Book Review – The Pastor and Counseling

I’m a big fan of 9Marks and their resources.  I have found them consistently helpful and accessible.  This book, The Pastor and Counseling, is no different.  Deepak Reju [Pastor of Counseling at Capitol Hill Baptist in DC] and Jeremy Pierre [Biblical Counseling Professor at SBTS] team up to write a fantastic book.

Counseling is an unavoidable element of pastoring.  I’m profoundly grateful for a great seminary education at SBTS, and also organizations like ACBC that stress the centrality of biblical counseling. Pastors, we aren’t giving advice.  Our people are coming to us for instruction in the Word of God and the application of it to their problems.  BUT, this is not without compassion.  This book succeeds on both ends of that spectrum.

And as the Word of God centers on Jesus Chris, so then must our counseling.  Jesus Christ is the means of change. Jesus Christ is the goal of change. [18]

The book is logically divided up into three main sections:  concept, process, and context and also has a few handy appendices in the back.

Right away, the authors challenge us pastors to make sure we are not having a “pulpit-only” ministry.  Ours is a personal ministry as well.  We identify with the weakness and sin of people, speak to God on behalf of the people, and speak to people on behalf of God. [28]. We have to get involved.  Yes, it is messy.  Yes, there is drama. Yes, it will take time.  But…that’s the nature of compassionate biblical pastoring, kids.

So, where to start?  This book offers three initial goals:  Address the presenting problem, display the relevance of the gospel [it’s always relevant!], and help people grow in Christlikeness.  “The main confidence of the pastor is that if a person belongs to Christ, God has pledged himself to the task of renewing him or her.” [38]

Aaaand there it is.  Transparency time.  As a pastor who counsels, this is the elephant in the room in all biblical counseling sessions…”IF a person belongs to Christ…”  Biblical counseling doesn’t “work” unless you are a Christian. I’ve had more failed counseling cases then I’d like to admit, but all of them were because people weren’t made new in Christ or refused to submit to the authority of His Word.  This is one of the biggest challenges in pastoral ministry, how to help people who are up to their ears in the misery of sin, yet refuse to submit fully to Christ.  I was curious to see how Reju and Pierre addressed this.

But getting back to the meat of the book – how do we actually do this?  The authors answer that question with three basic steps:  You listen to the problem. You consider heart responses.  You speak the truth in love. [49]

All of this requires a relational connection grounded in mercy, love, and respect.  I appreciated how practical and honest the authors were as they explained this – sometimes that is hard when you “are dealing with folks that are shifty, egocentric, foolish, arrogant, or just plain infantile.” [61].

Once the relational connection is established, explore the concern [listen well and ask good open-ended questions]; display hope [one of your primary jobs, there is always hope in the gospel!]; and set expectations. [homework, next meetings, etc.]

In the meetings that follow – get updates, follow up on homework, continue to explore the concern, and offer redemptive remedies. This will be the bulk of the rest of your meetings, but second to “is this person a real Christian” – how we actually do this is the biggest challenge.  The authors rightly point out that it requires patience.  We can all see the behavior is wrong, but what is motivating the behavior, the inner heart workings, are not immediately known.  This takes time to draw out.  We can’t simply “tell them what their idols are and then admonish them to worship God instead.” [76]. This is the great temptation for us pastors.  Why aren’t they getting it?!  “And we urge you brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” [1 These 5:14]. I sincerely appreciated the authors emphasis towards the compassion we should have and felt adequately convicted.

But…there has to be balance.  This too was well covered.  “Consider the 80/20 rule.  The person you’re helping needs to be responsible to do 80 present of the work in any given counseling session, with you guiding him or her with good questions, a few Scripture texts and appropriate advice.” [86] Amen.

The authors also took this opportunity to remind the readers of a few important considerations. Primarily of which is “Is this person saved?”  Again, due to the importance of this question, I would have liked to have seen this broken out into a full chapter…or even a full book.  [Anyone?!].  We will also be called to ministry to the unbelievers, and there is a tremendous evangelistic opportunity in it for us – but there needs to be more practical application of how that relates to counseling from the word of God to someone to doesn’t submit themselves to it.  #EndSoapbox

That brings us to the final meeting.  Sooner or later, you have to figure out when to end meetings.  Counseling can either have a positive ending, or a negative one.  Hopefully, it’s obvious that the positive ending would be that real, lasting, biblical change happens. Buuuut…that’s not always the case.  Dare I say, I think it’s probably the minority due to the effects of sin.  Sometimes counseling has a negative ending.  There is no change, they aren’t interesting in actually applying the 80% effort, they don’t trust you, they need more help than you can offer [90-91]…and what wasn’t mentioned that I wish was which is probably bigger than all of them – “they really won’t submit to the authority of the Scripture because they aren’t legit Christians.”    Sadly, after a negative ending we usually never see them again…until a few months or years later when the problems didn’t actually go away and they return for help.  This leads to the final section, how do we create a culture where helping others is in the DNA?

Pastors, we are the primary shaper of the church’s culture. [104. I just actually got scared typing that.]  “The way to glorify God is to make disciples. This task should be in the departs part of a pastor’s value system.” [105 – Giant AMEN].  The authors point out a few key expectations to lay down.  Membership – does your church have a high value on biblical church membership?  Equipping – are our people being equipped by the pastors/elders for discipleship through teaching and modeling? Third, connecting.  You have to actually be with people and encourage your people to be with each other as well.

Sometimes, despite doing all of this “right” there still are times where you may need to refer out to another counselor, or even medical “professional” help.  I sincerely appreciated the authors bold stance on this, as I’ve personally walked thru a few very painful seemingly “dead end” counseling situations and can see new hope springing from a fresh counseling perspective with someone else.  The authors provide a helpful overview of this sensitive topic, but emphasize the centrality of God’s Word.  “A guy with a Bible is not enough.” [122]. Pastors/elders:  we need to actively guide any referrals and resist the temptation to just pass someone off because we are tired.

This book was extremely encouraging to a tired soul who has walked through many difficult counseling situations.  I recommend it to all pastor and elders diligently laboring in God’s church for His glory as we walk beside our brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

 

 

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Dark Valleys

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It’s been one of those times where we see lots of suffering around us.  People passing away, marriages stuck in cycles of pain and disfunction, hopes and dreams not coming to fruition, chronic illness and pain not getting better, people reaping the consequences of very bad decisions, innocent children caught in the crossfire…the list goes on.

I found on my desk a copy of Be Still My Soul, Embracing God’s Purpose and Provision in Suffering and have read through a few pages.  One in particular struck me it was Sinclair Ferguson’s chapter titled “Dark Valleys.”

We will all indeed go through dark valleys, but in those times we need to remember the truth is that if we are trusting in our Savior Jesus, he will lead us and he is there with us – even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. (Psalm 23:4)

What is the greatest evidence of this?  The gospel of course.

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31–32 ESV)

Ferguson writes – “I cannot imagine living the Christin life on any other basis that this. If the Father loves me so much that he did not spare his own Son but delivered him up to be crucified for me, no further guarantee is needed of his wholehearted and permanent commitment to me and to my blessing. 

Whatever happens to me must be seen in that light. Yes, my deepest fears may become realities. I may not be able to understand what God is doing in or to my life; he may seem to be hiding his face from me; my heart may be broken. But can I not trust the One who demonstrated his love for me? What I was helpless in my sin he sent Christ to die for me (Rom 5:8). If he has done that, will he not work all things together for my good? Will he withhold anything that is ultimately for the good of those who trust him?

Drawn Away

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Have you worshiped a carved image lately?  Yeah. Me neither. When we think about idolatry we sometimes can go to one of two extremes – one way is to think that it doesn’t relate to us at all, because let’s face it I’m not going to bow down and prostrate myself before a piece of wood.  The other way is to make everything an idol and go on an extended morbid introspective idol hunt.  Perhaps we classify things as idols that aren’t really idols and all the while our idol hunt draws us farther into us, instead of leading us out of ourselves towards the one true God.

In Deuteronomy 4 we see Moses big introduction to his summary of the law given previously.  In 4:15-31 he cautions them specifically about idols.  Telling them to “watch yourselves very carefully.”  (v15)  But what does Moses say an idol is?  4:19 provides a pretty good definition.

“And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven” (Deuteronomy 4:19 ESV)

Three things we note about an idol here:

  1. Idols draw us away.  What is pulling at our spirits today to give more to them?  As time, energy, emotions are all limited, if something is pulling at us to give more it usually requires that we give less of something else.  Husbands fall victim to this sometimes in the “I am the provider” perspective.  Yes, we are to provide for our families, but at what cost to our families?  There are countless other examples.
  2. Idols require service.  We can short-circuit our understanding here is we simply think we have to bow down to worship something.  Worship = heart felt service.  What or whom are we serving?  A great example here is other people’s opinions.  To keep ourselves high up on someone else’s scale takes a lot of work!  Did I say the right thing?  Wear the right thing?  What will the other person think of me now?  We are serving the fear of man.
  3. Idols are common to everyone. Our verse says that Israel is to watch themselves carefully to not be drawn away and serve the things that “God has allotted to all the peoples under heaven.”  These can be good things.  Work is a good thing.  Positive relationships with others are good things.  But those things are not supposed to terminate on themselves, they are supposed to lead us to worship the giver of those things – God himself!

So idol worship is far more commonplace than we may have imagined.  What is the hope?  How do we grow and change?  Moses tells us!  It’s to give ourselves totally to the only one worthy of worship.  “But from there you will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:29 ESV).  

God is near, he is not far.  And even though we all deserve wrath and judgment he offers us mercy through the sacrifice of Jesus, His Son.  We receive this by repentance (turning from false worship) and faith (trusting in Jesus with every bit of our lives.).  A wise pastor once noted “We worship our way into sin, and we will worship our way out of sin.”  We kill idol worship by worshiping the true God.

What is drawing us away today? Asking for more service?

 

Choices

Great day of ministry capped off by a great word at SNAC about biblical choices.

Ultimately we can either chose to please God or ourselves. We need to be suspicious of ourselves because of our tendency to sin. (See Prov 14:12)

Prayer focuses us on the sinfulness of our hearts and asking God to change our hearts to make choices that please him.

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Psalm 36 and the Y Chart

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This morning I read Psalm 36 which immediately jumped out and hit me in my overly large forehead:

Transgression speaks to the wicked
deep in his heart;
there is no fear of God
before his eyes.
For he flatters himself in his own eyes
that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
(Psalm 36:1-2 ESV)

Transgression (or ‘sin’) is deep in our heart, it starts internally as if we needed further proof that we are all sinners from birth.  (As Cross Movement puts it “long before the cradle, sin seeped into our navel…”)   The choice to sin then, is a choice ultimately of who we are pleasing – God or ourselves.  When we sin we are choosing ourselves over God, as the Psalmist says there is ‘no fear of God’ before our eyes.  Fear meaning a respect or reverence or position in our lives.  Bottom line:  we put ourselves above God.

One of our favorite counseling diagrams is the “Y-Chart.” It is a simple graphic that shows where thoughts originate (our hearts), the thoughts bubble up to the surface as we get closer to actions and we have a choice to make – please God or please ourselves.  Pleasing God is based on truth and seems hard at first,  but later on the way is easier.  Pleasing ourselves is based on following our feelings and seems easy at first, but later on is much harder.

We are all wired to follow our feelings and please ourselves – that’s the work of God in the Holy Spirit thru Jesus’ life and work to free us from that bondage and give  us a new heart, a new life!  Then we walk in newness and abundance of life because we are living closer to the way God desired – to honor him, bring glory to him, to please him – not ourselves.

For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light.
(Psalm 36:9 ESV)

PS:  A big thank you to another blogger who posted a great version of the Y-Chart.