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?