Below is the introduction for a biblical counseling course I teach at Masters University. I may organize the material into a book:
Where to Start?
To begin, put this down and go read the first chapter of Genesis. The first lesson is biblical counseling is that we must read the Bible. When you finished read the Genesis chapter one, come back…..
In addition to reading the Bible, biblical counseling involves thinking carefully about the Bible. A few things to note. First, who is the chapter about? Who is the main actor in this story? Obviously, that is God. What does God? He creates, everything. Note that little phrase at the end verse 16, “and the stars.” So where do we live? Inside of the creation. And can we ever see or know beyond that? Well, not unless God tells us something.
Look down to verses 26-27. What about human beings? We are creations, also. We have a special status. What two things do you notice about our status? We have dominion over the rest of the creation. We are created in God’s image.
Let us take stock about what we learn from Genesis 1: There is a Creator. Everything else is creation. The planet is all the creation. The stars, however far away they may be, are the creation. We human beings are creatures. In this, we are like trees and stars and oceans. We are something God has made. In this we are also like angels and cherubim and seraphim; we are all creatures.
But unlike these other creatures, we occupy a special place. We have dominion over the rest of the creation. In addition, we are created in something called the “image and likeness” of God.
At this point in our study, we will not be taking too much time to consider these points. However, these elements will become very important when we begin to think about counseling directly. At this point, we are making taking stock of issues which should consider.
We are beginning with Genesis, because this section of the Bible provides a useful layout of the matters we will need to consider when it comes to determine the problems for which people will come for counsel. It also will help us to understand why we must counsel in the way we do—and also, why we must be careful about using observations or techniques gained from other psychologies.
A Brief Note on the Word, “Psychology”
This word and this concept have engendered a great deal of controversy and discussion among Christians who sincerely hope to do good.
A complete discussion of this topic would go wildly beyond our present purposes. However, a few notes are in order.
There is no one who does not a working psychology. Psychology is nothing other than the study of how human beings function. It is an enormously broad concept. Psychology considers the basic functioning of the nervous system and other bodily functions which might bear upon thought, emotion, or behavior. Psychology studies thought, emotion, behavior, whether cognitive or habitual. It does not rule, per se, “mind” or “soul,” although the relationship to such concepts is “complicated.” It studies human interactions. In this way, it enters into history, politics, sociology, education, et cetera.
When you had a conversion with someone else and asked, “Why did she say that?” you have engaged in psychology.
Psychology also entails responses and helps relating to change in another person (or ourselves). If you have tried to break a habit, you have engaged in psychology. If you have given a friend advice, like “don’t worry about.” You have engaged in psychology.
People who have made a career out of psychology may have studied some aspect at length. We might consider a university professor to be an expert psychologist. But for that matter, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky are expert psychologists.
There is thus no simple thing which is “psychology.” It entails what we human beings spend most of our time doing, thinking about ourselves and other people, and engaging with others, or thinking about what we are not doing so.
A comprehensive psychology will require an extensive set of conclusions about the nature of human beings. If you start with the assumption that all human psychology is explained by the body and environment, and that human bodies are the result of innumerable mutations acted upon by death, you will understand irrational events as the result of haphazard machinery in a difficult place. You will not conclude that human life or decisions are truly meaningful (even though someone might care about their own decisions or what others do to them).
To be a biblical counselor will entail beginning with a biblical understanding of what we are and how we got here. The information which we gain from the beginning of Genesis will set an agenda for what will start with as our “givens” when it comes to constructing a method of counseling.
For instance, if we are bare machines and our thoughts and emotions are really just epiphenomenon of behavior, then deliberate use of behavioral psychology would be an appropriate decision. Likewise, we would start with Jung or Adler or Rogers or something else if we began with different presuppositions.
The directions we will take from the rest of Scripture on how to counsel are rooted and grounded the soil of creation and Genesis.
Genesis 2 is going to provide us with additional information to fill out our agenda of matters to consider in the future. So, as before, go read Genesis 2.
This time, since you are learning how to counsel, I want you to make a list of observations answer this question: What in this chapter might be use when trying to understand what is going on with a human being alive today? This question is slightly different than “What does this mean?”
You are not going to need to break out a Hebrew Bible (though if you read Hebrew, please feel free to do so). This is not a question about difficult exegetical points.
I will give you one idea to begin with: God creates Adam. We learn it is not good for a human being to be alone. The issue of relationship, marriage, solitude, loneliness, is thus something we will need to consider when we consider the troubles which might beset someone alive today.
The desire for friendship and marriage, the pain of loneliness will be matters which will need to address in counseling.
So read through the chapter pen or pencil or computer or other recording implement in hand. Start making a list of things which might be pertinent to the understanding of human beings.
Now that you have completed your task, let us consider what we have read.
How is Adam created? He is formed and then God breathes into him. How is Eve formed? She is made from Adam’s body. Just preliminary notes, but there might be something important about the breath of life in a body. What about Eve coming from Adam? Well, we all come from Adam and Eve, therefore, there is at least some minimal amount which we all must share together. We are all distant cousins at least. We all have a common human nature. What went on with these people has some effect upon us.
Now, where do we find Adam? In the Garden. What is he doing there? He is there to tend and keep the Garden. When we come to this issue, we will learn that this “tend and keep” language points us toward the question of worship and we might want to consider this garden as having some relationship to the Temple.
But stick with the Garden for a moment longer. What else can we see here: This Garden is quite a bit different than our current life. It does not appear to present any dangers. The animals do what is useful for Adam. There is abundant food. Adam has work. Adam also has direct and apparently free communication with God.
The relationship between Adam and Eve are quite joyous (Adam seems as pleased as any human being has ever been upon receiving the woman). There is this peculiar observation that they did not have clothing.
In short, Genesis 2 tells us about a world of which we have no firsthand experience. It sounds wonderful, but it is not where we live.
This is a little out of order, but now go and read the final two chapters of the Bible. I’ll wait.
I just want you to notice how significantly the end of the story, the New Heavens and the New Earth seem to replicate aspects of Genesis 2. I’ll ask you one more question. When Mary Magdalen first saw Jesus after he had resurrected, who did she think he was?
And yes, there is something about a tree, but we will pick up the tree in Genesis 3.
This is the most important chapter we will consider as make our first data gathering run through the beginning of the Bible. With that having been said, read through Genesis 3 and make a list of matters which you anticipate may have a bearing upon present counseling issues. There is probably no single chapter of the Bible which is more important to laying out the backdrop for what we do as counselors.
For this exercise, you need to do more than just read through the chapter. I want you to also go find some secondary source to help you work through this material. Go find some sermons on the chapter or use a commentary to help you (the notes from your study bible won’t count).
Also, I want you to take the time to prayer for help in understanding this chapter. Since you should not be able to complete this task in one sitting, you must specifically pray for comprehension and insight each time before you begin your study.
Prayer for help understanding the Bible will be something you must always do from here on out.
Where do we find ourselves at the beginning of the chapter? First, who is there? Notice down in verse 6. Who was there? Where were they?
Second, who begins talking?
Think about the conversation for a moment. Look up at chapter 2. When was the command concerning the tree given, before or after Eve’s creation? So how then would Eve know about the commandment?
Now think: Name everyone slandered by the Serpent in this question.
We can put aside the question about touching the tree. Some people make quite a deal of this point; others find it unimportant. We don’t need to decide that question, because there are other things quite clear. Does Eve know the commandment? Does she have some idea of the consequences (remember, “die” may not be a clear concept for her; but she apparently at least knows it is a bad thing)?
Here is another observation which we will consider later: A cognitive knowledge of the commandment is insufficient to guarantee obedience. An extremely common error in biblical counseling is belief that sin is purely the result of a lack of knowledge. If you merely knew that you should not covet, you would not covet. At this point, go read Romans 7 and then come back. Does merely telling someone the commandment mean there will be obedience?
Why then do you think insisting upon a commandment will ever be sufficient to result in obedience? (We will talk about the nature and importance of obedience later.) So here is another issue to flag for later consideration.
I want you to think of some of the absurdities of the Serpent’s approach. For instance, by definition, something said by God is true. Look back at Genesis 1, what happens when God speaks? It is impossible for God to lie. (Heb. 6:18)
What does the Serpent promise Eve? Two things.
We will develop these issues at greater length below; but let us consider why these points might be important. You will be like God. Go back and read Genesis 1:26-27. They are already created in the Image of God. And the second point: you will be given the right to decide what is good or evil. How well has that gone for us?
Read 1 Timothy 2:14. If Adam was not deceived, what is the nature of his sin? Read Romans 5:12: what was the effect of Adam’s sin upon you?
What is the emotional effect, the subjective effect upon eating the fruit? How do Adam and Eve experience the world immediately upon sinning?
Here is another point to hold for later: Shame (and guilt) come in with sin and accompany sin. We will learn that shame is the experience of sin and the experience of being sinned against.
Consider the nature of God’s approach to Adam and Eve. In verse 8, what is God doing? Compare the nature of their relationship with God to our current relationship with God. What are some differences?
When God begins to ask questions, how do Adam and Eve respond in turn? Think a little bit about Adam’s excuse. Who are the persons blamed for his behavior?
In counseling, a very common thing you will encounter is someone explaining how they are not responsible for their own conduct. Someone else has made them the way they are? Is there a difference between causation (gravity causes the apple to fall to the ground), and influence (a strong breeze might move the apple a bit as it falls).
Counseling is an impossible and pointless enterprise if one person can cause another person to do or act. Moreover, sin is impossible if we can be forced to sin by another person’s conduct.
Now, I want you to read through the Genesis 3:14-19. In verses 14-15, we read of a coming conflict. Who will be the participants in this conflict?
Let us consider this matter a little more broadly: let us take the Serpent and Seed as also representatives of certain populations. With whom will human beings have an ongoing conflict. Go read Mark 1:21-27. Now that you have read it, answer the question again. There is admittedly a great deal of dispute concerning this particular issue: to what extent if any should a current day Christian be concerned with host fronted by the Serpent? I am not going solve that issue, but we must put that on the agenda.
Next, look at the result for the woman. We have two sets of troubles for her. What are they?
Finally, look down at the man: what are his troubles going to be.
You may have taken a class at some point where a teacher tried to summarize the sort of plots you might encounter, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and so on. Let’s see if we can make a list of the sort of conflicts we may expect:
Rebellious Spirits vs. human beings. Most particularly in the life of Jesus Christ.
Child birth, which should merely be the beginning of life, is itself a potential time of death.
There will be conflicts between human beings: If the first pair can have conflict, we cannot expect better.
There will be conflict between human beings and the rest of creation. The world will be resistant to proving us food (which is quite the opposite of the state in the Garden).
Next, our work will be painful and difficult. But we will be unable to avoid the necessity of this work.
Finally, our bodies will get sick and then die.
Let’s finish up the chapter: What is the result of story for Adam and Eve?
Is it possible to return to this Garden?
Before we turn our attention to chapter 4, Let’s take stock of our circumstance at the end of chapter 3.
When I was in college, my anthropology professor said the trouble with human beings is that we live in the wrong environment. We evolved to live on the Savanna but we now live in temperature controlled buildings with artificial light. I would agree to a point: we certainly live in the wrong environment. But I would change his evaluation as follows: We were created to live a sinless life in the Garden in immediate fellowship with God.
The world which was created to sustain our lives is not in open rebellion against us. In fact, it’s out to kill us.
Let us consider the effect this Fall upon human nature. You’re going to need to stop again. God Read Romans 1-3.
When I taught these chapters to Junior High and High School students, I asked them to remember the two things sin does to human beings: It makes us stupid and crazy.
Here is an exercise. Try to summarize the state of being a human after the Fall in one paragraph. Close the book and go write.
Here are some of the elements which should be in your summary: Human beings are living in the wrong place. Human beings are stupid and crazy. We live in bodies that are in rebellion against us on a planet which seeks to kill us. In fact, without the miraculous intervention of God, we will suffer death. The normal response to such overwhelming negative odds would be fear or sorrow (if you want to put that into modern “psychological terms” anxiety and depression). To deal with the fear and sorrow, we routinely engage in beliefs and behaviors which might make us somehow feel better for a moment. Moreover, we will routinely not know what to do.
That will lead us to understand the three basic categories of situations we will face in biblical counseling: Wisdom (what to do). Relief (dealing with painful emotional/cognitive relationships to life). Mortification of sin (dealing with sin).
One last section to prepare our agenda. Please read the story of Cain and Abel. I’ll wait.
There are points from this story which I would like you to notice. First, what are Cain and Able both doing? They are engaged in overt acts of worship. This is the first time we see human beings involved in bringing a sacrifice to God. Second, what happens? What is the first thing we learn about human interaction after we have left the Garden? Compare this end point with the very first human interaction recorded in Genesis 2.
Some Notes Toward an Agenda
Having reviewed the introductory chapters to the Bible, make a list of the sort of issues we should expect to consider when engaged in biblical counseling.
We were created to be in relationship with God. We will see this point reiterated in the commandment to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, strength. That relationship was eviscerated at the Fall. Were it not for the gracious act of God to restore that relationship, nothing we do could attempt to remedy the loss. We cannot reach up to God, so God had to reach down to us.
We were created to be in relationship with other human beings. Again, we see that point taken up by the law to love our neighbor as ourselves. Yet, even the close relationship between brothers could end in murder.
Of human relationships, those in the family are given particular importance. Immediately with sin, we find the first couple blaming others for their own troubles. We see Adam not driving off the Serpent. And parents, mirroring the act of God in giving counsel to the newly minted Adam, have a duty to give instructions to their children, who, like Adam, are new to this world.
I think we should understand Adam’s gardening work as the predecessor for our work of worship. The first picture we have of human beings after being driven from the Garden is the act of worship between Cain and Abel. Perhaps foreshadowing the sorry wars of religion, one murdered the other.
The defective practice of that most human of actions, worship, marks much of the narrative in the Bible. We have the repeated warnings and discussions of idolatry before the coming of Christ. And we have John’s warning after the resurrection, Keep yourselves from idols.
This aspect of human life is another way to consider the breakdown in the divine/human relationship.
Death and Sin
The twin monster of sin and death relate in some interesting ways. There is the obvious movement of sin to punishment, eternal death. However, there is another movement from death to sin which is mentioned in places such as Hebrews 2:14-15, where fear of death creates the condition for enslavement to sin.
With death and the loss of the Garden, we find ourselves in world subjected to futility. Responding to that futility has been the constant work of civilization. It has also lead to a variety responses ranging from despair to war, from debauchery to asceticism. This axis is similar to the death and sin issue, but focuses more upon the loss of everything around me, in addition to my own death.
The Noetic Effects of Sin
Sin has made us crazy and stupid. Romans 1, any history book, the news, just knowing any other human beings (as well as our own hearts), will prove this point. And even after salvation, we must face the task of renewing minds which have been warped and twisted.
This leads us to any number of sinful responses, as well as a desperate need for wisdom.
Sin follows upon sin. No sooner had primeval pair rebelled by eating, but they turned on one another. Their children would murder. By the time we come to Noah, the world is filled with violence. It takes no effort to learn about sin, because we lie as soon as have the chance. No one has ever needed to teach a child to be self-centered or cruel.
Sin asks as a sort of adaptive response to the post-Fall state of life. Taking, hording, hiding, lying, coveting, slandering, and so on, make a sort of perverted sense. If I am going to die and if all is pointless, explain to me why I should not steal something when I will never receive punishment. Now it might be useful for everyone if no one stole; but imposing the rule upon you and having no rule upon me would be best for me.
We live in the wrong place and always will. We were created for dominion and die from microbes. We were created for direct interaction with God, and find that relationship difficult to maintain. We are in the wrong place, far from home, and will not be where we belong until we no longer live here in this age.
In working through the sentence pronounced by God, we saw that our post-Fall life was one of seeming perpetual conflict with the entire Creation. Surviving and responding to such conflict is an essential aspect of being a human being.
The Image of God
We also must consider that highly debated proposition that human beings were created in the image and likeness of God. Being renewed in that image is the end which God has set before us. (Col. 3:9-10)
What Shall We Do?
One of the great faults of much which goes by the name of counseling, is the failure to adequately comprehend the nature of the trouble faced by human beings. We can easily attempt to reduce the “solution” to a pat formula. One of the fundamental problems with all psychology which does not begin with the Bible is the failure to have an adequate comprehension of a human being. Freud was right that there is a conflict between our conscience and desire: he just did not have the faintest idea what that means or from whence it came. Skinner was right about behavioral habits. But as important as behavioral habits may be, they do provide a full description human life (although my professor of behavioral psychology at UCLA attempted mightily to persuade me otherwise. She explained to me that did not actually love another; I just enjoyed certain sorts of positive rewards).
A frightful amount of counseling comes off as if the only trouble faced by a counselee was ignorance of some proposition. Insisting on do and do not and incomprehension at the lack of immediate obedience to the dictates delivered is too common for the church’s good.
And so on.
Which leaves us with, what shall we do? Where do we start? And what is our aim? Before we turn to the practice of counseling, let us take a moment to consider the why of counseling.