This is a blog series built on the premise that “books don’t change people, sentences change people.”
We can’t remember an entire book, or even its outline. We remember a sentence or concept that is highly relevant and impacts how we live. The rest of the book gives context to that sentence. This series highlights sentences from my reading in evangelical Christian counseling that stood out to me and reflections on why these sentences have been so sticky.
“Ministry ‘unbalances’ truth for the sake of relevance; theology ‘rebalances’ truth for the sake of comprehensiveness (p. 33),” David Powlison in How Does Sanctification Work?
I remember being frustrated as an inexperienced counselor. My sessions didn’t feel like the class lectures where I learned about counseling. The lectures were balanced, holistic, contextualized, and applied. My sessions were staccato, imbalanced, and well… messy. Statements were made that felt like they needed a caveat, but it didn’t feel like the caveats were helpful or appropriate. I felt like I was doing it wrong. I felt something between a sense of failure and guilt.
I didn’t yet understand the key differences between “teaching counseling” and “doing counseling.” Honestly, it felt hypocritical to say there might be substantive differences between the two. When I read David Powlison’s quote in How Does Sanctification Work? I finally had words for the tension I had been learning to navigate.
Metaphor: Classrooms lectures were drawing the map of particular struggles; portraying the entire terrain that struggle could encompass. Counseling sessions were walking a given individual’s journey. Trying to make sessions feel like lectures was like the child in an airplane expecting to see where one state ends (i.e., Missouri) and another state (i.e., Kansas) begins because the ground changes colors (like on a printed map or globe).
I realized that each person is “imbalanced” (using Powlison’s imagery) in a unique way. We all experience different forms of suffering and express our sinfulness in different ways. Counseling is an effort to help a particular person, with a particular set of struggles, at a particular time, that emerge from a particular set of motivations find “balance” (cohesion with God’s design for their life). This means that my counsel will have to account for their imbalance to be effective. This means counsel must be imbalanced to be effective.
For example, a prideful person is imbalanced in the direction of self-importance. Counsel for them will be weighted in the direction of humility. An insecure person is imbalanced in the direction of self-doubt. Counsel for them will be weighted in the direction of confidence. I should be counseling both people towards the same goal (i.e., a healthy identity in Christ) but the emphasis of the conversation will be quite different.
What is said in each of those counseling sessions would be different than if I were lecturing on “A Practical Theology of a Healthy Identity in Christ.” This would not mean the sessions were heretical or that the lecture was an impractical theology. It means that each was a different type of exercise (counseling session vs. counseling lecture) that results in a different type of product (personally imbalanced vs. purposefully balanced).
There was freedom for me in this realization. It helped me realize there were important differences between the public ministry of the Word (i.e., preaching, teaching, and writing) and the private ministry of the Word (i.e., counseling, accountability, character formation). Public ministry is balanced and generalized; private ministry is imbalanced and particularized.
Not understanding these differences: (a) creates tension between those in vocational ministry and vocational counselors, and (b) allows those tensions to become a distraction from the benefits to be gained from the strengths of each.
As one who has the opportunity to frequently teach and write (balancing ministries), I have grown to greatly appreciate how these exercises create greater discernment for when helpful, imbalanced truth becomes unhelpful error. As one who also has the opportunity to frequently counsel (imbalancing ministry), I have grown more humble in seeing how timeless truths can be applied in ways that are unhelpful, sometimes harmful, in particular moments.
This reflection gives me a greater appreciation for Christ as the Wonderful Counselor. Christ brought the perspective of God, existing outside of time and seeing the ultimate need / outcome of each situation – perfectly balanced. Christ was also incarnate, fully experiencing the uniqueness of each moment (priestly function) and moving at the pace each sheep could journey (shepherd function) – willing to personally imbalance.
I want to be able to be Christ-like, as each person needs, in my ministry. I am grateful for this quote from David Powlison that put this goal into words that helped me reconcile with the tension I was trying (and still striving) to navigate.
If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Theology and Counseling” post which address other facets of this subject.