Counseling Is Not the Best Context for Long-Term Transformation
Biblical counseling has a place in our community, and as long as we keep it in its place while elevating a better “means of grace” for people to change, we will see more people changing.
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- Do You Fight Fires or Change Lives?
- The Reason the Gospel Is not Enough to Change You
- A Better Way to Do Counseling
Some people call me a biblical counselor, which is an okay term for folks to use regarding my life’s work, for the most part. I offer biblical advice to people in need. You could say I provide biblical counseling. But here is my caveat: biblical counseling is not a point-of-emphasis for me or the direction in which I have set my compass.
As odd as it may seem, I honestly do not give a lot of thought about biblical counseling. The primary reason I use that term is for marketing purposes; that is about it. Words like professional, counseling, counselor, counselee, and client are peripheral words that have limited space in my worldview.
My passion and emphasis are grander than biblical counseling. I am part of the “local church movement,” and what I do is discipleship. Some people would call my perspective unnecessary hair-splitting, but I think it is a hair worth discussing, and even splitting if need be.
I understand the purpose of biblical counseling and appreciate its rise in popularity within many local churches. In some ways, I am a fan of biblical counseling, but on its best day, it is still the tail, not the dog when it comes to New Testament soul care strategies.
My affection is for the dog, which is the local church, and for two millennia we have called the process of sanctification, discipleship. Discipleship connotes the fullness of what sanctification should be with individuals, families, and churches.
Any method of change that is biblical is a useful method. This article is not about doing away with or discontinuing any excellent and biblical way for transformation. And biblical counseling is one of those beautiful means of grace that the Lord gave to His church.
As you look at the list in the infographic, you see eight different methods of grace that can help you change. All of them are good, and all of them have their place in God’s community.
For example, books, programs, and Bible studies (the lower grouping) are more foundational than transformative. There is much to glean and benefit from robust Christian literature, church programs, and Bible studies. We all have benefited from those things, but as far as a means of sanctification, there are more effective ways to change, which is what the upper grouping represents.
Sanctification consists of two principal parts: knowledge and application. We need both to change. Books, programs, and Bible studies are parts of the ways we gain knowledge. They are means that build a knowledgeable foundation into anyone’s life. Without Bible training, we would have nothing to apply to our lives.
- Knowledge without application leads to arrogance.
- Application without knowledge leads to foolishness.
- Knowledge, biblically applied, leads to wisdom.
You Are a Discipler
The lower group is more about theology, while the upper group is more about the application of theology, or what we call progressive sanctification. The most effective means for sanctification to take place is in a loving group of Christlike disciple-makers. Your family is the best group, and your local church comes second.
Because these kinds of “sanctification groups” are few and far between, the lower group are the more common means of transformation in church culture today. The weaknesses of the local church to disciple well has given rise to para-church ministries like mine, and the biblical counseling movement. It’s an unintended consequence, which is not wrong, though there are liabilities with them.
What Jay Adams started in the late sixties and what others like me are perpetuating is a reclamation of counseling from our culture, with the hope of embedding it into the local church. This necessity for the church is why I prefer to call what I do discipleship rather than biblical counseling.
If you are a Christian, you are a discipler. Discipling, or what has been popularized in the church today and called counseling, is what every Christian can do according to their personal gifting and the relational contexts that churches provide for you to disciple others.
Better to Best
My second graphic lays out the beauty of a group of disciple-makers who are doing “life on life community” with each other. This perspective is as good as sanctification can get for any believer.
What makes my Member Site and the other means of grace mentioned in the first graphic inferior to doing life on life is those contexts miss out on the real-life situations that produce the problems with which we struggle.
Counseling, men’s groups, one-to-one meetings, and my site all have one thing in common: they are contexts where you can come to talk about what has happened to you in the past.
Doing “present tense” life together gives you the opportunities to live your life as it is happening today. Right now. It is the difference between hearing how a man treats his wife in a counseling session versus living with the man who treats his wife poorly.
No matter how much you think you know someone, there is no replacement for living with a person. I have had more than one individual tell me in counseling, “Rick, you do not know my (spouse) because you do not live with them.” I wholeheartedly agree, which is what makes those inferior means of change not as effective as doing life on life together.
Everybody who has been married for more than six months understands this predicament because they have experienced the difference between dating a person and marrying them. In this analogy, the dating relationship is like a “season of counseling” while life on life is like marriage.
The dating relationship creates brief interludes where the real stuff about our lives is somewhat hidden. Marriage is an uninterrupted context where we can’t hide our authentic selves from each other. More than one marriage partner has been surprised by what their marriage relationship revealed.
Life on life is not the same as marriage, but as you can see from the larger “doing life together” circle in the second graphic, the opportunities to truly learn a person or a couple is far more likely because of all the possible contexts for them to engage each other.
Small Group Illustrated
I began leading our last small group that we attended on July 4, 2010. We led that group for four years. For the most part, we met every Sunday evening for two hours. Lucia and I also met each couple monthly, and I met with each man in our group once a month.
We went on vacations together, shopped together, worked out together, helped each other move, celebrated birthdays, and set Christmas trees on fire. Lucia and I have never done any of these things with counselees because the counseling process is a restrictive artificial environment that happens outside of real-life situations.
All of the people in our small group have sinned against each other. We hurt each other’s feelings, offended one another, got mad at each other, as well as cried together, prayed together, and encouraged each other. We experienced the full range of life’s joys and challenges in our small group.
When we came together to meet, we talked about our lives or the Sunday sermon or both. Our meetings were pneumatic more than structured, though the theme never changed:
We come together to help each other mature in our sanctification. We do not deviate from this purpose.
Below is an actual email I sent to my small group before one of our meetings. I sent emails like this one during the early envisioning stage to help keep our focus on ourselves. After a while, it was not necessary to send them because the group had captured the vision.
Dear Small Group!
Here are the application questions for our discussion tonight. Please think through these questions and be prepared to share how you are doing in these areas. My hope is for us to stay on point while being specific and practical as to how God has been working and still needs to work in our lives.
Text: 1 Corinthians 1:1–9
Paul thought about and viewed an unruly group of people through a gospel-shaped lens. How Paul talked to the Corinthians not only practically helps us in how we should respond to others, but Paul’s attitude and affection for the Corinthians reveals a lot about the kind of person that he was.
What kind of person are you? (Remember that small group is not about changing others or talking about others, but about changing ourselves by talking about ourselves. “How do I need to change?”)
The Big Idea: The measure and degree to which you understand and live out a gospel-shaped identity in Christ is revealed by how you think about and respond to others. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). How you think about and respond to other Christians (behavior) is directly connected to who you are (heart).
How do you generally think about and respond to others, especially others who are not living according to the way you would like for them to live?
Think about a specific person who annoys you!
How do you view your fellow Christians? Do you generally consider them as brothers or sisters in Christ who, like you, are members of the family of God and are “works in process”? Or do you view them with uncertainty as to whether they will finish what God has begun? (Philippians 1:6)
How do you define others? By where they currently are in their progressive sanctification (you focus more on their sin) or by who they are in Christ (you concentrate more on the gospel)?
Do you tend to lose hope when thinking about others? Or do you generally focus on the grace of God in their lives?
While Paul did not withhold correction from the Corinthians, as we see in the rest of his letter to them, we see in the first nine verses his attitude and affection for the people he was about to correct. How much love do you have for those who need your correction?
See you tonight?
Though some local churches struggle to provide this kind of intentional care, there are ways to receive some care. It might not be the most effective care, but it is biblical help, and it is available for you. As you take one last look at the first graphic, how would you answer these two questions?
- What is the primary method of sanctification that you use? Why?
- What level of commitment do you have toward your sanctification?
The second question is the one in which you have the most control. Though you may experience limitation by the lack of or insufficient sanctification contexts, there should be no hindrance by your determination to change. Do not let another day go by without reaching out for help.
Originally published at Rick Thomas.