Monday, August 27, 2018

Biblical Counseling Basics

Biblical Counseling Basics: Roots, Beliefs, and Future, Jeremy Lelek

Having taken two biblical counselling* subjects over the last 2 years with the CCEF, I was very interested to turn to this offering by Lelek, which has come from his PhD study as well as 20 years counselling experience in private practice.

While probably aimed more to those in more professional biblical counselling roles, there is much to offer for someone like me who is highly committed to the concept of biblical counselling, mostly in casual and informal settings, and keen to gain experience, wisdom and insight.

Lelek starts by examining the history and context of biblical soul care. Starting with Adam and Eve who were counselled by God, he moves through to the reformers and the early proponents of modern biblical counselling. It is a helpful framework and introduction, although I suspect those with existing knowledge of the main people operating in the field today would find this easier to follow that someone entirely new to the area.

The central and main section of the book looks at the beliefs and practices of biblical counselling. He addresses the central role of the bible to counselling, as well as the attributes of God the Father, Son and Spirit that influence our counsel. He notes how our theology of humanity drives the way we approach people, as well as promoting the key role that the church should play in the counsel of its people. There is so much of value here, it is hard to know what to share, so I will concentrate on two areas:

1. Chapter 6 (Counseling with God in Mind) contained a list of attributes belonging to God alone and then attributes also bestowed on humanity, and the implications of both for counselling was absolute gold. Each attribute (such as God’s omnipresence and omnipotence, or love, mercy and truth), was explained and then applied to the example of a broken marriage to show how God’s character and living word can illustrate truth, help and grace in the counselling context.

2. Chapter 14 (The Counselor and Counseling Methods) had the compelling observation that a counsellor is like a farmer, who plants truth and wait for harvest. In addition, the list of ways a counsellor should operate: humility, gentleness, patience, service and obedient to God’s word, was a helpful caution to ensure that no counsellor thinks of themselves more highly than the people they speak to. Of great help was the extensive list on methods to employ in counselling, with almost 30 principles with scriptural support, including:

  • instilling hope centred in the gospel of Jesus
  • identifying a person’s habitual response patterns and encouraging new habits
  • praying
  • fostering insight and understanding
  • examining motives (the heart)
  • developing an accurate self-image
  • offering words of hope
  • speaking redemptively, and much more.

Lelek finishes the book with a look to the future, mostly addressing how we unite a view of the sufficiency of scripture, yet are also willing to see wisdom in extrabiblical data such as modern psychological research, science and discovery. An appendix on how the biblical counsellor can care for the non-Christian in a loving, helpful and winsome way and perhaps share their faith in Christ is also very instructive.

I realise my head is very much in the biblical counselling space at the moment, and this is not a book that will appeal to everyone. But for anyone involved in Christian soul care, be it officially as a counsellor or psychologist, a pastor trying to care for congregation members, or even someone like me who tries to apply the overarching principles informally, there is a great deal of wisdom and benefit here. Lalek has given those with a heart for biblical counselling a rich theology to underpin their understanding, and numerous scriptural and God-honouring ways to apply principles and concepts to counselling practice.

I’ll finish with Lelek’s own concluding words:
“God’s Word contains everything humanity needs for life and godliness… No book, no empirical discovery, no theoretical idea, no human method will ever hold a candle to the radiance that shines forth from Scripture as is pertains to the human experience. My prayer is that pastors, parishioners, and professionals within the body of Christ would aim to become wiser stewards of God’s Word as it applies to the mental, emotional, and relational maladies of others… God has spoken, and what he has said matters. This has been the primary presupposition of biblical counseling since its inception, and may it continue to be a resounding anthem forevermore.”

*note the US spelling is counseling and the Australian is counselling. I try to stick with the two ‘l’s for my own writing but quote others with the spelling they use.

Monday, August 20, 2018

She's Got The Wrong Guy

She’s Got The Wrong Guy: Why Smart Women Settle, Deepak Reju

It’s with some hesitation that I write this review. I married young and have not experienced long term singleness, the unmet desire for companionship or the chance of not having children. Yet, having been involved in marriage ministry and walking for 15 years alongside people in pastoral ministry, I can say without hesitation that who you marry matters. It affects your happiness on earth, but much more than that, it has eternal consequences. Spouses either lead each other toward Christ or away from him, and a life lived serving the Lord can be much harder in a difficult marriage.

We trust that God’s grace is sufficient for all circumstances (including being married to a non-Christian) and he gives us the ability to live for him in life’s joy and challenges. But sometimes the reality of a book like this is needed to help people prevent making life-altering, unwise choices.

If you are a single woman (and hoping to be married), I wonder what your internal monologue tends to be regarding men and marriage. Does it include the following?
  • I deserve to be happy, to be married and to have children
  • God doesn’t want me to be miserable and single
  • My boyfriend is a new Christian but he’ll mature
  • He’ll change (I can help him)
  • He’s willing to come to church, that’s enough
  • It’s my fault he lost got angry or lost control
  • I don’t want to lose the only chance at marriage I may have
Deepak Reju, writing from years of pastoral and counselling experience, outlines the current dating landscape, noting our culture has lifted marriage and self-fulfilment to be a right all are entitled. Christian women have bought this lie, noting that “As Christian women, we teach the gospel, pray the gospel, sing the gospel - and we secretly hope for marriage”. To be clear: to hope for marriage is not a problem, but it is when marriage becomes the thing you seek first, what you long for, and you expend energy to find. Rather, we are to seek Christ first. Of course, this is not exclusively applicable for singles, everyone is called to seek Christ first, rather than our own personal idols of happiness, comfort, companionship and family. He identified numerous reasons women settle for inappropriate men: they put marriage above everything else, love is blind, they are afraid (maybe of being alone, being rejected) and they are unwilling to heed wise counsel.

He calls women not to forget Jesus, and encourages them to ask themselves two hard questions:
  1. Do I desire Jesus more than anything else?
  2. Would I settle for the wrong guy?
As Christians, our goal is to grow closer to Jesus, not to find a man. God himself has promised that we belong to him, he will love us faithfully and that he will never leave or forsake us: “Don’t build your heart around temporary treasures, like marriage to a godly husband, raising children, or the dream of a future together. Let your heart by captivated by Christ. Make Christ the greatest of all treasures.”

Reju then outlines ten types of men to be wary of: the control freak, the promiscuous guy (does he push for pre-martial sex?), the unchurched guy, the new convert, the unbeliever, the angry man, the lone ranger (unwilling to be held accountable), the commitment phobe, the passive man, and the unteachable guy. While it seemed initially like a long list, each chapter was compelling. Each of these types of men present serious issues in marriage; whether for your own growth in godliness, their own salvation, or having a relationship that is loving, gentle and mutually encouraging.

As I read through these, I was tempted to think – will any men be left at the end? Yes, there are: godly men who want to serve Jesus and their prospective spouse. This is where Reju takes us in the final chapters – in pursuit of real Christian men. Men who value what God values and love Christ more than the woman they are with. One very helpful distinctive he makes here is the difference between immaturity and the problematic man. Maturity takes time, you can’t expect the same godliness and wisdom of a mature Christ-loving, self-sacrificial 60-year-old man in a 22-year-old. But you can see the signs of where he will go.
“Choose wisely. The imperfect guy – the one who is growing in Christ and still has growing to do as he figures out how to be a boyfriend and a husband – give him a chance. Ditch the problematic man. Stay away from him.”
This is a necessary counter, because you could end up with such high goals for a Christian man, that you’re seeking perfection, which does not exist. We are all sinful and fall short of the glory of God. There could also certainly be wisdom in waiting longer to marry, to have a clearer idea of how you both are maturing in Christ.

There were insightful questions to ask about your relationship and wise guidance on how to break up. He acknowledges that for many women, the choice is between this average guy and being single (not between this average guy and that godly, wise man). He strongly encourages women not to settle for the average guy, even if he appears to be your only option, but to be content to wait upon the Lord. He closes by showing the many ways God’s grace is at work in singleness and marriage, helping us to live faithfully for Christ in various circumstances.

Single women would be advised to heed his wisdom as they consider the dating options around them. Single men should read it too, with an open and honest willingness to examine their own hearts and whether they are being willingly conformed to the image of Christ. Those with single friends or who counsel singles will also find much to recommend. Something about the title does make me wonder how many people are likely to read it though, and I wouldn't recommend it to women who are already married. This book is preventative. A whole other approach is needed for women already in difficult marriages.

I found myself wondering if there could be a companion volume, for there are also types of women that Christian men should be wary of. Such a list might include: the passive aggressive, the controller, the change-agent, the emotional manipulator; and similarly to this book: the angry woman, the unbeliever, the unchurched, and the new believer.

This book asks: “is it OK to settle in marriage?” Some things we should be willing to settle for. If your ideal man must be good-looking, athletic and outgoing, it’s time to question what you really value. The quiet, shy, awkward man on the sideline may be the one who is growing in godliness and grace. But don’t settle for a man who is ungodly, unwilling to live in Christian community, or continues in unrepentant sin. Of course, God in his mercy can work miracles of grace and change in anyone’s life. But the message of this book is: let God start that work in him before you consider joining your lives together.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in our Stars, John Green

More teen fiction, this time: all-encompassing love in the midst of terminal cancer. Unlike the ridiculous nature of teen love in Twilight (more on that in due course), this is a very good story, with solid characters and real depth. Hazel’s cancer is currently held at bay, but time is ticking by. Now 17, she has been sick since she was 14 and her cancer has begun to define her. Her main support network are other cancer kids in a support group, including friend Isaac who has just lost his second eye to cancer. New member Augustus Waters is in remission, having lost a leg to bone cancer.

Hazel and Augustus immediately hit it off. Both are well read, very intelligent and their conversation and interactions bring a spark to the page. Green includes numerous literary references along the way, including poetry by T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare to take understanding to the next level for those who have ears to hear.

Of course, throughout is the reality that for Hazel and Gus death is always nearby, and cancer recurrence is just around the corner. The threat lingers until Green reveals which way their story will go.

It’s open and raw at times. Illness and its side effects are openly described. You see the anguish of parents watching their children suffer. There is a macabre humour as each manages their illness in their own way. There are jokes about the way cancer kids are treated as angels and battlers, irrespective of how they actually behave. An honesty suffuses it all.

I was expecting it to be simpler than it was, but there was an additional story line about an author that has touched them both, who they tried to meet but who never lives up to expectation. I was expecting the romance to be exaggerated, but it was very understated. There was more description of physical illness than physical romance.

If younger readers (or adults) have known people with cancer I suspect this book could be helpful in processing some of those emotions, but whether or not cancer has personally touched your life, this book will touch the lives of those who read it. It’s addresses things that matter: life, death, what defines you, what you believe and who you care about.

Recommended reading for teens about age 15 and up.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Big Picture Parents

Big Picture Parents, Harriet Connor

When you read a parenting book, are you searching for answers to specific questions? Practical things like: what to do about toilet training or sleep time, how to get healthy food into my kids, how to tell them about sex, decide on education options or teach financial wisdom? Maybe you also search for faith-based help: how do I teach what I believe to my kids or how do I keep them wanting to live for Jesus as they get older?

There are lots of books out there that promise such things. Many are very helpful (see this link for a whole list including reviews), giving clear guidance, sage instructions and good options to try.

But, do you ever first stop and think, “Hold on, what’s driving this? Why should I care about this? Do I have a framework for parenting generally so I can apply the specifics in my setting?”

I think sadly, for most of us parents, we lurch from situation to situation, trying to find advice for the issue right now and we don’t sometimes stop, take a step back and analyse the situation in light of the bigger principles at stake.

Harriet Connor realised the same and she took a step back. She went to the bible, trying to find what wisdom God has for our parenting. In doing so, she has produced a book for all Christian parents that will help them think about the big picture of their parenting.

She has divided the book into four clear parts:

1. Our big purpose. Life is about more than seeking happiness and is rather about knowing and loving the Lord and serving him by loving others. So therefore, “parenting is not about helping my children to feel good, but to do the good that they were created to do”.

2. Our big problem. I really appreciated this section. While clearly explaining the reality of sin and how it affects all of life, her application for parents is that we need to accept our human limitations. We will get things wrong, we will make mistakes. She calls us to be a “good enough parent” – what a freedom and relief this term could be! Then applying this to our children, it helps us realise they are not, and never will be, perfect, and the world we live in is also marred by sin, so it will bring challenges and disappointment to our children. With a clear gospel focus she brings the reader back to the idea of God’s perfect fatherhood and how he brings us freedom from the problem of sin.

3. Our big values. What we need to do as parents is identify and be able to name our key values. Starting with love, she takes the reader through the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in a clear, insightful way that points us to the values God has for our families. Some of the values she drills down further into are: valuing grace, marriage, heavenly treasure, truth and God’s approval.

The details Connor goes into in this section will be particularly instructive for parents looking to identify and pass on their values, as she encourages us to model, teach, and train our children with wise general principles of allowing natural consequences, having clear boundaries and prioritising time with them. After all, they are “apprentices in need of training, rather than little consumers in need of entertaining”. She encourages parents to avoid things that undermine the family’s values, which will have application for financial decision, entertainment options and the like.

4. Our big family. Parents are encouraged to be united and in charge of the family, even while acknowledging certain circumstances can make this difficult. Strong marriage should be fostered as well as commitment to a larger church community. These chapters broaden the focus and are really a discussion of the extended Christian family in community, something that in our individualistic, nuclear family age some can forget to ensure is a priority.

Connor has written a clear thorough account of the principles of Christian parenting. She uses the bible extensively to provide a framework for the gospel of grace, and has then wisely applied it to family life in a way that is accessible, accurate and understandable. For many Christian parents who are familiar with their bibles, there is unlikely to be anything particularly new here, but the way is it presented opens your eyes again and challenges you to reassess your parenting priorities and the bigger things you are trying to aim for.

Her writing style will greatly appeal to those who value logic and order, with explanations of where she is going, summaries of where she has been, and chapter divisions that are logical and clear. It is readable and succinct with enough stories and illustrations to provide some extra food for thought along the way. Connor is Australian, so it reads well for our context and is unlikely to grate on readers the way that some authors from the US do. I know people who have given copies to unbelieving friends as well, as a good entry way into discussions about parenting from a Christian context.

It is openly ‘big picture’, so while there are some examples of how to apply the principles in specific situations, they are really concepts to consider. What she does is give parents the tools to craft their parenting vision to enable them to apply it in their context. As such, I think she has done a remarkable job of presenting a biblical framework for parenting that is an encouragement and a spur for parents, rather than a list of dos and don’ts. This also means it is applicable across the broad range and spectrum of parenting ages, stages and situations. Connor herself has quite young children, but the principles she espouses can be applied right up to the late teen years.

So, are you stuck in the mire of situational parenting? Come up for a breather. Make sure you can see the big forest amongst all the little trees you climb each day. Big Picture Parents will help you clarify why you are parenting, where you want to go on that journey, and will help you plan, in God’s wisdom and with his grace, how to get there.