This is the first in a series of answers to questions generated by you.  And this is a frequently asked question.  How do I bring the Bible into pastoral counseling?  Here are some (rather diverse!) things I hear from pastors:

I learned in seminary that I shouldn’t use the Bible – that it can be dangerous, misquoted, improperly proof-texted, or hidden behind when we feel like we have nothing else to offer.   

– I learned to refer.  I was told that counseling wasn’t my specialization or training, and that I should see people for no more than 1-3 times and then refer out. 

– I learned to be suspicious of psychology, and bring Scripture to counseling as it is profitable for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

– I learned to be suspicious of therapists, who disregard Scripture and affirm humanistic solutions for spiritual issues.

And so, what I hear from pastors ranges from one spectrum to the other.  The common denominator, however, is that I find relatively few pastors who know how to answer this question or worse, how to practice pastoral care in a way that is deeply biblical.

First, I don’t like the question.  How do I use Scripture?  It’s the wrong question.  We can ask, “How do I use an empty chair technique?” or “How might I use my own story to build trust?”  No, we don’t use Scripture.  We live in it, we breathe it, we are immersed in it (see Eugene Peterson’s Eat this Book).  I suspect a fish wouldn’t ask, “How do I use the water in my tank?” 

Or, perhaps a better way is to say that we faithfully improvise the Story in our present day (see NT Wright, Kevin VanHoozer, or Samuel Wells on this).  Or, as missiologist David Bosch once said, “(Jesus) inspired his disciples to prolong the logic of his own action in creative ways amidst new and different historical circumstances in which the community would have to proclaim the Gospel.”  Our pastoral care and counseling is immersed in the Story.  We live out that Story in the present not by mere repetition, but through holy imagination.  Walsh and Keesmaat say it well: “If we are to faithfully live out the biblical drama, then we will need to develop the imaginative skills necessary to improvise on this cosmic stage of creational redemption. It would be the height of infidelity and interpretive cowardice to simply repeat verbatim… the earlier passages of the play.”  Thus, lifting verses out of their narratives as a source of comfort, however well-intentioned, runs a high risk of violating this important pastoral hermeneutic. 

Second, as a Calvinist and Kuyperian, I’m convinced that God’s speech “pours forth” (Ps. 19:2) both in his Word and his World.  Wisdom in pastoral care means swimming in the waters of both.  It sometimes means discerning the foul waters of both, too.  An obvious and silly ‘foul water’ example is one in which a pastor counsels a woman traumatized by abuse to “be anxious for nothing.”  This is a common example of lifting a text from its narrative context to make a point.  Equally as irresponsible is the response, “Just take a pill.”  No, our work is far more nuanced.  Immersed in the ‘texts’ of both Scripture and creational psychological wisdom, we’re able to faithfully improvise in the very unique situation we find ourselves in. 

Third, since I swim in the waters of God’s poured forth speech, I’m not required to simply react to my traumatized client with a verse, but seek to understand her unique story and be with her in it as a faithful presence.  In entering her story, I can begin to see how The Story intersects with it, deconstructs it, re-narrates it, holds it…I could go on with a hundred phrases.  And I could list a hundred different ways of being a conduit of God’s poured forth speech in words or silence, in an artful psychological technique or through a story (see 2 Sam. 12 and how Nathan used a story to awaken David).  In engaging and entering into a person’s story, I’ll see and feel and experience certain patterns and themes and rhythms which are unique to this person (highlight those last four words!) and I’ll be able to be the very presence of Christ for her in this time and in this place.

Fourth, as a pastor, I’ll commit to being that presence how I can, and it’s my job to invite her into the many means of grace, which include our sessions, worship, spiritual disciplines, psychiatric care, spiritual direction, and more…all thoughtfully considered together in light of her story.  The frequent counsel to pastors to refer after 3 sessions may be wise in once sense, but pastors need to continue to be a faithful presence in an ongoing way.  In today’s radically psychologized world, I find that many pastors are simply anxious.  They feel as if they’ll say something wrong or make a mistake, in large part, because their seminary psych professor told them they would.  Sure you will!  I do all the time!  But as you fumble, you get to own up to it and repent.  The smart thing is to not go it alone.  Seek regular pastoral supervision from a more experienced pastor, perhaps with some counseling expertise.  Read broadly.  Be familiar with important works on counseling ethics.  But, remain their pastor.  Too many clients I’ve seen either felt abandoned by their pastor who referred them, or in other cases afraid of the pastor who wouldn’t refer because of the ‘evils’ of counseling.  Pastors, take the approach of partnering with a therapist, and building trust with him/her.  You need each other.         

Finally, I’ve found that opening an actual Bible (yes, you heard it right), in certain situations, has been helpful.  It’s always a gut call, and I do it attempting to use Scripture in a way that intersects with their story, re-narrates or makes sense of their story, and reflects faithful improvisation in my unique present context. More often than not, I’ll go to a familiar story or passage.  On the wall of my office is Rembrandt’s great Return of the Prodigal Son painting, and this provides a nice intersection to engage within a story of Scripture that I believe has the capacity to re-narrate our stories.  I’ve read portions of Ezekiel 16 with women who’ve experienced abuse and need to experience God’s tender care for them.  I’ve highlighted important texts/doctrines when it seems appropriate.  For example, it became transformative for one client who experienced God as distant to really get that she is God’s dwelling place, his temple presence.  She became an avid reader of St. Teresa’s Interior Castle as a means of embracing this.  I’ve re-told Bible stories slant, or read from The Message, to re-tell a story in a new way.  I’ve read a lament, and asked a client to write her lament.  And more.  When we know our people (our parishioners, our clients), we can make this call.  There is no formula, no recipe.  There is YOU, a soul steeped in God’s poured forth speech in Word and world, providentially intersecting with a unique image-bearer, listening to the Spirit’s guidance in this time and place as you faithfully improvise in your pastoral care.

Well, that’s a start.  I hope it’s helpful to you.  Please be in touch via Twitter, Facebook, or comments below with more questions…

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