Reading God’s People

January 13, 2012

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Todd Hardin

Reading God’s People

Stories are the medium through which biblical counselors practice their craft. There is a constant interaction between the texts of our lives and the text of our Lord. As such, the ability to interpret both sets of texts is crucial for effective personal ministry. In this post, I discuss one important principle designed to teach you to interpret people well. For, if we counselors fail in this hermeneutical task, we will not love our people wisely nor shepherd them effectively.

Biblical counselors help people reinterpret their individual narratives as scenes from the Story of Redemption. Counselors help people see their stories in light of the following types of questions: What were things like for you before you encountered this struggle (creation)? What went wrong (fall)? What have you tried to do to fix it (redemption)? What does the future look like to you (consummation)?

Once the person understands his narrative in this format, the biblical counselor helps him see the discrepancies between his story and the Story of Redemption. The counselor helps the person explore the areas of sin and suffering that have created a chasm between the person and God. The counselor then points the person to Jesus by helping him see how the Gospel reconciles this gap and brings the two stories back together.

As a rule, people do not let strangers handle the fine china of their lives. This being the case, trust is always a crucial issue for effective counseling. Incarnating Christ is one of the most effective ways for counselors to build trust with those they counsel. One way of incarnating Christ is to communicate compassion to counselees in a way that shows that you understand their struggle.

This means that the biblical counselor must listen carefully to the person’s story and then give voice to it in a way that communicates a heart-felt understanding. The biblical counselor listens to the person’s story and then provides a careful summary of the storyteller’s narrative. There are two basic ways of retelling the story: rhetorical retelling and redemptive retelling.

Rhetorical Retelling

Rhetorical retelling observes the story from the outside. The counselor places the facts in a coherent order and interprets them without emphasizing the inner workings of the person’s heart. Rhetorical retelling is authoritative in tone and persuasive in purpose. It offers a summary from the “fly on the wall.”

This approach can be very effective in certain situations where action is immediately needed; however, in many instances, a person needs to spend some time gaining a wider perspective on how his sin or suffering has alienated him from God. Rhetorical retelling can push people away and prevent the counselor from doing the in depth exegesis required in properly interpreting the person’s story. And just as a shoddily prepared sermon doesn’t work well in the pulpit, rhetorical retelling doesn’t always work well in the counseling room.

A second approach, known as redemptive retelling, encourages counselors to enter the worlds, understand the situations, relate to the experiences, and then apply God’s word redemptively to the hearts of people under their care.

Redemptive Retelling

Redemptive retelling participates in the story from the inside. The counselor places the events of the person’s narrative in a coherent order and humbly attempts to retell the story from the person’s perspective. Redemptive retelling is collaborative in tone and inquisitive in purpose. Instead of an initial focus on the events of the story, redemptive retelling focuses on getting authorial intent correct by peeking inside of the person’s heart.

The goal of this exegesis is for the person to say, “Yes, that’s me!” This type of reaction informs the counselor that he has correctly grasped the original author’s meaning. From there, the counselor helps the person align his Story of Life with the Story of the Lord.

By now, you may be thinking, “This sounds like you’re wasting a great deal of time in teaching people how to blame-shift!” Just as good exegesis of the Bible follows a sequential process, so too does good exegesis of the person. One cannot properly apply a scripture text before interpreting it; and interpretation is useless apart from accurate observation.

Redemptive retelling helps the counselor accurately observe the person’s story. From there, sins can be confronted, sufferings can be comforted, and the Gospel can be applied. However, before confronting a sin, the counselor must get the person’s story right. With that in mind, let me give you five additional reasons for adding redemptive retelling to your counseling toolbox:

1. Redemptive retelling follows Jesus’ model of personal ministry.

In his model of personal ministry, Jesus sought to know the hearts of people (John 2:24). Redemptive retelling follows Jesus’ model of personal ministry. Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well demonstrates this point (John 4). For in this passage, Jesus knew her story so well that the woman later exclaimed, “He told me all that I ever did” (John 4:39). Redemptive retelling strives for this level of understanding.

2. Redemptive retelling helps counselors pinpoint and prioritize sin and suffering.

Struggling people usually have primary, secondary, and sometimes tertiary sins that occur in patterns. These sin patterns are often sprinkled thoroughly with suffering as well. Redemptive retelling closely examines both sins and sufferings and helps the counselee place them into a coherent narrative that shows how the individual transgressions and trials relate to one another and fit into the story as a whole. This broader understanding helps the counselor identify and address the deepest heart problems.

3. Redemptive retelling encourages honesty and reduces blame shifting.

In most cases, people caught up in besetting sin try desperately to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. As such, they often engage in blame-shifting. In the counseling context, blame-shifters hope that counselors will “buy” their stories. Redemptive retelling helps the counselor become so familiar with the “product” being sold that it quickly becomes obvious to the person that any “sales attempts” will prove futile. This allows the counselor and the person to focus on the person’s narrative in an honest and collaborative manner.

4. Redemptive retelling reveals a person’s disconnection from the Redemptive Story.

Sin disconnects a person from the Redemptive Story. Through its open exploration of the events in the person’s life, redemptive retelling brings light to the fractures brought about by the person’s sin. The counselor can then help the alienated person rebuild the bridges that connect his personal story with the Redemptive Story by applying the Gospel to the person’s sin (exercising repentance) and suffering (exercising faith). This application of the Gospel points the person back to Jesus who provides the person with present relief and future hope.

5. Redemptive retelling provides the first step in reorienting the person back to God.

People struggling with sin are often unaware of the precise way in which they are disoriented from God. A counselee is like a person lost in the forest on a cloudless night. Redemptive retelling acts as a catalyst in pointing him to the North Star, redrawing his map, and reorienting him to the path home.

While biblical counselors are skilled interpreters of the Bible, redemptive retelling helps them become more capable exegetes of people. Effective counselors ably interpret both people and parchments in applying the Gospel to those in need.

Join the Conversation

As you think about how you retell the stories of those seeking your help, ask yourself, “How well am I reading God’s people?”

3 thoughts on “Reading God’s People

  1. This is an excellent article.  It provides a compassionate tool to accurately discern and apply the Word of God to lives.  Lisa

  2. The four questions you outline provide a great foundation to observe and discover a plan to provide good biblical counsel.  Well written article.

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