“For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).
After 70 years in exile, when Israel was returning to Judah, Ezra was charged with re-establishing the interpretation and teaching of Mosaic Law throughout the nation. In this verse, the pattern that Ezra follows to prepare himself for this task is a wonderful model for all believers. He begins by diligently “setting his heart” to know God and His Word through careful study, and then applies the Word to his life (he practices it). Then he teaches others what the Scriptures say and how to live in faithful obedience to them.
Study, Practice, and Teach
On this side of the cross, the Great Commission given by Jesus Christ to His church is to make and nurture disciples of Christ (Matthew 28:18-20). So we are to preach the gospel, calling people to confess Christ unto salvation. Then we help them mature in their Christ-likeness by teaching them to understand, apply, and obey the Word. And this this isn’t just carried out by church staff and missionaries—it applies to the entire Church (you and me).
A big part of nurturing disciples is performed in small groups of individuals. In this context, when we speak of “counseling”, we are talking about having conversations with other believers where we lovingly and humbly give advice on how to grow as a believer. And for counseling conversations to be “biblical counseling”, they must be firmly rooted in Scripture and ministered accurately and appropriately (2nd Timothy 2:15).
All of us in the Church are called to counsel/disciple one another, and all Christians are matured by the Holy Spirit through the Word (John 17:17). So how do we go about preparing ourselves to do this effectively? Like Ezra, we study, practice, and teach.
I was introduced to biblical counseling in the early 1990s as a newly-married man and college student. Initially, I was not taught about counseling in a classroom (that came later), but I first experienced biblical counseling as a counselee with my wife, Carmen. Looking back, the counseling instruction I received (both informally and formally) has had a profound and wonderful impact on my life and my family. Carmen and I are very grateful for how the Lord used this ministry to transform our struggling marriage.
Today, at Grace Community Church in Huntsville, AL, we are members of a church body where biblical counseling is also an integrated part of our culture. What I mean by that is since every ministry we have at Grace is tied to the Great Commission, biblical counseling and discipleship are an integral part of who we are as a church, not simply one of a list of ministries that we do. For us, biblical counseling is “a targeted form of discipleship, an intensely-focused and personal ‘one-another’ ministry aimed at the serious development of serious disciples.”[i]
To do this well, it also means we are continually engaged in equipping the saints to counsel one another. Like with Ezra, that begins with personal holiness. To be an effective discipler, there is simply no substitute for being a godly man or woman, and no amount of training, coursework, or certification processes can do this for you. They can make you smarter, but not wiser or godlier. That takes each individual sowing seeds of practice and discipline that are cultivated into spiritual maturity by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Hebrews 5:14 helps us understand this concept, “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”
If you want to be equipped to serve your church family and community through biblical counseling, you desire a very good thing. Let me suggest four broad areas for you to consider as part of that process.
Demonstrate Godly Character That can be Readily Affirmed by Your Church Leadership and Others in the Church
Your church leaders are held accountable by God to shepherd the flock of God “among you” (1st Peter 5:1-4). This is a very serious responsibility, and the leadership are to set the example for the flock by how they counsel and disciple others. Therefore, when a lay person engages in counseling, they do so as “assistants” to the church leadership in this capacity of shepherding the flock. Talk to your leaders and other mature believers in your church family about your character qualities. Here are some good questions to ask:
- Can you affirm these qualities in my life?
- Mature believer.
- Striving in godliness.
- Servant of God, not man.
- Demonstrates biblical fidelity (i.e., when people come to you for counsel, they get counsel that clearly originates from and is rooted in Scripture).
- Accurately handles God’s Word.
- Do I submit to the leadership in such a way that they can keep watch over my soul with joy (Hebrews 13:17)?
- Do you trust me to tend to your sheep?
- Can you readily see evidence that I am actively serving, loving, and edifying my church family (even when my service is not very visible to others)?
- Do you observe that others in my church family actively recognize wisdom in my life and genuine compassion for others?
- Are they generally compelled to come to me for wisdom and prayer?
- Are they generally comfortable entrusting me with vulnerable truths about their lives?
- Would you say that I am a good counselee (i.e., that I am teachable)?
- Where do I need to grow the most?
At Grace Church, you can obtain lots of training in counseling and become very skilled, but if you fail in the above areas, you are not yet ready to be entrusted with the hearts of the precious people in our church family.
Be a Student of Theology and Counseling Methodologies
Biblical counseling is inseparable from theology. You can learn all the best techniques for counseling methodologies (and you should), but without sound theology guiding every aspect of your counseling content, you are not leading your counselee well. We are not in the business of merely handing out “tips and tricks”—we are helping believers take steps towards Christ-likeness.
At a minimum, a good discipler should be articulate in biblical concepts like hope, love, joy, justification, sanctification, repentance, confession, temptation, grace, forgiveness, guilt, faith, obedience, humility, pride, sin, and wisdom, just to name a few. You also need to build skill in how you counsel. Consider these six key facets of the counseling process:
- Build a loving relationship: simply put, the world of secular counseling tells us to maintain a “professional distance”, but the Bible tells us to love people. The “one another” commands given in scripture require personal relationships of caring, compassion, and speaking the truth in love.
- Give biblical hope: we all need biblical hope, including your counselee. And for all Christians, hope is not a thing, statistics from a diagnosis, or a circumstance—hope is a Person, Jesus Christ (cf. Hebrews 6:19-20).
- Gather data: a good counselor knows how to listen and draw out what he or she needs to better understand how the counselee thinks, desires, and acts (cf. Proverbs 18:13,15,17). This, of course, gets better with practice.
- Discern the problem: interpreting observations and data is where biblical counseling takes a sharp turn away from secular theories about human behavior. This is where sound theology helps you convert observations into biblical insight about what really makes the counselee “tick”. Good biblical insight begets good biblical solutions and application.
- Give biblical instruction: teach the Word and show how it specifically speaks to your counselee’s condition. God’s Word is relevant for every person at every time. They need to see their condition through God’s eyes and through faith and obedience, align their goals with His goals.
- Give homework: according to what Scripture teaches about how to grow and change, growing in godliness doesn’t happen because we have a 1-hour conversation with someone once per week. We also don’t want to be guilty of instruction without showing them how to apply it, how to mortify sinful habits, and how to build new, godly habits. Like my youngest son once said to my wife, “Mom, I know I’m not supposed to be angry. I just don’t know how not to be angry.”
Observe and Spend Time with Excellent Biblical Counselors
One of the best ways to learn how to be a good biblical counselor is to spend a lot of time with a good biblical counselor. Ask to observe them as they counsel. Engage them in case study discussions, etc. And if there is not one near you, take advantage of the growing resources from the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC)[ii], Faith Church in Lafayette, IN[iii], and the Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship (IBCD).[iv]
Any skill requires practice. Take what you are learning and minister it to others. I can tell you that my skills in early years of counseling were awkward and bumpy at best. If I had delayed that process by 3 years in order to study more, I am pretty sure I still would have been awkward and bumpy, but just with 3 more years of knowledge added to it. Study and practice are both necessary; you cannot substitute one for the other.
This equipping and maturing is still an ongoing process for me, and I’ve been studying and practicing biblical counseling for over 25 years. If you want to learn more on this topic, please visit ACBC’s website for training, resources, recommended reading, and a well-defined process towards certification.
In fact, the final phase of the ACBC certification process involves a “Fellow” to oversee around 50 hours of you counseling others. For me, having the undivided attention and mentorship of a highly skilled biblical counselor and a man who cared about me, and (most importantly) who loved the Lord, was priceless.
[i] Tautges, Paul, Counsel One Another: A Theology of Personal Discipleship, p. 19.