by Scott Mehl
This is a particularly intense season in the world for all of us, and biblical counselors are no exception. In fact, as biblical counselors, the recent increases in anxiety, fear, anger, and marital conflict probably have us busier than ever. I know that’s been true for me as a pastor.
But this intense season of a global pandemic, a shuttered economy, skyrocketing unemployment, ongoing protests, and important societal discussions about the impact of race in our country, are all exceedingly complicated by the fact that our country continues to become increasingly divided. The average American views the world through a politicized lens, and many of the people in our churches, many of our counselees, and far too many of us simply imbibe and adopt those same political lenses, reinforced by the echo chambers of social media and cable news.
However, as biblical counselors, we know there is a way forward through this division. We’ve seen it demonstrated powerfully in the lives of those we counsel, as well as our own lives. We’ve seen it reconcile marriages that seemed broken beyond repair. We’ve seen it rebuild trust where it had been destroyed. We’ve seen it bring hope into moments of abject darkness. It’s the power of the gospel, as communicated in God’s sufficient Word, applied through loving relationships.
Just before the pandemic hit the U.S. I published a book with Shepherd Press entitled Loving Messy People. Little did I know then just how messy all of our lives would soon become. It outlines the four main components of our biblical call to love one another: listening, serving, speaking, and gospeling.
And as I reflect on our divided world, and this moment we all find ourselves in, I can’t help but recognize that this same biblical call isn’t just a call for “counselors,” but for all of us both individually and societally. God has called us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:39) and to consider others more significant than ourselves (Phil 2:3). But, how do we do that? What does that look like when we believe our neighbors are propagating the political worldview that we think is sending the country in the wrong direction? What does that look like when the difference between us feel irreconcilable and are filled with anger, bitterness, distrust, and fear?
I believe we begin in these same four simple ways. We use the tools that ought to be familiar to us as biblical counselors, and that God calls us to utilize not only in our counseling, but in all of life.
Our world is increasingly filled with people talking at one another, and fewer and fewer people truly listening to one another. As Christians in general, and biblical counselors in particular, we ought to be different. Love listens. It doesn’t speak first, but patiently takes the time to gather the facts and, more importantly, get to know the person. As we’re reminded bluntly in Proverbs:
If one gives an answer before he hears,
it is his folly and shame. (Proverbs 18:13)
So, how does God call us to navigate our seemingly hopelessly divided world? Well, first of all, he calls us to: “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;” (James 1:19). We are to be listeners first, long before we become speakers.
There are a lot of diverse voices in our world (and the church!) that are seeking to be heard at the moment, particularly among our Black brothers and sisters. As biblical counselors we shouldn’t be caught off guard by the unpolished or even sinful ways those voices are sometimes expressed. We’ve seen similar expressions up close and personal in the counseling room time and again. But we ought to recognize moments of angst, pain, and anger for what they are: opportunities for us to listen, to learn, and to patiently consider the most loving ways to respond.
When we fail to listen, we end up responding in subtly selfish or self-justifying ways. Pick any social-media-debate-de-jour as a clear example. But this is not the way of Christ. As we follow Christ we are called to not just listen and speak, but to manifest our love in tangible actions. If the ultimate example of love is the cross (not the Sermon on the Mount) then we need to shape our own love for others in a similarly active and sacrificially service-oriented way.
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16–18)
In our divided world, the ruling political worldviews demand that we serve our allies and fight against our enemies. But, again, this is not the way of Christ. And it’s not the way we’ve learned to love one another as biblical counselors. Even if we disagree with someone, even if we think they are wrongheaded or contributing to our society heading in the wrong direction, war of any kind (even a culture war) is not how God’s all-sufficient word has taught us to respond.
Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:16–21)
Feeding, giving something to drink, living peaceably, associating with the lowly, this is the way of Christ.
Of course, however, love never stops there. As biblical counselors we know that love involves patiently listening and sacrificial service, but we also know that it involves more than that. It necessarily involves our words as well.
As we’re reminded in the Proverbs,
There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18)
The tongue of the wise doesn’t simply stay shut. The tongue of the wise brings healing. But it doesn’t brings healing by speaking opinion or reiterating political talking points. The tongue of the wise brings healing by speaking truth.
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)
The biblical counseling movement has been built upon the ultimate conviction of the sufficiency of Scripture. Since its inception it has repeatedly banged the drum of sufficiency asserting (rightly) that, in the counseling room, people don’t need the latest secular theories or philosophies, they need Jesus! And this increasingly divided moment in our country ought to remind us that the exact same thing is true outside of the counseling room.
The political divisions in our country have been formed and reinforced by getting citizens of different demographics and values to adopt one of generally two competing narratives. But, as biblical counselors who have inevitably sat with feuding couples as each passionately shares their side of the story, we ought to know: neither is completely accurate. Both tend to be motivated by their own selfish and self-justifying goals and both are desperately trying to maintain the control and power they believe will help them achieve those goals.
So, when we speak, we don’t do so by simply taking one side against the other. We patiently, gently, and wisely take all that we have heard and learned (through our patient listening) and seek to love those we’re talking to by identifying those things that are worth affirming, those things that need correcting, and those things that we don’t fully understand but still need more information regarding.
But, of course, both our affirmation and correction aren’t simply based on our own opinions or preferences, if we are going to affirm or correct anything, we must allow the Word of God itself to do it. Because, again, the word of God is sufficient.
While correction and affirmation are important parts of any loving relationship, as biblical counselors we also know that surface-level change isn’t even remotely what God is after. Jesus railed against the righteousness of the Pharisees that looked righteous on the outside, yet remained untransformed on the inside. What Jesus is after, and what we’re always working toward in biblical counseling, is heart transformation.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2)
The renewal of our minds that brings true transformation is what I like to call “gospeling.” It’s the act reminding one another of gospel truth, and showing one another how God, through the gospel, redeems both our sin and our suffering. These are the truths and the promises that captivate (and re-captivate) a heart with God-worship and motivate the radical trust and obedience God calls us to.
As biblical counselors we are intimately acquainted with the depth of sin in our world. We know that sin is more than just the breaking of one of God’s rules, it’s any lack of conformity to the perfect nature of Christ, which springs from the residual self-worship that is still a part of all of our hearts. This is why we can look at the division in our world and know that sin is at the root of it, both personally and corporately as a society of sinners. This Gospel-centered worldview also allows us to hear concerns about residual racism in people’s hearts and understand it, because we have a theology for that. In fact, we know the nature of our own hearts well enough to be able to confess, boldly in light of the gospel, that there is assuredly residual prejudice and interpersonal racism still present in our own hearts.
As biblical counselors we are also intimately acquainted with the depth of suffering in our world. We know that suffering isn’t just the tragic moments of crisis that come every once in a while. We know that suffering is the constant milieu we live in, as we reside in this fallen world. We know that we suffer from fallen bodies, fallen environments, fallen cultures, fallen friends and family, and the fallen prince of the power of the air (Satan). We have seen countless people suffer from the impact of a sexualized culture and an individualistic culture; we’ve seen them suffer from a system that promotes abortion and a system that celebrates every version of LGBTQ imaginable. So when we hear about the suffering experienced as a result of systems that perpetuate racial bias (including systems in our churches), we shouldn’t be surprised. We have a theology for that too. And we know that the fallenness of our world is so dark, and so intertwined with the systems at work in our world, we will spend our entire lives gaining a deeper appreciation for the depth of suffering in our world and the ways that suffering disproportionately impacts the currently and historically marginalized among us.
But, thanks be to God that we are not left alone to wallow in our suffering and our sin. This is why Jesus came. Jesus came to save us from our sin and redeem us from the suffering in the world. He came to reconcile us to himself and (as we listen, serve, speak, and gospel one another) he came to reconcile us to one another. As biblical counselors, we ought to know that better than anyone. Because we not only have the opportunity to see this magnificent work of redemption painted on the canvas of our own lives, but we get a front row seat as God paints it on the canvases of life after life after life in our various ministries.
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Corinthians 2:14–16)
As Christians, and as biblical counselors, we are the aroma of Christ. We have been called to be ambassadors of his to a lost and dying world. You and I, specifically, have been called to be his representatives in this place at this moment. Which means, we can’t ever forget where our ultimate allegiance lies. We are citizens of his kingdom. We are members of his family. In a seemingly hopelessly divided world we have been called to manifest genuine unity, the kind of unity that can only come through the supernatural work of Christ.
But if we’re going to live out that unity, we have to strive to love those around us outside the counseling room the same way we know we’re called to love inside the counseling room. So will you put down your politicized social media posting? Will you hold off on complaining to your pastor? Will you unplug from the secular sources of “truth” and information that you find yourself meditating on each day? And will you turn, again, to the sufficient word of God instead?
And as you rise from your meditation on God’s word, will you take steps toward those (especially in the church!) that are different than you, that think differently than you, that have had radically different life experiences than you? Will you come to them with a heart that is genuinely ready to listen and learn? Will you resolve to do more than talk, but to practically serve, seeking to do the things that are within your power to confront and remove oppression wherever it may be found? Will you speak truth, but not just the truth passed down within your particular Christian culture, but truly biblical truth…discovered through the careful, humble study of God’s Word? And will you, ultimately, come back again and again and again to the hope and promise of the gospel? The good news of Jesus that is not afraid to look the darkest sin or the deepest suffering in the face and declare: Redeemed!
We are biblical counselors. We are children of the most high, and citizens of the kingdom of heaven. May our words and our posture and our prayers be just as gracious, gentle, and gospel-centered in every area of our lives as they are in our counseling. After all, God’s word isn’t only sufficient for counseling. It’s sufficient for “all things”! And it is sufficient for this moment, and for the building of the unity of his body through this moment. Praise be to him!
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1:3–7)