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.

“[God] shapes his story [the Bible] to approach his people as saints, sufferers, and sinners (p. 74),” Michael Emlet in CrossTalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet

I believe I began my practice of counseling like many biblical counselors: with a high view of personal agency, a high view of repentance, and a high view of the impact of worship.

  • Personal Agency – that the single most influential factor in anyone’s life is the choices they make.
  • Repentance – that there is not experience of guilt so deep that God’s grace will not restore.
  • Worship – that the allegiances of our hearts impact our lives in hundreds of ways we never consciously realize.

Based on these priorities my counseling efforts focused on purer worship, owning one’s choices, and repenting for those that did not honor God or neighbor. It was my belief that these practices, rooted in biblical understanding and supported by a church community, were sufficient for optimal human flourishing in any given situation.

I still have a high view of the ability of these factors to radically transform someone’s life. If I could make up a statistic (admittedly, that is all I am doing to illustrate the point of this article), I would say I was 67% accurate in my assessment. I was intentionally engaging with two-thirds of the human predicament in the dominant categories I had for counseling.

But the more I counseled, the more I realized I needed a high view of something else. Intuitively and out of compassion, I think (hope) I began to counsel differently before I had the dominant theological category to inform the change.

Then I came across the sentence above from Michael Emlet and had words for the expanded approach to counseling I had been implementing. The gospel speaks to sin (responsibility), identity (who we are in Christ), and suffering (hardships for which we do not bear responsibility). Christ offers forgiveness for sin, adoption for those who have a misplaced identity, and comfort for suffering.

If honest, at this initial stage in my development as a counselor, I had a more nuanced understanding of how to counsel life struggles that fit in the sin or identity categories. I was still learning what it meant to counsel the comfort of Christ for those who were suffering. I didn’t have as many tools in my toolbox for chronic pain, mental illness, domestic abuse or the spouse betrayed by adultery as I did for the adulterer, anger, willful sin, or false worship.

But with this seminal quote I did have a theologically legitimate compartment in my toolbox for such tools. Before I had thought a two compartment toolbox – sin and identity – was sufficient. With this view I would try to become more skilled with sin-tools or identity-tools to address suffering-problems. Recognizing the problem was not my skills with existing tools or the counselee’s cooperation with my approach but the need for a new set of tools was a big step forward.

I found that many of my counselees who grew up in church needed the same categorical expansion. They felt like thinking in the category of suffering made them powerless victims and displayed a lack of faith in God to change their circumstances. Understanding how God speaks to suffering allowed them to be free from false guilt, receive the compassion of their good Heavenly Father, and pro-actively look for ways to counter or limit the effects of their suffering.

If this is a new category of thought for you, as it was for me, here are several resources that I think would be helpful for you.