Posted: 3rd October, 2016

The Heart of Biblical Counseling

What is the heart of biblical counseling?  What sets it apart from all other counseling?  What is the one reality from which all biblical counseling should flow?

For over 40 years, I have rarely ceased from reflecting on what biblical counseling is all about.  After all these years of counseling from God’s Word and reflecting on it, there is perhaps one reality above all else that impacts me as that which is the core, the heart reality, of biblical counseling.

This was brought home to me when I had a discussion with a member of my congregation after I had preached a message in which I said:

“One of the most powerful weapons of the devil, a weapon which can so quickly destroy our hearts and lives as believers, is his ability to convince us that we really can DO what will make us more acceptable to God.  It is the idea which says to us, ‘I don’t really believe that God can accept me without ME doing something to merit that acceptance.’  This is an assumption that we, as believers, would never consciously accept; that our righteousness in God’s site is something that we have, in some way, accomplished.  However, this is often how we live.”

Interestingly, almost immediately after I finished preaching, someone in my congregation came up to me and said something to this effect: “But of course works are equally important.”  Then, to further demonstrate the accuracy of his contention, he added: “After all, the Bible teaches us ‘by their fruits you shall know them.’”  My response at the time was rather automatic, as I replied, “Of course.”  However, after I thought about it for a moment, I was troubled.  I was troubled by the concern that a strong Christian would desire to impress upon me the equality of faith and works, and I was also concerned by my casual acceptance of this, as if on some level it was obvious that our works and God’s grace are somehow to be seen on an equal plane or given equal time.*

What is the heart of biblical counseling all about?  The answer to this question is linked to what the heart of the Christian life is all about.  It is obvious to anyone involved in ministry, that many Christians really believe that the heart of the Christian life, in one way or another is what we do; that the heart of our faith (and thus the heart of our counsel), whether we say it or not, is obedience; that God values us based on how well we obey Him.  This ends up becoming a kind of works righteousness.  So many Christians end up believing that in some way or other, it is works and obedience that are really the central determination by which we, in effect, are to live our lives and base our hope.

The result from thinking this way is often disastrous.  It inevitably leads to a life of constant pressure – pressure to perform, and pressure to keep the performance going.  This in turn leads to the despair of the thousands of people who have come to me for help because of depression, or perhaps more specifically, performance-related depression.  And for many years I had counseled people with this kind of depression by essentially seeking a different, albeit a better, style of performance.

You see, we so easily forget that our works (and with those works our obedience) can only be a byproduct of what is infinitely more important, and that is: that our lives must not only be touched by but dominated by the grace of God.  This is the heart of our life, and thus should be the heart of our counsel.

To help you think about this, let me ask you a related question.  It is a question which always seems to be at the center of the counseling process: Do we become more sanctified by DOING the right thing?

Friends, when we DO what’s right in order to BE right before God, we become moralists at best and legalists at worst.  We become unconcerned about our hearts and primarily concerned instead about our behavior.  Now, I’m not saying that we should be unconcerned about our behavior, but I am convinced that our behavior should never be the primary focus of our life or our counseling; because with a new heart and new spiritual power through the Holy Spirit, the dominant reality is to see Jesus’ life lived through us, as we come to realize that even a seemingly ‘good’ life can be displeasing to God if it isn’t lived for His glory.

God’s grace is to be central not only in our lives, but also in the counsel we bring to one another! As we come more and more to understand what Christ has done for us and who we are in Christ, our behavior will change to become more consistent with what we know to be true.

In my next blog post, I plan to continue presenting my thoughts about the real heart of biblical counseling.  Until then, may God bless you and enable you to walk and live and minister by God’s grace, and for His everlasting glory.

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* Afterwards, I realized that this person was misinterpreting the Bible passage to which he was referring (Matthew 7:15-20). God’s working in our life will inevitably be revealed through our actions. However, it is not our actions that make us acceptable to God, but Christ’s completed work on the cross on our behalf. Our actions are an outworking of our faith in Christ, as, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we more and more see Jesus’ life lived through us (Hebrews 13:20-21, John 15:5).

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Can a Christian work as a psychologist? Should Christians integrate psychological and biblical methods?