Counseling Unsaved Images of God

June 21, 2017

While receiving my training in biblical counseling, I did not think that I would have so many opportunities to interact with non-Christians. Usually they have come because they were urged to do so by a Christian relative or friend. I welcome such opportunities, but working with non-Christians does present some interesting theological and practical challenges. Here are some of my thoughts on these important and challenging ministry opportunities.

The “Burden” of Image-Bearing for Fallen People

Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6, and James 3:9 indicate that people, by design, are God’s image-bearers (that is, they represent him). Furthermore, Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9 were written from a post-fall perspective, so humans’ role as image-bearers continues to be a relevant part of interacting with them.

However, since the fall, characteristics associated with being image-bearers are twisted or distorted in sinners’ lives. For example:

(1) Humans, as image-bearers, are innately relational: God designed people for relationships with himself and with other people. To support a relationship with himself, God has built into the “fabric of creation” constant reminders of his existence (Ps. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:19-20, 32). Beyond the external reminders in nature, humans also have their own internal reminders of this design for a relationship with God, which Paul associates with the work of the “conscience” (Rom. 2:14-15).

However, now humans naturally seek to replace a relationship with God with substitutes (“idols”). Significantly, several biblical writers draw a direct connection between worshiping idols and the shaping of one’s character. Although humans were originally designed by God to be like their Creator, idolaters become like their idols in the sight of God (Ps. 115:4-8; 2 Ki. 17:14-15; Jer. 2:5).

(2) Humans, as image-bearers, are natural imitators: Closely connected to their relationships is the tendency for people to imitate others. This is why the Bible has encouragements for relationships with godly people, including calls to imitate them. However, there are also stern warnings against intimate relationships with ungodly people. Either way, intimate relationships are transformative experiences for people (see, e.g., Dt. 7:1-4; Pr. 13:20; 1 Co. 4:16; 15:33; 3 Jn. 9-12).

(3) Humans, as image-bearers, instinctively want to “know more”: Having been designed for a relationship with God and to fulfill his purposes, there is a human desire to understand the “big picture” and to be inquisitive about “life’s ultimate questions” (Eccles. 3:10-11). Having “eternity set in the heart” results in people’s curiosity to know more, to see purpose and meaning in life which go beyond the mundane activities of daily life. In a proper relationship with God, this is possible, for then one is receptive to what God has revealed of his purposes. However, apart from such a relationship, this desire to know more is a burden, because no finite creature can have God’s vantage point on life and eternity.

Interacting with Fallen Image-Bearers

All of the above characteristics should influence how you interact with people. The design of God is still influential in the lives of non-Christians, although it is twisted or distorted by their inherent sinfulness. Interacting with non-Christians based on these image-related characteristics isn’t done because they think about these matters in the way you do, but rather because such interactions might “strike a nerve” (activate the conscience) with a fallen image-bearer.

More specifically, if you have opportunities to counsel non-Christians, I suggest you keep in mind the following guidelines:

(1) Working with non-Christians, apart from their reception of Christ as Lord and Savior, will be limited—and I suggest limited by the counselee’s tolerance for listening to a biblical perspective. Get to know non-Christian counselees (“build involvement”) and seek to understand the nature and extent of their problems (“gather data”) as much as possible. You can try to connect the “image-bearer characteristics” highlighted above to your counselees’ presenting problems and thus show how reasonable it is to submit to the gospel and the counsel of the Lord.

(2) Remember that as image-bearers and as part of God’s creation, all people, including those without exposure to the written Word of God, know God at some level (Rom. 1:20-21). This knowledge of God is an incomplete knowledge, but it is real and it is convicting (Rom. 1:18, 21, 32). This is why, apart from the transforming work of the Spirit in them, non-Christians will “suppress the truth” and “exchange the truth about God for a lie” (Rom. 1:18, 25). Apart from the transforming work of the Spirit in them, they will remain subject to “deceitful desires” that lead them away from Christ (Eph. 4:17-19, 22; Rom. 1:22-31; 3:9-18). Only the Lord can break through this deception—and he does this through the ministry of his Word (compare Heb. 4:12-13; 2 Tim. 3:14-4:5).

Paul says that non-believers’ way of thinking is “foolish” (Rom. 1:21)—not meaning that they can’t reason, but that their reasoning begins with wrong (unbiblical) premises and ends with wrong (ungodly) conclusions. Fully entrenched in their folly, non-Christians are argumentative when they are presented with God’s way of righteousness/wisdom (Pr. 17:10; 20:3; 27:22; 29:11), apart from the Holy Spirit working in their hearts.

In this light, consider Proverbs 26:4-5: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” When responding to the claims or perspective of a non-Christian counselee, remember two guidelines based on this passage:

  • Your response must not mimic or endorse the non-Christian’s way of thinking, which will begin with unbiblical premises and lead to wrong and ungodly conclusions. Since the topics of conversation will be about lifestyle decisions, values, relationships, etc., which the Bible directly addresses, the non-Christian’s differences with the Bible will come into focus. Be sure your way of thinking and your responses remain consistent with the Bible’s teaching.
  • Your responses also should show the non-Christian the logical, negative outcomes to his or her way of thinking (even if the counselee doesn’t necessarily agree that they are “negative”). As you respond, pray that the Spirit of God might suppress the non-Christian’s suppression of the truth, thereby bringing to light the knowledge of God that all image-bearers have.

In these cases, you see clearly how biblical counseling can be part of the larger kingdom-building task of the church.

Question for Reflection

What have you learned about the kingdom-building potential of biblical counseling?

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