June 16, 2015
When looking through the website of the National Institute of Health, one can easily find a definition for mental illness: A health condition that changes a person’s thinking, feelings, or behavior and that causes the person distress and difficulty in functioning. When searching for a definition of mental health, on the other hand, finding a definition becomes more difficult. I think the reason for this is the lack of a standard among schools of psychology. In the Fall of 1977, Jay Adams pointed this out in an address he delivered to the faculty and student body of the University Psychiatric Clinic in Vienna, Austria. Adams noted that, at the time, there were 230 schools of psychotherapy and counseling, many with very disparate viewpoints, and “there is no common standard for what a human being ought to look like.”
While there is no standard in the world of psychology, Scripture does give us one. Romans 8:29 tells us that we are being conformed to the image of Christ and the Apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 1:28: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” Here, I would propose that mental health is steadily growing in Christian maturity and dealing with all of life’s issues in a way that glorifies God.
Dealing with people who struggle mentally, or as the NIH puts it are in “distress” and have “difficulty in functioning” is not new to the church. Winfried Schleiner, a Professor of English at UC Davis, studied 500 years of history from the Renaissance through the Reformation and wrote an article entitled “Renaissance Exempla of Schizophrenia: The Cure by Charity in Luther and Cervantes.” In this article, he mentions three cases Martin Luther dealt with. They included: a psychotic man who thought he was a rooster; a depressed and psychotic man who stayed in his cellar, claiming he was dead; and a voluntary-retentive person, meaning one who refused to urinate. Schleiner explains that with great sympathy and compassion, “Luther listened well to people’s personal history. He reintegrated deeply troubled people into the Body of Christ by using his personal relationship to encounter another person on behalf of God. Through redemptive relationships the troubled person’s image of God and relationship to God were altered, which brought integration to their personality” (Note 1) (emphasis added). Schleiner even labeled Luther’s approach “compassionate reintegration.” (Note 2)
Like Luther, we can bring hope and healing as counselors and ministers of the gospel and, again like Luther, we can help alter a person’s image of God and relationship with God. As the Body of Christ, God calls us to respond compassionately and comprehensively to individuals (and their families) suffering with troubling emotions and thoughts. First Corinthians 10:13 offers us great hope in this area as we read that, “no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” The word translated as “temptation” is peirasmos, which can also be translated as “trial” – the Scriptures guide us in how to help people deal with their trials as well as their temptations. We can bring them to the Person of Jesus Christ through the Scriptures since it is He who brings them healing and wholeness.
Some people still struggle greatly with emotional and cognitive issues just as they did in Luther’s day. But, again like Luther, we find good news in Scripture. Second Corinthians 4:16 tells us that “though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” Because of this we know that even those with brain diseases can respond to God. The heart can be renewed and reflect the light of Christ even when the brain is weak or wasting away. In his book Blame it on the Brain?, Ed Welch draws a helpful diagram, the gist of which is, when dealing with people who have true brain disease, we gather as much information as we can, we then distinguish between spiritual and physical symptoms, strengthen the physical aspects and help correct weaknesses where possible, and address the heart issues.
Whenever we counsel, whether or not the person is dealing with mental illness, we always stress the indicatives of Scripture – what Christ has done for us – before launching into the imperatives – how we must live in light of what Christ has done. One Scriptural admonition the counselor must always keep in mind is 1 Thessalonians 5:14, where Paul urges us to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
We'll deal with depression as one example of how to help people who are struggling with recurring and difficult issues. Depression which is something many people deal with. As with anyone, we must listen intently and compassionately, realizing that my experience of depression is unlike theirs. Perhaps the depression is due to unconfessed sin (this is the easy case!), in which case we can go to Psalm 32 which David wrote after he repented from his sin with Bathsheba. His "before and after" experience is both instructive and encouraging. Perhaps the person is depressed due to financial loss or from the evil-doings of others, with no sin at all on his part. Here, a study of how to deal with suffering from James 1, Romans 5, 1 Peters 2, or Psalm 73 would be extremely helpful as we attempt to look at suffering from a biblical viewpoint. Sometimes people are depressed and we just don't know why. In this case, a study of Psalms 42 and 43, with the refrain of “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” That refrain reminds one of the advice given by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones: "Stop listening to yourself and start talking to yourself." In this circumstance, one needs to "think on these things" (Phil 4:8) as we meditate on eternal truths as opposed to pessimistic thought. I don't mean to make this process sound like it's quick and simple - this short paragraph can represent months of walking along side of someone, helping them re-shape their understanding of who God is, what He has done for the believer, and how we can live in light of the gospel (Rom 12:2 and Eph 4:23).
In general, we must use Scripture to shape accurate thoughts about God and to strengthen our relationship with God. Just like Luther, we want to help the person develop that accurate image of God (know Him better) and as a result, draw into a deeper and more robust relationship with God. While we must focus on the comprehensive capacities of the heart—our inner person; we can’t ignore the relationship between the heart and two central arenas of influence: the body (we are embodied beings—nature) and our social environment (we are embedded beings—nurture).
We want to begin with the gospel. Help people understand salvation and sanctification (becoming more like Christ). Help them develop biblically-based thinking, discover the issues of the heart – what are their true desires and how do they line up with Scripture? Address the whole person. Understand the influences of nature and nurture while helping them change their motivation from self-pleasing to God pleasing. The goal is a God-honoring lifestyle of thinking, wanting, and doing as a whole person, and image bearer of God. That is true victory. This is mental health.
Note 1: Winfried Schleiner, “Renaissance Exempla of Schizophrenia: The Cure by Charity in Luther and Cervantes”, Renaissance and Reformation, Internet, http://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/renref/article/ view/12302/9164, accessed May 14, 2015.
Note 2: Robert Kellerman, Mental Illness and the Church: Developing a Compassionate and Comprehensive Biblical Counseling Response, Presentation, 2015.
April 09, 2015
It seems that I’m always crunched for time. Well, maybe not always, just for the past 30 years or so. One of my ever-present fantasies is that I would only need two hours of sleep every night. Imagine that! An extra five or six hours a day to get stuff done! That would even leave some time to kick back and read more books! In pondering this desire for more time, though, it struck me that God has designed the 7 day week, the 24 hour day, and my need for sleep. Given that fact, should I really be desirous of something God has not designed and is therefore not best for me? Or should I be learning something here? (I like to ask myself easy questions; life is simpler that way.)
So what should I be learning here? Lots of things that I don’t seem to have time to do are good and necessary. Spring yard work, home maintenance, reading good books, exercise, spending time with people, washing the car, and lots more are all on the list but I just can’t get to many of them. It would be good to do them all, but I can’t, so how should I respond? I think the answer is simply to grow in godly wisdom. How so?
Well, Ephesians 5:15-17 says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” God tells us to make the best use of our time, meaning we have to make choices. And to make wise choices, we have to “understand what the will of the Lord is.” When I have too much to do then, I have to figure out God’s will for the best use of my time. What is God’s will?
I can tell one aspect of His will by looking at Ephesians 5:33 and Philippians 2:3-4, which tell me to love my wife as myself and to consider other’s interests as more important than my own; so perhaps I need to look at my “to-do” list and ask my wife what she considers most important. I can also look at Matthew 6:33, and ask myself if I am “seeking first the kingdom of God”? Maybe preparing a Sunday School lesson, counseling, or sharing the gospel with an acquaintance?
It’s impossible to go through the “to-do” list item by item, but the principle is this – at the beginning of the day, have I tried to be wise with my time by prioritizing according to God’s revealed will (e.g., Scripture)? At the end of the day, can I say that I have made “the best use of the time”? Am I OK with the things left undone because the things that were done were chosen wisely? If not, it’s time to think a little harder about Scriptural priorities and grow a little more in wisdom.
So, I may still feel crunched for time. But instead of getting frustrated and simply day-dreaming about having more time, I’ll ask God to help me make the best use of the time that I do have. I’ll realize that time constraints are meant to help me become wise and I’ll rest well, knowing that it’s simply wisdom to leave some things undone.
March 25, 2014
What is Biblical Counseling and Why Do It?
Sometimes I don’t like the term Biblical Counseling. The reason is that the term Biblical Counseling can sound much more restrictive than it really is. Now, those of us involved in biblical counseling do counsel people who need help dealing with sin or suffering (as we all do from time to time). And, as the name implies, we use the Bible as our source of counsel and wisdom “for all things that pertain to life and godliness.” (2 Pet 1:3) But the term is restrictive if we only think of counseling in crisis situations. Sara and John need counseling because their marriage is falling apart. Tom needs counseling because he’s so depressed he doesn’t even get out of bed most days. Pat needs counseling because he’s struggling with a secret sin he just can’t shake. In these cases, the term Biblical Counseling is great – we’ll go to the Bible and counsel those seeking help. We’ll go to the Scriptures to find hope, seek God’s wisdom, and “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak.” (1 Thess 5:14)
The concept and philosophy of biblical counseling though, is much broader than crisis situations. As a matter of fact, it has just as much to do with the ho-hum affairs of everyday life as it does to crises. I often simply call it Practical Theology. Given this gracious and glorious salvation that has been granted to us, and given this wonderful revelation from God we call the Bible, how shall we then live? (to borrow a phrase from Francis Shaeffer) Does God care how I speak to my wife? (Answer – yes; see Eph 4:29). Does God care if I decide to be lazy (just today!) and let someone else clean the kitchen? (Answer – yes; see Mark 10:44-45). Does God care if we all watch my favorite TV show instead of someone else’s? (Answer – yes; see Phil 2:3-4). We could obviously go on with endless examples because biblical counseling is merely learning to apply the Bible to all of life. In other words, it’s practical theology. Or we can call it discipleship – either one works because it’s all about bringing every little (and big) decision in my life into conformity with Christ. As you can imagine, it’s a process that continues for as long as I walk this earth.
So, I love to read books that help me learn more about biblical counseling. Well, sort of. When I read these books, I get convicted way too much to say I love it, but I need it and am grateful for it. I love to do biblical counseling and I love to teach it because it keeps me immersed in practical theology. It keeps me immersed in the Scriptures and in applying them to my life. It reminds me constantly of my desperate need of a Savior and it reminds me of God’s gracious provision of a Savior. It reminds me how he has given me a new heart that now desires to please him, how he has filled me with the Holy Spirit who enables me to overcome sin, and how he has provided an Advocate for me when I fail. And it trains me to fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith (2 Tim 4:6). All good reasons to study the practical theology we call Biblical Counseling.
March 08, 2014
Many people have what they call a “life verse.” No one has ever explained that term to me, but from the way people use it, I suppose it’s a verse that somehow captures the essence of your new life in Christ. If that’s the case, my life verse is 1 Corinthians 1:27: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.” That’s me. Verse 26 says: “Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards.” Yep, sure enough, that’s me. And I’m incredibly grateful that’s the way God works. You see, I never think I’m smart enough or theologically astute enough to really be of help to others. The good news is that the passage doesn’t end with verse 27, but goes on to say that we “are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (vv. 30-31).
When my wife and I started counseling, even after all our training, we told our mentor that we just didn’t feel very ready. His answer was simply, “you’ll give them something better that anyone else out there has to offer.” The “anyone else” he was referring to, of course, were the secular counselors who would prescribe medication or perhaps tell a spouse to go ahead and divorce so he/she can find fulfillment elsewhere. As Paul continues in Chapter 2, I can’t come with “lofty speech or wisdom” but I can come proclaiming “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (v. 2). That’s the “something better” that I can give them. I can offer hope (and boast in the Lord) because Christ has overcome sin, has enabled us to walk in newness of life (Rom 6), and has given us the Scriptures that we may know how to please him (1 Thess 4:1).
Even then, it’s not that simple. As counselors, we have to listen, listen, listen; then ask questions and listen some more. All the while, we pray for the Wonderful Counselor to give us His wisdom and to lead us in truth (John 16:13). I still feel foolish and inadequate when I come to counsel people. But I know for certain that God uses means to help people and it’s exhilarating to sometimes be “the means.” It’s exciting to see God at work in people’s lives as they overcome sin, are relieved of depression, or see their marriages healed and even stronger than ever before. It’s amazing to watch because I know it’s God at work and not me; I’m just pointing them in the right direction (upward!). Now, I really do study so I can be the best counselor that I can be – after all, it’s important to develop the gifts that God has given you. Over the years, I have become more comfortable as a counselor partially because I have studied and learned how to think biblically through a number of issues people deal with. But I have become more comfortable mainly because I have seen God at work in people’s lives through, and often times despite, my best efforts. Whatever your gift, develop it to the glory of God and trust Him to “give the growth.”
Remember, God uses the foolish of the world. I can attest to that.
February 27, 2014
We don’t become more mature just by getting older. I wish we did, because if that was the case, I’d be all set. Now, I’m not the oldest person I know by far, but I’m working on it; getting older every day. That doesn’t take any effort on my part – it just happens; my hair just gets thinner and my moustache just becomes more white than brown. The maturity part, on the other hand, doesn’t just happen. That takes effort and deliberateness on my part. My goal is to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:13).
So how do you get there? I think one way to maturity is revealed to us in Hebrews 5:14, “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” In verse 13, the writer admonishes those who are immature because they are “unskilled in the word of righteousness.” So then, I become mature through “constant practice” with the “word of righteousness” as I learn to distinguish “good from evil.” Some “for instances” always help me. For instance, Ephesians 5 tells me to love my wife as Christ loves the church. That doesn’t just happen. Laziness and thoughtlessness are the fallback modes for me and there’s lots of inertia to overcome. But realizing what I’m commanded to do, I look for ways to love my wife ala 1 Corinthians 13, which is full of action words, and Philippians 2:3-4, which tells me to put her interests before mine. That’s distinguishing good from evil (being loving instead of selfish and lazy) through constant practice (serving her morning tea, cleaning the kitchen, being attentive to her on a daily basis).
There could be many more “for instances” but it boils down to figuring out how Scripture applies to me and then deliberately putting it into action. It’s all part of that sanctification process and it’s most often accomplished in the small areas of life. That’s where the “constant practice” comes in. It takes constant practice to fight small sins in my life, but that’s what keeps them from growing into big sins. I work at it every day while relying on God to convict me and strengthen me (Phil 2:12-13). It takes effort and deliberateness, but at least I can become more mature at the same time that I’m getting older.