Pat Quinn
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The Telos of Biblical Counseling

October 2, 2013

The Telos of Biblical Counseling
Pat Quinn

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Pat Quinn

The Telos of Biblical Counseling

Human beings tend to be goal-oriented. It may be something immediate, like a good grade or a football victory, or long term, like a better marriage or self-improvement. New Testament writers sometimes use the word “telos” to describe a goal or end point of maturity and fulfillment (See 1 Timothy 1: 5).

With this in mind we can say that every counseling model has a “telos.” Psychodynamic counseling moves toward the “telos” of increased self-understanding and regulation of unconscious impulses; cognitive-behavioral counseling toward better control of thought patterns and behavior modification; humanistic toward self-actualization.

So what is the “telos” of biblical counseling? The New Testament suggests that the practical goal or “end” of biblical counseling is for the counselee to increasingly serve others in love by the example and power of Jesus. 

It is essential that our counseling does not stay abstract, but that it helps counselees land with both feet on the ground in the daily realities of life. Jesus “shows and tells” us what the goal of counseling should look like in John 13: 12-17 (ESV):

“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

Two Saints Comment

  • “You cannot have Christ if you will not serve Him…. If we refuse to be His servants, we are not saved, for we still remain evidently the servants of self, and the servants of Satan” (Charles Spurgeon, “Sermon on John 12: 26”).
  • “One of the principal rules of religion is, to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since He is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve Him in our neighbor; which He receives as if done to Himself in person, standing visible before us” (John Wesley).

Moving Toward the Telos in Galatians 5: 1-14

Notice that Galatians 5:1-14 begins, “For freedom Christ has set us free….” and ends with, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a wonderful summary of the gospel: Christ sets us free from the guilt, power, and consequences of sin so that we can love others as an expression of our love for him!

Let’s look at the progression from freedom in Christ to serving in love.

  • Verse 1 proclaims that Christ sets us free from two deadly dangers that keep us from loving God and others: legalism and license. Legalism was the primary problem in Galatia that Paul addressed in this letter. Legalism is any attempt to get right with God or maintain a relationship with him or live the “good life” through law-keeping or any other “self-salvation project” (Tim Keller). This presents deep problems for many believers. License was the other danger. If legalism says, “My salvation depends in some way on my performance, so I better do…,” license says, “I’m completely saved by Christ alone so I can do whatever I want.” This is just as deadly. Legalism produces uptight moralists; license produces unholy hedonists. For counseling to produce the kind of freedom that serves others in love we will have to address and dismantle both legalism and license.
  • Verses 2-4 warn against the danger of trying to add anything to Christ and his gospel.  The issue for the Galatians was circumcision. The Judaizers said that faith in Christ was essential but not sufficient, that circumcision and therefore obedience to the entire Mosaic Law was necessary for full salvation. For us circumcision can represent anything we feel we need in addition to Christ in order to be right with God and live a fulfilled life.  It might be Christ and…religious performance, worldly prosperity, others’ approval, comfort, ministry success, etc. Paul teaches that if we accept circumcision (anything added to Christ for salvation and life) and seek to be justified by it (made acceptable to God, self, or others), we actually nullify Christ’s grace and come under judgment.
  • Verse 6 gives us the “telos” of the gospel (and counseling) in one brief sentence: “For in Christ Jesus (the only one who can save and satisfy us) neither circumcision (our success in performing well enough to secure our well being) nor uncircumcision (our failure to do the same) counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”
  • Verses 7-12 remind us that as we seek justification and life in Christ we will be opposed tooth and nail! The enemies of the world, flesh, and devil will conspire to hinder our freedom and joy in Christ. We will need to continually preach to ourselves and our counselees the gospel of free justification by grace through faith.
  • Verses 13-14 summarize the theme of Galatians 5 this way, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Notice the connection between the beginning (freedom from legalism and license) and the end/telos (loving service to others as an expression of love for God).

Counseling for Loving Service

  • Alert counselees to the twin dangers of legalism and license and lead them to repentance toward God and others. Both are expressions of pride and unbelief and reveal idolatrous desires. Help them see where they are prone to each and what the specific manifestations look like. Legalism will choke out the life of Christ leaving no motivation or energy to serve others in love. License will pervert love into manipulation of others.
  • Commend Galatians 5: 6 as the “telos” of counseling. Help them identify what “circumcision” or “uncircumcision” means to them and how it is negatively impacting them and their relationships.  Bring “faith working through love” before them often and ask them what trusting, treasuring, and obeying Jesus could look like in their circumstances.
  • Explore with counselees what kinds of things hinder their progress in “faith working through love.” Where did they learn legalistic, licentious, self-justifying attitudes and behaviors?  Who makes it difficult to trust Jesus and serve others? What situations are particularly difficult?
  • Lead counselees to specific confession to God and others. You could lead them in prayer by saying, “Why don’t we go to prayer and you can confess and ask God for forgiveness about what we’ve been talking about. He is eager to forgive and restore you.” Regarding confession to others or seeking reconciliation you could have the counselee write an unedited letter expressing their thoughts and feelings without sending it. You could then discuss the letter with the counselee and help them either craft a letter or prepare to meet face to face.
  • Help counselees think specifically about what serving in love will look like in the coming week. Ask, “How will you strengthen and express your trust in God this week? How will you seek to serve your husband/wife/children/co-workers, etc. this week? What grace will you need to ask for from God to do this? What gospel resources might be helpful?”

Join the Conversation

Toward what “telos” do you move in your counseling?

How has Christ dismantled legalism and license in your life and freed you to serve others in love?

How will you commend this to your counselees?


4 thoughts on “The Telos of Biblical Counseling

  1. Ha! Christian counseling. What a load of baloney. That might work in theory but in the real world it doesn’t. Try confiding to Christian (even a Christian counselor and/or pastor) and they shun you. After I went to a Christian counselor everyone at church started to treat me differently, gone were the friendly smiles and warm welcomes. Replaced with standoff-ishness. One lady told me that she was praying for me and my problems. Apparently my counselor told people of my “problems”. But I didn’t want everyone to know that’s why I sought out confidentiality, but I was betrayed. My Christian counselor only made it worse and I fell into a deep depression. Second time my counselor was a pastor and he simply lost interest in me once he found out the nature of my problem. I became almost like a stranger to him.

    But I get it, most don’t know how to interact with someone who is mentally ill. Watch the nightly news and you see Ariel Castro referred to as the “new face of mental illness” and you hope to God no one knows of you mental illness so they won’t make that (erroneous) connection.

    So I go to a secular psychologist, an atheist (I asked her). I try to understand my mental illness in regards to God’s love and sovereignty. I don’t tell anyone at my current church about my mental illness. It keeps me somewhat at a distance from everyone but I do what I have to to survive. I’m that guy you’ve seen around for a while, at work, at church, in your neighborhood, but nobody really knows. Because if you knew the real me you’d reject me, shun me. Don’t say you wouldn’t, it has too much of a social stigma to it, it is too juicy of gossip topic.

  2. Joe, I truly am grieved that your experience with a Christian counselor, your pastor, and your church has been so difficult, discouraging, and unChristlike. I am praying that you would find connection to Christians who are compassionate and wise and move into your life in Christlike ways. While your experience has been very painful, and while no church, no pastor, and no biblical counselor is perfect, there are many churches, pastors, and biblical counselors who, by God’s grace, seek to move into people’s lives with Christ’s love and truth. In Christ’s grace, Bob.

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  4. Joe– I’m really sorry no one has responded. Really sorry.

    I’m more sorry for the way that said particular church/counselor/pastor has betrayed your trust. While you’re right, that most people don’t know how to intelligently love someone who is in the arms of deep depression and other dark realities, the Saviour does because he has suffered a much darker reality for us. With that said, that doesn’t excuse others not following Paul and comforting you with the comfort they have been comforted with but I suspect they have never experienced it.

    Not calling their sincere in-Christness into question, they may have never authentically struggled with their own brokenness before God and are therefore inept to help you with and through yours. I am really sorry brother.

    You’ve been betrayed and that may take years to work through, but don’t give up on Christ — he hasn’t given up on you. And don’t give up on his bride … you are part of her and he is redeeming and remaking us all to reflect his heart; especially towards us broken folk.

    My love to you in Christ — as a sinner to another sinner being redeemed.

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