Thinking Theologically: Counselling and the Sufficiency of Christ

A friend of mine studying Christian counselling is working on an assignment that is asking them to come up with an integrative approach to psychology and counselling in light of this quote by John Macarthur Jr:

‘Any counsellor who desires to honour God and be effective must see the goal of his efforts as leading a person to the sufficiency of Christ. The view that man is capable of solving his own problems, or that people can help one another by ‘therapy’ or other means, denies the doctrine of human depravity and man’s need for God. It places the Spirit’s transforming power with impotent human wisdom’. John Macarthur Jr., “Our Sufficiency in Christ” (1991).

Late last night I spent about 15 mins typing out an ‘off the cuff’ way in which I might approach it. Since I’ve been trying to teach my youth leaders how to think theologically, and because I think there’s no greater discipline for anyone in Christian leadership than to be able to think theologically about any and every topic, I thought I’d post up my rambling response. The content isn’t very important (and may have lots of problems with it). However, it’s the method and the way of going about it that I would like for those who are seeking to think theologically to be able to apply. Here goes:

The integration part is what I struggle with as I have no idea how to tackle that side of things. I also can’t think of many readings/papers off the top of my head that would help. But this would be the direction I’d be thinking (very tentatively):

1. Explore the doctrine of human depravity. What is meant by ‘total depravity’ in the Reformed (i.e. Calvinistic) understanding? Total depravity means that humanity is thoroughly corrupted by the fall in every faculty and completely unable to help himself. That includes psychological, emotional, physical, mental fallenness as well. It doesn’t mean we’re as bad as we could be, but it does imply helplessness, particularly in relation to living the kind of life that God created us to live. This impacts: firstly, the client seeking help; secondly, the counsellor giving help; and, thirdly, the discipline of psychology (apart from Christ), which, being a product of human understanding, will never be sufficient in itself to truly help.

2. Explore the sufficiency of Christ in terms of ‘salvation’ in the fullest sense. Salvation is not just saving our souls. It is the total and eschatological renewal of our entire fallen humanity. Christ is the first fruits of that new creation and by his death and resurrection has secured for human beings the only access we have to that renewal and restoration. This is ultimately an eschatological reality. But because Christ has risen, the future is brought into the present by the gift of his Spirit, so that united to him, we begin to experience this renewal from the inside out. That certainly includes renewal of our minds and emotions.

3. Explore the doctrine of ‘common grace’. That is, there is still wisdom ‘in the world’ apart from Christ that is wisdom precisely because it reflects some of God’s residual and orderly goodness as discerned in the world, even in spite of the fall. So though human wisdom cannot save and bring ultimate renewal (for only Christ can), it can be used as a basis for some limited and temporary relief of human ailments (just take medicine for example). Total depravity does not mean that God leaves himself completely without witness in the world, nor does it mean that everything is as corrupt as it could be. By God’s grace, he still allows his image bearers to do good by seeking and implementing worldly wisdom in order to hold back the full effects of the fall. Secular psychology and other medical professions fall into that category.

4. Explore the tension that this creates for the counsellor (and this may be where the integration lies). On the one hand, your hope will need to be in the power of Christ to renew and regenerate sinful people. Only Christ can bring ultimate healing and restoration. But even for born again believers, that’s something which is only going to be completed in the new creation. In the meantime, counsellors need to apply God’s ‘common grace’ in all its forms as it is available to them, in order to help people ‘cope’ and receive limited forms of healing and help, in the prayer and hope that God would ultimately enter into their lives and work from within. A Christian counsellor will recognise the impotence sin renders their discipline in the ultimate sense, and yet understand that God has given them a task to do until Christ returns to do as much limited good as possible. A Christian counsellor knows that he or she cannot heal and restore in the way that only Christ by his Spirit can, and will always be praying that the person can experience a hope and healing that psychology and counselling alone will never bring. However, (especially) for the person who has the Spirit, counselling techniques and wisdom from the realm of psychology can definitely be used by God (and by his Spirit) to unlock areas that would otherwise remain locked within a broken person’s psyche. A Christian counsellor will always see his or her job as helpful but not necessary, as God can and does heal brokenness completely without psychology with a good dose of Spirit-led renewal and grace.

What other theological categories or avenues of thought would you add to this?

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About Pete

I am a child of God, a husband, a father of four children, a pastor, and a church planter. I live in Sydney Australia and live to see Jesus made famous in this city and be the only God people worship.

Posted on February 27, 2012, in Christian Living, Ministry, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Overall a good approach I think.

    I majored in Pastoral Counselling and have completed post graduate work in Clinical Counselling as I thought it would be vital to pastoral ministry.

    One thing that was a big ‘take-away’ for me that overlaps on a few of your points is that ‘counselling’ is best thought of in terms of discipleship. (I think you touch on this in your point #2). As a pastor I try to not limit myself to addressing the immediate issue or concern of the person I’m speaking (or should I say teaching & training) to – but rather take a more strategic and eschatological (I love your use of that term here) view of their sanctification and growth – i.e. How is God using this to form them into the image of Christ.

    That doesn’t exclude other temporal/common-grace means, but it also avoids a consumer approach of “fixing” a problem when there are greater things at stake.

    So far as resources for “integrating” – has your friend been exposed to any Jay Adams work? That would be a good place to start. The MacArthur book you’ve quoted is good, but from memory, it was more a response and caution against excessive pragmatism so will be limited in how it approaches this aspect of discipleship.

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