Pastor, You Must Counsel

My first job after seminary was for a small Christian publishing house. Editing tasks and even some writing were in my job description. We only had about 15 employees, and we did it all: writing, editing, layout, printing, collating, binding, shipping, sales, and conferences. From start to finish we published our own curriculum. And twice a year we shut down production to do inventory; the entire staff participated. Everything had to be counted by hand; it was exhausting and boring work. I hated it. It took a long time, didn’t seem to yield visible results, and I didn’t understand it’s importance. It certainly seemed like it wasn’t a necessary part of my job description.

Sometimes pastors look at counseling like I looked at inventorying. It’s hard work that seems to yield few results, and it doesn’t seem like a significant part of their job description. And, therefore, many pastors don’t counsel. Their hearts sink a little bit when a member wants to meet with them and they suspect they want counsel. They would rather refer them to a counselor outside the church or assign another pastor the counseling task. While a counseling pastor can be a great hire, I will argue that lead pastors should still counsel. I want to make the case that every pastor—especially lead pastors—should counsel.

So, Pastor, why should you counsel your members?

Because ALL Christians Should Counsel

Romans 15:14 (ESV) I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.

Jay Adams titled his first book, Competent to Counsel, from the phrase in this verse, “able to instruct one another.” He points out that the Apostle Paul was not addressing the leaders of the Roman church. No, he was talking to the average Christian in the congregation. Every believer is able to admonish/instruct/counsel another. It’s part of one-another ministry.

So if this is one way that believers minister to each other, then it’s also a way that pastors minister to their members—other believers. Most believers will do it informally, but pastors have the privilege of also doing formal counseling.

Because Counseling Is Shepherding

Acts 20:31 (ESV) Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.

In Acts 20 Paul has already claimed that he ministered in large and small groups (20:20). Now Paul claims that he did one-to-one ministry. A pastor that doesn’t counsel isn’t really shepherding his flock. Counseling is one way that you shepherd. You’re called pastors—that is, shepherds.

And shepherding is hard work. Jesus thought so.

Matthew 18:12–14 (ESV) What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

A shepherd doesn’t say, “I’ve got 99 sheep; that’s enough.” If you don’t want to counsel, you don’t want to pastor. Counseling is one way that you pursue the sheep that runs.

Deepak Reju says, “What’s presumed here is both that the sheep view their pastor as approachable and that the pastor deliberately affords time in his schedule to get down into the weeds of life and walk alongside the sheep.” [1]Bob Kellemen and Kevin Carson, Biblical Counseling and the Church: God’s Care Through God’s People. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 49.

Shepherding is not really done from the pulpit. It’s being approachable; it’s rolling up your sleeves and working in someone’s life. Counseling gets you down with the sheep; it gives you opportunities to love your sheep—to do some tender shepherding. Do you have time in your schedule to mix with the sheep? Yes counseling is hard and time consuming, but it’s also what a shepherd does.

Because Counseling Helps You Know Your Congregation

For about 15 years of my life I was in churches that had at least yearly evangelistic meetings. A full time evangelist would come and preach each night for about a week. It occurred to me at times that this evangelist really didn’t know our community and our church since he swooped in for a week and then left for the next church. He would tell us night after night to invite our friends and relatives when too many of us weren’t even admitting we were Christians to our friends and relatives. He would sell a Scripture memorization system he published when most men in the church weren’t even reading their Bibles regularly, much less memorizing them.

The pastor that counsels people in his congregation will know his congregation. He’ll realize their marriage concerns; he’ll know their struggles with children and teenagers. He’ll know what it’s like at work for them. Since your counselees are normally a cross section of your congregation, you can extrapolate what you learn to your entire congregation. Don’t be the pastor that thinks preaching affords him an intimate connection with his congregation. Those guys in the ivory tower are often respected for their exegesis, but not for their relationships in the congregation.

Because Counseling Improves Your Preaching and Teaching

The more you counsel, the more you know people. The better you know people, the better informed your preaching is. Some have said that preaching involves exegeting the passage and also exegeting your people. Counseling helps you exegete people. It’s more likely that your lessons and sermons will reach the hearts of your people; they will be more applicable. Your illustrations will communicate truth better because you actually know where your congregation is spiritually and what types of struggles they have. Your illustrations and applications will have punch.

Because Counseling Humbles You

Many pastors are encouraged by listeners’ comments after their sermons. People come by and express appreciation for that sermon. “Pastor, that’s exactly what I needed today.” It’s great that God’s people can be so thankful and kind, but a steady diet of compliments can deceive a pastor into thinking he’s a far better communicator than he actually is. Or he can believe that he’s actually more important to God’s work in this congregation than he really is.

In general people don’t tend to grow as fast as you, the pastor, think they should. And counseling reminds you that the Spirit, the Scripture, and the Church are far more important resources than you are.

David Powlison says you should work with some slow-movers when you are the lead pastor. Counseling people whose growth seems painstakingly slow can increase your patience, and it also humbles you. Why? Because you aren’t that great at teaching truth. You labor over it with this person, and they continue to struggle. They don’t get it, and they don’t get it easily even when they are being tutored by the pastor. Preaching without counseling can fool us into thinking that we communicate Scriptural truth really well. Sitting down with a struggling couple can remind us that unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain.

Because Counseling Builds Relationships

When you retire or move on to another ministry, your people will probably not remember any particular sermon you preached. And that’s true even if they generally appreciated your preaching. But some will remember how you counseled them at the worst time in their lives. You were there when their child committed suicide. You were there when their marriage was in shambles. You were there when they got the dreaded cancer diagnosis. And you showed them from Scripture how God wanted them to live. Hopefully your church will appreciate your ministry, but some… some will know you tirelessly met with them until they were growing and thriving. And they will be some of your closest relationships.

Pastors, you’re missing out if you’re not counseling people in your congregation. Never get so busy that you offload that responsibility entirely to other people in your church or someone outside of your church. You need to counsel your people.

References

References
1 Bob Kellemen and Kevin Carson, Biblical Counseling and the Church: God’s Care Through God’s People. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 49.

Union with Christ 1–Identity

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a costume party. I mean maybe I went to one when I was a kid, but not recently. I suppose the church equivalent is youth group theme nights or Christian school spirit weeks, and I’ve participated in those, but never a real costume party. However, if TV is to be believed, that’s a common experience for the rest of America because it’s a regular plot point of movies and TV.

The point of a costume party is to assume an identity not your own. Too often believers forget their identity in Christ and assume identities that aren’t really their own. It makes me wonder if you and your counselees think about your identity in Christ much, and how important it is for Christian living.

Adults try to find their identity in lots of things: sports, education, work, sexual choices, hobbies, and even shame from sin they’ve committed or has been committed against them. God knows those things about you, but that’s not your identity.

1 Corinthians 6:15–18 (ESV) Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.

This passage tells us to flee immorality in part because we are members of Christ’s body. In 1 Corinthians 6:15-18 Paul takes the doctrine of union with Christ and point out its application to our physical bodies. You have a union with Christ if you are saved. Therefore, you can’t be joined to a prostitute. Your body and soul belong to Christ. Sex outside of marriage—even if it were merely physical—would still be wrong because you are joining your body to that person. But there is something going on in immorality that is more than just physical. It contradicts Christ’s lordship over your body, and being in union with Christ means your body is his body.

We learn about our union with Christ from the many passages in the New Testament that talk about believers and Christ. Some passages describe us as being in Christ.

2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (cf. Eph 1:3-4, 6-7)

Other passages claim that Christ is in us.

Colossians 1:27 (ESV) To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (cf. Gal 2:20)

And some passages say both.

1 John 4:13 (ESV) By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

So what does union with Christ mean? One theologian defined it this way,

Union with Christ is a phrase used to summarize several different relationships between believers and Christ, through which Christians receive every benefit of salvation. These relationships include the fact that we are in Christ, Christ is in us, we are like Christ, and we are with Christ. [1]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 840.

Union with Christ means that we are credited with all of Christ’s righteousness and holiness. It’s our union with Christ that allows God the Father to look at us as righteous rather than sinners deserving of His wrath. As the song by Chris Anderson says,

His robes for mine: O wonderful exchange!
Clothed in my sin, Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage.
Draped in His righteousness, I’m justified.
In Christ I live, for in my place He died.

His robes for mine: what cause have I for dread?
God’s daunting Law Christ mastered in my stead.
Faultless I stand with righteous works not mine,
Saved by my Lord’s vicarious death and life.

This is great news! No matter how shameful your past, God can flood you with his favor because you are in Christ.

And Christ’s teaching in John 15 of the vine and the branches adds to our understanding too. Union with Christ is what allows us to bear fruit. You have no ability through your willpower or innate skill to change yourself in a way that pleases God. You cannot produce good fruit outside of Christ. Christ in you and you in Christ—that’s our union with Christ.

So what is your identity? You are in Christ and He is in you. Your identity is found in Christ. It’s not found in sports or music or family or money or appearance or failure or anything else. You are in Christ and, therefore, able to bear good fruit. You can be different. You can change. You can grow. And it’s because you are in Christ.

References

References
1 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 840.

It Kinda Looks Like Biblical Growth, but…

My oldest daughter famously found her mother’s lipstick when she was about two years old, and she thought she knew what to do with it. I remember sitting in front of my desktop computer as she glided into the den with lipstick approximately on her lips. Clearly she didn’t know exactly where her lips were. She thought she looked so growny (a Southern expression that means grown up), but she actually looked like a cute little kid. It kinda looked like growth, but it wasn’t.

For the biblical counselor, not just any change will do. It’s possible for your counselee to experience change that doesn’t glorify God but does kinda look like real spiritual growth. It happens all the time with unbelievers. AA does help many quit drinking which is a net benefit to society. I’m thankful for every drunk that quits drinking. But it isn’t change that glorifies God.

And our change does need to honor God. Listen to how Paul prays for the Philippian believers.

Philippians 1:9–11 (ESV) And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Paul expected Christians to grow (cf. Col. 1:9-11). He says in verse 11 that the type of change that he is praying for results in the glory and praise of God. It’s possible for your counselee to change in a way that doesn’t glorify God. There are all sorts of ways to change that don’t result in praise and honor for God. Here are some examples.

Substitutes For Biblical Change

Change by willpower—I can do it myself. Lots of Christians attempt to change themselves this way, and some succeed. But it’s not change that glorifies God. Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps glorifies you, not God. Some very disciplined counselees seem to accomplish this. However, when you change by your own willpower, you proclaim that you don’t need God’s grace.

Change through circumstances—I will be different if I am in a different situation. “If my wife would get off of my back, I wouldn’t get so angry.” “If we just had separate bank accounts, my wife and I wouldn’t argue about the finances.” Changing jobs, changing churches, or changing families doesn’t change you.

Change by spookiness—“I will just let go and let God. I don’t have to do anything; God will magically change me.” Hmm…I think God gave us a lot of commands in the New Testament that he expects us to work at obeying. Another more subtle version might be, “I will pray really hard that God would change me.” Good, but not enough.

Change by decision—I lay it all on the altar. I make a series of decisions during revivals or missions conference or other special services at my church. But a decision is just the beginning of the change process. It is not change itself.

Change by man-centered means—self-esteem or other worldly theories. “If I just felt better about myself, I wouldn’t do that.”

Change by exchange—This is a popular one. This is where you just trade one idol for a more socially acceptable one. You quit finding your comfort in food and now you find it in eating right and dieting. You’re the poster boy for good health, but all you’ve done is rearrange the furniture of your life. You quit finding your comfort in shopping and now you find it in how well you manage your finances. You quit finding your escape in alcohol, and now you find it in mindlessly watching YouTube videos. You’ve exchanged one way of obtaining your idol for another one, but you haven’t given up your idolatry.

None of these methods are the story of sanctification. Most of them are unbiblical. Therefore, we cannot use them to change ourselves or our counselees.

So what is God-glorifying spiritual growth? Well that needs to be the subject of another blog, but what we can say is there is a human-divine dynamic in spiritual growth. God prunes us (John 15:2), but growth is not one-dimensional—it’s not all about what God does. Every Christian has a responsibility too; we must put effort into our growth. Always being dependent upon God to change us, but it only happens as we work at it. You work hard, but you have never changed yourself. It’s always been God’s work in you. It’s responsible dependence.

We see that clearly in Colossians 1:29 (cf. Phil 2:12-13) where Paul says, For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (ESV)

Christian growth is never the two things we want it to be: fast and easy. And maybe that’s why some of those substitutes are so tempting. They promise a quicker route to growth. But it takes hard work. Why else would the Christian life be described as a walk (Gal 5:16), a race (1 Cor 9:24-27), a wrestling match (Eph 6:10-12), and a fight (2 Tim 4:6-7)? Each of those metaphors pictures struggle and difficulty and effort.

Don’t take shortcuts to spiritual growth that aren’t really growth after all. Make sure your counselees understand their dependence upon God and their responsibility to God.

Young Man, Pursue Holiness; Pursue Humility

As I’ve prayed for my two adult sons over the past few months, my main requests have been alliterated: that they will grow in holiness and humility. My premise is that these two virtues are especially necessary in young men today.

Of course pride and lust are not just the temptations of young men, but they do seem to be especially prevalent in young men. When I was a temptable teen, it was hard to get pornography, and the few times I was exposed to it weren’t enough to develop an ungoverned habit. While sexual lust is a temptation for me—I doubt I’ll ever outgrow that in this life, I have a decades-long habit of fighting it. Young men today are exposed to pornography earlier and longer than I was at that age.

That’s why today no one is surprised when a young man is snared by internet pornography. In fact, it’s the rare young man that isn’t. He’s the oddity. So holiness might seem an obvious prayer for young men.

But I also pray for my sons to grow in humility. I don’t think this is nearly as important to most parents as it should be. We fear our child being caught by pornography, but we don’t care that much about pride. In Scripture, pride seems the bigger concern of God. He hates it (Prov 6:16-19). It’s interesting that in that list sexual sin isn’t even mentioned. It’s sin so surely God hates it too, but it didn’t make the top seven of that list in Proverbs. Pride did.

In one epistle we find both holiness and humility commanded.

1 Peter 1:14–16 (ESV) As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

The Apostle Peter tells us that children of God shouldn’t pursue their former lusts. That means more than just sexual lust, but it means that as well. Looking at pornography in a darkened room by the light of a screen is not holy conduct. It’s anti-holy behavior. Instead, pursue holiness because God is holy.

Later, Peter also talks about humility.

1 Peter 5:5–6 (ESV) Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,

Here Peter addresses young men specifically and tells them to be clothed with humility. In fact, they are commanded to humble themselves. There’s a warning and a promise. The promise is that at the right time, God exalts the humble. The warning is that God is opposed to the proud. To the degree that a man is proud, to that degree God resists him.

I believe pride is linked to pornography in two ways: First, the young man given to porn imagines that others exist to please him with their bodies. He’s the sun in his universe. But others don’t exist for you; they exist for God’s glory. Porn is selfish, not selfless.

Second, the lustful man doesn’t get help unless he humbly admits his sin to someone else. Those that try to fight porn in the dark, don’t win. The shame of this sin prevents many proud young men from ever getting victory. Growing in humility helps growing in holiness.

That’s backed up by a helpful phrase in 5:5 that says God gives grace to the humble. Do you need grace to fight porn? Then humble yourself under God’s mighty hand. He lavishly gives grace to the humble.

So, young man, pursue holiness and humility.

The young Christian man that is both holy and humble will be refreshing to his pastor, his friends, and his family. But mostly, he will be pleasing to his God.

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