Tag Archives: Biblical Counseling

Christian Reflections on Mental Illness

Across the world millions of people struggle with the pain of a mental illness diagnosis. I am a biblical counselor and have walked with many people down the dark, hard road of responding to these problems. From dysthymia to panic disorder there are few difficulties in human experience as painful, isolating, and complex as the ones our culture calls mental illness.

I, along with many others, am trying to devote my life to helping people overcome the pain of these diagnoses. There are many challenges involved in overcoming them. One of those challenges is that when we use the term “mental illness” nobody really understands what we are talking about.

Most Christians simply do not have a clear understanding about the nature of mental illness. I think when most Christians use the term they are talking about hard and complicated problems that produce significant debilitating effects. When they see these problems they find them to be so extreme and troubling that they believe they must require some type of medication to correct a perceived physical problem.

Mental illness

Christians are right to want to provide all the help possible for these kinds of problems. If we want to provide real help, however, it will be important to know what we’re talking about when we use the term.

What Is Mental Illness?

Defining mental illness is a hard thing to do. The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the catalogue of mental illnesses created by the American Psychiatric Association, regularly changes the definition of mental illness. Their changing definitions are meant to keep up with the changing opinions in psychology about mental illness. But they’re often at odds with the definitions provided by other entities like The National Alliance of Mental Illness. Writing in Psychology Todaysecular psychologist Eric Maisel points to the failure of psychologists to define mental illness as proof that the phenomenon doesn’t even exist.

Everybody knows that people with a mental illness diagnosis have genuine problems. The question concerns the nature of the problem. The DSM was first published in 1952 to create a system of language for new kinds of problems. Psychologists had a good desire to provide categories for serious issues that overwhelmed people with difficulty, but for which they could find no evidence of pathology.

Pathology is what physicians look for when they diagnose disease. It is a physical abnormality that is the cause of illness. For example, people receive a diagnosis of cancer when they have a mass of cells in their body that divides and multiplies at a rapid and uncontrollable rate. Scientists know about this pathology because of repeated testing and observation of normal cell growth compared to abnormal cell growth. Physicians perform medical exams and determine objective results against a clear standard. They render a medical diagnosis of diseases by doing tests that demonstrate concrete evidence of pathology.

Most people wrongly assume that mental illnesses in the DSM are characterized by this same level of medical precision. They are not. Unfortunately, there are no medical tests to determine the existence of most of the disorders in DSM. In general the disorders listed in the DSM have several characteristics that separate them from the diseases in the rest of medicine. Below I list three of them.

1. Not pathology, but committee votes

Unlike diseases in medicine, diseases in psychology are created by committee votes. One reason there are so many different versions of the DSM is because different committees keep voting to add, subtract, and modify the various disorders. There are many examples of this practice in the history of DSM. One glaring example is homosexuality.

In the early editions of the DSM homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder. In 1974, the APA removed homosexuality from the DSM-II. Homosexuality was declared to be normal by the vote of a 15-member committee. This committee was not responding to any new scientific information, but rather to political pressures supplied by gay-rights activists.

Not all the DSM disorders are as politically volatile as homosexuality, but all of them are characterized by the fact that they are created, removed, and modified by committee votes. Votes like this are altogether different from the medical science behind diseases like cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.

2. Not pathology, but subjective behavior descriptions

The objective science of medicine determines disease through biopsies, blood work, X-rays and other tests, which discover pathology. Psychology determines mental illnesses differently. The same committees that vote on which problems are normal and which ones are not also vote on the descriptive behaviors that determine the illnesses. Depression is just one example.

The committee working on DSM-IV agreed that people would be considered mentally ill with a diagnosis of major depression if they had a depressed mood for two weeks and manifested five out of nine criteria including changes in sleep, changes in activity, and feelings of guilt. The committee on DSM-V voted to make significant changes to these criteria so that now, a woman grieving the death of her husband can receive this diagnosis.

People who meet these criteria in the DSM have a problem for which they need help. Christians ought to be eager to help them. But it is not typically the work of medicine, seeking pathology, to make a medical diagnosis from a changing list of subjective behavior descriptions.

3. Not pathology, but moral behaviors

Many of the behaviors that the DSM describes are moral categories that God describes. I previously mentioned homosexuality. But consider Gender Identity Disorder (GID), which is described in the DSM as a mental disorder.

GID is trans-sexualism. The DSM defines it as a strong, persistent feeling of identification with the opposite gender and discomfort with one’s own assigned sex. People with GID desire to live as members of the opposite sex and often dress and use mannerisms associated with the other gender. Psychologists recommend several different kinds of treatments for GID, from counseling to deal with the pain over being assigned the “wrong” gender, to gender-reassignment surgery.

It is characteristic of the DSM to medicalize moral problems—from GID to worry—addressed by God in his Word.

What This Does and Does Not Mean

None of this description diminishes the significant suffering going on in the lives of people diagnosed with mental illness. People struggling with these problems need complex and multi-faceted help. People with a mental illness often have a physical pathology for which they need medical interventions.

But this understanding means we need to admit that these problems are typically different from mere medical problems. If we want to help people with mental illnesses we need to have an accurate understanding of what we are talking about. When we conclude that mental illnesses are equivalent to something like Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in their level of pathology we are saying more than even the secular psychologists who write DSM.

Biblical Anthropology

As Christians we believe that human beings have both a body and a soul. This is something that the Bible teaches clearly and repeatedly (Gen 2:7; Matt 10:28; 2 Cor 5:1; 1 Tim 4:8). The Bible affirms both physical and spiritual problems because God created mankind to consist in each of these realities.

This biblical teaching, called dichotomy, means that it is just as biblical to take a Tylenol for a headache as it is to fight to depend on the Lord in times of financial stress. The biblical teaching on dichotomy is also a warning to Christians. Because humans are both soul and body, it is sinful and ignorant to reduce all problems to the spiritual. The inverse is also true: it is wrong to reduce all problems to being physical in nature.

As I mentioned previously, I think Christians look at the problems represented in mental illness diagnoses and think that they are so extreme in nature that they must be physical problems. A biblical understanding of humanity and the importance of the soul demonstrates that problems do not have to be medical to be serious. Job’s overwhelming grief, Saul’s murderous rampages, Nebuchadnezzer’s deranged behavior, and the ravings of demoniacs in the New Testament are all examples of extreme spiritual problems that medical intervention will never help. Christians must not assume that all serious problems are medical problems.

We like extremes. We feel comfortable when problems are all one thing and none of something else. The biblical teaching on dichotomy teaches that problems can be physical, spiritual, or any combination of the two. Caring for people means being alert to physical problems that require medical treatments and spiritual problems that require Christ and his Word. The designation of mental illness by the DSM is not as helpful in determining the difference between these matters as I wish it were.

I’m praying for a revival of uniquely Christian concern with troubled people. When Christians look at folks diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder, and gender identity disorder we are not allowed to see merely medical problems. Medical issues may be on the table, but where are the Christians who will do more than encourage medication? Where are the Christians who will plead with those locked in a mighty struggle with everything from depression to GID to draw near to Jesus Christ, the comforter of their souls?

When we look at mental illnesses and only find medical categories, we do not understand the term, and we dishonor Jesus Christ. In doing so we will also keep troubled people from the fullness of help they need. Yes, people with severe problems often need medication. But even when medication is necessary no medical doctor can prescribe what the Great Physician alone can provide.

This year’s conference of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, October 6 to 8 in Sun Valley, California, will address “The Gospel and Mental Illness.” Visit the site for more details on speakers and registration.

Three Kinds of Shame

Sin is muddy. When it splashes, we rightly want to clean it up. But sometimes our zeal to clean causes us to oversimplify sin’s muddiness by seeking trite answers for complex situations.

Consider the example of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9. This man had spent his entire life in darkness, and his misery had no comfort. His blindness brought shame. He couldn’t get a job or volunteer in God’s temple. All he could do was sit and beg.

mud handJesus’ disciples asked a reasonable question: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (John 9:2)? In other words: Is he responsible, or are his parents responsible?

The disciples knew that shame is no accident, but unfortunately they knew of only two possible causes: immorality or abuse. And while we know Jesus will present a third perspective, let’s consider these two options the disciples presented.

Shame #1: My Sin Against God

In this case, I did something I’m ashamed of, and I should be ashamed of it. There’s a standard of right and wrong, moral and immoral, kindness and cruelty—and I broke it.

This is the shame of immorality. In moments of clarity we’re horrified by our ability to be horrible. We’ve lied to people who trust us. We’ve ridiculed others to get a good laugh. We didn’t wait for marriage, or we selfishly destroyed what could have been a sweet honeymoon. We’ve aborted our babies. We’ve touched people—perhaps even children—in ways they didn’t want to be touched. We touch ourselves often, and we don’t want to stop.

Jesus acknowledged that suffering and shame are sometimes caused by our own sin (John 5:14). But though we are blind, Jesus sees us. He wants to cleanse our mud.

Shame #2: Others’ Sin Against Me

In this case, someone else did something to me and that person should be ashamed of it. There’s a standard of right and wrong, moral and immoral, kindness and cruelty—and he or she broke it. But I’m stuck with the shame of it.

This is the shame of abuse. Do you replay the memories and wonder if you’re a horrible person? Perhaps your best friend lied to you or betrayed your confidence. Perhaps you were the ridiculed outcast. Perhaps your dream date or honeymoon became a nightmare when your lover lost control. Perhaps you felt manipulated into getting an abortion. Or someone touched you where you didn’t want to be touched. Maybe you even trusted that person—everybody trusted that person. When you told people about it, they didn’t believe you.

Jesus acknowledged that innocent people sometimes suffer under the hand of evil (Luke 13:16). But though we are blind, Jesus sees us. He wants to cleanse our mud.

Shame #3: The Work of God in Me

Now we get to the blind man’s true shame. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).

Sometimes this is the most difficult kind of shame, because it seems to serve no purpose. There’s nobody to blame for it but God, but you and I still have to bear the weight of it.

Do you carry the shame of being different, such as a physical deformity or speech impediment? Maybe people think you’re not as pretty as the other ladies, or not as strong as the other guys. Maybe you feel attracted to people you know you shouldn’t be attracted to. Perhaps you’re too tall, too short, too clumsy, too geeky, too stupid, or too awkward.

Though we are blind, Jesus sees us. He wants to cleanse our mud and so work the works of God in us.

How to Minister to Shame

All three kinds of shame surround us. They fill our neighborhoods and our churches.

Foolish counselors and teachers assume all shame falls in only one category. For Job’s miserable helpers, everything fell into the first category (your sin against God). Today, the spirit of the age puts everything into the second category (others’ sin against you). We who are Calvinists sometimes overreact by placing everything into the third category (the work of God in you).

Wise counselors and teachers recognize shame’s complexity, and they seek to understand the mud before laboring to clean it. They know the shame might get worse—by coming into the light—before it can get better. They empathize liberally, and they denounce sparingly. They speak of shameful things in a way that invites disclosure and doesn’t drive the issue further underground.

For example, as you preach against abortion, do you put yourself in the shoes of those who have sought abortions? Does your tone and word choice invite confession and repentance, or does your harshness confirm their need for ongoing secrecy?

Are you honest about sin and shame, even while you take people to Jesus for cleansing?

For one blind beggar, the work of God showed him the reproach of Christ so he might bear courageous witness to it. Jesus—who could have given sight with a mere word—spit. Not a nice, clean spittle, but a loogy so wet and slimy that it turned dirt into mud and stuck to the man’s eyes (John 9:6). Then Jesus sent him groping across Jerusalem to find a certain pool. Thus, having endured the shame of both blindness and healing, the man faced the Pharisees and staked the claim that earned ejection from the synagogue: “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (John 9:33-34).

Finally, when the man asked Jesus who the Son of Man is, he heard something that had never been said to him before: “You have seen him” (John 9:37). Jesus turned his shame into his glory, and he can do the same in our churches today.

Tools for Spiritual Cardiology

I galloped into the wild, wild West to pastor a church in Phoenix at 29 years old. After four years of rubbing elbows with other senior pastors, I’ve been surprised, in a good way, by the number of young men engaged in ministry with a heart for the gospel and a zeal to make Jesus famous in our valley.

I’m delighted to see brothers grappling with the enormity of God’s activity in salvation and an increasing conviction that reformation begins with preaching his Word—but that it doesn’t stop there. Young reformers are wrestling with the theological implications our ecclesiology should have on our evangelism. The two should share a symbiotic relationship. God’s Word creates God’s people, and, in turn, God’s people proclaim God’s Word to the lost.

Scalpels, Not Chainsaws

While we have a lot of talented preachers and missiologists in the hopper, we need to make sure we don’t neglect our calling to be spiritual cardiologists—surgeons of the heart. Of course, the ultimate heart surgeon is God, who removes cold, stony hearts and replaces them with hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). But our redeemed people still suffer from disease-riddled hearts and need human surgeons, led by the Spirit, to apply God’s Word with the precision of a scalpel, not a chainsaw.

Few situations demand a competent surgeon more than people doubting their salvation. Quality care demands we diagnose the particular kind of doubt ailing our patient. Some doubt they are Christians because they are, in fact, not Christians. Of course, I always try to give the benefit of the doubt, but pastors must recognize this possibility. Spiritually dead people don’t need Band-Aids; they need defibrillators. They need the heavy shock of the gospel, accompanied by prayer that the Holy Spirit would haunt them with doubt until they turn from sin, death, and Satan to Christ alone.

Half the Gospel Leads to Doubt

Others struggling with doubt, however, actually believe. Christian doubts may arise from a variety of origins, but most common is trusting only half the gospel. These Christians know they deserve judgment for sinning against their good Creator. They probably sense the horror of sin more sincerely than do the rest of us, and maybe that’s because we don’t really sense sin’s horror. When was the last time we wept over a particular sin?

But that’s only half the story. Our horrific sins only prepare us for Christ’s dramatic rescue. Paralysis of doubt can often prevent true Christians from seeing and grasping Jesus. The guilt and filth of sin can cloud out the hope and joy of the cross and resurrection. So while we may intellectually know the gospel’s power, we do not experience it. Therefore, our souls must be flooded with the reality of their new identity in Christ. In him, all things are made new, the filthy are made clean, the sinful are made holy, the dead are made alive, slaves are made sons, and enemies are made friends.

9 Questions for Diagnosing Doubt

Christians doubt their salvation for a host of reasons. Sometimes, what we call doubt is really the Spirit’s prompting to change. The good surgeon slices clean lines between legalism and antinomianism, even though our hands tend toward one or the other and might potentially nick an artery. Here are some helpful diagnostic, “pre-operation” questions I ask strugglers to help me assess their situation.

1. Have you repented and trusted in Jesus the Christ (Mark 1:15)?

2. Could physical issues be responsible for your doubt? Do you get enough sleep? Are you sick? Such things could be affecting your relationship with God (James 5:13-16).

3. Have you experienced any traumatic events lately? Have you moved, had kids, changed jobs, lost a loved one, or been diagnosed with a series illness (Job)?

4. Are you persisting in sins of omission (not doing what you should)—such as not reading Scripture, praying, serving at church, and so forth (James 4:17)?

5. Are you persisting in sins of commission (doing what you shouldn’t)—such as looking at pornography, dating an unbeliever, or drinking too much? The Holy Spirit could be warning you of a discrepancy between who you are and how you’re living (1 John 1:6-9).

6. Do you have a broken relationship that needs reconciliation? Human relationships affect our relationship with God. Could it be that until you pursue peace with others you won’t sense peace with God (Matt. 5:21-26)?

7. Do you know who you are in Christ? Perhaps you simply lack understanding of the brilliance of God’s gospel (Eph. 1).

8. Have you become spiritually bored because you aren’t leaning into the gospel in costly ways? Is your life too safe (Rev. 3:14-22)?

9. Are you suffering from a downcast soul? Perhaps you need to preach truth to your own heart like the psalmist does (Ps. 42).

Hopefully these questions will help us diagnose people more accurately as we seek to skillfully engage in the work of spiritual cardiology. Remember, the steady hands of a skilled spiritual surgeon can deliver someone from death to life, while the hands of a sloppy surgeon can take someone from life to death. Where our work cuts to the heart, we can expect to see communities of healing and hope.

Naked and Unashamed

Imagine getting fired as the CEO of a company, in front of all your employees, by your own son. This is similar to the experience David lived through that gave us Psalm 3. His son Absalom conspired against him, forcing him to flee from Jerusalem. While travelling barefoot away from Jerusalem, David and his loyal servants cover their heads—a portrait of shame, humiliation, and disgrace (2 Sam. 15:30). Then it gets worse: a man from the house of Saul named Shimei walks alongside David and his servants, throwing rocks and flinging dust, cursing and mocking. He calls David “worthless” and a “man of blood,” claiming David is experiencing judgment from God himself (2 Sam. 16:7-8). David’s servants implore him to kill the man, but David refuses, claiming God sent Shimei to curse them (2 Sam. 16:9-13).

This is King David in all his shame: fleeing from his kingdom, weeping, and enduring pebbles and taunts along the way.

However, in this terrible circumstance, David turns to God, and the result is Psalm 3. This psalm has been a refuge for me countless times. First, a brief outline: in verses 1-2, he laments his situation before God; in verses 3-6, he declares what he knows to be true about God; in verses 7-8, he begs God for salvation.

The order here is striking. David asks to be rescued from his shameful circumstances only after he’s declared what God means to him amid them. Before he ever experiences God’s deliverance, while Shimei is still doing his worst, David can declare, “But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head” (Ps. 3:3). 

In the most shameful place, David declares that God is his protection (“shield about me”), his dignity (“my glory”), and his healing (“lifter of my head”).

Search for Covering

Do you know how shame is at work in your life? Too often we think of people who struggle with shame as shy, deferential people. But shame is equally present in bullies, braggarts, and loudmouths. Shame fuels timidity and cowardice as much as addictions, bursts of rage, and acts of violence. Shame simmers in courtrooms as well as nurseries, at gang fights as well as middle school dances. In fact, shame is so prevalent it’s never a question of whether we’re struggling—just where and how.

We struggle with shame because we struggle with sin. Our first parents were said to be “naked and without shame,” but when sin entered the world, they sought covering (Gen. 2:25, 3:7). Shame exists due to our deep inner nakedness and desperate attempts to cover it. It’s the place in our hearts where, like Adam, we say to God and others, “I was afraid, and I hid myself” (Gen. 3:10). Shame is when we go into hiding because we fear our real selves being seen by another. The root of sinful shame, then, is often the answer to this question: What do I most fear being exposed or uncovered about myself?

Ultimate Shimei

Every believer can relate to David’s experience in Psalm 3, because every believer knows what it’s like to be accused. In the Bible, accusation (not temptation) is the primary activity of Satan and other demons toward believers. The very name Satan means “the accuser,” and Revelation 12:10 says he engages in accusation against us continually. Satan is the ultimate Shimei, marching alongside us, hurling accusations at us amid our shame and failure.

Perhaps the most vivid presentation of Satan’s accusatory work—as well as the Christian’s answer—comes in Zechariah 3. In what appears to be a courtroom scene, the high priest Joshua, representing God’s people, stands before the angel of the Lord in filthy garments. Satan stands ready to accuse him (the legal place of accusation, cf. Ps. 109:6). But the angel of the Lord rebukes Satan, declaring he’s taken away Joshua’s filthy garments and covered him with pure clothes (Zech. 3:4). In the most shameful place, Joshua found relief as our first parents sought it: in a covering. But unlike Adam and Eve’s fig leaves, Joshua’s was a deeper, inner covering—the covering provided by the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Bore Our Shame

One of the often forgotten aspects of the crucifixion is the shame associated with this form of death. When the soldiers shoved the crown of thorns on Jesus’ head, they mocked him by saluting him, bowing down to him, spitting on him, and sarcastically calling him “King of the Jews” (Mark 15:18-19). Imagine the scene. One soldier strikes Jesus’ head, driving in the thorns another half-inch. Another bows, another salutes, and still others watch the scene, crowing cruelly. Then a few soldiers strip off his robe (Mark 15:20). The jeers don’t stop there; they persist to the cross, until his final breath. Even there, our Lord wasn’t safe from the continuous mocking of Jewish leaders, passers-by, and even those with whom he was crucified (Mark 15:29-32).

The crucifixion was a dramatic picture of exposure, nakedness, and shame. On the cross, Jesus became our substitute, enduring our sin’s divine judgment. The one worthy of all honor entered into the deepest place of shame—guilt before a holy God. The one clothed with eternal glory and love from the Father experienced abandonment, exposure.

When I think about God’s innocent Son hanging helpless on a tree, I feel broken, undeserving, and, at times, ashamed. Yet that which breaks me also equips me to deal with my shame. In Christ, my representative before God, I am already exposed. The fear animating my shame has already come true: I am fully, completely, exhaustively, and perfectly known by my Substitute. The battle is over. The bomb has detonated. The rumor has made its rounds. The truth has been uncovered. Christ bore my shame, and now he covers me in his perfect righteousness. In him, there is a hiding place—a covering—for sin, and it is perfect. He is perfect.

Should You Study Counseling Outside Christian Institutions? Yes and No

Would there be value for biblical counselors to pursue PhD work outside Christian institutions, and what challenges would they face?

There are two good answers to the question above: no and yes.

First, for the no. If you are not a competent critical thinker, I would suggest you not pursue it. If, like much of our culture, you hear with your eyes and think with your feelings, then you will be in trouble. The following warning by Mark Noll and David Wells (1988) gets right to the point.

[The] journey from Word to world is fraught with peril even as it is ripe with potential. Bridges built between God’s Word and our world are susceptible of carrying traffic in both directions . . . most of the traffic has been moving in the wrong direction. Twentieth-century people have allowed the cognitive constraints and the psychological conventions of our own day to limit what the Bible may say. This reverses the proper situation. It is the Bible that deserves to prescribe the cognitive horizon for the twentieth century, just as it has been for every century.

Which leads to the second point: If you are biblically and theologically anemic, I would not suggest you pursue PhD work outside Christian institutions. Everybody leans on what they know best. So if your understanding of people, problems, and change is deep and wide in the secular rudiments of the psyche but weak and thin in the faith once for all delivered to you and the rest of the saints, then you will be in trouble. You will function more as a psychologist who happens to be Christian than a Christian who happens to be a psychologist. The academic and professional guilds are persuasive when you function under their presuppositions rather than God’s, and powerful when they hold over your head a degree, a license, and a paycheck. Be careful.

If you have a PhD in psychology, counseling, or social work and a “Sunday school degree” in Bible and theology, anybody can guess what will exercise the greatest influence in your work. Prior training in biblical counseling, especially a developed theistic epistemology and biblical psychology, is a minimal prerequisite. Even better would be a seminary degree.

Finally, I would not suggest PhD work outside Christian institutions if you do not have sharp dialogue partners to accompany you on your trek. After I completed graduate school in clinical psychology and attempted to practice as a Christian, I sensed the spiritually vapid nature of my work. God used David Powlison and Sid Galloway as mentors to help me develop a more biblical perspective. They gave me their time and energy—countless conversations, helpful responses to my many “yes, but what about” questions, and many thoughtful e-mails.

Missionary Mindset

But here’s when I would say “yes”: if you can think and live like a missionary. Missionaries enter into another culture both as learners, and with time, as teachers. They are motivated by love and therefore move toward the culture with a measure of acceptance; they are moved by the mission of God and therefore possess a distinctively divine agenda. Our psychology and our counsel is messianic and revolutionary. There is good reason from our perspective as Christians to view the mental health subculture as a mission field, or at least as a kind of unreached people group. The gospel’s psychology subverts the foundational narratives and metaphysical, epistemological, and anthropological presuppositions of the secular psychologies. We don’t just offer up junior versions of their non-Christian systems. The secular psychotherapies desperately need redemption, not because they are all wrong, but because they are fundamentally wrong about the most important things.

Our goal, then, should not be simply to obtain a seat at the psychological table, but instead to invite diners in the Mental Health Café to a banquet feast with fare beyond their wildest dreams: a Chef who offers living bread and living water and even life beyond this one. Would not a retooling of C. S. Lewis’s inimitable challenge in The Weight of Glory be apropos?

We are half-hearted counselors, fooling about with Freud and Rogers and Beck when infinite joy is offered us by Another Counselor, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased (modified from Lewis, 1980, pp. 3-4).

Two Sides of the Counseling Coin

Explaining the difference between nouthetic and biblical counseling is a bit like asking whether a coin is heads or tails. A coin is both heads and tails. In talking about the heads side or the tails side of the coin, we are merely emphasizing different surfaces of one thing.

Such is the case with the today’s conservative, Bible-based counseling movement. The language of “nouthetic” or “biblical” serves to emphasize different streams inside one, larger movement. First, I will explain why nouthetic and biblical counseling are two sides of the same coin, and then I will explain the differences that each side emphasizes.

One Coin

Whether you use the term “nouthetic” or “biblical” counseling, Jay Adams was the man who got the whole project started with his first book on counseling, Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling. The word nouthetic in the title comes from a Greek word meaning to confront or admonish. When Adams applied this language to counseling he argued that it included three elements:

  1. confrontation happening in a face-to-face manner;
  2. confrontation done out of loving concern for the counselee; and
  3. confrontation done with the purpose of bringing about change that God desires.

In that book, which introduced evangelicalism to his nouthetic model, the very first time he refers to his project in the early pages, he calls it “biblical counseling.” That was more than 40 years ago, but even today on his own website at the Institute for Nouthetic Studies, Adams says that nouthetic counseling “is biblical counseling.”

In a 1976 book, What About Nouthetic Counseling, Adams said he actually preferred the title “biblical counseling.” He has continued to use the “nouthetic” label to keep his project separate from approaches to counseling that are unfaithful to the Scriptures but increasingly apply the “biblical counseling” label to their work. For Adams, there is nothing sacred about a label. What matters is whether the Bible drives understanding of people as well as the counseling task.

The next big leader in Adams’s counseling movement was David Powlison, who succeeded Adams as the editor of The Journal of Pastoral Practice and immediately renamed it The Journal of Biblical Counseling (a decision Adams himself approved). Powlison is more responsible than anyone else for bringing biblical counseling into the mainstream of evangelicalism. Even Powlison, however, has not been hung up on a “biblical” counseling label, but has at times referred to the movement as biblical-nouthetic counseling and serves on the board of the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC). For Powlison, like Adams, the defining mark of faithfulness in counseling is whether it conforms to the Scriptures, not what one calls it.

Beyond these two giants in the field, examples could be multiplied. Ed Welch, another key leader, has in the past referred to the movement as biblical-nouthetic counseling. NANC, perhaps the largest organization in the movement, defines their purpose as pursuing excellence in biblical counseling. There are no massive fault lines in the movement between “biblical” and “nouthetic” labels. Regardless of the name a person uses, the people in the movement are committed to using the Scriptures as the source of wisdom that drives the change process in conversational ministry.

Two Sides

Great cohesion does not eliminate distinction between the two strands in the movement. There is one coin, but it has two sides. Today, “biblical counseling” is the popular and default label. When people in the counseling movement, however, intentionally choose to identify themselves in a distinctive way as either “biblical” or “nouthetic,” I think they are referring to two different kinds of distinctions. The first distinction is historical, and the second is dispositional.

Concerning the historical distinction, nouthetic counselors identify with the founding generation of biblical-nouthetic counseling and leaders in the movement like Jay Adams, Ed Bulkley, and Wayne Mack. Biblical counselors identify with second-generation leaders like David Powlison, Ed Welch, and Paul Tripp. But these historical distinctions do not always amount to institutional distinctions. A few smaller organizations like the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) and the Institute for Nouthetic Studies (INS) are purely one or the other. But large organizations like The Association of Biblical Counselors (ABC), The International Association of Biblical Counselors (IABC), and NANC have diverse memberships that identify with each generation.

An historical identification with one generation of leaders over another leads to dispositional differences as leaders in varied ministry contexts emphasize different things. The “nouthetic” and “biblical” streams within this one movement have four dispositional distinctions on their respective sides of the counseling coin. These distinctions are generalized with exceptions, but they are still helpful in organizing our thinking.

First, there are dispositional differences with regard to doing and believing. In their counseling theory and practice, nouthetic counselors pay particular attention to behavioral change. Biblical counselors focus on the patterns of belief or unbelief that motivate behavior. True change is not merely behavioral but generates from deep within the heart.

Second, there are dispositional differences with regard to sinning and suffering. Nouthetic counselors have a reputation for skillfully engaging patterns of sinfulness. While not ignoring suffering, they believe that effective counseling leads struggling persons to encounter the living God through repentant faith. Biblical counselors tend to emphasize skillful engagement with struggling persons concerning the areas of suffering. They seek to augment a perceived lack in attention to suffering from other biblical-nouthetic counselors.

Third, there are dispositional differences with regard to the counseling relationship. Biblical counselors believe in the importance of befriending those they counsel and adopt an informal approach that focuses on mutuality. They believe an approach that focuses on kindness and compassion is most conducive to the change being pursued in the counseling relationship. Nouthetic counselors focus on an approach that is more formal and focused on engaging issues. They believe that the most kind, compassionate, and effective approach to care is to engage problems as quickly as possible, allowing the counselee to experience progress as rapidly as possible.

Fourth, there are dispositional differences with regard to contending against unbiblical approaches to counseling. As previously mentioned, both biblical and nouthetic counselors believe the Bible is God’s source of wisdom that should inform and direct all counseling. But each side of the counseling coin emphasizes different interests in contending for that truth. Biblical counselors are concerned about an unfortunate reputation for rancor in the counseling debates of the past. Though biblical counselors believe in sufficiency, they tend to devote less time to contending for it out of a desire to be irenic. Nouthetic counselors tend to believe that sufficiency is always at risk from competing counseling philosophies and so are more interested contending for it against unbiblical counseling approaches.

It Takes Two Sides to Make One Coin

Concerning coins, I suppose some people prefer heads, and some prefer tails. People like to pick sides. That is fine so long as we avoid an “I follow Apollos” mentality. It is important to remember that just like a coin needs both sides, so counseling needs its “nouthetic” and “biblical” streams. I am convinced that each side represents a sort of conscience to the other. They each emphasize truth on different ends of a spectrum. The Bible teaches believing and doing; sin and suffering; loving interaction and truthful instruction; the need to contend and the need to care for those with whom we disagree.

Many of us have learned a great deal from both sides. The biblical-nouthetic counseling movement is stronger for its corresponding emphases. Like a coin, the diversity complements rather than conflicts with the fundamental unity.

How Biblical is Biblical Counseling?

How would you like to write an article on the weaknesses of your family? That’s how I feel in responding to this request to write an article on the weaknesses of biblical counseling. I am a biblical counselor, and biblical counselors are my family. I know and love many of them; I read their books; I listen to their lectures; I value their counsel; and I rejoice at how God is working in them and through them for the benefit of his church.

Like all families, the biblical counseling family has strengths and weaknesses, but how do I identify particular weaknesses without naming particular people on the one hand, or being too general and lumping everyone together on the other hand? Both will result in family uproar, and maybe a homeless orphan too!

So let me first prove my familial love, by highlighting what I value about my biblical counseling family:

(1) I appreciate my family’s emphasis on counseling presuppositions. Biblical counselors have exposed the dangerously unbiblical presuppositions behind much secular counseling today (and some Christian), and have re-built biblical counseling on biblical presuppositions resulting in more biblical aims and methods.

(2) I honor my family’s courage in boldly re-claiming pastoral care, so much of which has been usurped by secular counseling in our day.

(3) I value my family’s emphasis on the power and suitability of God’s Word in addressing people’s problems. They have inspired and trained many Christians to use the Bible to diagnose the roots of problems and to prescribe lasting solutions.

(4) I admire the way my family has restored the biblical vocabulary of personal sin and personal responsibility, giving huge hope of forgiveness and change.

(5) I’m stunned at the quality of the theological and practical resources my family has provided for the church to address a vast range of life problems.

(6) I welcome my family’s stress on the necessity of the Holy Spirit, prayer, and the Christian community to effect long-term transformation.

(7) Above all, I love my family’s compassion for people and the multiple hours they invest in repairing broken lives.

It’s a great family, and I’d encourage many more to join it. However, we’re still quite a young family, and as such we’re not perfect. We still have much to learn from one another and from those outside our family. Biblical counselors still need biblical counseling!

Change the Name

So what counsel would I give to my biblical counseling family? I want to give only one piece of very simple yet very radical counsel: let’s change our name. Actually, to put it more accurately, let’s change the understanding of our name, especially of our first name, “biblical.” Many of our family’s internal squabbles, and some of our confrontations with other families, could be solved by clarifying this meaning.

For some in our family, “biblical” means “Bible only.” For them, biblical counseling could be more accurately renamed “Bible counseling.” In principle, it means they use only the Bible in counseling people; nothing else is helpful, and anything else is compromise. That, however, is not how “biblical” has historically been understood. In the past it has meant that something is either contained in the Bible or consistent with the Bible. That’s based on the belief that God has revealed truth in two places: in his Word and in his world. We therefore discover God’s truth by reading God’s Word and by reading God’s world through the lens of God’s Word.

Take, for example, “biblical preaching.” “Biblical” here does not mean we only use the Bible in sermons. Biblical preaching expounds the Bible, but it also draws from non-biblical sources—some of them authored by unbelievers—such as syntactical, grammatical, lexical, and textual guides and commentaries. We often incorporate historical, geographical, sociological, and cultural research. We regularly draw from current scientific findings and the modern media to teach, explain, or illustrate a point. Even the form and communication style of most modern sermons has been derived largely from ancient and modern philosophical and political speech forms.

However, although some of the content and form of biblical preaching is drawn from outside the Bible, we believe that God has provided a Bible that is up to the task of filtering out the false and admitting the truth of God that he has graciously placed in the world. Similarly, “biblical education” does not mean an education that only teaches the Bible. It teaches the Bible, for sure; but it also teaches other subjects like history, geography, science, math, and English, and it does so in a way that is consistent with Scripture.

The unfortunate narrowing of “biblical” in “biblical counseling” results from a limited view of the sufficiency of Scripture; it takes the sufficiency of Scripture to mean that Scripture is all we use in counseling and that to include any other resource introduces unmanageable danger.

Of course, we approach extra-biblical data and research with caution, recognizing that the authors are often unbelievers. And we do not make extra-biblical sources foundational, primary, or authoritative. But neither do we run away from knowledge outside the Bible that God has given to the human race and unintentionally imply that the Bible is insufficient to guide us away from error and towards His truth.

This broader definition of “biblical” is especially important in areas that God has not addressed directly or extensively in his Word. God’s Word-based revelation includes truth about spiritual problems such as sin that we could never have discovered any other way. However, we can discover other aspects of humanity by diligent research. In these areas, God invites us to work and struggle towards his perfect and comprehensive knowledge of human beings through thinking, hypothesis, experimentation, logical analysis, peer-review, and so on, along with scriptural exegesis.

Thus, for problems that are not purely spiritual, where other factors contribute (such as genetics, biology, physiology, nutrition, chemistry, sociology, and psychology), we should not expect the Bible to supply the non-spiritual information that can be helpful in dealing with certain problems. Rather, we should expect the Bible to be a sufficient lens to read the information supplied by these disciplines, enabling us to find and use only what is consistent with Scripture.

‘Biblical’ Benefits

If my biblical counseling family would return to this broader and more biblical sense of “biblical,” seven major benefits would follow:

(1) It will restore a more comprehensive understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture. Rather than using a truncated (and unreformational) view of the sufficiency of Scripture that might legitimate our ignoring of contemporary science, we should use the concept as a divinely provided and effective weapon enabling us to plunder the knowledge that God has made available in his world through his common (or creation) grace.

(2) It will make us more honest. In practice (as evidenced in some writings), even “Bible-only” counselors sometimes use extra-biblical help and resources. However, we should have the integrity to consistently admit that fact in our presuppositions and public statements as well.

(3) It will help avoid misrepresentation of our position. If we spend much of our time creating an unbiblical dualism between the Word and the world, decrying all worldly sources of knowledge in principle, and then in small print, or in vague language, whisper, “Actually there is some helpful information outside the Bible,” we shouldn’t be surprised or offended when people misunderstand us.

(4) It will help us avoid simplistic diagnosis and prescriptions. If we stick to Bible-only approaches, we will only deal with the spiritual side of problems. That’s fine if the problem is purely spiritual, if it’s 100 percent related to personal sin. But if the problem is more complex, perhaps involving body issues such as genetics or biology, or social issues such as one’s environment or family upbringing, or psychological issues such as child development or habitual thought-patterns, then a simplistic approach will have limited benefits. It’s like trying to rebuild a broken down house by employing only a plumber.

(5) It will help us to avoid approaching our counselees as if they were merely souls. They are persons—whole persons in their whole life. Instead of seeing people just as souls with sinful hearts, we will also see them as people with bodies, histories, relations, and suffering.

(6) It will keep us from writing off and misrepresenting other caring professionals just because they do not use only the Bible. Instead we could manifest a more humble appreciation for the contributions of others in the caring process. It will help prevent us from over-reaching , and give us the confidence to involve other professions in our work with people when advisable (e.g., dealing with someone having a psychotic episode).

(7) It will enable us to welcome research that God has graciously provided for us to help care for people in a holistic way.

Overall, correcting this misunderstanding of “biblical counseling” will improve our family’s relations with one another, with others outside our family, and above all with God as we honor him in using all the resources he has provided to care for his sinning and suffering creatures.

Thinking Theologically About Depression: Its Causes and Cures

If you want to instigate a lively discussion amongst thoughtful Christians, just bring up the issue of clinical depression. Is it a legitimate diagnosis? What are its causes? However we conclude these debates, many in our churches struggle to deal with life, and they’re desperately seeking help.

Jeremy Pierre, professor of biblical counseling at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor of member care at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, recently sat down with TGC’s Mark Mellinger and explained that depression shouldn’t surprise us, given what we know about sin and our need for full and final redemption. Indeed, the hope of eternity breaks in and shines the light of Christ into our day-to-day struggles.

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Download the interview.


5 Signs Waiting Has Weakened Your Faith

When God asks you to wait, what happens to your spiritual muscles? While you wait, do your spiritual muscles grow bigger and stronger, or do they become flaccid and atrophied? Waiting for the Lord isn’t about God forgetting you, forsaking you, abandoning the ministry he’s called you to, or being unfaithful to his promises. It’s actually God giving you time to consider his glory, grow stronger in faith, and grow in courage for ministry. Remember, waiting isn’t just about what you’re hoping for at the end of the wait, but also about what you’ll become as you wait.

So waiting always presents us with a spiritual choice-point. Will I allow myself to question God’s goodness and progressively grow weaker in faith, or will I embrace the opportunity of faith that God is giving me and build my spiritual, pastoral, ministry muscles?

It’s so easy to unknowingly revisit your belief system when you’re not sure what God is doing. It’s so easy to give way to doubt when you’re being called to wait. It’s so easy to forsake good spiritual and ministry habits and to take up habits of “unfaith” that weaken the muscles of the heart. Let me suggest some habits of “unfaith” that weaken us during waiting.

1. Giving way to doubt. There’s a fine line between the struggle to wait and giving way to doubt. When you’re called to wait you’re being called to do something that wasn’t part of your personal or ministry plan.Therefore you struggle to see it as good. Because you and I are typically convinced that what we wanted was right and good, it doesn’t seem loving that we’re being asked to wait. You can see how tempting it is then to begin to question God’s wisdom, goodness, and love. Don’t be naive: there is much doubt that visits people in ministry.

2. Giving way to anger. It’s easy to look around and begin to think that the bad guys are being blessed and the good guys are getting hammered (see Psalm 73). There will be times when it simply doesn’t seem right that you have to wait for something that seems so obviously good to you. It’s tempting in your anger to give way to thinking you’re smarter than God, that you’d be a better sovereign than the Sovereign. It all begins to feel like you’re being wronged, and when it does, it seems right to be angry.

As a result, it’s important to understand that your anger isn’t so much about people and circumstances. No, you’re angry with the One who’s in control of those people and those circumstances. You’re actually giving way to thinking that you’ve been wronged by him. I’ve been amazed over the years at how many pastors needed to confess to me that they were more than disappointed with their ministry life, they were angry with God.

3. Giving way to discouragement. This is where I begin to let my heart run away with the “If only_____,” the “What if_____,” and the “What will happen if____.” I begin to give my mind to thinking about what will happen to me and my ministry if my request isn’t answered soon, or what in the world will happen if it’s not answered at all. This kind of meditation makes me feel that my life or ministry is out of control, when they are actually under perfectly wise and loving control. Rather than my heart being filled with joy, my heart gets flooded with worry and dread. Worry and dread are not the seedbed of hopeful, courageous, persevering ministry. So I spend my free mental time considering my dark future, with all the resulting discouragement that will always follow.

4. Giving way to envy. When I am waiting, it’s tempting to look over the fence and long for the ministry life of someone who doesn’t appear to have been called to wait. It’s easy to take on an “I wish I was that guy” way of living. You can’t give way to envy without questioning God’s wisdom, faithfulness, and love. Here’s the logic: if God really loves you as much as he loves that other guy, you would have what the other guys has. Envy is about feeling forgotten and forsaken, coupled with a craving to have what your neighbor enjoys. This is deadly, because you don’t tend to run to someone for help if you’ve come to doubt him.

5. Giving way to inactivity. The result of giving way to all of these things is inactivity. If God isn’t as good and wise as I once thought he was, if he withholds good things from his children, and if he plays favorites, then why would I continue to serve him? Maybe you don’t consciously think these things, but you begin to stand with many pastors who’ve lost both their joy in and also motivation for ministry. Maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing after all; maybe I’ve been kidding myself.

Sadly, this is the course that many people, even those in ministry, take as they wait. Rather than growing in faith, their motivation for daily pursuing God is destroyed by doubt, anger, discouragement, and envy. So the muscles of faith necessary for productive people-helping, God-honoring ministry, that were once robust and strong, now atrophy and grow weak.

In reality, waiting points us to God’s goodness. He’s wise and loving. His timing is always right, and his focus isn’t so much on what you’ll experience and enjoy, but on what you’ll become. He’s committed to using every tool at his disposal to rescue you from you, to shape you into the likeness of his Son, and to hone you for the work to which he’s called you. Waiting is one of his primary shaping tools.

Habits of Faith

So how do you build your spiritual muscles during the wait? You must commit yourself to resist those habits of “unfaith,” and with discipline pursue a rigorous routine of spiritual exercise. You must run to your Savior of grace, knowing his grace never gives up even though your often tempted to.

Here are the things that he’s designed for you that will build the muscles of your heart and strengthen your resolve: the regular devotional study of his Word, consistent and candid fellowship, looking for God’s glory in Creation every day, putting yourself under excellent preaching and teaching of Scripture (even preachers need to be regularly taught), investing your quiet mental time in meditating on the goodness of God (for example, as you are going off to sleep), reading excellent Christian books, and spending ample time in prayer. All of these things will result in spiritual strength and vitality.

Do these things seem obvious to you? You would be surprised how many pastors have confessed to me a lack of good spiritual habits. It is sad to think of how many pastors live in functional isolation, not putting their hearts in places where they can be watched, warned, protected, and nourished. Without daily meditating on God’s glory and grace, all you’re left to meditate on are the struggles within you and the problems outside you. No wonder our pastoral muscles grow weak.

Is God, in grace, asking you to wait? If so, what’s happening to your muscles while you wait?

God’s Will for Your Wait

In ministry there are often moments when you are propelled by a biblical vision but called by God to wait. Waiting can be discouraging and hard. So what does it look like to wait in a way that makes you a participant in what God is doing rather than someone who struggles against the wait? Let me suggest several things.

Remind Yourself You Are Not Alone

As you wait, tell yourself again and again that you have not been singled out. Remind yourself that you are part of a vast company of people who are being called to wait. Reflect on the biblical story. Abraham waited many years for his promised son. Israel waited 420 years for deliverance from Egypt, then another 40 years before they could enter the land God had promised them. God’s people waited generation after generation for the Messiah, and the church now waits for his return. The whole world groans as it waits for the final renewal of all things that God has promised. In ministry, it is vital to understand that waiting is not an interruption of God’s plan. It is his plan. And you can know this as well: the Lord who has called you to wait is with you in your wait. He hasn’t gone off to do something else, like the doctor you’re waiting to see. No, God is near, and he provides for you all that you need to be able to wait.

Realize That Waiting Is Active

Usually our view of waiting is the doctor’s office. We see it as a meaningless waste of time, like a man stuck in the reception area until he has nothing left to do but scan recipes in a two-year-old copy of Ladies’ Home Journal.

Our waiting on God must not be understood this way. The sort of waiting to which we are called is not inactivity. It is very positive, purposeful, and spiritual. To be called to wait is to be called to the activity of remembering: remembering who I am and who God is. To be called to wait is to be called to the activity of worship: worshiping God for his presence, wisdom, power, love, and grace. To be called to wait is to be called to the activity of serving: looking for ways to lovingly assist and encourage others who are also being called to wait. To be called to wait is to be called to the activity of praying: confessing the struggles of my heart and seeking the grace of the God who has called me to wait. We must rethink waiting and remind ourselves that waiting is itself a call to action.

Celebrate How Little Control You Have

Because the constant striving in ministry to be a little god over some corner of creation is draining and futile, waiting should actually be a relief. It’s a reminder that I don’t have as much power and control as I thought I had. When I am required to wait I realize again that I do not have to load my church onto my shoulders. I may have God-given responsibilities in a number of areas, but that is vastly different from pretending I have sovereignty in any area.

The church is being carried on the capable shoulders of the Savior Shepherd, King of kings. All I am responsible for is the job description of character and behavior that this King has called me to in his Word. The remainder I am free to entrust to him, and for that I am very, very thankful! He really does have the whole world in his hands.

Celebrate God’s Commitment to His Work of Grace

As you are waiting, reflect on how deeply broken the world that you live in actually is. Reflect on how pervasive your own struggle with sin really is. Then celebrate the fact that God is committed to the countless ways, large and small, in which his grace is at work to accomplish his purposes in you and in those to whom you minister.

When it comes to the ongoing work of grace, he is a dissatisfied Redeemer. He will not forsake the work of his hands until all has been fully restored. He will exercise his power in whatever way is necessary so that we can finally be fully redeemed from this broken world and delivered from the sin that has held us fast. Celebrate the fact that God will not forsake that process of grace in your life and ministry in order to deliver to you the momentary comfort, pleasure, and ease that you would rather have in your time of exhaustion, discouragement, and weakness. He simply loves you too much to exchange temporary gratification for eternal glory!

Let Your Waiting Strengthen Your Faith

As I think about waiting, I often remember what is said of Abraham in Romans 4:18-21. The passage tells us that as he waited, Abraham was strengthened in his faith. That’s not what we would expect, is it? We tend to think that, having been given a promise from God, a person might well begin to wait with vibrant faith. But as the wait drags on it seems like that faith would gradually weaken. So why did Abraham’s faith on the whole grow stronger and stronger? Because of what he did as he waited. During his wait, Abraham became a student of the character and power of God, and the more he saw God for who he is, the stronger his faith became. He meditated on the glory of God, not on the difficulty of his situation.

There are three ways in which, like Abraham, you can let your waiting strengthen your faith. You can recognize that waiting is an opportunity to know God better through spending time in his Word, thus developing a deeper sense of his character, wisdom, power, and plan. Second, you can recognize that waiting is an opportunity to know yourself better. As you wait, and as your heart is revealed, you have the precious opportunity to become a student of your own heart. What sins, weaknesses, and struggles has God revealed during the wait? Where has waiting exposed the lies and false gods that make waiting difficult? And third, you can recognize that waiting is an opportunity to know others better, as their hearts are similarly revealed. This can offer you precious opportunities for even more effective ministry to those in your care.

Determine to grow stronger, more effective, and more full of faith as you wait. It is, after all, a key part of God’s intention.

Count Your Blessings

Vital to productive waiting is a commitment to resist the grumbling and complaining that often kidnap us all. To fight this tendency, learn to number your blessings as you wait.

I once heard a missionary leader tell a story of how he was dreading an extremely long road trip. Then the thought came to him that this time of being imprisoned behind the wheel of his car was in fact an opportunity. He decided that as he drove he would thank God for every little detail of blessing and grace he could recall, beginning with his earliest memory. As he drove hour after hour, he recounted to God year after year and decade after decade of blessing upon blessing. By the end of his journey, he still had not come up to the present day. As a result, rather than ending his trip exhausted and bored, he ended it excited and changed. He saw his life through new eyes, with the presence and provision of God in his life taking on a clarity and comprehensiveness he had never before glimpsed.

By contrast, waiting often becomes for us an exercise in reminding ourselves of what we don’t have. How much better, how much more fruitful, how much more joyful, to take waiting as an opportunity to recount the many, many good things in our lives that we have been given—things we could have never earned, achieved, or deserved.

Long for Eternity

There is one other thing waiting is meant to do: God intends that waiting would make me long for home. When I consider this, I am often reminded of camping. I suspect the whole purpose of camping is to make you thankful for home. When you camp, everything is more difficult than it would be at home. In the beginning, that can be fun. But three or four days in, you begin to get tired of having to make a fire, having to hunt for drinkable water, and having to fish for supper. You quietly (or not so quietly) begin to long for home.

Waiting is meant to remind you that you live “between the already and the not yet.” Yes, there are many, many things for which to be thankful in this life, but this place is not your final home. You are in a temporary dwelling in a temporary location. In the life and ministry you experience here, there is one aspect or another that can remind you this is not home. The hardships of your present life and ministry speak clearly: this is not the final destination. Waiting is meant to produce in you a God-honoring dissatisfaction with the status quo. Waiting is meant to make you hungry, to produce in you a longing. For what? To be home—home with your Lord forever, home where sin is no more, home in a world that has been made completely new. As you wait, keep telling yourself, This is not my final destination.

Right now, right here, in your personal life or ministry, there is some way, perhaps many ways, in which God is calling you to wait. How well are you waiting? Has your waiting produced in you a faith that is stronger? Or weaker? Has the manner of your waiting drawn you closer to God? Or further away? Has your approach to waiting helped remind you of all the blessings you have been showered with? Or has it tempted you to continually rehearse your list of unmet wants? Has your waiting served to teach you truths about yourself? Or has it only made you more blind about yourself and angry about your circumstances? Has the way you wait enabled you to reach out and minister to others better, or has it simply drawn you deeper into the claustrophobic drama of your own waiting?

In each case, it’s your choice. Take hold of the grace that God makes available. All of these outcomes are contingent on whether you choose God or self, fruitfulness or futility, his powerful grace or your own feeble will. Always remember that God is never separate from your wait. He is the Lord of waiting. He is the liberal giver of grace for the wait. Because your wait is not outside of his plan, but a vital and necessary part of it, he is with you in your wait. And remember God is not so much after the success of your ministry, he’s after you. So as you wait, tell yourself again and again: Waiting is not just about what I get at the end of the wait, but about who I become as I wait.