Monday, September 21, 2020

Caring for the Souls of Children

Caring for the Souls of Children: A Biblical Counselor's Manual, edited by Amy Baker

This great resource, edited by Amy Baker with numerous contributors, speaks to many situations that children face, and provides biblical counsellors and parents with tools and advice to address them pastorally and with care. 

It begins by addressing foundational and methodological issues, first noting that the implications of the gospel are as relevant for children as they are for adults, and then some implications of counselling children:
“For children, the struggles, desires, and hopes are no different than for those of us who are adults. Therefore, the counsel we provide for them should lead them to the same place—the good news of Jesus Christ.”
“As counselors, we need to be reminded that the answers from Scripture are not too hard for children to grasp... Like adults, children need to wrestle with sin and suffering and be led to see a sovereign, merciful God at work.”
Her first goal is to counsel parents to counsel their own children.

She then outlines “seven structural components for counseling that can be a backbone for your counseling. These key elements are 1) show love and begin to build a relationship, 2) gather relevant data, 3) evaluate the problem biblically, 4) share biblical hope, 5) provide biblical instruction, 6) assign practical homework, and 7) involve the parents.”

Then there are charts of covering six stages of development from age 3-18, covering physical, emotional, cognitive, social and spiritual changes.

All of these provide a framework, which is then used as the focus turns to numerous specific counselling issues that are addressed by different authors.

Children and their relationships includes leading children to Jesus, the relationship with parents and friendships.
“Parents and children alike often feel they are in a bitter struggle against each other. Parents want respect and obedience. Children want freedom and independence. These two desires clash in most parent-child relationships, even in the households with the healthiest dynamics. In all families there is a level of tension and a pull to navigate the issues of authority versus emerging independence.”
I found comments on friendships insightful, including that:
  • friendships are hard and often require sacrifice 
  • friendships ultimately point to someone greater 
The next section was children and their emotions, and included helping those who are anxious, angry, dealing with shame, and what to consider after a suicide attempt.
“Let your child know they are not alone. Pursue meaningful conversation with your child. Be proactive in addressing hard topics they are bound to face in their world. Be a redemptive guide speaking into the corruption they will be forced to weed through. Let them know there is One who fights on their behalf.”
“To solve a child’s anger problem, you must target the source of his anger—his heart... While it is true that anger ultimately stems from the heart, it is crucial to ask what other contributing factors may be present. Considering the heart gives a deeper understanding of anger problems; considering the situational factors gives a wider understanding. Understanding the wider context of your counselees’ lives will help you be more patient, compassionate, and creative as you work with them. Discerning these various facets of a child’s struggle requires wise, patient questioning and good listening.”
Children and their bodies addresses talking about sex, sexual identity, children who self harm, and those with a disability or disease. All were balanced, helpful, compassionate and contained wise advice.

While the following quote was related to self harm, it still applies in numerous circumstances:
“Most parents experience at least one shocking discovery about one or more of their children. Life is going along as well as can be expected and with a blinding flash and deafening roar trouble strikes. When that happens, it’s easy to lose your bearings and to react with fear and anger to the trouble you see in front of you. But when you discover that your child is self-harming, remember at that moment in time, you will be your child’s first counselor. Whether you wish to or not makes no difference. The option before you is to either occupy that role as best you can by God’s grace, or to do poorly by responding with all your fear, hurt, and disappointment in plain view. You get one opportunity in that moment to respond in a helpful, biblical way. Start with asking God to help you and then listen to your child.”
The final section, children and trauma, covers abuse, children of divorce, facing grief and death, and children not living with their biological parents.

I come to this book more from the perspective of a parent, rather than a biblical counsellor, but I think there is application and relevance for both.

Some of my observations were:
  • Each chapter is structured around an actual example, containing the detail as of a child and their situation. This is then used as springboard to consider the wider issue. It’s a helpfully concrete way in to considering the issue being addressed. 
  • Numerous authors refer to the Psalms as a way in to talking with children and giving them the language they need. This reflects the reality that children can gain as much truth, comfort, instruction and wisdom from Scripture as adults, and we should desire to lead children to these truths and help them find ways to absorb them and apply them to themselves. 
  • Every chapter has a ‘word to parents’, making this book extremely accessible to carers as as well as biblical counsellors. These assist parents to reach out and care for their children, while being aware of their own struggles. 
  • It's a little surprising there is no chapter on depression, or mental health challenges generally.  
  • You shouldn’t read this and then expect to be fully equipped to counsel children. This would be one of many resources you would want to have before you proceed. However, the wisdom and insight contained within will encourage those who counsel children (both ‘officially’ and ‘unofficially’) to consider how the gospel impacts all aspects of a child’s life and circumstances, and how to journey with them to see the Lord is for them and with them. 
  • Similarly, it’s true that God’s word is indeed sufficient, but it needs to be applied wisely, well and appropriately. This book is a help to that end, but not the only resource and skills you would want. Some chapters (eg the one on abuse) really only started to address the issues, rather than being comprehensive. 
In conclusion, this is a good guide for parents, caregivers and counsellors as they reach out to children, helping them to see God is at work, is in control and loves them, through the complexities of life.

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Note: I use the Australian spelling for counsellor myself, but when quoting the book, use the American spelling counselor

Monday, September 7, 2020


DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard, Shelby Abbott

What do you do when you have doubts about your faith? Where do you go?

A few ago, when I was struggling myself, I turned to two places. The first was John 6:68, when Simon Peter says to Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” They encapsulated my belief at the time, which was “Where else is there to go? Even though I am not always sure, Jesus, you are the only answer that makes any sense”. I also read a book by Martin Ayers, Keep the Faith.

Today, I would still recommend people turn to Peter’s words in John, but also to this new book by Shelby Abbott. Abbott works with university students, and has written the very helpful Pressure Points on Navigating Student Stress.

DoubtLess is designed to help young people think through doubt and how to manage it well. For as he notes, all Christians experience doubt, but there are risks when it begins to lead to unbelief, and so doubts need “to be discussed in a safe environment of grace, truth, and love.” What he wants to do is ”give you the tools to develop a healthy sense of godly perception when doubt hits.”

It’s aimed at young adults in academic contexts of “deep thought, intentional study, and challenging opinions”, however, I think older believers will also benefit from Abbott’s wisdom.

Abbott is clear from the outset he is not dealing with apologetics (the answers to the tough questions), but rather the issues behind the questions people have when they are wrestling with doubt.

His encouragement as people deal with doubt is:
“to lean into your relationship with God in the process, instead of succumbing to the temptation to flee from him. Let’s link arms together and move forward, with a spirit of hope and expectancy, as we trust the Lord during the struggle. May our faith in Jesus Christ be anchored and strengthened through our wrestling with doubt.”
In Section One, he considers seven foundational issues to do with doubt. The first is to realise that doubt is biblical and common and a reading of the even just the Psalms demonstrates this. We can be honest with God about our doubts, because he can handle it.
“We can see doubt as if it were like a sporadic visitor who should be a welcome guest in the home of our heart. Guests can come in and shake things up a bit in your home, but then they leave. Doubt should never take up permanent residence in your heart.”
He encourages us to follow through on our questions about doubt, rather than being anxious about them.
“When big questions come up, not panicking about our doubts is an act of faith in and of itself. So take comfort in the fact that God is God and you’re not.”
Feeding your faith rather than your doubts is crucial and so spending time in God’s word, in prayer, in Christian community and trusting the Spirit is at work helps feed our faith while we process doubt. Knowing God, rather than about God is critical:
“But a deep heart relationship with God is one of the biggest buffers against doubt. Even if you don’t know a lot of biblical truths and can’t win an apologetics debate, a life-changing relationship with God is a solid foundation to stand on, and it won’t be swayed because of a lack of debate skills….Similarly, you must stay connected to God’s Word, God’s people, and God’s Spirit because they are your spiritual resources. To proactively neglect them is to walk down the path toward unbelief. When doubt creeps in, don’t let it steer you toward unbelief. Instead, learn to doubt in a healthy way—invest in your personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and let your doubts strengthen your faith instead of weaken it.”
He challenges the unrealistic idea that we can understand everything with absolute certainty. This is arrogance which needs to be tempered with humility. He encourages three ways to manage doubt well, and I agree with his assessment here:
  • Talk with a wiser Christian who will listen and walk with you 
  • Practice habit of good orthodox reading 
  • Be a committed member and regular attender of a local church 
A lack of any of these will contribute to ongoing struggles with doubts.

He concludes by encouraging you to make sure you have two keys truths solid in your heart: the bible’s validity and reliability, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
“Again, the resurrection is the hinge on which the door of our faith swings. There may be many problems in your personal heart and mind that cause you to doubt and question the validity of God, his Word, the Christian faith in general, creationism, eternity, or the existence of heaven and hell, and so on. But if Jesus is alive, those other doubts you’re wrestling with will start to fade in the light of Christ’s victory over death. Sure, there may be certain things about God you still don’t understand or can’t wrap your mind around, but you can always come back to the fact that Jesus is alive.”
Section 2: Everyday Doubts are those which “might not rock your face to the core, but they have the ability to wear you down and erode your faith over time”.

The first is the being willing to even ask questions, rather than fearing of what other will think about you if you voice doubts.
“But there should be no statute of limitations on your questions. Just because you may have been a believer for a long time doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions anymore. The body of Christian community, if anywhere, should be the place where questions are welcomed. The church should invite sincere questions from men and women who are wrestling with doubt—not only so we can point them to resources and pray for them, but also so we can be godly friends to them and encourage them as they doubt. All of us need Christlike friends to lean on when the storms of life shake us up.”
“Christianity has existed for nearly two thousand years, and has never collapsed in on itself because of inquisitive questions. There should be a free and vulnerable environment among the Christians on your campus, in your church, with your believing friends, in your neighborhood, or in your campus ministry. Those are the places where nonbelieving people should feel safe to be skeptics, and in turn see the love of Christ shine brighter than anything they’ve ever seen before. If nonbelievers in your circle of influence continue to experience the kind of setting I just described amid your Christian community, you should get ready—because you’re probably going to see lives transformed and people coming to Christ on a regular basis”
He makes the astute observation that learning to ask questions when you are young teaches that you are still allowed to ask questions when you are older, and life becomes more complex.
“To be a person of faith is to think more and comprehend the realities of truth all around us. Work through, grasp, fathom, discern, consider, understand—think! Doubt will pull you from thought, but faith will lead you to use your God-given brain more deeply.”
Later chapters cover the ability to rest in the truth that God is powerful and loving (he is sovereign, in control and he cares), as well as warning about the tendency to wallow in doubt rather than research it. He notes that for some this excuses people from living faithful, godly lives; choosing to be casual about their relationship with him and his command to live in holiness.
“we need some doubts in our lives. We need to encounter them because when we fight them, we become stronger in our faith. The battle with doubt itself builds up antibodies in our system, preparing us for the certainty of future hardships. The faith that encounters doubt will become a sturdy, long-lasting faith to prop ourselves up against when life attacks.”
He finishes with practical strategies to combat doubt: practice thankfulness, meet with ‘real and right’ people to work them through, continually remind yourself of the gospel and share your faith.

Abbott uses the words of others throughout, and I think has overly relied on Tim Keller. Not that Tim Keller is not great on this topic, I just felt he could have used his on words to the same effect.

All in all, an excellent book for young adults (and others) encouraging them to work through doubts, be honest about them, seek help and guidance in them, and continue to so while growing in their relationship with God, trusting in Jesus and all he has done. Where else have we to go? He truly does have the words of eternal life.

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.