Counseling: The Gospel for the Details


So far this series, we’ve discussed how the gospel is more than a reference point for ministry, and we have seen how that shapes our approach to preaching. This week, we discuss how that affects our approach to counseling.

The Foundation for “Counseling” Conversations

David Powlison helpfully lumps counseling alongside preaching into the categories of the Ministry of the Word and Discipleship. Following his logic, counseling becomes both a supplement to and an extension of preaching, as well as its own brand of Ministry of the Word altogether that is supported by and grounded in the preaching done on Sunday mornings. Instead of preaching the Word, we are counseling the Word. Instead of broad application for the whole church, it is specific application for an individual. Instead of relating to people in general, you are relating to someone in particular. Instead of analyzing/exegeting your audience from a distance, you are listening to your audience of one (or more, depending on the circumstance) and walking through the analysis in back-and-forth conversation. The process is more mutual, more communal, and your messages are shorter and less prepared. You speak less, and you do so extemporaneously. Your counsel is ad hoc and off the cuff, but it is still counsel from and of the Word, and it is counsel through the paradigm of the gospel.

The Gospel and “Counseling” Conversations

When the gospel is our paradigm for understanding and “exegeting” the people we counsel, it helps us remember that we are simul justus et peccator, that is, sinners and saints at the same time. And the gospel keeps these dual and dueling nature's in mind and in tension at all times so as to bring both correction and hope, a call to both rest and repentance. It is seldom (possibly never) a call to just one or the other. It is often (perhaps always) a meeting of these two aspects of the gospel in a few words to one person who needs both. One aspect may well be more pronounced than the other, and your counseling should match that, but rarely should you neglect either.

Taking this view of man a step further, the gospel understands that, while all issues are affected by sin, not all issues are based in the counselee's personal sin, and they're not all solved by finding and repenting of personal sin. Sometimes you will see lots and lots of sin, and then you will find it all stems from some misunderstanding, some distressing encounter, or some other sin-influenced but not sin-based experience. Does this mean the person isn’t responsible for their sin? No. Does it mean they’re sin isn’t based in their sin-nature? Absolutely not! What it does mean is your counsel should revolve around the experience and should address both how they’re interpreting that experience and how they’re responding to it. Practically illustrated, this means counseling someone through an angry response to a conflict should start with understanding why the conflict angered them in the first place, not with a call to repent of any sinful anger. Once you understand the why of the anger, you can help them work through the details of gospel-application. This may mean you emphasize Christ’s comfort for the mistreated, or His call to love those who mistreat us, or the person’s need to grow in wisdom so they don’t mistake the other party’s verbal advances for attacks. In any case, you don’t know what they need until you sift through the nuances of their experience, and you can’t do the sifting unless you have a conversation with them.

Having the Conversation

The gospel spends substantial time helping us understand and articulate the problems of sin and suffering in general (cf. Rom 1-3), and just as the gospel does in general, so must we do in particular. This means conversing with our counselees until they and we together are able to understand and articulate their specific problems of sin and suffering. Once we've sounded the depths of their struggles and drawn out the deep waters of their soul (Prov 20:5) – and only then – can we effectively bring to bear the reality of Christ's redemption to the sins and sorrows of their hearts.

Consequently, gospel-centered counseling can be a slow process, because it puts a premium on understanding the counselee – understanding what's really going on in a person's heart and environment, understanding what they mean by what they say, understanding why this problem is a problem for them. And then it puts a premium on understanding the Wonderful Counselor – how He is at work in their heart and environment, what He means by what He says, how He meets them in their particular experience of this particular problem. We often say there are no “quick fixes,” and now we're saying why this is so.

This isn’t to say that some problems aren't more straightforward than others, just as some passages of Scripture are more straightforward than others. When it comes to Scripture, sometimes you don't need to analyze the original languages and check 5 commentaries before coming to a conclusion about a text's meaning, but you never assume that you don't. You always take the careful path of caution, because you want to make sure you don't miss something essential and thereby miss everything altogether. So it is with counseling. You don't assume that this person means the same thing by "anxiety" and "unbelief" and "stressed" that you do or that they experience those things for the same reasons your last counselee experienced them. Each person is a collection of nuances wrapped in details, so that the more you understand the details, the more you can unpack the nuances, and the more effectively you can apply the gospel where they need it and in the way they need it.

In Practice: Applying the Gospel Where They Need It, in the Way They Need It

In practice, gospel-centered counseling frequently deals more with the implications of the gospel than with the content of the gospel. What people often need is not to know what the gospel is. What they need is to know what it means - what it means for them, for the pain they're feeling right now, for the sin they committed yesterday and will repeat tomorrow, for the immense amount of effort they cannot help but to feel they are wasting as they pour out what feels like a dwindling supply of love on a seemingly lifeless and utterly ungrateful spouse or child or neighbor or church or whatever. People need to know how to make application from Jesus' death and resurrection to the dead places in their souls that need life. How do they live and love and hope and work God's way when all of life in a fallen world works ardently against that aim? How do they navigate grief and loss and pain honestly while not grieving and suffering as those who have no hope? And how do they fight the battles within, intelligently and successfully, so they can manifest the life of Christ practically as they face the battles without? In sum, how can they make meaningful application of redemption to daily life in a way that is life-giving, relevant, and transformative? These are the questions gospel-centered counseling seeks to answer, and so these are the questions we seek to answer in our counseling here at Redeemer. Please join us next week as we discuss the gospel as it relates to our service.

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