Where the world comes to study the Bible

Report Inappropriate Ad

11. The Ministry Of Counseling, Part 3

Related Media

January 20 1980


Throughout this study of counseling, I have struggled with mixed emotions. In one way I sense it as a desperate deficiency in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. On the other hand, I have a sense of dread that some of you will take the matter too seriously and, in your mind at least, hang up your shingle and go into practice. Perhaps as many people are hurt by bad counsel as those who have had none at all.2

The practical thrust of what I have been trying to accomplish in these lessons on counseling can best be summarized by a statement by Carl F.H. Henry:

Suppose a Christian under emotional stress walked into a Christian group. How could its members help him? Ordinary laymen should be able to minister to one another at least on an elementary level, through cell groups, for instance. And a church must find a way to put to work those to whom God has given counseling gifts, perhaps even using them to establish a clinic overseen by a specialist and offering help to those with somewhat more complex problems. All thoughtful help need not come from the pastor.3

While the world around us is trying to deal with pressures and problems with pills, drugs, and alcohol, the church of Jesus Christ all too often is either offering platitudes and panaceas, or is simply denying that the problems exist. The warm acceptance, love, and sense of worth that we all desperately desire is often not to be found in abundance in the church. My desire is that we would be the kind of church to which a professional counselor could refer a troubled soul without hesitation, not for therapy, but for an environment in which healing is encouraged and enhanced.

Such healing does not occur haphazardly, any more than a broken leg resets itself. There is a process involved in emotional and psychological healing. It is to this process that I would like to draw your attention in this lesson.

The Process of Counseling

Gary Collins has written that the author of a recent article on the subject has estimated that there are over two hundred different systematic approaches to counseling.4 The process I would like to suggest at least has simplicity to commend it. I have found this approach to work well in any problem-solving situation, whether it be in counseling, auto repair, law, medicine or Bible study. I can guarantee that this approach will never fail you, though you will often fail it. The process has four steps: observation, interpretation, correlation, and application.


One of the greatest temptations we face in helping people is to attempt to make
a diagnosis of the problem before we have sufficient facts in mind. Proverbs warns us,

He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him (Proverbs 18:13).

Observation avoids this error by assimilating the necessary information or data upon which a diagnosis can be made. Historically, most of my mistakes have been made in the area of insufficient observation. Often the most vital observation (and the most difficult to identify) is the one which is most obvious. Doctors give batteries of tests, not just to run up the bill (believe it or not), but to get as much information as possible upon which an accurate diagnosis can be made. This is what we must do if we are to help in the healing process of people who are hurting.

Sometime ago I found an interesting illustration of observation, one which now has even more meaning. It was an article in the Dallas Morning News concerning two POW’s, Robert Jeffrey and Jerry Singleton.5 (Jerry just recently graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary and now serves as a chaplain at Shepherd Air Force Base.) Listen to the observations which Mrs. Singleton made from a letter received from her husband while in confinement:

I know Jerry has never received any of my mail or he would have known I haven’t lived in Colorado for years, Mrs. Singleton said.

He wrote that he was not injured when his plane was downed, and that his health is now OK. He didn’t say it was good.

He said “God is with me,” indicating to me he is or was in solitary confinement. Jerry wrote to “tell our child that Daddy loves you very much, be good and do what Mommy tells you.” He doesn’t know if it’s a boy or a girl.

Two things especially strike me about these observations. First, Mrs. Singleton was not finding things that were not there. She was making mental note of vitally important details that would normally be overlooked. Second, the reason for her intense interest in these details was due to her deep love of her husband.

Here is the rock-bottom issue. Most of us get little out of Bible study because we put so little into it. God’s Word is not dull; we simply do not care enough to mine for its nuggets of truth. The reason so many hurting people go away without being helped, my Christian friend, is not because they are not sending out distress signals, but that we care too little about others to tune in to them. If you are like me, you are listening carefully for only one thing: a break in the conversation into which you can interject your own conversation. We Christians are often plagued by a form of spiritual autism.

Observation in the area of counseling is absolutely vital because some problems are not readily apparent.

A plan in the heart of man is like deep water, but a man of understanding draws it out (Proverbs 20:5).

Problems are sometimes deliberately concealed:

Blessings are on the head of the righteous, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence (Proverbs 10:6).

He who hates disguises it with his lips, but he lays up deceit in his heart (Proverbs 26:24).

All of us tend to deceive even ourselves:

All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the Lord weighs the motives (Proverbs 16:2).

There is a way which seems right to man, but its end is the way of death (Proverbs 14:12).

Furthermore, one person’s perception of a problem often differs from that of others who are involved:

The first to plead his case seems just, until another comes and examines him (Proverbs 18:17).

The mechanics of observation are very simple: looking and listening.

Visual observation can tell us a great deal. Facial expressions often mirror the condition of the soul.

A joyful heart makes a cheerful face, but when the heart is sad, the spirit is broken (Proverbs 15:13).

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?” (Genesis 4:6).

A downcast countenance, a disheveled appearance, bloodshot or swollen eyes all reveal important information on which the caring Christian will follow up.

Listening is the other essential ingredient. I read in the paper the other day that the IRS trains its personnel to pick up the slightest changes in one’s voice. Stress is betrayed by our speech. It is not just what people say, but how they say it, and what they don’t say. Be especially wary of clichés. They often mask our problems.

Most of us have been well trained not to bring out our dirty laundry in public. As a result, we are reluctant to share our pains and problems. One of the most important reasons for holding back is that we sense that most people do not want to hear our problems, much less do something about them.

Questions that sensitively probe and pinpoint problems are often the key to helping others. Our questions tell the other person that we care, and that our concern goes beyond mere politeness or morbid curiosity. Questions draw out the other party and make it easy for them to share their problems or concerns.

Only recently have I come to realize how frequently our Lord asked questions. Satan questioned Eve to instigate the fall. God questioned Adam and Eve to bring about confession and repentance. When our Lord revealed Himself to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, it was to bring comfort and encouragement. Most of the dialogue of Luke 24 revolves around the questions Jesus asked and the answers that were given.

In Mark 9, Jesus was confronted with a situation in which the nine disciples had failed to cast a demon out of a boy. Jesus probed the father with this question:

How long has this been happening to him? (verse 21)

In His omniscience, Jesus knew all things, but here He showed His disciples that one cannot approach all problems as though they were the same. This was a different type of problem; one which must be handled appropriately (verse 29). Jesus’ question, and the answer of the father, revealed this to Jesus but not to the disciples.

Let us learn from our Lord that it is essential for those who minister to do so in the light of the facts. Looking and listening well provides us with many needed insights. Asking questions supplies additional information, which can make our ministry more effective. Asking questions not only provides data, it shows that we really care, and it benefits those in need by giving them the opportunity to share their concerns.


While observation seeks out the facts, interpretation sorts them out. Discernment is the key element in the process of interpretation. Reasons must be distinguished from excuses; actions must be separated from motives. Symptoms must be isolated from the source of the problem and so on. I suppose that one could say interpretation is both an art and a science, but that would not be saying enough. It is the outworking of the wisdom that comes from knowing God through His Word.

A wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel (Proverbs 1:5).

Interpretation assesses overall character. Proverbs distinguishes a number of character-types, including the wise, the simple (or naive), the fool, the scoffer, and the sluggard.6 In the New Testament, we are told to admonish the unruly, to encourage the fainthearted, and help the weak (1 Thessalonians 5:14). We dare not admonish the fainthearted or encourage the unruly. Thus, we must assess overall character in order to deal rightly with those we wish to help.

In the process of interpretation, we must discern the various levels of one’s problem. Jay Adams makes a helpful distinction of three distinct levels of a problem.7 The first level is what he calls the presentation problem. We might call it the symptomatic problem. Psalm 32:3-4 describes the visible symptoms experienced by David. David seems to have suffered from a loss of appetite, a low energy level, and sleeplessness. These are the warning lights that we try to turn off with pills and alcohol. The second level Adams calls the performance problem. For David, this was his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband.

The third level is the pre-conditioning problem. Most of us, I fear, would have been content to expose these sins as the real problem. But even David’s sins of adultery and murder were but symptoms of a more deeply rooted problem. The Scriptures reveal David’s root problem, for our instruction:

Then it happened in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, and they destroyed the sons of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed at Jerusalem. Now when evening came David arose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing…(2 Samuel 11:1-2, emphasis mine).

David should not have stayed at home––he should have been with his troops.8 Neither should he have spent the day in bed, to rise at evening time. Something was desperately wrong in his spiritual life, in his priorities and values. Here is where the problem began, and here is where it will ultimately be solved.

Counseling cannot be content with the surfacing of a problem. It cannot stop when it finds a sin; it must press on from the symptoms to the source, from the fruit to the root. Interpretation is that step in the process where this occurs (or should).

Please do not misunderstand what I am suggesting. All sin is sin, and falls under the condemnation of God. David was to face severe consequences for the sins of murder and adultery (cf. 2 Samuel 12:10-12). Nevertheless, some sins are root sins; others are fruit sins. Some sins are the source of other sins. Until we have dealt with the source sins, we will have to deal with a rash of symptomatic sins.


Correlation seeks to raise truth with truth. This is a critical step in the counseling process, for counseling problems frequently arise when one truth is held to the neglect of others. Theologically, great error arises when we hold either the doctrine of the sovereignty of God or that of the responsibility of man to the exclusion or practical denial of the other.

A more common problem is found in the respective responsibilities of the husband and the wife. A husband concludes that the submission of his wife means he can do whatever he wants, and that he can order his wife to do as he pleases, without any protest or participation in the decision-making process. He has overextended the biblical teaching of submission to an unbiblical and unacceptable practice of dictatorship. Submission (Ephesians 5:22-24) must be grasped within the context of love (Ephesians 5:25-30), the limits of authority (Acts 5:29), and self-sacrifice (Philippians 2:5-9).

Since no human problem is truly unique and all problems are common to humanity (1 Corinthians 10:13), as counselors we may well be able to relate our problems (and solutions) to those difficulties of the counselee (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4). The experience of others may well benefit the counselee. We may be used to help the counselee see that their problems are similar to those of others, and thus to learn from the experiences of others. Since the Bible abounds with accounts of the trials and tragedies faced by men, we can often help the counselee to find passages which relate to their personal problems.

We dare not close our eyes to what has been learned by secular study and research, both in the physical and psychological realm. While some conclusions and approaches must be rejected, we may help the counselee to “examine everything,” and “hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

What troubles me greatly are the efforts which are being made (often by professional Christian counselors) to “integrate psychology and theology.” Integration means equality. This is why racial integration is imperative. But no such equality exists between psychological and theological truth. The Bible is inspired, inerrant, and fully authoritative in matters touching Christian faith and practice (or, for that matter, any subject on which it claims authority). My theology, that is, my systematic grasp of the Bible’s teaching, is not inspired, but it has far more certainty than does psychology. Biblical theology rests on man’s interpretation of Scripture. Psychology rests largely on man’s perception of psychological problems, and much of this perception is based on erroneous or suspect presuppositions and conclusions.

For this reason, I wish to make it clear that correlation should not be misunderstood as handling biblical revelation and human theories as equals. Psychology and psychiatry must be subordinated to biblical truth, not integrated with it. The counselor should seek to correlate his personal insight, biblical knowledge, personal experience and wisdom with the particular problems of the counselee. In addition, there should be a correlation of the counselee’s problem(s) with the data that has been arrived at through secular study.

Finally, the counselor must be sensitive to the interrelationship of the counselee’s physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. Emotional problems are often related to one’s physical and spiritual condition. We should be instructed, for example, from the fact that God met Elijah’s physical need for food and rest before dealing with his misconceptions of God’s working (cf. 1 Kings 19).

While the contribution of the counselor, the counselee, and the secular knowledge should be considered and correlated, all of these must be subordinated to the authority of the Word of God. Thus, in the chart, while the horizontal relationships are coordinate, the vertical relationships are subordinate.


For years, professional counselors have debated as to how one should handle emotional or psychological problems. Essentially, counselors have graduated toward two polarities. On the one hand, there is the directive approach to counseling. In this approach, the counselor is active and plays a very dominant role. He listens to the client, diagnoses the problem, and then tells the individual what to do about his problem.9

The non-directive counselor, on the other end of the spectrum, is very passive. He listens, may interject a question or two, but lets the client talk it out. The counselor is responsible for the solution in the directive approach. The client is to work out the answer according to non-directive methodology.

Neither method, directive or non-directive, is the method for all counseling or counselors. The method should vary with the counselee. The unruly must be directly confronted (admonished, 1 Thessalonians; restored, Galatians 6:1; shunned, 2 Thessalonians 3:6; Titus 3:10). Others must be given encouragement and emotional support. In the case of Job, it would be difficult to deal with him directly (nouthetically), if we did not know the reason for his distress, nor the solution to it.

Application is simply taking appropriate action, at the most opportune time, in the most fitting manner. We cannot lay down any one approach. We should endeavor to respond to problems with the attitudes and actions of our Lord.


Here, then, is the process for problem solving in counseling. It begins with a godly person who, like Christ, considers others more important than self (Philippians 2:5-8). It listens and looks for evidences of need which we can probe in order to minister effectively. It rightly interprets the problem according to God-given wisdom gained from the Scriptures and human experience. It relates the conclusions derived with other truth, especially that of the Word and it responds appropriately.

There are three great dangers of which I must warn you before we conclude. First, is the probing for information which is motivated by curiosity rather than concern. Now mind you we may disguise curiosity as concern, but it is simply a morbid desire to probe and ponder the sordid. The Scriptures tell us,

And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret (Ephesians 5:11-12).

Counseling is not an exception to this warning.

Second, most of us have an intense desire to tell people what we think. We must learn to distinguish between our advice and counsel. Counsel is based upon biblical principles, while advice is based upon our opinions and prejudices. Let us be careful to speak a word for God, not for ourselves.

Our opinions (advice) may be sought out. In such cases we may feel it appropriate to give our opinion, but it should be clearly stated that there is no biblical principle involved to our knowledge. I would caution you about aggressively trying to share your advice with those who don’t ask for it. That might well be “takes a dog by the ears” (Proverbs 26:17).

While it is true that we are dependent upon one another as members of the body of Christ, there are unwise relationships which result from counseling. A third great danger is that of unhealthy dependence. Especially is there a grave danger in counseling with the opposite sex. Many pastors have had their ministries ruined by counseling situations which finally resulted in immorality. We may prove, in a counseling situation, to be more understanding, more supportive, more appreciative, more loving, than the partner of the one to whom we are ministering. Be careful! Emotional intimacy is dangerously close to physical intimacy.

Most of what we have been trying to say in this message could be summed up by the label, good communication. In an age when electronic communication is improving beyond imagination, human communication is at its lowest ebb. It is the number one problem in marriages and families. We need to develop our listening and communication abilities far more to save our own marriages and families than we do to help others. Indeed, only when we have helped ourselves will we be able to help others.

Beyond the value of the counseling process for our own personal benefit, this process is the key to evangelism. Much of our witness is more of an assault than an authentic act of evangelism. We approach the unsaved, and without any kind of relationship with the lost, we proceed to delve into the most intimate spheres of their lives. They would far rather talk about sex than salvation. We have not earned the right to such intimacy.

When we truly become interested in people and concerned about ministering to them, we will gently probe their lives for points of need. When these fundamental needs begin to surface, the gospel can be more effectively shared. I am simply saying that good counseling paves the way for evangelism, as I see it.10

May God enable us to minister to men and women out of genuine concern. And may we be able to share Jesus Christ at their point of need.

1 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel, on January 20, 1980. Anyone is at liberty to use this edited manuscript for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel. Copyright 1980 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081.

2 “Surveys show that of patients who spend upwards of 350 hours on the psychoanalyst’s couch to get better—two out of three show some improvement over a period of years. The fly in that particular ointment, however, is that the same percentage get better without analysis or under the care of regular physicians.”

This statement, I must admit with tongue in cheek, is Lieber’s quotation of Dr. H.J. Eysenck, as quoted by Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids: Baker House, 1970), p. 3.

3 “Evangelicals: Out of the Closet But Going Nowhere,” by Carl F.H. Henry, Christianity Today, January 4, 1980, p. 22.

4 Gary Collins, How To Be A People Helper (Santa Ana: Vision House Publishers, 1976), p. 164.

5 I regret that I do not have the date of this article, but it was a front-page item in the Dallas Morning News, written by Hellen Parmley.

6 Overall character (the fool, the wise, etc.) is a kind of average of one’s characteristics. All of us have some of the fool, perhaps a good share of the sluggard in us. But the fool is predominately foolish; that is his most striking characteristic.

7 Adams, Competent to Counsel, p. 200.

8 Note how Uriah put David to shame in this, 2 Samuel 11:6-13.

9 This is the primary thrust of Jay Adams’ approach to counseling.

10 Keith Miller expresses the thought this way:

“What you are doing when you are listening as a Christian is putting your hand quietly in the other man’s life and feeling gently along the rim of his soul until you come to a crack, some frustration, some problem or anguish you sense that he may or may not be totally conscious of. As you are listening, you are loving this person and accepting him just as he is. The magic of this kind of concern is that you will often find your conversation moving imperceptibly from the general surface talk of the world situation and the weather into the intimate world of families and of hopes, of his life and yours. This change of climate sometimes takes place in a very short time in a listening atmosphere of concern and trust.”

Keith Miller, The Taste of New Wine (Waco: Word Books, 1965), p. 102.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry

Report Inappropriate Ad