Among Christians there are different schools of thought about how to conduct the work of counseling. These approaches diverge specifically at the level of methodology and the place that Scripture should have in the counseling enterprise. Eric Johnson’s edited volume includes five viewpoints on how Christians should approach counseling and make use of the Bible and modern psychological theories and discoveries. (1) The Level-of-Explanations; (2) Integration; (3) Christian Psychology; (4) Transformative Psychology; and (5) Biblical Counseling.
Among these approaches, only biblical counseling is distinct in its conviction that Scripture is sufficient for the task of counseling. That is, biblical counselors believe that Scripture provides everything a believer needs to overcome spiritual, mental, emotional (non-medical) and relational problems in his or her life without recourse to resources outside of Scripture.
While I would locate myself within the biblical counseling methodology, it is not my intention in this article to arbitrate between these different approaches to counseling. That is a question to be undertaken in later articles. Here I want only to make a few foundational comments and pose a few essential questions that any Christian must reckon with if they are going to engage in the practice of counseling.
What is Counseling?
First, let’s define the word “counseling.” Heath Lambert provides a definition of counseling in his book, A Theology of Biblical Counseling that is broad enough to apply to any approach to counseling, whether that counseling is conducted from a naturalistic or Christian perspective; whether that counseling is conducted under the auspicious of psychological therapy or biblical counseling.
Counseling is a conversation where one party with questions, problems, and trouble seeks assistance from someone they believe has answers, solutions, and help.
This basic definition is one that all counselors alike could affirm. The counselee is beset with problems that they are unable to overcome on their own. These problems have likely caused enough trouble in the counselee’s life to interrupt normal routines, ruin significant relationships, or cast the counselee into a deep state of despair. The counselee, therefore, goes to a person whom they believe is able help them overcome or at least cope with these problems. The means through which the assistance is given is a person-to-person conversation where the counselee explains their questions, problems, and trouble to the counselor who, in turn, offers answers, solutions, and help according to whatever method they deem the most effective and most wise.
What Does it Mean to Help Someone?
It’s here that I want to pose a few crucial questions. It seems to be too often assumed among Christian counselors that the very desire to help the counselee (something we all want) precludes any inquiry into the nature of such help. We acknowledge different methodologies, but we assume that we all agree on what “help” means. This is a foundational mistake. We need to expend some serious effort to define precisely and with great detail what we mean by the ever-important word “help.” What does it mean to really help someone? If proponents of each perspective articulated clearly what they mean by the word “help”—what they perceive to be the endgame of any counseling endeavor—I believe we would see greater divergence between the various Christian schools of thought on counseling. As a result, we would have greater clarity not only where these schools of thought disagree on the matter of methodology, but the reasons why they do as well.
By What Standard Will You Judge Your Success?
A corollary to the above question is one that Jay Adams asked many years ago and one that needs to be repeatedly asked today. By what standard do you judge whether you’ve really helped someone? Whether you are a biblical counselor or a Christian integrationist, this is a question that you cannot leave unanswered. If a person comes to you with a problem or set of problems and you offer counsel (whatever form the counsel may take), how do you determine that you’ve helped that person? And what is the standard by which you will judge your success? Do you judge by the counselee’s sensation of “feeling better,” their ability to return to their daily life and routine, their willingness to obey God whatever the cost, their ability to enter challenging situations with greater confidence? And, depending on what set of evidences you base you conclusion, you must face the epistemological question: how do you know that these are the right evidences?
Is Any Counseling Truly Unbiased?
The question about standards leads to an observation with which all Christian counselors must reckon. Any counsel about any problem you might give or receive flows out of assumptions about reality, the existence or non-existence of God, the nature and composition of humankind, mankind’s deepest problem, the connection of our problems to a deeper problem, reliable sources of truth, the aim of the Christian life, and so on. In other words, there is no such thing as unbiased counseling. All counseling comes from somewhere.
Now, the counselor or counselee may not consciously recognize that such assumptions underly all counsel, but the assumptions are there, flavoring and coloring the counsel being given at every turn. You could say it like this: all counsel is theological by nature. Or, to say it another way, “Counseling is a theological discipline.” Even if a counselor is not a Christian, they still have a theology of God, man, man’s problems, man’s composition, and the nature of reality. Your theology may not be biblical, but it is a theology nonetheless, and your counseling will flow from that theology.
In later articles, we will explore how these theological commitments vary even among those who conduct counseling under the Christian banner. We will see that there are differences about how to assess the priority between God’s revelation in creation and in Scripture, the aim of discipleship, the definition and significance of “common grace,” and many other crucial theological issues that relate directly to the why and how of counseling. It is my hope and prayer that these articles help to bring clarity about these differences and, in the end, demonstrate the need to embrace a biblical counseling methodology for the glory of God and lasting benefit of our counselees.
Eric Johnson, ed., Psychology and Christianity: Five Views, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010).
Heath Lambert, A Theology of Biblical Counseling (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 13.
Lambert, Theology, 11.