Friday, March 13, 2015

Counseling & The Means of Grace

Counseling has been a significant part of my life, both in study and in doing, as a pastor, and as a counselor who has been in private practice/counseling ministry.   There is a wonderful wealth of counseling training materials for Christians seeking to counsel.  Of course, there are a variety of theories on counseling, from 'Nouthetic' to 'Theories of Explanation' paradigms, and all manner of approaches in between.  I lean very strongly to a Word-informed, Word-saturated approach in counseling.  I have sat with hurting people for countless hours seeking to apply the truths of God's Word to their situations, thoughts, experiences and sinful patterns, and yet over the years I have come to realize that counseling, while often a very helpful component to the ministry of the church, is to complement the means of grace.  By means of grace, I mean those ordinary means that the Lord Christ has given His bride to feed their faith until they are with Him face to face (not the basis of our justification, but the ordinary, God-ordained mechanisms through which His people are fed by the grace wrought by the merits and work of Christ).  There are a variety of helpful resources on these, both old and new, that I encourage the reader to utilize such as this lecture series here: [Click Here]

The Baptist Confession (1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith) 14.1 says:

"The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord's supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened. ( 2 Corinthians 4:13; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 10:14, 17; Luke 17:5; 1 Peter 2:2; Acts 20:32 )"

While counseling, rightly performed, is an offshoot of the ministry of the Word, it is not a replacement for the ordinary means of grace.  Counseling is the ministry of the Word applied to the pain caused by the fallen world, but also applied in discipleship to the growth of the Christian.  However, how many of us, pastors and "professional" counselors alike, forget the means of grace in the process?  How often have we labored with individuals in listening, speaking, shedding tears, and encouraging and yet have forgotten to commend the ordinary means of grace to individuals?.  Many of us counsel those within the local church that we pastor, and so this may be a less prevalent reality, albeit it a necessary reminder as we continue to counsel.  Others have spent time outside the local church counseling persons (elsewhere we could have the necessary discussion of the appropriate way to go about counseling outside the auspices of a particular local body--connection to the local church is so necessary and must be a continued goal for counseling in my opinion), and we have failed to even consider the role that the means of grace (and their absence in the life of the individual) play in their journey.  What if a depressed individual is not regularly coming to the table of the Lord, and is looking for our "wisdom" alone to get them through?  What if a person struggling with grief is talking to us, but not currently sitting under the preaching of the Word, or assembling regularly in communion through the Supper?  Or, how about the individual who is struggling with the sin of drunkenness, and is seeking to talk it out with us, but is not currently praying regularly according to the biblical pattern that the Lord has given?   Our counsel, if the Lord wills, can be of great comfort, and perhaps spiritual benefit, but it cannot replace the ordinary means of grace that the Lord has ordained for His people until they are home. 

Please do not misunderstand me.  I know many of the deep deep hurts and struggles that believers have experienced, and I do not mean to insinuate for example that the woman who was ritually abused by her father and is now in the throws of pain over it needs to forsake counseling, and "just take the Lord's Supper".   The means of grace are not a magic pill for all depression, anxiety, trauma recovery, etc.  However, they should not be neglected in the lives of those individuals who are working through these issues.  Many readers will be thinking, "Well of course!  I would never expect a counselee to not be involved in the means."  Yet do we regularly encourage them as part of the overall picture of a person?  Wouldn't it be a better approach to see counseling as a necessary and yet secondary complement to the Lord's work in feeding faith through the ordinary means?

Oh how important is the phrase "ordinarily wrought" in the confessional paragraph above.  When a brother or sister or "counselee" sits in my office, my first question will not likely be "when was the last time you took the Lord's Supper?"  However, the Word preached, the sacraments, and prayer should be a consideration as the counseling unfolds.  We may talk through problems and sins and pain, but it is most useful as a complement to the Lord's given means of feeding His people in His grace. 

The means of grace are the banquet.  Counseling ministry is a needed help, but it alone will not satisfy the spiritual appetite...