In counseling, listening is just as vital as speaking. It is generally assumed that a good counselor is one who is able to say all the right words, but the ability to speak wisely is predicated upon the ability to listen carefully. We must listen to the specific details of each person’s unique story in order to help them rightly apply the gospel to their lives. As sinners, each person’s rebellion manifests itself in very personal ways, leading them to worship specific false gods and conform to different false notions about the world, God, and self. As sufferers, each person has endured unique trials and lived through challenging experiences that have shaped and influenced their lives. We must never presume that everyone processes experiences the same way we do.
As sinful beings, every person’s story somehow competes with The Story that God is telling through Jesus Christ. We are all busy writing our own stories in which we rule and serve as the heroes. As we exalt ourselves in importance, we belittle and ignore God. Believing the satanic lie that our own stories will bring us freedom, we begin to experience misery when the promise of that freedom is never fulfilled. Instead of freedom and joy, our sin brings nothing but despair and desolation (Gen. 3:16-24). To alleviate our pain, we keep digging deeper, looking for something or someone to save us. Our own story cannot end well.
Our goal in counseling is to lead sinners and sufferers to exchange their false stories for the one true Story that Christ invites us to join. Yes, they are sinners. Yes, they deserve God’s wrath; but, God has provided a way out through Jesus Christ! Seeking out the specific stories of the people we are counseling enables us to bring the big story of God’s redemption in Christ from the realm of the abstract down into the reality of peoples’ lives.
Stress All the Gospel’s Implications
Ultimately, we know that Jesus is the Savior of counseling, and it is to him that we must point all counselees. However, saying that Jesus is everyone’s hope is like saying everything and saying nothing at the same time. The gospel message cannot be exhaustively summed up in a single sentence. Reducing the gospel to the message that “Jesus died for your sins” is not sufficient. Jesus dying for our sins is a glorious and indispensable truth, but there is so much more to say! The gospel contains a variety of blessings for God’s people. A counselor who only ever emphasizes justification by faith alone in his or her gospel witness is unnecessarily hiding other glorious aspects of the Story. What about adoption and sanctification? What about the implications of God’s Spirit dwelling within us? What role does the church play as a result of Christ’s redeeming work? What impact does Christ’s promised return play? The whole story of God’s kingdom in Christ must provide the context for our counseling.
As we point people to Christ, we must emphasize his saving work on our behalf, but we must also emphasize his sovereign rule over the entire universe. He came to institute his kingdom (Matt. 4:17), and his kingdom will be consummated at his return. Emphasizing Christ’s kingship powerfully shifts the reference point away from self and toward Christ. Our grasping for autonomy is the reason for our misery; it is under his rule that true freedom and joy can be restored. The freedom from anxiety (Luke 12:22-34), for example, is found when we quit trying to control our own kingdoms and, instead, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).
Counsel within the Church
The vast majority of counseling should take place within the unofficial, everyday relationships between the different members of the local church. This type of counseling may not be called “counseling” and will rarely be officially sanctioned by the pastoral staff, but its occurrence greatly strengthens the body. The pastoral staff can greatly encourage this type of “one another” counseling by providing a gospel culture in which it can flourish. When the gospel is the center of the church’s life together, starting from the pulpit and flowing outward into every realm of the church, care and accountability will result among the diverse members of the body.
The formation of small groups often goes a long way toward meeting this need, but do not presume that the mere existence of a small group ministry will automatically provide the context for this type of life-on-life gospel culture to thrive. Small group leaders need to be equipped and trained to lead their groups to provide the type of mutual accountability and care the New Testament calls the church to have. Paul David Tripp’s Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands provides a wonderful resource for leading this type of training.
Ultimately, to be Christ-centered is to be church-centered because Christ does not allow us to separate him from his body (Eph. 1:23). The members of the body of Christ are meant to grow not in isolation but in proportion to one another. The New Testament vision of growth involves the whole body growing together, seeking to arrive at “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). Our counseling will always work best when it is firmly situated within this glorious body which manifests the “manifold wisdom of God…to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).