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Covenantal, Biblical Counsel

From the series:

by Ann Maree Goudzwaard

I met her at Starbucks, across the street from the hospital. She was frantic. She was typically frantic when we got together, but this time it was worse.

She was off her meds.[1]

I studied her eyes. She told me about her nightmares and panic attacks. I found myself silently begging the Lord for wisdom, and to tell me what to do. Samantha, Sam to her friends, had found my contact info on a counseling website. She told me she was desperate for help and asked if we could meet.

The first time we got together I was blown away. She told me she was gang-raped by her “boyfriend” and several of his friends. She said, when she went to the hospital uncontrollably hysterical, the medical staff ushered her straight to the psych ward. A series of physicians pumped her with multiple mood-altering drugs and then kept her a couple weeks until she stabilized. They sent her home with several prescriptions.

She refused to take them.

This began the oft-repeated cycle of Sam’s manic episodes/hospitalization/psychotropic drugs/release/self-therapy and the subsequent discontinuation of her medicine. Sam was on a medically induced merry-go-round. Every time she was sent home from the hospital she went off her meds. She would then find herself battling utter darkness, demons, and an insatiable urge to kill herself. Someone would eventually notice and Sam would end up back in the hospital. The cycle would then begin again.

There was a hospital. Right across the street. I contemplated driving Sam over.

This was actually the last time I counseled someone who wasn’t a member of my church. After Sam, I decided that counseling outside of the perimeters of the local body of Christ wasn’t wise—nor safe—for me OR the person that sought my help.

Biblical counseling is, well, biblical. The Word of God directs our counsel—and rightly so. The word has authority both in our life and the lives of those we help. But, after the incident with Sam, my question was, what (or who) regulates the counselee? What structure monitors the counselee’s observance of biblical instruction?

Thomas Chalmers wrote that there are actually two principles that support the standards that guide us, “the authority of Scripture and the parameters of the covenant.”[2] It isn’t enough to simply hear biblical truth, doctrine must result in action (James. 1:23). And, without the boundaries of a covenantal community, even the most faithful directives may ultimately be rendered fruitless.

Covenantal, biblical counsel involves speaking the truth in love while walking closely beside sufferers. A covenant is relationship, so the truth that is spoken should be accomplished within that context. What the twin guardrails of word and covenant encourage is a firm belief in the sufficiency of Scripture, combined with a steady strengthening of those beliefs. Covenantal relationships commit to walk closely alongside messy people in difficult situations, helping to sustain them under—not just the hearing of the all-powerful Word of God—but also the doing. It’s one thing to apply Scripture to spiritual woundedness. It’s quite another to then pull up your own bootstraps and get down into the mud with the people who hurt. Christ did both. And as biblical counselors we should commit to nothing less.

When I left the Starbucks that last day with Sam, my entire body was shaking. I had called her mom, told her that Sam was on her way home, and asked her to call me if Sam didn’t show up. Although I wasn’t quite sure what I’d do if that happened. I got in my car and sat for a few minutes to calm down, then I prayed Sam made it home ok.

As I thought about what my counsel might have looked like had Sam and I been members of the same church—in a covenantal relationship committed to caring for one another—I imagined meeting her not only for counsel, but also seeing one another each Sunday at worship. I envisioned checking in, face to face, and asking her how she was doing. I trusted we would follow up throughout the week, but I also knew she would spend time in her small group and that our mutual friends would be praying for her and checking on her as well. I pictured a team consisting of an elder, deacon, and wise older woman reaching out to serve Sam with specific Scripture meant to encourage, and resources that would serve her spiritual and practical needs. I knew they would meet regularly to pray together for Sam’s healing.

I had no illusions that a church-wide response for Sam would magically heal her, but I was confident she would never be left to walk her journey alone. And I was comforted by the fact that I didn’t have to journey with her by myself either.

Covenantal, biblical counsel preserves the vitality of the personal ministry of the word. It offers a checks and balances system imperative for genuine heart change. Covenant relationships provide the one true foundation (the Word) with the one true environment intended for care.

[1] This is not an endorsement for taking psychotropic drugs. That decision should be made by the individual with the help of their physician. In this case, Sam was against taking them. I do present this case, however, as an exhortation for those seeking to cease their psychotropic medicine to only do so with the supervision of a qualified physician.

[2] Thomas Chalmers, Heed the Call, as quoted in George Scipione, Titus, Timothy, and You (Pittsburgh, PA: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2018), xi.