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Soul Physicians Interview

November 30, 2011

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The BCC Author Interview Q & A with Bob Kellemen

As part of our BCC vision, we want to help you to get to know gifted Christian authors and their books. This week we’re highlighting Dr. Bob Kellemen as he talks about his book Soul Physicians: A Theology of Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.

BCC: “What’s the purpose of Soul Physicians? Why did you write it and who is your audience?”

BK: “The title and subtitle of the book answer those questions. Throughout church history, pastors and Christian leaders have been known as physicians of the soul—wise and caring people who had a biblical understanding of people, the root source of problems, and God’s ‘soul-u-tion’ through Christ’s Gospel of grace. However, in our generation, we tend either to provide shallow and trite answers to deep and troubling issues in living, or, we race to the secular self-help shelf. To return us to our heritage, I penned Soul Physicians as a theology of soul care and spiritual direction—a biblical theology of suffering, sin, and progressive sanctification. Since we all struggle personally with both suffering and sin, and since God calls all of us to help one another to grow in grace, the audience for Soul Physicians includes pastors, biblical counselors, spiritual friends, students, and educators.”

BCC: “You say that the style of writing in Soul Physicians is ‘theo-drama.’ What do you mean by that?”

BK: “Some books tend toward a somewhat dry presentation of theological categories divorced from real life. Other books seem to tend toward a ‘story focus’ but with little hint of a strong theological foundation. If we’re going to write a book on the theology of counseling—which is relating truth to real life—then it strikes me that we need to combine both theology and narrative—‘theo-drama.’ In Soul Physicians I weave into every chapter (every paragraph) a both/and combination of theology related to life by sharing real-life stories, biblical narratives, current illustrations, and practical counseling issues. The Bible is richly robust, relevant, and relational, and our communication of biblical truths should follow that biblical model.”

BCC: “That raises, then, the follow-up question. ‘How can theology and biblical counseling come together in practical ways?’”

BK: “Theology and counseling deal with the same material: people, problems, and solutions—in the context of our relationship to God in Christ. In Soul Physicians, I talk about these concepts using the terms ‘Creation, Fall, and Redemption.’ In Creation, we learn how God designed the human soul—we come to understand people biblically. In the Fall, we learn how sin mars the human personality—we diagnose problems scripturally. With Redemption, we learn how our salvation in Christ restores the soul—we prescribe God’s solutions or soul-u-tions.

What I just described, that’s basic biblical theology. So, we don’t have to bring counseling and theology together. They’ve always been together in God’s Word. Our tendency has been to pull them apart, to separate truth from life. But the Bible is the most real and raw book ever written. Do you want to know about sexual abuse? Then examine a passage like 2 Samuel 13 where Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon. Do you want to know about depression? Then ponder the Psalms of David where he pours out his soul to God and to us.

How do we bring theology and counseling together practically when with another person? It doesn’t mean that we preach at people. That’s a monologue. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that we only dialogue with another person. Instead, we trialogue—myself, the person I am helping, and the Holy Spirit, through the Word, examine how biblical principles and passages relate to the person’s life. For instance, if you are working with someone who has been sexually abused, you can probe together 2 Samuel 13. You can ponder together how Tamar’s response to her abuse relates to the person you are counseling. You can discuss how Tamar’s suffering and her process of healing relate to your counselee’s situation.”

BCC: “The idea of sin seems to be missed by some counselors. How do you deal with this in Soul Physicians?”

BK: “A biblical understanding of sin helps us to diagnose the root cause of problems. Much modern counseling is solution-focused—it seeks a quick fix to change surface behaviors. I like to call biblical counseling soul-u-tion focused counseling—emphasizing soul. It is counseling that addresses matters of the soul, our worshiping nature, and idols of the heart. Having this as a foundation in counseling doesn’t mean that every word out of our mouth is confrontation of sin. More importantly, it means that our way of thinking about problems is built on a biblical model, a biblical foundation.

Take the issue of ‘addiction,’ for example. A biblical view of sin helps to explain addiction. Jeremiah 2:11-13 tells us that God’s people committed two sins. They had forsaken God the Spring of Living Water and they had dug cisterns, broken cisterns that could hold no water. ‘Addictions’ are cistern-digging. Whether it’s the Internet, or alcohol, or food—all our ‘addictions’ involve our attempts to fill a God-shaped and God-sized void with a human-shaped and human-sized substitute. God calls this an idol of the heart or a false lover of the soul. Seeing sin as heart idolatry and false worship is a primary way in which we address sin in biblical counseling. It’s also a primary way through which we empower people to find victory over sin.”

BCC: “Why do you say that love alone or truth alone would not be enough for one-another ministry? What more do we need to effectively help others?”

BK: “It’s not a matter of needing more than truth or more than love. It’s a matter of needing both truth and love. In Soul Physicians, I tell the story of a counselee who shared with a pastoral counselor about his past sexual abuse. His pastoral counselor, basing everything on ‘truth,’ preached a thirty minute sermon on sin. The counselee did not return to that counselor, instead he started going to a professional Christian counselor. After three months of ‘love’ and empathy, the professional Christian counselor told the man that he was too damaged to ever love again.

Both of these counselors missed the mark—one by a one-sided focus on supposed truth and the other by a one-sided focus on supposed love. In true biblical counseling and spiritual friendship, truth and love kiss. They meet in the person of Jesus who dealt with the woman at the well, for example, by teaching her the truth about her sinfulness, while also offering her eternal love. It is also what Paul did in his ministry when he told the saints at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:8) that he loved them so much that he not only gave them the Scriptures but he also gave them his own soul—truth (the Scriptures) and love (his own soul) is the biblical pattern. Philippians 1:9 powerfully explains how to unite truth and love in spiritual friendship. ‘This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.’ It’s not either/or, it is both/and—truth and love.”

BCC: “To what extent should suffering and sin enter the biblical counseling process?”

BK: “Sadly, our approaches to counseling tend either to focus on sin or on suffering. But biblically and historically, pastoral care has always emphasized both. For instance, Paul talks repeatedly about comforting, consoling, and caring for hurting people—using the Greek word parakaleo (among many others)—one who comes along side to comfort and strengthen a person in need—a person who is suffering. Paul also talks a great deal about confronting sin and exposing error while helping hardened people to repent. Here he uses the Greek word noutheteo—one who confronts out of concern for heart change. Biblical counseling combines both parakaletic help for suffering and nouthetic help for sinning. In fact, I joke sometimes that we could coin a new term for this model combining these words, but it would be pathetic counseling, hardly a useful term!

So, I call it biblical discipleship counseling instead. Discipleship counseling is a comprehensive summary phrase. In suffering and in sin, the goal is sanctification—a heart that loves God and others more and more. True discipleship empowers people to be better lovers (loving God and others like Christ—Matthew 22:35-40) by strengthening them to be victors over suffering and to be victorious over sin.”

BCC: “Thank you, Dr. Kellemen, for helping our readers to think through a comprehensive, compassionate, Christ-centered approach to one-another ministry.”

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