playing field—we all counsel one another and we all need others’ counsel.

Biblical counseling allows for the reality that some Christians are specially gifted by God and equipped with more extensive training in counseling, and that some may in fact pursue a ministry of counseling as their primary vocation. However, even those who take on that role in a manner similar to a professional therapist do so with a different mindset—they see the counselee as a fellow-struggler whose primary need is no different than their own, namely to grow in dependent relationship with Christ.

Granted, there are those who call what they do “Biblical counseling” but do it so poorly that it creates an inaccurate caricature of what Biblical counseling is meant to be (just as surely as there are those who call what they do “Christian counseling” but also do it poorly and give that honorable discipline a bad name). So it is vital that we consider carefully the definitions and distinctives of each particular branch of counseling in order to avoid caricatures and misrepresentations.

Will your directives to your sons, or your comfort to your friend, or your advice to your wife, or your response to your co-worker truly offer help and hope? Remember, you and I are always counseling–will we give an accurate diagnosis of their greatest problem, and will we point them to the only One who can bring lasting change?

[For more resources & information about Biblical counseling, I highly recommend the ministry of CCEF. Lighthouse Community Church also has some great resources.]


Grownup Blankies

I think my mom still has my tattered old blankie (or what remains of it) from when I was a little boy–that silky softness that I snuggled with every night as a child, which somehow brought a measure of comfort and peace to my timid heart in the midst of the bad dreams and wild imaginations and lonely longings of childhood. Looking at those ragged strips of cloth now as an adult, it’s hard to believe that I once found such comfort in it, yet I know I did because blankies only reach that treasured status by being loved for a long time (like the Velveteen Rabbit in one of my favorite picture books).

I don’t sleep with that blankie anymore, but maybe it would be better if I did. My grownup heart still looks for comfort–not so much because of bad dreams or imaginary lions walking through the front door, but because of the ache of unfulfilled longings and the weariness of life that is often overwhelming. If only those burdens and sorrows could be relieved by simply stroking a soft blankie on my cheek!

Unfortunately, growing up doesn’t only bring different (and often heavier) fears and struggles, but growing up also brings the pursuit of less innocent comforts than blankies. Our hearts are idol factories, and we run after a whole assembly-line of solutions that promise comfort but cannot truly deliver it.

God’s word to the prophet Jeremiah (2:13) is just as relevant now as it was for the people to whom it was spoken:

My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
    the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
    broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Our God is the “Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Christians have been given the Spirit of God, who is the Helper and Comforter (John 14:16). Yet rather than turning to God for comfort in our places of pain and need, we try to arrange for our own comfort (or in Jeremiah’s words, we dig our own broken cisterns): we demand intimacy from marriage or family, we hungrily look for likes on our social media posts, we shop for the latest fashion or device, we pursue greater influence and purpose through our work, and we even seek to prove our godliness by serving in ministry or mission.

None of these “comforts” are inherently sinful, yet when they are sought in place of God, that is where sin enters in. So this is not a rant against marital intimacy or social media or shopping, but it is a call to not turn to those things for comfort rather than turning to God. In this season of Lent, may we who belong to Christ look to Him alone for the comfort we desperately long for, and may we repent of the grownup blankies with which we have been snuggling.

[Jessica Snell writes a similar call–to repent from “that comforting sin you turn to time and again”–in Biola’s Lent Project. Check it out…]

Beautifying Love

God’s love for those He has adopted into His family is so far greater than the love that we as humans have for one another. We look for beauty to love–God makes the ones He loves beautiful. 

Sally Lloyd-Jones, in The Jesus Storybook Bible, speaks of this beautifying love of God in His choosing of Jacob’s unlovely (and unloved) wife Leah to be part of the lineage of the Christ:

“…when he saw that Leah was not loved and that no one wanted her, God chose her–to love her specially, to give her a very important job. One day, God was going to rescue the whole world–through Leah’s family…. You see, when God looked at Leah, he saw a princess. And sure enough, that’s exactly what she became. One of Leah’s children’s children’s children would be a prince–the Prince of Heaven–God’s Son. This Prince would love God’s people. They wouldn’t need to be beautiful for him to love them. He would love them with all of his heart. And they would be beautiful because he loved them. Like Leah.”

A blog post by Garry Williams elaborates on God’s beautifying love:

“By contrast [with human love], God loves us when we are unlovely to him. He finds us languishing in the filth of our sin and chooses to cleanse and make us holy. Samuel Crossman expresses this idea beautifully in his hymn: Love to the loveless shown, That they might lovely be. Christ is a husband who makes the church beautiful when he weds her, not a husband who wants to wed her because she is beautiful.”

In the same post, Williams also quotes C.S. Lewis, who writes in The Four Loves: “The Church has no beauty but what the Bridegroom gives her; he does not find, but makes her, lovely.”

So when you, or I, feel lost in the ugliness of our sin and shame, or when our longings for love from those around us are unfulfilled, may we find hope in knowing that the One who created us also loves us with a love that makes us beautiful. And may we aspire (with His help!) to love those around us in the same way that we are loved by God–not because of their beauty but to make them beautiful.

Escaping from the Giant Despair

At one point in John Bunyan’s classic allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful get captured by the Giant Despair, who beats them mercilessly and throws them into his dungeon. There they languish in great pain and sorrow for several days, until–as they labor long in prayer–Christian suddenly remembers that he has a key hidden away that will open the doors of the dungeon and set them free. The forgotten key that he is reminded of is called Promise. Sure enough, when Christian tries the key of Promise, it works! And he and Hopeful escape from the clutches of Giant Despair in order to continue their journey to the Celestial City.

Bunyan’s footnote to this part of his story says this: “Precious Promise! The promises of God, in Christ, are the very life of faith. Oh! how oft do we neglect God’s great and precious promises in Christ Jesus, while doubts and despair keep us prisoners!”

Languishing in a dungeon in a stupor of suffering is an apt metaphor of what despair can do in any person’s life. Yet for the Christian, there is a key to escape this dungeon, but it is a key that is easily forgotten when despair looms like a giant. The promises of God do not disappear when despair takes us captive, but they must be remembered and acted upon if they are to truly be a key of escape.

So a promise of God that I am rehearsing and holding on to today is that my heavenly Father sees what I do, and He will reward me (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18). In fact, God Himself is called the “God who sees” (Genesis 16:13). And not only does God see, but He also vindicates (Isaiah 54:17):

No weapon that is formed against you will prosper;
And every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,
And their vindication is from Me,” declares the Lord.

A recent newsletter from John Eldredge expresses well why these promises of God seeing and vindicating are so significant to me.

You probably have a number of stories you would love to have told rightly–to have your actions explained and defended by Jesus. I know I do. 

All those decisions your family misinterpreted, and the accusations you bore, the many ways you paid for it. The thousands of unseen choices to overlook a cutting remark, a failure, to be kind to that friend who failed you again. The things that you wish you had personally done better, but at the time no one knew what you were laboring under–the warfare, the depression, the chronic fatigue. The millions of ways you have been missed and terribly misunderstood. Your Defender will make it all perfectly clear; you will be vindicated.

My God sees. My God vindicates. My God will reward. These are great and precious promises that have the power to release me–and you!–from the dungeon of despair. How do we know? Not only are these clearly written in Scripture, but they are fulfilled in Christ. Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection and intercession all proclaim that God sees our deepest need and has made a way for that need to be met. Hold on to that key of Promise!


The Significance of Small Growth

When your New Year isn’t so Happy or your Christmas wasn’t so Merry, when depression robs your resolve to even consider crafting goals for a new season, when lonely “tears have been [your] food day and night” (Psalm 42:3) and it feels like nothing will ever change, may you be reminded that God’s work in you is surely moving forward, though it is often a very slow and unseen process.

A short article I read a few days ago, from David Powlison of CCEF, was an encouraging reminder to me as I struggle to find joy in the start of a new year. May these words bring perspective and encouragement to your heart as well…

One of the most important things we can ever learn is the significance of small growth—small steps in the right direction. 1 John 3:2 gives a pithy description of our growth process—we are not yet what we will become, but when we see the Lord face to face, we will be like Him. In other words, the Christian life now is not about reaching our destination. The real question is, are we heading in the right direction?

I have been a Christian for 42 years and a biblical counselor for most of that time. Understanding small growth has helped me personally and in ministry.

If you don’t have a category for small growth, you won’t recognize the way that our Father works on an issue over longer seasons of life. For example, during the first seven or eight years of being a Christian, the Lord patiently and consistently worked on my struggle with anxiety. I learned from many different angles, step by step, over and over, that each day’s trouble really is sufficient for that day. I learned that anxiety projects into the future, but God meets us in the present. I learned that God’s grace gives courage and clarity in whatever we must face.

As you struggle with sin over a longer period of time, God accomplishes two important things. First, he makes you more and more like Christ in even the smallest of ways. Second, he grants you greater wisdom to help others. You learn to avoid the pitfall of offering trite and formulaic counsel to someone who genuinely wants help but consistently struggles with the same issue.

In a different season of my life, God revealed weaknesses I had that corresponded to my gifts. I tend to be intellectual; I can make sense of people’s lives. My natural stance toward people or problems is to be analytical and to be a consultant. Over a number of years in ministry, and in everyday life, I learned to be more than just a person who could figure things out. I learned how to really care for people. Consultants hold people at arm’s length. Helpers enter in to someone’s troubles and seek to orient that person to Jesus. Noticing what is wrong is easy for me. Learning how to help someone become what is right is much harder work.

What process am I writing about here? The term is “progressive sanctification.” What does that mean? Through lifelong growth, we begin to think, and feel, and choose, and respond in ways that are more and more like Jesus over months and years. God works in seasons as well as in moments. Our Father is a Vinedresser who patiently works in our lives to make us fruitful. I hope that encourages you. It has deeply encouraged me as a biblical counselor. I have learned to truly rejoice in even the smallest of steps. I notice how the Spirit is at work in ways that a person I am helping might not even be aware. For example, sometimes the beauty of a person’s faith is found in the willingness to more quickly ask for forgiveness and help. Sometimes a person simply grows in patience and hope, without consciously trying to do so. The Holy Spirit works in both the conscious changes we made and the subtle growth we only recognize in retrospect.

You can read the whole article here.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (I Thessalonians 5:23-24)


Joy in a Minor Key

If Christmas is supposed to be a season of great joy, what am I to do when I don’t feel very joyful?

At our church this past Sunday, we sang Chris Tomlin’s chorus to Joy to the World:

Joy, unspeakable joy

An overflowing well

No tongue can tell

Joy, unspeakable joy

Rises in my soul

Never lets me go

I struggled to sing that. I didn’t feel like unspeakable joy was welling up in my soul. I knew there were no rivers of joy overflowing to those around me. I just felt tired. And sad.

But I still sang. And in the act of singing I did what Pastor John Piper speaks of so often–I fought for joy. I believe joy can be–and should be–fought for. Joy is not the same as happiness–it does not originate in circumstances but in truth.

When we speak of joy, we usually imagine a big smile and feelings of happiness. When we sing of joy, the music swells with an upbeat, excited air. A doleful song in a minor key would not seem fitting for a song of joy.

Yet sometimes Scripture pairs joy with sorrow. The apostle Paul wrote of joy in the midst of affliction: “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.” (2 Corinthians 7:4) How can that be? It seems contradictory.

But maybe joy truly is different from happiness. My friend Jeff and I spoke about that difference in our co-valedictorian speech at the end of high school. I delivered my part of the speech, but I had no idea of the significance of that point. I certainly could not have imagined that 29 years later I might have to fight for joy.

“Happy” comes from the same root word as “happen,” a root which means “luck or chance.” Happiness is connected to circumstances that constantly change, or to emotions that fluctuate up and down. Thus happiness is fleeting and elusive–it comes and goes like a breeze in summertime.

Joy–at least the joy that Scripture speaks of–is a settled assurance based not on human circumstance but on God’s unchanging truth. Joy is the confidence of knowing that God is on His throne and that one day He will make all things right. Joy doesn’t ignore the sadness and pain of this world, nor does it merely try to medicate the sadness away; rather, joy looks beyond the sorrow to the end of the story when everything sad will come untrue. Joy clings tightly to that hope and sings in the midst of the sadness.

So if this Christmas is not a happy season for you, or if you also feel a dissonance inside as you sing Joy to the World without a big smile on your face, know that you are in good company. For even Christ Himself experienced joy in a minor key as He endured the torment of the cross for the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:2).

When Giving Thanks Is a Sacrifice

I don’t feel very thankful right now. The smile that almost always characterizes my countenance feels forced lately, while the sinister pull of cynicism darkens my mood. So as a Christian who is called to “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thessalonians 5:18), what am I to do when thanksgiving is not bubbling out of me, especially when this is the season of Thanksgiving?

Psalm 50 gives me a helpful perspective: thanksgiving can be my sacrifice of obedience and trust.

In the psalm, God is indicting Israel, reminding His covenant people that He does not need their animal sacrifices–after all, every beast belongs to Him already and He does not ever get hungry. But then He tells them what kind of sacrifice He does desire. In verse 14, He says “Make thanksgiving your sacrifice to God, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble…” God is not interested in empty, religious sacrifice, but He cares deeply about thankful hearts, obedient hearts, and dependent hearts. Thankfulness, obedience, and trustful dependence are sacrifices that glorify Him.

The second half of the psalm shifts to God’s indictment of the wicked, but there again He repeats this idea of thanksgiving as a sacrifice: “Mark this, then, you who forget God… The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to the one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!” (Psalm 50:22-23) Thanksgiving and obedience are sacrifices that bring glory to God.

So how is thanksgiving a sacrifice? How does giving thanks even when I don’t feel thankful or happy bring glory to God? I can think of a couple reasons…

Sacrifices by definition are not random acts but are intentionally chosen. Certainly there is much thankfulness that spontaneously erupts in favorable circumstances, and when that thankfulness is directed to God it brings glory to Him. But to choose to give thanks in the midst of circumstances where an angry outburst would come more naturally, that is an intentional sacrifice. I believe that kind of intentional choice glorifies God because it is an act of faith in what I know is true, despite what I feel in the moment.

Sacrifices by definition are very costly. If it costs me nothing, it is not a sacrifice. Thus giving thanks instead of nursing a grudge is sacrificial. Giving thanks instead of dwelling in self-pity or self-blame is sacrificial. Giving thanks to God instead of congratulating myself or idolizing another person is sacrificial. Costly thankfulness may not feel tremendously thankful, but it is that very costliness which brings glory to God.

So if life is good and thankfulness comes easily to your heart this season, may God receive much glory from your spontaneous expressions of thanks. But if life is hard and complaining or bitterness is what comes most easily, then may God receive great glory from our intentional, costly sacrifices of thanksgiving as we walk in obedience to what we know is true rather than being dictated by our fluctuating emotions and circumstances.