Journey to Biblical Counseling: An Interview with David Powlison (Part 2)

In yesterday’s post, we introduced you to Dr. David Powlison of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation, a key leader in the present day, church-based counseling movement. Here’s the continuation of David’s 35-year journey in the world of biblical counseling.Powlison

PT: David, your writings have significantly impacted me in the affirmation of the view of counseling as part of the community of the faith, which of course includes the local church. What do you see as the relationship of biblical counseling to the local church?
DP: The local church is the natural home for all ministries. As such, there are numerous advantages to counseling being localized in the church. Often times the disadvantages get stressed, or the failures of the church get highlighted. But, in principle, the advantages are staggering. I wrote an article recently, “The Pastor as Counselor,” and one thing I discuss is the many advantages that a pastor (or parishioner, elder, wise woman, etc.) has over the office-bound counselor, which is the secular paradigm. In your own church you know people. You have seen them in action. Perhaps you know their parents and friends. You see how they treat their kids. You know how they handle themselves in a group. You have “back-story.” You know what kind of nurture they’ve had. You can invite yourself into their home. You can initiate the relationship, and express your concern. In contrast, office-bound counseling is passive, always only on the receiving end of inquiry or referral. There is an active quality to counseling ministry as we conceptualize it in the church. I see the church flourishing as it becomes the place where counseling best flourishes.

One premise of biblical counseling is that people are not just “problems.” They are not defined by a “diagnosis.” People have gifts and callings. They have a new identity in Christ. The most limited human being, in terms of physical or mental abilities, has been given a gift, a part in the greater whole. Most people have helping gifts. Biblical counseling is not just a strategy for coping with your emotional or relational problems. It is a call to love. It’s a call to serve others. In the church, everyone has a role to play. Jack Miller told a story that I will never forget. His sister-in-law was mentally disabled and lived with him and his wife. As a result, “Aunt Barbara” was a natural part of the church body. One day, Jack had grumbled about the rainy weather on the way to church. Aunt Barbara, in her simple 5-year old way, said to him “But Jack, the sun is always shining. It’s just behind the clouds.” God used that like a lightning bolt. God is always shining, no matter what His providence is. Out of the mouth of a woman with a 5-year old mental life came words of faith that blessed the pastor of a church of 800 people. That’s the body of Christ!

One thing I’d add is that I do not believe para-church ministries are per se wrong. For example, educational institutions, campus ministries, and military chaplaincies do para-church Christian works. There are pitfalls that any para-church ministry must avoid. You must guard against generating an autonomous existence, and you must genuinely serve the church. I think there are particular things that a counseling ministry like CCEF, in its teaching, counseling, and publishing, is able to do that no local church can do exactly. But that said, our work submits to a high view of the centrality of the local church as God’s primary point of interest and activity.

PT: Is Biblical Counseling for every believer? Why or why not?
DP: Biblical counseling is for every believer. All ‘counseling’ means is having wise, candid, fruitful conversations about things that really matter. Let every word out of your mouth be constructive, according to the need of the moment, so that it may give grace to those who hear (Eph 4:29). That is biblical counseling and that is the charge of being a Christian. We all need it, and we all need to do it. The alternative is to have foolish, evasive, barren conversations.

PT: If you had the power to immediately change one thing in the “Biblical Counseling Movement,” what would it be?
DP: I wish that the church—wherever and everywhere the true church is—would really see what biblical counseling can be. A vision for biblical wisdom on the tongue, with its constructive and nourishing power, is something that every Christian should leap to embrace. That is my one wish for change: that the whole church would embrace biblical counseling as our birthright, our heritage, our calling. We’ve got something far better than what the world has to offer. That does not mean we always live up to our vision, but we have the best when it comes to “curing the soul” of what goes wrong.

PT: If someone wanted to be equipped to better serve the Lord through the personal ministry of the Word, which we call “biblical counseling,” what do you suggest should be their first few steps?
DP: I’ll come at this question in what may seem to be an odd way. I think that if we could learn how to make prayer requests dealing with matters of consequence, and then learn to pray for each other about the actual struggles of our souls, then we have made a huge start at becoming effective counselors. The Bible’s prayers are rarely about health, travel mercies, finances, finding a job, or the salvation of the unsaved. Of course, these are not illegitimate things to pray for, but these dominate most church prayer requests. In contrast, the driving focus of biblical prayer is that God would show himself, that we would know him, that we would love people. When we are asked “How may I pray for you?,” we could respond in a manner like this: “I have been inattentive and irritable to those nearest and dearest to me. Pray that I would awaken and turn from my preoccupation with my work, recreations, health problems, or money. Ask God to help me pay attention to him and take my family to heart.” This kind of prayer gets at things that matter both immediately and eternally. It gets at the daily version of the issues that serious counseling deals with.

When people start to identify where they really need God’s help, then they are already both seeking and becoming biblical counselors. We step into reality. Most prayer requests ask for God to give external blessings. Biblical prayer, like counseling, deals with God’s changing us. Retooling this is an accessible way for believers in a church to begin to teach each other to talk about the things that really matter, the things that are on God’s heart. We need to study together what the Bible says about prayer—not just about how often to pray, or the techniques and elements of prayer. What is the Lord’s Prayer asking for? What are the Psalms asking for? This is what we ought to be asking for. This is what people really need. How can we personalize this, and operationalize it into each other’s lives? As we do it, we start to become attuned to the dynamics of reality. And if we are in touch with reality then we are in touch with what really matters. The Lord is about what matters. We will then start to create conversations and accountability that is counseling-oriented. That is often where I start.

PT: That is great! It is a totally unexpected answer, but I love it.
DP: I thought you might, Paul. I think you and I have a certain simpatico vision for what this whole Christian life is meant to be!

PT: Thank you, David, for sharing your heart, life, and biblical vision with us. May the Lord continue to bless your ministry for His glory and the good of His church!

To learn more about David’s continuing contribution to biblical counseling,

Read our previous Journey to Biblical Counseling: An Interview with Bob Kellemen.

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