January 11, 2013

Gospel Counseling (Part One)

One of the most challenging and intimidating aspects of being a pastor's wife is that women come to me for counsel. Not just counsel, but sound counsel. Full disclosure: I went to seminary and got a degree in counseling. But I am still at times intimidated and overwhelmed when women disclose their hearts to me, although I very much want to extend hope and grace to each of them. I feel the weight of these moments; I want to get it right.

Last May, my friend and fellow pastor's wife mentioned in passing that she and the elder wives at her church were going through a gospel counseling class together and I practically pounced on her: What? Tell me everything you know!
Instead, she pointed me to Val Vance, the counselor leading the class. In 2009 Val joined the team at The Austin Stone Community Church as a member of the Care and Counseling ministry. She has developed new training and development strategies for both volunteers and professionals within the counseling ministry. Currently, Val is an Associate Counselor is the Director of Marketing for The Austin Stone Counseling Center. Fortunately, Val agreed to answer my questions and a few from blog readers, which I will share in a two part series. Her wisdom is a treasure trove for any woman involved in one-on-one discipleship or informal counseling situations. 

Q: What is gospel counseling? What are the primary ingredients or practices involved in gospel counseling?
A: I think this is such a great question to ask. Not just because it is so fundamental but also because there is a lot of anxiety that can surround the idea of ‘gospel counseling’. For many it can be intimidating; it can feel like the only people that should do it are either professional counselors or professional pastors.

Our definition of gospel counseling is simple. It is taking the entirety of revelation in the Bible and believing that it has implications in every area of the human experience. Simply put, gospel counseling is applying the gospel to everyday life. 

The reality is that all believers, whether they want to be or not,
are gospel counselors already. Our lives reveal what we believe about the gospel in a hundred different ways everyday by the way we interact with our families, churches, sin, traffic, disappointment, failure, etc. We are all applying the gospel to our lives. The question is: are we applying an accurate representation of the gospel or one that is false?

Components of Gospel Counseling:
Biblical Authority – It is impossible to expect an accurate application of the gospel to your life or the lives of others without the resolute, immovable conviction that the words of God carry a higher authority (and a higher promise of benefit) than any other source, including culture, experience, emotions, personal intellect, etc. This need becomes particularly more evident and crucial as the Bible calls us to change in ways that are not necessarily welcomed by us. 

Biblical Reliance – It is impossible to expect an accurate application of the gospel to your life or the lives of others if you are unaware of or neglect the depths of the riches of that gospel. Someone may say, “I know the gospel. I heard it many years ago from a Sunday school teacher, to whom I am very appreciative.” While that is very good, we do not merely need to hear the gospel once or twice to endure this life. We must have it every day, every moment. Understanding of the gospel is never finished or mastered – it is deeper than man can ever venture throughout his lifetime. An understanding of this gospel goes beyond a cold recitation of facts; it should permeate the mind and heart, ever overwhelming and undoing the object of its grace. For that, a person must run to its well and draw from it often – relying daily upon its nourishment for life and perseverance.

Biblical Study – It is impossible to expect an accurate application of the gospel to your life or the lives of others if you do not study its implications deeply, beseeching the help of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom is found infinitely through the pursuit of God in the Scriptures. There is treasure everywhere and unceasing. Some can be found at the surface while other treasure is deeply buried and requires us to spend all that we have to unearth and gain it. We must be a people who will give our time, energy, and priority to mine deeply into the word so that we may uncover more and more of the God revealed there. This is not primarily so that we will know how to be better teachers, wives, or mothers – but so that we may truly know and delight in God. Everything in the word and in our personal circumstances has been divinely architected to redirect our eyes back to Him. We make a tragic error when we pursue biblical study to confirm our identities in roles or blessings rather than to sit and gaze at the glory of God Himself.

Community – It is impossible to expect an accurate application of the gospel to your life or the lives of others if you are rejecting the communal identity of being a follower of Jesus. We see clearly through the teaching of Hebrews that God has designed perseverance, or living out the gospel rightly, to be a community project. The writer of Hebrews (3:12-14) admonishes the church there to exhort one another as long as it is called ‘today’ that none of them may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. This follows the warning that they not have an evil, unbelieving heart that leads them to fall away from the living God. What does this mean? First, that warning is for us. God is telling us in His word that it is possible to be deceived by sin, for our hearts to be hardened and led away from God. This is written to the church! It is not at all suggesting that someone can lose their salvation; instead it illustrates the chilling reality that members of the church can be so deceived and hardened that they prove themselves to never have belonged to the church at all, though they believed themselves to be at one time. We know that they were never part of the true church from the text because God has ordained that the perseverance of the saints at least partially be accomplished by the mutual exhortation that occurs day to day within the body of Christ. This is the embodiment of gospel counseling. We must live in community within the church in such a way that we see our gospel exhortation, or counseling, of one another as eternally significant.

Q: From a reader: What makes counseling different from advice? A: The gospel is not good advice; it is good news. One of the foundational misunderstandings of Christianity is that it is religion with a prescription to have a good life and earn your way to heaven. The gospel is not advice for a better life or a how-to guide to get to heaven. It is the story of a God who ordained that his Son leave heaven and eternally put on flesh so that He could be the representative man and fulfill the law needed for God the Father and man to finally and fully be reconciled. Then once His perfect obedience was accomplished, the Son traded His righteousness to vile man and in return endured the full punishment of sin by being forsaken by God and receiving His full wrath. Through this act, the Son purchased the greatest benefit of the new covenant which is the presence of God within every believer: the Holy Spirit.

Because this happened, the people of God now have the capacity to obey the commands of God (Ezekiel 36:27). We carry within us the Spirit of the living God. A guarantee of a new identity. That is the gospel.

And so gospel counseling is not the doling out of advice. It is pressing into and growing in our understanding of this amazing story – its depths and heights and infinite reaches – in such a way that it changes us. It changes what we think, feel, do, value, and prefer. It changes our motives. It changes what we fear. It changes where we find our hope, comfort, and security. It changes the way we see things that have been in front of our eyes for years like our jobs, relationships, possessions, money, marriage, children, and church. It changes how we handle conflict. It changes how we suffer.  


Q: Often, I feel like I am not competent enough or know enough of what Scripture says to offer wise counsel. Who is qualified to counsel other women and what tools should she have in her counseling tool belt?  A: I love what the Bible says about this very thing. Let me share a passage that has provided great comfort to me when I have felt unqualified.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 ESV)

According to this verse, the primary qualifier for another person to provide comfort to one that is hurting is that they first must receive comfort from God. Isn’t that great news? The verse explicitly says that God comforts us in ALL of our affliction to accomplish our capacity to comfort those that are in ANY affliction.

That means that professional degrees are not qualifying. It means that you don’t have to experience the same exact circumstance to be able to comfort someone – which is a common sentiment. You don’t have to be married to comfort those experiencing challenges in their marriage – you don’t have to have children to be able to comfort those who have lost a child. Our God is the God of ALL comfort. He has made it so that we can receive comfort from ANYONE that knows the comfort of the Father.

Stay tuned for part two of this interview, in which Val will give us practical advice on how to be a good gospel counselor and how to deal with unsolicited or unheeded counsel.