Counseling might not be your gift, but it is your responsibility. It’s easy to put it off on the “professionals”, but we’re all called to counsel one another. In fact, we are always counseling, offering advice and direction to one another. The question is whether or not we are offering good counsel! Good counseling is discipling others with gospel wisdom in the full range of human thinking, feeling, and behaving. So how do we do that?
You know the kind of book that is so good you don’t want it to end? I typically experience this with fiction, but this year there have been a few non-fiction books I have read slowly and not finished–because they are so good! Over the next few weeks, I’ll share from some of my reading in the books that I don’t want to end.
Death By Love – This is easily Mark Driscoll’s best book yet. Death By Love is a series of actual letters Mark wrote to people struggling with serious sin and suffering. Here are a few of the chapter titles:
- “Lust Is My God”
Jesus Is Thomas’s Redemption
“My Wife Slept with My Friend”
Jesus Is Luke’s New Covenant Sacrifice
“I Am a ‘Good’ Christian”
Jesus Is David’s Gift Righteousness
“I Molested a Child”
Jesus Is John’s Justification
“My Dad Used to Beat Me”
Jesus Is Bill’s Propitiation
“He Raped Me”
Jesus Is Mary’s Expiation
Chapter after chapter is charged with honesty, empathy, and wisdom. Rich in practical counsel and biblical theology, this book should be required reading for all courses in Pastoral Ministry. Driscoll takes categories from systematic theology and applies them using biblical theology in a very practical way. Brilliant and grace giving. A basic outline for counseling I use was coined by David Powlision: 1) Listen to their Story 2) Empathize with their Story 3) Redemptively retell their Story. I’ll use this to frame Driscoll’s counsel for a victim of abuse:
- Empathize with Story: “I think I understand what you are trying to say. For a man to devastate his family like your father did means that his simply saying ‘sorry’ is not enough to erase the list of sins he has accrued or the damage h has done. I hope to untangle some of the conflict you are living in…”
- Listened to Story: “you spoke of building forts in the backyard and pretending you lived there instead of in the house with your father because you longed for the day you could move out and never return.”
- Redemptively Retell Story: “Bill, you must realize that not only could God’s active wrath be poured out on your father, but it just as easily could have been poured out on you…not only is your father a sinner who needs his sins propitiated, but you too are a sinner who likewise needs his sins propitiated…not only did Jesus suffer like you; in a very real sense he suffered at the hands of both you and the father at the cross…therefore, therefore you need not merely let your father of the hook because he became a Christian. Further, you need not punish him…I know that you fear forgiving your father…However, because God is sovereign and good, through that evil you have been given one of the deepest appreciations and insights of the doctrine of propitiation of anyone I have ever met.”
We all have multiple opportunities every day to give and receive forgiveness. We all sin against others and are sinned against. We all sin against God, belittling his worth, snubbing his grace. What do we do in these moments, with these sins? Throw out an “I’m Sorry” and carry on? Give ourselves a guilt trip and engage in private penance for three days? How would the gospel guide us into true forgiveness?
It’s Hard to Forgive
Jesus set up the paradigm of 77 times (Matthew 18), which was his way of saying always forgive. But forgiving and asking for forgiveness can be so hard. A lot of us tell ourselves we forgive someone without even telling that person! What we really do is avoid conflict and sweep the offense under the rug, where the lump gets bigger over time until we trip over it and blow up in anger or shut down in despair. However, Gospel progress in conflict with others will always result in a maturing of a relationship, not in slipping back into neutral or a “keep the peace” mode.
It’s Better to Forgive than Forget
Contrary to the popular saying, the gospel does not call us to “forgive and forget.” Forgiving and forgetting, is code for cheap sorrys and faking a bad memory. The reality is that sin is really hard to forget, especially when you are sinned against. Funny, you’d think our sins against others would be more memorable! All too often, when I sin against my wife, resolve to be more sensitive and kind-hearted, I end up forgetting how I offended her and repeat the offense a few weeks later! Why? Because I forgot! True forgiveness stands taller in the presence of sin. Grace shines brighter in the darkness of offense. But don’t misread me here. We should neither minimize not maximize sin, throw out cheap sorrys or berate one another with our memories. However, without the memory of sin, there is no need for forgiveness. The trick is to remember our sins, not others sins!
Forgiving One Another
The gospel calls us to press into grace by pressing into our sin. Instead of disregarding sin against another, we confess it, both to God and to the other, and tell them why we were so mean, impatient, or unkind. We ask for their forgiveness, for wounding them unnecessarily, for putting our desires above their dignity. We press into our sin in confession and repentance, but don’t stop there. We move on through into forgiveness and grace, genuinely forgiving and being forgiven, refusing to harbor resentment. Forgiving again and again with each memory. As we forgive, we absorb the cost of the offense, as Jesus absorbed the infinite cost of our sin, and communicate his grace to others. But how can we do this? Sometimes it is so hard. Tim Lane, author of Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, offers a few principles on how to absorb the cost of an offense and to live in true forgiveness:
- Choose not bring up the offense again or use it against others. The only reason to raise the offense with the offender is for the purpose of reconciliation, not vengeance. It’s not about forgetting; it’s about forgiving, reconciling, loving.
- Choose not bring the offense up to others in gossip, or malign others because of it. Where you have forgiven, rest in Christ’s forgiveness and perfect love. Resolve not to use conflict against others, but rather, to use it for others by offering grace and Christ-centered forgiveness.
- Choose not bring the offense up to yourself and dwell on it. Resolve not to replay the videotape of your own sin or others to relive every detail. Press into grace so that you don’t make the other person pay for what he or she has done.
Next time you are offended or offend, try pressing into sin (confession and repentance) and pressing into grace (forgiveness and reconciliation). When we do, we lift Jesus up above our demands, the cross over our sin, and we can move into more grace-based, maturing relationships that display the sufficiency and beauty of Christ for everyday life. Take a minute to think of how you could apply these principles towards a situation, sin or person today. Enjoy grace and true forgiveness.
As a church planters we often reach unreached, unbelieving, and very broken people. As a result, pastoral wisdom and gospel-centered counseling quickly become an important skills. After all, the biblical office we hold is not church planter but elder-pastor. How are you cultivating pastoral wisdom? How are you growing in your capacity to shepherd your flock with wisdom, truth, and love? Are you spending time with “slow” or “challenging” people each week? Or do you gravitate to “teachable” people, neglecting the weak and hurting sheep?
Why should we spend time counseling when we could be evangelizing or preaching? Because in order to plant healthy missional churches, we must grow in gospel depth and breadth. In order to guard and guide our people well, it is imperative that church planters have a regular intake of wisdom (applied theology) from which we can counsel, disciple, train, and lead. As we mature, our sermons should deepen with pastoral application that grows from spending time with struggling sheep. The best application is mined, not from homiletical brainstorming, but from pastoral counseling. Why counsel? Counseling the church is: 1) part of our calling/office 2) critical to healthy community and mission 3) essential for insightful application 4) part of being a church that speaks the truth in love.
Growing in Pastoral Wisdom
Nothing like regular time with unchurched, newly believing, broken people will alert you to the need for gospel-centered counseling. For years I’ve been reading the materials put out by Christian Counseling Education Foundation. I’ll never forget the first time I heard David Powlison speak with such measured wisdom at the Desiring God Conference in 1999. Since then, I have read The Journal of Biblical Counseling, followed nouthetic literature, and started a certificate program in biblical counseling with CCEF. CCEF offers tremendous insight into human motivation and how the gospel applies to everything from addiction to garden variety idolatry. I highly recommend the Journal, their books, and distance education.
Westminster Bookstore carries all CCEF materials at heavy discounts and highlights Best Sellers of the Month. CCEF offers a host of articles on a whole range of counseling issues for free on their topical resource page. In addition, you can buy a CD ROM of all the JBC articles from 1977-2005. Add to these resources, the fine work of Tim Chester. See especially You Can Change, The Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness. Tim and Steve Timmis are currently working on a Gospel-centered Life Series that will be a tremendous help to equipping us to counsel on mission. And very soon, I will be releasing a short book called Fight Club: Gospel-centered Discipleship.
Counsel on Mission
Counseling on mission is critical. If we do not counsel while we are on mission, we will fail in planting missional churches. Gospel-centered counseling is the overflow of gospel-centered church planting. If our churches aren’t founded and shephered in the gospel, then church planting will devolve into service planting or crusade speaking. Mission must be accompanied by counseling. Without counseling, churchplanting devolves into mission minus discipleship, which hardly mission at all.