This week I’ll be teaching several times at the Faith Biblical Counseling Training Conference at Faith Church in Lafayette, Indiana. All of my sessions will relate to gospel-centered counseling and gospel conversations.
So, what is gospel-centered counseling? It seems today that as Christians we’re always using the words “gospel” and “gospel-centered,” but what does that mean, especially related to counseling and one-another ministry?
What Gospel-Centered Counseling Is Not
I don’t know about you, but I often learn best from the opposite. So perhaps we could all consider what is not gospel-centered counseling. And perhaps we could learn from the stereotypical critiques that some share about their perception of biblical counseling.
- Gospel-centered counseling is not one verse, one problem, one solution.
We might call this approach the “concordance” approach. Someone shares with us about their anxiety and we quote Philippians 4:6 about being anxious for nothing. It’s a great verse, but we can’t take it out of the gospel-centered context of the entire book of Philippians.
The one verse perspective minimizes the depth of the struggle of the person dealing with anxiety. And it minimizes the richness of the Scriptures which comprehensively and compassionate apply gospel reality to our daily life issues.
- Gospel-centered counseling is not take two verses and don’t call me in the morning.
Gospel-centered counseling does much more than spot a sin, spot a verse, and exhort behavioral change. It is much more than “Bob Newhart Counseling” that simply yells, “Stop it!”
The take two verses perspective is non-relational in that it fails to relate gospel truth richly to life. And it is non-relational in that it fails to relate soul-to-soul with the person we are helping. In 1 Thessalonians 2:8, Paul models care and counseling that shares both the gospel and one’s very own soul—because the people we minister to are dear to us.
What Gospel-Centered Counseling Is
So, rather than only learning by the negative or the critiques, we can learn by the positives, by the robust, rich relevance of the gospel.
- In gospel-centered counseling, the Bible’s grand redemptive narrative is the controlling lens through which we understand and interpret our counselee’s life story—we remember the past with faith and see life with cross-eyes.
To the person who has been sexually abused and asked, “Where was God,” we compassionate hear them and remind them that when they were distress, God was distressed, too (Isaiah 63:9). We point them to their sympathetic Savior who is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. We point them to the Christ of the cross who died to justly judge the hideous sin of sexual abuse and rose again to provide victory over the damage of abuse.
- In gospel-centered counseling, together with our counselees we derive our understanding of earthly life from heaven’s perspective—we remember the future with hope and see life with eternal-eyes.
We fix our eyes on heavenly hope, as in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. “Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Notice that these words do not minimize or ignore or trivialize the pain of the earthly story of suffering—there is wasting away, there is affliction, there is the temptation to lose heart. But these verses provide a gospel victory context, an eternal story, into which we place the earthly story—a story of eternal glory—purity and victory and intimacy in Christ.
- In gospel-centered counseling we apply the whole Bible’s story (the gospel) to the whole person’s whole story—we remember our present calling to love and see life with grace eyes.
This means that we start by listening with gospel ears to the person we are ministering to. What is their specific life struggle? Consider how Paul did this in Philippians.
Paul writes Philippians from a jail cell—imprisoned for his faith in the gospel. The Philippians are fearful that they, too, might be jailed if they continue to take a stand for the gospel (Philippians 1:27-28). Paul’s remedy for anxiety is more than a verse—it is a relationship to Christ—the Person the gospel is all about. Throughout Philippians, Paul provides robust gospel-centered wisdom for victory in anxiety:
- Guard your Relationship to God Your Guard: Faith in Your Father—The gospel applied to our relationship to God.
- Commit to Mature Relationships with God’s People: It Takes a Congregation—The gospel applied to our relationship to one another.
- Cling to Your Identity in Christ: Wholeness in Christ—The gospel applied to our identity.
- Put on the Mind of Christ: The Weapons of Our Warfare—The gospel applied to our thought life.
- Practice What You Preach: Living the Gospel with Courage—The gospel applied to our actions and motivations.
- Soothe Your Soul in Your Savior: Casting Our Cares on the One Who Cares for Us—The gospel applied to our emotions.
- Live Wisely in a Fallen World: Jars of Clay—The gospel applied to our bodies.
- Note: Read Anxiety: Anatomy and Cure for a description of how all Paul, throughout all of Philippians, develops the preceding 7 bullet points—richly, robustly, relevantly, and relationally.
Much more than one verse, Paul shares a compassionate and comprehensive gospel-centered narrative that applies gospel truth to our past, present, and future, with faith, hope, and love, to our whole being: spiritually, socially, relationally, mentally, volitionally (behavior and motivation), emotional, and physically.
The Rest of the Story
So, what does gospel-centered counseling look like? What is the relational process of sharing truth in love—comprehensively and compassionately—look like when we sit down with a fellow-struggler?
I call it gospel conversations. Join me for my next blog post where I introduce what gospel conversations are all about.