A Biblical Counseling Perspective on Mental Illness

May 16, 2013

A Biblical Counseling Perspective on Mental Illness
Bob Kellemen

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Bob Kellemen

A Biblical Counseling Perspective on Mental Illness

BCC Staff Note: We describe the BCC’s Grace & Truth blog as “Voices from the Biblical Counseling Community.” The modern biblical counseling movement spans a diverse spectrum of people and organizations committed to a view of people helping summarized by the Biblical Counseling Coalition’s Confessional Statement. It is with this diversity in mind that we have run a series of posts addressing the important issue of biblical counseling and mental illness. In addition to today’s post by Dr. Bob Kellemen, we’d encourage you to read:

Responding to Wise Counsel

My good friend, David Murray, in a post entitled Maximizing and Minimizing Mental Illness, correctly indicated that a person’s view of mental illness could be wrongly explored from the perspective of sin maximizing or body minimizing. David further urged biblical counselors to clearly communicate their perspective.

I write this post in response to David’s wise counsel. What perspective shapes a biblical counseling view…of life, of counseling, of people, of mental illness?

Putting Matters into Historical Context

In thinking about the modern biblical counseling movement, it is appropriate to consider the writings of Dr. Jay Adams, who in the 1970s launched nouthetic biblical counseling. Jay entered a culture where for a century the church had become something of a “sin minimizer.” Jay wasn’t the first or the only person to perceive this. Consider E. Brooks Holifield’s excellent A History of Pastoral Care in America. Holifield’s sub-title says it all: From Salvation to Self-Realization.

Holifield wasn’t a biblical counselor arguing for a nouthetic model. He was a historian. In that role, he traced the movement in American pastoral care away from a focus on sin, grace, and salvation, to a focus on self.

Even the world-famous secular psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, asked in his book by the same title, Whatever Became of Sin? A secular psychiatrist detected the drift away from sin…

By placing the rise of the modern biblical counseling movement within its historic and cultural milieu, we see that Jay was pulling a pendulum back. The church, not to mention the world, had swung the pendulum away from looking at life issues through a biblical grid of salvation, sin, and grace.

Jay’s Focus: Sanctification and Shepherding

Even within this context of sin minimizing, Jay’s ultimate goal was never the simple exposure of sin. His ultimate goal was the glory of God through the sanctification of His people through pastoral shepherding and one-another mutual care.

Consider the title of Jay’s most theologically-focus work, More Than Redemption: A Theology of Christian Counseling. Jay saw that the church not only had lost a focus on sin and salvation; the church had also lost her focus on sanctification—on daily growth in Christlikeness through all the vicissitudes of life.

The church of his day either ignored sin and salvation, or they talked about salvation from the pulpit, but were reticent to get involved in the daily messiness of life through personal ministry. In this setting, Jay called pastors and God’s people back to addressing daily life together—the Bible calls it sanctification. In an era when pastors were delegating the care of souls to secular psychiatrists and psychologists, Jay was calling the church back to mutual one-another soul care.

What’s in a Word?—“Nouthetic”

Consider Jay’s definition of nouthetic—to confront out of concern for heart change. Some seem to think that nouthetic counseling should be defined as: to confront.

That was never Jay’s model or practice. It was confrontation out of concern. And it was concern for change—heart change—a model of sanctification maximizing. Jay believed Romans 5:20—“where sin abounds, grace super-abounds.” Our current call for the church to help the mentally ill is a full generation behind Jay’s call for the church to help people address their daily life struggles.

In summary:

  • Modern biblical counseling originated from the call to awaken the church to its duty to provide pastoral shepherding and one-another soul care.
  • Modern biblical counseling launched with a focus on sanctification maximizing and shepherding maximizing.

The Ongoing Growth of the Modern Biblical Counseling Movement

Moving from the launch of the modern biblical counseling movement in the 1970s/80s, we can explore the perspective of what some have called “the second and third generations” of biblical counselors. For important context, I encourage the reading of:

While no one can speak for this diverse group, I’d suggest that the Biblical Counseling Coalition at least in part represents first, second, and third generation biblical counselors. A visit to the BCC’s Bio Page introduces you to 56 members of the BCC’s Board of Directors and Council Board. These diverse members are pastors, counselors, authors, and educators from a wide spectrum of leading churches, para-church organizations, and educational institutions committed to biblical counseling.

A Movement Desiring to Grow in Christ

When the BCC BOD/CB members developed the BCC Confessional Statement, we introduced ourselves with these words:

We confess that we have not arrived. We comfort and counsel others only as we continue to receive ongoing comfort and counsel from Christ and the Body of Christ (2 Corinthians 1:3-11). We admit that we struggle to apply consistently all that we believe. We who counsel live in process, just like those we counsel, so we want to learn and grow in the wisdom and mercies of Christ.”

We concluded with these words:

“We want to listen well to those who disagree with us, and learn from their critiques.”

Think about the words that “sandwich” the BCC’s Confessional Statement:

  • We confess that we have not arrived.
  • We want to listen well to those who disagree with us, and learn from their critiques.

The biblical counseling movement preaches progressive sanctification. We all pray that we practice what we preach.

Biblical Counselors Seek to Be Grace/Gospel/Christ Maximizers

By the title of our first collaborative work, biblical counselors wanted to communicate clearly concerning our conviction about our foundational beliefs. By titling that book Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling we were wanting to be heard saying that we seek to be Christ/Grace/Gospel Maximizers.

By the sub-title of that book, we wanted to state clearly our passion and compassion for helping hurting and hardened people (people like ourselves). By sub-titling the book Changing Lives with God’s Changeless Truth we were wanting to be heard saying that we are Christ/Grace/Gospel Maximizers.

I personally said it like this in Soul Physicians:

“What would a model of counseling look like that was built solely on Christ’s gospel of grace”?

Biblical counselors believe and want to practice the amazing truth that Christ’s gospel of grace—His throne of grace—is a place of sympathy and help (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:14-16).

Biblical counselors wanted to spread the same message of Christ-centeredness in the Preamble to the BCC Confessional Statement:

“We pursue this purpose by organizing our thinking around one central question. ‘What does it mean to counsel in the grace and truth of Christ?’”

Biblical counselors wanted to spread the same Christ-maximizing message in the title of the Confessional Statement Introduction:

“In Christ Alone.”

Biblical counselors wanted to spread this Christ/Gospel/Grace-maximizing message in the statement entitled “Biblical Counseling Must Be Centered on Christ and the Gospel.” That statement explains, in part:

“We point people to a person, Jesus our Redeemer, and not to a program, theory, or experience. We place our trust in the transforming power of the Redeemer as the only hope to change people’s hearts, not in any human system of change. People need a personal and dynamic relationship with Jesus, not a system of self-salvation, self-management, or self-actualization (John 14:6). Wise counselors seek to lead struggling, hurting, sinning, and confused people to the hope, resources, strength, and life that are available only in Christ.”

Whatever the BC view of mental illness is, I pray that it is not derived from an attitude that maximizes sin. I pray that it is derived from a mindset that exalts Christ as Lord of all. All of us in our brokenness; all of us in our fallen, yet-to-be-glorified bodies; all of us together live, move, and have our being in Christ alone.

In summary:

  • Modern biblical counselors seek to be Christ/Gospel/Grace maximizers. The modern biblical counseling movement has gone on record that the benchmark for biblical counseling is Christ’s gospel of grace that calls us to be Christ-centered, grace-focused, gospel-saturated shepherds and soul care givers.

Biblical Counselors: Seeking to Be Compassionate, Comprehensive, Whole Person Maximizers

Here’s the challenge that I think we biblical counselors need to address:

  • How do we speak compassionately and comprehensively about mental illness and about the complex interaction of the brain/body/mind/soul?
  • How do we address any concerns about root causes of life struggles without being heard to say that we are ignoring the whole person or lacking empathy for social factors and physiological issues?

To address those issues, I agree with David Murray—we need to speak clearly and emphatically about our desire to be compassionate and comprehensive care givers.

Samplers from the BCC Confessional Statement

We sought to speak emphatically about compassionate, comprehensive care in the Biblical Counseling Coalition Confessional Statement. Here are a few samplers.

Biblical Counseling Must Be Founded in Love

We believe that Christ’s incarnation is not just the basis for care, but also the model for how we care (Hebrews 4:14-16; John 13:34-35). We seek to enter into a person’s story, listening well, expressing thoughtful love, and engaging the person with compassion (1 Thessalonians 2:8). The wise and loving personal ministry of the Word takes many appropriate forms, from caring comfort to loving rebuke, from careful listening to relevant scriptural exploration, all while building trusting, authentic relationships (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15; 1 John 4:7-21).

Wise counseling takes into account all that people experience (desires, thoughts, goals, actions, words, emotions, struggles, situational pressure, physical suffering, abuse, injustice, etc.) All of human experience is the context for understanding how God’s Word relates to life. Such awareness not only shapes the content of counseling, but also shapes the way counselors interact so that everything said is constructive, according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to the hearer (Ephesians 4:29).

Biblical Counseling Must Be Comprehensive in Understanding

We believe that biblical counseling should focus on the full range of human nature created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28). A comprehensive biblical understanding sees human beings as relational (spiritual and social), rational, volitional, emotional, and physical. Wise counseling takes the whole person seriously in his or her whole life context. It helps people to embrace all of life face-to-face with Christ so they become more like Christ in their relationships, thoughts, motivations, behaviors, and emotions.

We recognize the complexity of the relationship between the body and soul (Genesis 2:7). Because of this, we seek to remain sensitive to physical factors and organic issues that affect people’s lives. In our desire to help people comprehensively, we seek to apply God’s Word to people’s lives amid bodily strengths and weaknesses. We encourage a thorough assessment and sound treatment for any suspected physical problems.

We recognize the complexity of the connection between people and their social environment. Thus we seek to remain sensitive to the impact of suffering and of the great variety of significant social-cultural factors (1 Peter 3:8-22). In our desire to help people comprehensively, we seek to apply God’s Word to people’s lives amid both positive and negative social experiences. We encourage people to seek appropriate practical aid when their problems have a component that involves education, work life, finances, legal matters, criminality (either as a victim or a perpetrator), and other social matters.

Biblical Counseling Must Be Thorough in Care

We believe that God’s Word is profitable for dealing thoroughly with the evils we suffer as well as with the sins we commit. Since struggling people usually experience some combination of besetting sin and personal suffering, wise counselors seek to discern the differences and connections between sin and suffering, and to minister appropriately to both (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

Biblical counseling addresses suffering and engages sufferers in many compassionate ways. It offers God’s encouragement, comfort, and hope for the hurting (Romans 8:17-18; 2 Corinthians 1:3-8). It encourages mercy ministry (Acts 6:1-7) and seeks to promote justice. Biblical counseling addresses sin and engages sinners in numerous caring ways. It offers God’s confrontation of sins, encourages repentance of sins, presents God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ, and shares God’s powerful path for progressive victory over sin (1 John 1:8-2:2; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; Colossians 3:1-17; 2 Timothy 2:24-26).

In summary:

  • As biblical counselors, we seek to avoid sin maximizing. And we seek to avoid body minimizing.
  • As biblical counselors, we seek to maximize compassionate, comprehensive care for the whole person in their whole life situation so that they can grow toward wholeness in Christ. 

I agree with David Murray—biblical counselors need to speak compassionately and comprehensively about soul care for the whole person.

Our Task Moving Forward: Looking at Life with Focused Lenses

As I see it, here’s what we all need to be talking about:

What do biblical counselors who maximize sanctification, shepherding, Christ, the Gospel, grace, compassion, and comprehensive—whole-person—care believe about mental illness and the church?

These are the “lenses” through which we need to address the vital issue of mental illness and the church.

Let’s carefully and compassionately define what we mean by mental illness from a comprehensive biblical perspective that includes wise assessment of valid scientific research. Then let’s biblically and lovingly interact about what it looks like for the church to minister well and wisely.

Join the Conversation

How would you define the perspective that shapes a biblical counseling view…of life, of counseling, of people, of mental illness?


3 thoughts on “A Biblical Counseling Perspective on Mental Illness

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  3. “be strong, take courage” these two I lack, but Christ who is rich in mercy has called me to make known to you, my brothers and sisters, that your compassion eases my suffering and my soul becomes quieted within me. How is it that I have come to you? Mental illness is present within me like a shadow of which I have become well acquainted. But I cannot let on that I know about him or else I would be consumed by the darkness. The light that is within me flickers dimly the evidence of faith– the hope of my escape. I am 55 years old. In my early years, around the age of 8, I cried out , “save me, I cannot go on” I am alone and there is no one in whom I can confide, for I am abandoned and without someone to comfort me.” The light came into my room, I saw the light and the light rested upon me.”Believe in Jesus, that I will be saved,” Peace he gave to me. I hid this in my heart. This night, I asked myself, ‘is sin at the root of mental illness?’ And if this is true, then my sins are truly great, and I am lost and without hope and the darkness whom I have fought all these years would envelop me and the light within me would be quenched. I put the question on the internet and your article addressed my question in its entirety. As I have shown you the “dance” that keeps the mind in bondage so I have seen a glimpse of the hope and the healing that comes from opening up to you; that truth, sprinkled in love saves us and we know that it is through Christ alone at work in us, that is our sanctification, and in the love we share, putting on Christ with compassion, one for the other, that with this same mind and through the power of the Holy Spirit, as He is so are we. Thank you for your kindness, my heart responded to your embrace.

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