BCC Staff Note: On weekends we like to highlight for you one of our growing list of free resources. This weekend we highlight a resource PDF by Bob Kellemen on Theo-Drama and Gospel-Centered Counseling: God’s Redemptive Drama and Our Life Questions. You can download the entire resource here: Theo-Drama and Gospel-Centered Counseling.
Here’s the introduction by Dr. Kellemen.
Theo-Drama and Gospel-Centered Counseling: God’s Redemptive Drama and Our Ultimate Life Questions
I recently had the privilege of presenting at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). My paper is entitled: Theo-Drama and Gospel-Centered Counseling: God’s Redemptive Drama and Our Life Questions. I’ve developed my presentation from my latest book, Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives. Here’s the introduction to the paper.
A theo-dramatic approach to Scripture shows great promise for gospel-centered counseling. This paper explores six acts in the drama of redemption that are bookended by two elements central to all counseling: God’s Word (our source of truth/wisdom) and progressive sanctification (our understanding of the change process). These six acts and two bookends suggest eight ultimate life questions that every person asks and every counselor must address. The paper proposes that theologians and counselors can bridge the artificial gap between them by understanding how a theo-dramatic approach provides a Christ-centered, comprehensive, and compassionate foundation for relating truth to life in counseling. It further proposes ways in which counselors can value the grand redemptive narrative of the Bible and the counselee’s life narrative—relating Christ’s gospel story to our life story.
Ashley, Nate, and How We View and Use the Bible
Ashley and her husband, Nate, met with me at church the day after their twin sons’ eleventh birthday. With tears streaming down her face, Ashley shared that twenty-five years earlier, not long after her eleventh birthday, a relative had begun sexually abusing her.
Those who knew Ashley would have been shocked. She grew up in a Christian home, was active at church as an adult, served as a leader in the women’s ministry, and was always “pleasant.”
As Ashley described herself, “I’m the good girl from the good home. The good mom; the good wife. But nobody knows the ugliness I feel inside. Nobody knows how I’ve pretended and denied all these years. I just can’t keep faking it any longer. Depressed to the point that at times I’ve thought about suicide. Fearful and anxious—terrified I’ll displease someone. Terrified someone will find out what an empty but evil thing I am…”
As Ashley’s voice trailed off, Nate asked, “Pastor Bob, can you help? Does the Bible offer any hope for my wife?”
How we respond to Ashley’s soul struggles and to Nate’s life questions depends on how we answer a foundational question:
“What would a model of counseling look like that was built solely upon Christ’s gospel of grace?”
It’s similar to the question Kevin Vanhoozer asks:
“What difference would it make to offer counsel out of a Redemptive Trinitarian Theistic framework?”
3 Shallow Methods of Using the Bible in Counseling
When we fail to address these foundational questions about what makes counseling truly biblical, we end up with shallow answers to people’s complex questions. When people like Ashley and Nate courageously share their real and raw concerns with people in the church, without a gospel-centered theological foundation we tend to respond in one of three ways.
First, some refer. The stereotype goes like this: “I’m a committed Christian. I want to help you with your struggles. However, we have to understand that while the Bible provides insight for our ‘spiritual lives,’ God never intended that we use His Word to address ‘emotional and mental’ struggles. For relevant help for those issues, we need ‘outside experts.’” There’s confidence in God, but with a corresponding conviction that for “non-spiritual issues” God’s Word is not the most appropriate resource.
Second, some follow a sprinkling approach. The stereotype sounds like this: “I’m a committed Christian. I want to help you with your struggles. To the insights I’ve gleaned from the world’s wisdom about your issue, I’ll add Christian concern, prayer, and some occasional biblical principles where they seem pertinent.” There’s confidence in God’s Word as important in helping hurting people, but its application lacks an understanding of the vital, comprehensive, and robust nature of God’s Word for life in a broken world.
Third, some follow the concordance approach. The stereotype goes like this: “I’m a committed Christian. I want to help you with your struggle. You have a problem. I’ll use my Bible concordance to find God’s answer.” Some call this the “one-problem, one-verse, one-solution” approach. There’s confidence in the Bible, but its application lacks an understanding of the complexity of life and the rich nature of God’s Word.
The Relationship between the Bible’s Redemptive Theo-Drama and Gospel-Centered Counseling
Clearly we need a “fourth way” of viewing and using the Bible. If we are to view the Bible accurately and use the Bible competently in counseling, then we must understand the Bible’s story the way God tells it. And God tells His story and ours as the theo-drama of redemption. It is a gospel narrative of relationship.
The Bible presents a grand narrative in which God is both the Author and the Hero, with the story climaxing in Christ. God begins by telling the story of relationship initiated in Genesis 1-2 and relationship rejected in Genesis 3. After those first three chapters, the rest of the Bible tells the story of God wooing us back to His holy and loving arms, all the while fighting the Evil One who wants to seduce us away from our first love.
Ever since Genesis 3, life is a battle for our love—the ageless question of who captures our heart—Christ or Satan. In Gospel-Centered Counseling, I encapsulate all of life as a war and a wedding. Many others have described it as slay the dragon; marry the damsel. The Bible calls it “the gospel.”
Our counseling is sterile and dead if we see the Bible as an academic textbook. But if we view and use the Bible as the story—the gospel-centered drama—of the battle to win our hearts, then our counseling comes alive.
But how do we take the Bible’s theo-dramatic redemptive narrative and relate it comprehensively and compassionately to the lives of hurting people? How do we take the traditional Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative and use it as a helpful and hopeful foundation for gospel-centered counseling?
Here’s how not to do it. When people come to us, we don’t shout, “Gospel!” as if it’s some magic wand.
Instead, we first understand the gospel story, then we seek to understand our friends’ stories, then we journey together to intersect God’s eternal story and their temporal story. Picture it as pivoting back and forth with our friends between the larger story of the gospel and the smaller (but real and meaningful) story of their life. We earn the right to bring God’s perspective to bear on our friends’ lives by first listening well and wisely to their life story.
Gospel-centered counseling means that together with our counselees we derive our understanding of earthly life from heaven’s viewpoint. We look at life not with eyeballs only, but with spiritual eyes; we live under the Son, not under the sun.
Counseling is biblical when the central message, the sweeping redemptive narrative of the Bible, becomes the controlling lens through which we look at life and through which we listen to a person’s life story. We understand people, diagnose problems, and prescribe solutions through the Bible’s redemptive theo-drama. In this way, the whole Bible story impacts the whole person’s whole story.
The Rest of the Story
You can read the rest of my EST presentation here: Theo-Drama and Gospel-Centered Counseling.
This paper is developed from materials in, Robert W. Kellemen, Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014; and Robert W. Kellemen, Gospel Conversations: How Christ Changes Lives, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, forthcoming in 2015.
I further develop Ashley’s story and a biblical counseling response in Robert Kellemen, Sexual Abuse: Beauty for Ashes, Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013.
Gospel-Centered Counseling, 15.
Kevin Vanhoozer, “Forming the Performers: How Christians Can Use Canon Sense to Bring Us to Our (Theodramatic) Senses.” Edification: The Transdisciplinary Journal of Christian Psychology, 4, no. 1, 2010, 7.
Gospel-Centered Counseling, 24.