Reality, to a large degree, is constructed subjectively through the processes of the mind. “Facts” are perceived; variables of that perception shape an interpretation; and these interpretations ultimately serve to shape a person’s experiential reality. By no means does this diminish the fact that objective, absolute truth exists, but it is important to recognize that this process of perception, interpretation, and conclusion has a significant impact on the way people experience life. Understanding this can have a profound impact on helping people walk through difficult seasons of suffering.
A fascinating example of this is seen in the book of Mark:
“And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:37-41)
The disciples and Jesus were engulfed in an objectively shared experience, but subjectively, they each experienced this moment very differently. The disciples were fearful and panicky while Jesus was relaxed to the point of sleep. For the disciples, their perception seems pretty accurate: “We’re in a raging storm, and in danger of going under.” But their interpretation of the situation completely enslaved them to fear and dread. From reading the account, their interpretation must have been something along these lines, “We’re in a horrible storm, and we’re going to die!” Their seeming admonishment of Jesus reflects this, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (v.38). On the other hand, Jesus responded to the situation with complete power and authority.
What was the missing variable in the disciples’ interpretation of the situation? It was faith. Jesus rebuked them for this asking, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (v. 40). The Creator of the cosmos sat in physical form with them on the boat, in the storm, but their lack of faith in him caused them to miss the amazing providential moment of mercy that was unfolding right before their eyes. Jesus was there, and safety was imminent.
How does this translate into helping others who are going through difficulty and suffering? Let’s consider two implications:
The Variable of the Gospel Forces a Reinterpretation of EVERYTHING
Typical responses to suffering tend to foster contempt for and doubt in God. It is not unusual for me to hear statements (from Christians who are suffering) like: “Why is God punishing me?” “What did I do to deserve this from God?” “Why is God abandoning me?” “If God is such a good God, why is he allowing such evil in my life?” “I am very angry with God.” These responses expose a profound distortion in the flow of one’s perceptions, interpretations, and conclusions. While the perception that life is difficult, even grueling, demands enormous compassion from the counselor, the leap from this to the “God-is-against-me” type thinking demands extensive consideration. For example, like the disciples, these responses assume God is either asleep or apathetic to the situation. The interpretation is not simply that life is difficult, but that since it is difficult, God doesn’t care, or even worse, is working against them.
This myopic translation of reality completely expunges the “Gospel-at-work” dynamic from the person’s experience of suffering. If we help them bring the Gospel variable into the scene, the nature of God, from careless and cruel, is transformed into the realization that He is actually amazing and merciful. The person with the “God-is-against-me” mentality is going to have a very difficult time responding to suffering with humility and trust unless the light of truth is shed upon their experience in such a way that His mercy is meaningfully revealed.
The truth of the matter is that during moments or seasons of suffering, and particularly in the context of sinful responses to suffering, the Gospel is perpetually at work. When accusations against God are being catapulted from the heart, waging war against Him, and when anger and doubt are the predominant themes as it concerns one’s attitude towards God, the finished work of the Cross is stunningly active. Rather than being condemned for such responses, God ascribes to the one sinning the very righteousness of Jesus. God actually treats the suffering saint (with a sinful attitude) as though he or she is responding with perfect obedience to and faith in God. God examines all the doubt, anger, fear, and hostility directed at Him through the prism of the Gospel, and treats the individual as though he or she were responding with the very perfection of Jesus. In essence, in our weakness and sinful responses, we act like the disciples in the boat, but are viewed by God as though we were responding with the perfection of Jesus. Even further, Jesus took upon himself our guilt as though He were the one responding without faith in a loving Father.
This realization of the Gospel in the midst of suffering forces a reinterpretation of the God of the Bible. Suffering is no longer viewed as His divine lightning bolt intended to punish or curse the afflicted, but is understood as a divine context that is intended to radiate the glory of His love and mercy. As this reality crystallizes in the heart, people’s view of God changes. Where their Gospel-void interpretation once influenced their conclusion of God as the arbiter of pain as a means to justice, they now understand their pain as a means to understand His infinite grace resulting in the freedom to genuinely conclude He is truly a God that is good. They realize His mercy flourishing through suffering in that they were desperate in their weakness for the imputed righteousness of Christ, and that God was eager to offer it as a means to magnify His infinite love for them as they endure life in a fallen world.
As such, the variable of the Gospel completely reinterprets the entire scene of the narrative elevating God as a compassionate Father of His own. Furthermore, he is realized as a Person who demands absolute honor and obedience compelling the believer to repentance where sin has abounded in his or her response to suffering.
The Gospel Actualizes Christ-Like Responses in Real-Time
Not only is the Gospel at work by imparting the righteousness of Jesus to the believer, the message of the Gospel is also about actually changing human hearts. If we were to put this in modern, Western terminology, the Gospel is about conforming believers to the image of Christ, therefore empowering them towards true psychological health; this psychological health not being conceptualized through a Western view of psychological health and research, but understood and determined by the very nature of Jesus Christ.
Jesus was emotionally, mentally, and spiritually perfect. Therefore, he responded to suffering perfectly. As believers are conformed to His image, these aspects of human nature are being radically healed and transformed. Consider the words of James, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:24). Here, James is touching the same theme as Jesus did with His disciples in the boat: faith.
Suffering has a purpose, and that purpose is to create people of faith who are complete and lacking in nothing. It is a means of healing by conforming people to the image of Jesus. Basically, it is the trial that He uses as His instrument to equip believers in responding with a faith reflective of Jesus. Can you imagine what life would be like if you or those you serve faced marital struggles, depression, anxiety, or illness with the faith of Christ? It feels nearly inconceivable as to how this would change the experience we call life. But this is God’s commitment to His own, and it is through suffering that He is mercifully accomplishing His work of healing and transformation in the hearts of believers. Therefore, suffering should not be viewed as the wrath of God upon His children, but as the tool He uses to create beings who relate perfectly to Him in glory and honor. It is a means to help Christians learn to live with their minds set on the things of the Spirit; something Paul taught would bring life and peace (Romans 8:6).
Suffering: A Delicate Reality
As I write this blog, I recognize it barely touches the complexities of human suffering. Therefore, as you consider what is written, avoid making these things into formulaic, emotionally insensitive methods for counseling. The Gospel is rich, and effective for change. However, we as counselors must always be eager to weep with those who weep, and resist any tendencies of scripting the process of redemption for those we serve.
Human change operates on the divine timetable of a sovereign God, and we must submit to His will as we walk with others. Biblical truth brings freedom, but we must speak this truth in love with a keen sensitivity to the exterior and interior struggles that influence confusion about God and the human experience. Even more, we understand that it is God who will bring ultimate understanding, freedom, and peace in the time He has allotted. May we always humbly walk in light of this reality.
by Jay Younts
News of having cancer is a life-changing event. Sorrow, sadness, and sympathy are appropriate responses. But for a counselor, more is needed. Cancer also brings fear and for many who are diagnosed, finality. Once the initial emotional impact passes, uncertainty and helplessness may dominate. Some may just give up in resignation. Other folks may assume an aggressive posture towards cancer and determine to “beat it” no matter how great the odds.
All of these people need one additional perspective, which a biblical counselor is well-suited to provide. This perspective is God’s perspective. God’s purpose is not rooted in whether we will live or die. His purpose is that we bring honor to his name in our response. The days that the cancer patient will live have been already set by God.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:16)
In this way, the biblical counselor is just like the cancer patient. The days for your life on earth are set by God. The counselor really has no promise or reasonable guarantee that he or she will live longer than the person diagnosed with cancer! You are both equally dependent upon God for your next breath. This is reality from God’s perspective!
So the counselor has a point of contact with the cancer patient. They both will live just as long as God wants them to and not a second longer. The point of contact is really about faith. Hebrews says that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
Faith, to have meaning for the cancer patient, must be personal. Two and 1/2 years ago my wife was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The life expectancy of this sort of cancer (glioblastoma multiform or GBM) is 12-14 months. Faith has to do with what is not seen and confidence. Cancer diagnosis has to do with what is seen - cancer cells as seen in MRIs. The other thing about cancer is uncertainty. Neither has to with faith.
My wife continues to live her life in faith. True faith cannot be measured by things that can be seen or touched or counted. This is what your cancer patient needs - faith. Our time on earth is God’s time. This time can be lived in fear, uncertainty, and the measurement of things that can be seen. Or life can be lived in the certain reality of faith and confidence that God’s care for us is constant and sure. What matters most is that he is honored. From this perspective cancer is not a barrier to living for God.
Have the courage to help your cancer patient live for God, nothing else is certain, nothing else matters.
"4Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. 5Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes." Proverbs 26
Verse four basically instructs us not to let a fool tell us how to counsel him. Instead, show the fool how the wisdom of God is superior to his own foolishness in such a manner that he is able to realize his own foolishness. If we fail in this task, the Scripture says, the fool will just continue deceiving himself into believing he knows better than we (or, worse, than God). There's much at stake in the counseling relationship then. If handled correctly, a person may "come to their senses and escape the snare of the enemy." If done poorly, they will remain in their sins, thinking themselves to be wiser than God.
For this reason, we must rely on the wisdom and power of God to reveal the foolishness of men. Counselors must know God's Word. We must be much in prayer and in dependence on the work of the Holy Spirit. And we must not let those we are counseling lead the way. I have seen biblical counseling that differs little from that old Rogerian devil. Someone comes in seeking counsel, and the so-called counselor really offers little in the way of solid, Biblical counsel. He simply parrots back what the counselee has said, throwing in the occasional Scripture and a few words of application. That's not Biblical counseling.
Biblical counseling seeks to walk the person through what led them to counseling in the first place. Rather than minimize the pain their feeling, it seeks to emphasize how it is foolishness--whether theirs or another's--that has brought them there. It offers wisdom from God regarding how to see the problem through the lenses of Scripture. Of course, as Paul said, we are not salespeople hoping against hope that some will buy what we're selling. We know that God, not persuasive words of wisdom, is the One who changes people.
One area in which this works out in counseling those incarcerated or recently released is with regard to the so-called problem of low self-esteem. According to Scripture, the problem of man is pride, not a negative self-image or low self-esteem. If men in prison seem to struggle with low self-esteem or a low self-image, rather than spending hours of time trying to figure out who or what caused it, we would be wiser helping them understand that the problem is within, not without. Walk them through their past only to demonstrate how their foolishness led them to where they are, which is why they must have the wisdom of God if they are to change.
"Joe, I see you're upset because you've lost your freedom and your family because of what you've done. Don't you see how God's way would have been better? The good news is that there's still hope for you. You can leave here freer on the inside than when you came. You can have a marriage that sings and raise kids that are the envy of other parents."
Counsel from the Word. Don't let those you are counseling run the show. You know what God's Word says; help them see that God's ways are better and wiser than theirs.
by Paul Tripp
"...for false witnesses rise up against me, breathing out violence." (v.12)
"Breathing out violence," perhaps no two words in Scripture more dramatically capture the powerfully damaging presence of sin than these two words. Imagine a human being, who was made in the image of God, made for loving worship of the Lord and loving community with others, getting to the place where they've fallen so far from God's original intention that they actually exhale violence! You don't have to look very far to see the dramatic damage that sin does to human beings. The high rate of divorce, the violence that is present in every major city in Western culture, the scourge of physical and sexual abuse of children, and something as common as the high level of conflict that exists in all of our relationships in one form or another.
You may be thinking, "Paul, I'm not sure how it's going to help me to think about all of these terrible things." Here's what's important about these two scary words and what they depict: you and I will never understand and celebrate the magnitude of God's transforming grace until we understand the deep damage that sin does to the human heart. You see, sin isn't about human beings being basically okay and just needing a little tweaking in order to be what they were meant to be and do what they were meant to do. No, the damage of sin reaches to every area of our personhood, deeply altering what we think and what we desire.
Isn't it a stunning fact that after Adam and Eve fell, the very next generation was stained with sibling homicide! And consider what Genesis 6:5 says about the impact of sin on human culture. "The Lord saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of his heart was only evil all the time." Let that divine report of the damage of sin on the human heart sink in, "that every inclination of his heart was only evil all the time!" Could the statement be any stronger? This is what sin does. Its effect is so pervasive and so comprehensive that it influences everything we do and everything we say. It causes us to think, desire, choose, say, and do things that are the polar opposite of the way we were created to function. So, we don't actually love our neighbor. No, we're jealous of him, or we see him as an obstacle in the way of what we want, or we treat him as an adversary, or we ignore him altogether. And we don't love God with our whole hearts. No, we put creation in his place. We'd rather have the temporary pleasure of physical things than the eternal satisfactions that can only be found in him. Sin causes us to place ourselves at the center of our universe. Sin causes us to be obsessed with what we feel, what we want, and what we think we need. Sin causes us to set up our own little kingdom of one, where our desire is the functional law of the land. And as little kings, we want to co-opt the people around us into the service of our kingdom purposes, and when they refuse or unwittingly get in the way of what we want we rage against them. Sometimes it's the quiet rage of bitterness. Sometimes it's the vocal rage of angry and condemning words, and sometimes it's the physical rage of actual acts of violence against another. This is what sin does to all of us.
In light of the fact that sin brings all of us to the point that we all "exhale violence" in some form at some time, it's amazing how much peace and cooperation exists in our relationships. What's the explanation for this apparent contradiction? It can be said in one word: grace. There's not a day where you and yours are not protected by the most powerful, protective, and beneficial force in the universe: the grace of God. Every situation, location, and relationship you're in every day is made livable and tolerable by his grace. In the majesty of his love, God causes his grace to restrain us, just as he causes the sun and the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. Why does he do this? He does it because of his great love and for the sake of his own glory.
This means that every day you experience the power of his grace. Every day God keeps us all from being as wicked as we have the potential to be. And if he would for a moment withdraw his hand of grace, this world would explode into chaos and violence unlike anything any of us could conceive. You see, you only ever begin to really celebrate grace when you begin to understand how deep and pervasive the effects of sin are. As Jesus said when that woman washed his feet with her hair, "The one who has been forgiven much, loves much."
Take time to consider the ravages of sin on us all because when you do, you'll leave with a deeper appreciation of grace than you've ever had. And that appreciation won't only cause praise to come out of your mouth, but it will also change the way you live.
The Association of Biblical Counselors (ABC) exists to encourage, equip, and empower people everywhere to live and counsel the Word, applying the Gospel to the whole experience of life.
Encourage: ABC provides a fellowship of believers committed to life transformation through the Living Word.
Equip: ABC promotes training in biblical counseling and points to resources that deal biblically with all of the issues of life.
Empower: ABC provides excellent materials for growth in Christ and for use in effective biblical counseling.
To find out more, visit the Association of Biblical Counselors website.