Now this seems like a Catch-22 question for a Christian if there ever was one. If you answer, “completely,” then you run the risk of implying that the soul controls all of life. However, if you answer, “only so much,” then you run the risk of minimizing the relevance of Christ for redeeming all things. If you say, “only as much as the counselee desires,” then you risk of being accused of compromising and being ashamed of the gospel. If you say, “as much as I conclude is relevant,” then you are imposing your beliefs on the counselee.
The less pastoral our counseling, the more difficult this dilemma becomes. By “pastoral” I don’t just mean counseling conducted by an ordained minister in a salaried staff position meeting with a member of the congregation. I mean “ministry focused.” That is, counseling done in a local church or parachurch ministry by a non-licensed individual.
But even when a church has a counseling ministry, not everyone coming for counseling wants a highly practical Bible study. Many come simply because they want relief from whatever life struggle prompted them to schedule an appointment.
Even for the ministry focused counselor, the question, “How spiritually-focused should my counseling be?” can be hard to answer. One challenge is determining what outcome will drive the “should” in the question focused on.
- Faithfulness: With a focus on faithfulness, the question implies the added clause, “How spiritually-focused should my counseling be to most accurately reflect the teaching of Scripture?”
- Effectiveness: With a focus on effectiveness, the question implies the added clause, “How spiritually-focused should my counseling be to achieve the most relief for the counselee’s distress?”
- Client Satisfaction: With a focus on counselee satisfaction, the question implies the added clause, “How spiritually-focused should my counseling be for my counselee to be most satisfied?”
Many discussions on this topic get sideways because the conversants can never get on the same page about which of these three clauses are the focal point of the conversation. The focus of this reflection will major on effectiveness and minor on faithfulness.
The logic for this choice is that counseling is a “purposeful conversation,” meaning it is a conversation with a purpose; namely to help the counselee accomplish their goal. Counseling is not a class or lecture. Content does not drive the counseling conversation, like an academic discourse or sermon; change drives the conversation. On this point, a quote from David Powlison has been very helpful to me.
“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?
The task of counseling and the task of theology can both be rooted in Scripture yet utilize Scripture differently. Theology strives to discern what is universally true. Counseling endeavors to identify what is particularly useful for a given individual at a specific time in a particular context for one or more specific needs.
So, we return to our question, “How spiritually-focused should by counseling be?” If we are asking this question with reference to effectiveness, we ask a second question, “What is the goal or need of the counselee?”
- If the goal is to process the experience of being raped two days prior, we will be less spiritually focused than if the goal is to process guilt over an affair the client had not yet disclosed to their spouse.
- If the goal is to discern how a couple can honor one another when they disagree about their family budget, we would be more spiritually focused than if the goal was to weather the withdrawal symptoms to a 30 year addiction to alcohol.
Why? Withdrawal symptoms, immediate legal decisions, and navigating the early symptoms of trauma from an assault entail less moral direction or theological instruction than having the courage to make a painful disclosure of infidelity or learning to honor someone in a disagreement over stewardship differences. There is not a significant amount of “Bible teaching” that goes on when navigating the physical withdrawal from alcohol or identifying and normalizing the symptoms of trauma.
That is not to say there is an absence of biblical themes in trauma care or navigating withdrawal. The focus of counseling is encouragement during suffering, caring for the body, and connecting with medical or legal resources. There is biblical grounding for these actions. But the focus of counseling is not focused on the soul, salvation, theology, sin avoidance, or character formation. The immediate focus is the pressing need of the counselee.
This is where I find the following quote from Eric Johnson helpful.
“Christian soul-care providers should work at the highest level possible [and]… at the lowest level necessary (p. 382),” Eric Johnson in Foundations for Soul Care
At times, in counseling, there is a tension between what we most desire to do (why we fell in love with biblical counseling) and what we most need to be able to do (the immediate need of the counselee). So, now we ask, “What does Eric Johnson mean by ‘highest level’ and ‘lowest level’?”
- Highest Level: Things that fit in this category are what we would commonly think of as spiritually focused: understanding life as worship, cherishing the biblical principles behind our choices, valuing sanctification as our over-arching life goal, and creating a holistic gospel-focused world view to make sense of our actions. As Christians in any setting, our goal should be to look for opportunities to elevate conversations to this level. It is good and right to aspire to these things in all our interactions.
- Lowest Level: Things that fit in this category are more mundane, medical, or behavioral: understanding the common symptoms of hard life experiences, connecting someone to the best fit community resources, supporting someone as they take tedious first steps of change, or tending to the body as a precursor to ministering to the soul. If we are going to call ourselves “counselor” or our ministry “counseling,” we need to be able to do these things well. Omissions or resistance to ministering at these levels can (at best) discourage counselees or (at worst) be damaging.
Some of us may read that description of “lowest level” care and say those activities are spiritually focused. We should all agree that these are biblically warranted ministry responses. These are ways that the Bible calls us to care for those who are hurting. These responses honor the body-soul relationship that Scripture teaches. But in the immediate aftermath of a crisis or during the significant medical or mental health episode, the expositional basis for these actions are likely to be delayed until the individual and situation stabilizes.
So, here is the last 1000 words summarized in 100 words. Counseling is a conversation towards a goal. This means we measure counseling by its effectiveness. For that reason, we need to be able to meet a counselee where their immediate, pressing need requires. Therefore, we may postpone our “higher level” spiritual focus in counseling in order to address “lower level” needs. When we do this, we do so as an ambassador of God’s general care; earning trust in God’s care and our competence so the person will be more open to embracing God’s over-arching redemptive agenda for their life.