Step 3: Identify and Prioritize Problems
Aside from helping counselees frame their problems in light of God’s sovereignty, one of the primary objectives of biblical counseling is to bring the Word of God to bear on the problems the counselee is facing in a compassionate manner. If this objective is to be fulfilled, the counselor must first accurately identify the counselee’s problems.
Throughout time people have suffered from any number of spiritual, psychological, mental, emotional, social, and/or bodily problems. All of the problems from which people in the world suffer can ultimately be traced to the Fall that resulted from the sins of our first parents; more particularly, it can be traced to the curse of God which was poured out upon all creation in association with their fall into sin. Although all of the problems with which people suffer are ultimately the result of the Fall, not all of the problems with which Christians wrestle are directly the result of personal sin.
While the model of counseling that IRBC has developed takes into account the fact that a large number of common counseling problems are rooted in unaltered personal sinful behaviors (in the Spiritual Domain) and severe organic problems, such as organ damage and related dysfunctions (in the Bodily Domain), we believe that counselors are wise to evaluate five other areas as well. You were already introduced to the 7 Dominant Domains of Origin for Human Problems™, so we are not going to revisit them here. We do ask, however, that you review earlier issues of The Outlook so they will be better kept in your memory. Properly identifying problems is essential in providing counsel which is sound and balanced.
Once the counselee’s problems are identified, the counselor must decide upon the order in which the problems are to be addressed. The advice offered by Eyrich and Hines is among the most prudent: they suggest prioritizing the counselee’s problems in terms of intensity of importance and the counselee’s capacity to work toward resolving a particular problem at any given moment. They then go on to make a general recommendation, suggesting that counselors deal with the simpler problems first and then move on to the more complex ones (see Eyrich and Hines, 2007, p. 105). If it is determined that your counselee is unsaved, it is important that you make a presentation of the gospel to him or her. Because a large number of Christians have not received any training in presenting the gospel, a simple method is going to be shared.
How to Evangelize
While many of the counselees who will come to you for counseling may well be believers from the church under which your counseling program functions, there will also probably be a fair share of unbelievers (from both inside and outside the church) who are seeking answers to their problems. It is essential, therefore, that we have a good understanding of how to evangelize our counselees, since their being reconciled to God should be the primary concern on our hearts. Evangelism is not always easy or comfortable, but it is necessary. In the next couple of articles, we will look at one example of how one might go about the evangelism process. It is by no means the best or only way to evangelize, but is an example that we hope you can use or adapt to fit the opportunities of evangelism in your life (whether in counseling or beyond) that God provides. The main thing is that we do not squander or hide from these opportunities. Please also note that God the Holy Spirit is the one who works saving grace into an individual’s life, not you; but he can use you greatly to plant a seed that he can cause to grow in his time. What seeds are you planting?
There are many people outside the visible church who suffer from a form of spiritual-based depression that is directly related to their condition of being spiritually dead—these people desperately need to hear the gospel. They need to hear it from the pulpits of the churches they are invited to visit, and from those who fill the pews and carry it to their homes, neighborhoods, places of employment, and the marketplace. They need to hear it, first and foremost, in order to be delivered from eternal condemnation. Hell is a real place where real people who have not placed their trust in Christ will spend eternity. Sometimes it seems we do not think about this fact with much gravity. Many of us often go about our lives caught up in the here and now, rarely giving thought to our unsaved family members, neighbors, friends, acquaintances, and work associates. Our fellow kinsman are traveling on the broad road which leads to destruction; if we are honest, many of us will have to admit that we are complacent, showing little or no concern that the unsaved will spend an eternity in a place where they will, in both their bodies and souls, suffer unimaginable dimensions of pain and soul-wrenching agony.
Such was not the case with the apostle Paul. His heart was heavy for the lost. He said, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3). This man truly cared about the unsaved people in the landscape of his life and by God’s grace was faithful in sharing the gospel with them. Later, in his letter to the church at Corinth he said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16)! Paul was compelled by the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel. Let each of us fervently pray that the Holy Spirit will compel us, as well as each of our respective families and congregations, to present the gospel. Every Christian has a responsibility to share the gospel!
Because a presentation of the gospel is necessary for effective evangelism, and since many do not have a firm idea of how to share the gospel effectively, you will be provided a simple model for sharing it in the next couple of articles. The model which will be shared is designed for the unchurched. Don’t skip over this segment. Learn it and use it to minister to lost souls that are suffering. If you don’t like the model presented, don’t complain about it or criticize it; instead, develop or adopt your own and use it. Don’t make an excuse for failing to fulfill your God-given responsibility.
Before moving forward, a few words need to be said about motivation.1 The Reformed believer’s motivation for sharing the gospel should not ultimately be rooted in the alleviation of depression or any other problem experienced by lost or redeemed souls. The ultimate thrust of our Spirit-initiated motivation to do the work of evangelism or any other work is the glorification of God. Unbelievers, in their rebellion against God, rob him of the glory due him. Our ultimate motivation for evangelizing the lost is that they will be reconciled to God, in order that they might engage in the chief end for which they were created: to glorify God and enjoy him forever. We are serious about sola Dei Gloria!
We are also serious about sola fide! The faith that we received from God was a free gift. By it we were justified apart from any of our works in relation to our salvation. Praise God concerning this truth, for the best of our works are as filthy rags in the sight of a thrice-holy God. But “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Reformed believers are serious about good works, about being obedient to the one who took upon himself their sins and the punishment they deserved for rebelling against a holy God. For it is Jesus Christ our Lord who said, “If you love Me you will obey My commands” (John 14:15). Jesus is the one who gave us the Great Commission. If we truly love him, we will obey him in fulfilling it. Please pray that the Holy Spirit will give you, your church, and all believers a desire to reach the lost with the gospel. Pray also that he will more fully equip all Christians to evangelize and make disciples of all nations, teaching all to obey everything that God has commanded for the glory of God alone.
Finally, as imitators of God (Eph. 5:1–2), particularly of Jesus Christ who is the head of the church, we should all be serious about reflecting his compassion to others in our lives. Our Lord did not isolate himself from those who suffered from forms of spiritual depression or other problems connected to lifestyles which were steeped in sin. He genuinely cared about them and compassionately ministered among and to them saying, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Our Lord cared about hopelessly lost, weary, and depressed souls. Do you? Be honest in your answer! If you answered no, please understand that you are disconnected from our glorious head and desperately need to pray that the Holy Spirit will reconnect you. As you pray to be reconnected, also pray that the Holy Spirit will both draw the unredeemed elect to you as well as use you to search for the lost among those you know so you can share the gospel with them; may it all be done for the sake of the glory of God alone.
Keep in mind that there are many people not only outside the visible church who suffer from a form of spiritual-based depression; there are also people within the church in the same spiritual state. They, along with all of us who have been born again, need to regularly hear the gospel from the pulpit and pew alike. It is like sunshine for the soul. Deprive souls of the gospel and they will become spiritually depressed.
The unregenerate in the church, however, are in a different category than those in the world. They have likely heard the gospel any number of times but have failed to respond to it in faith. Some of these people don’t even know they are spiritually dead and only a heartbeat away from entering a place where they will experience unimaginable agony of body and soul forever. They need a tangible, scripturally rooted evaluation tool with which they can evaluate themselves. In such cases, churched counselees may be encouraged to read a short tract such as Are You Born Again? by J. C. Ryle. In such cases, churched counselees may be encouraged to read a short tract such as Are You Born Again? by J. C. Ryle.
No Habitual Sinning
First of all, John wrote: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin” (1 John 3:9). “Whosoever is born of God sinneth not” (5:18). A person who has been born again, or regenerated, does not habitually commit sin. He no longer sins with his heart and will and whole inclination. There was probably a time when he did not think about whether his actions were sinful or not, and he did not always feel grieved after doing evil. There was no quarrel between him and sin; they were friends. But the true Christian hates sin, flees from it, fights against it, considers it his greatest plague, resents the burden of its presence, mourns when he falls under its influence, and longs to be completely delivered from it. Sin no longer pleases him, nor is it even a matter of indifference to him; it has become a horrible thing which he hates. However, he cannot eliminate its presence within him. If he said that he had no sin, he would be lying (1 John 1:8). But he can say that he hates sin and that the great desire of his soul is not to commit sin at all. He cannot prevent bad thoughts from entering his mind, or shortcomings, omissions, and defects from appealing in both his words and his actions. He knows that “in many things we offend all” (James 3:2). But he can truly say, in the sight of God, that these things cause him grief and sorrow and that his whole nature does not consent to them. What would the apostle say about you? Are you born again?
Believing in Christ
Second, John wrote: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (1 John 5:1). A man who is born again, or regenerated, believes that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour who can pardon his soul, that He is the divine person appointed by God the Father for this very purpose, and beside Him there is no Saviour at all. In himself he sees nothing but unworthiness. But he has full confidence in Christ, and trusting in Him, he believes that his sins are all forgiven. He believes that, because he has accepted Christ’s finished work and death on the cross, he is considered righteous in God’s sight, and he may look forward to death and judgment without alarm. He may have fears and doubts. He may sometimes tell you that he feels as if he had no faith at all. But ask him if he is willing to trust in anything instead of Christ, and see what he will say. Ask him if he will rest his hope of eternal life on his own.
Loving Other Christians
Fourth, John wrote: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14). A man who is born again has a special love for all true disciples of Christ. Like his Father in heaven, he loves all men with a great general love, but he has a special love for those who share his faith in Christ. Like his Lord and Saviour, he loves the worst of sinners and could weep over them; but he has a peculiar love for those who are believers. He is never so much at home as when he is in their company. He feels they are all members of the same family. They are his fellow soldiers, fighting against the same enemy. They are his fellow travelers, journeying along the same road. He understands them, and they understand him. They may be very different from himself in many ways—in rank, in station and in wealth. But that does not matter. They are his Father’s sons and daughters and he cannot help loving them. What would the apostle say about you? Are you born again?
Third, John wrote: “Every one that doeth righteousness is born of Him” (1 John 2:29). The man who is born again, or regenerated, is a holy man. He endeavors to live according to God’s will, to do the things that please God and to avoid the things that God hates. He wishes to continually look to Christ as his example as well as his Saviour and to prove himself to be Christ’s friend by doing whatever He commands. He knows he is not perfect. He is painfully aware of his indwelling corruption. He finds an evil principle within himself that is constantly warring against grace and trying to draw him away from God. But he does not consent to it, though he cannot prevent its presence. Though he may sometimes feel so low that he questions whether or not he is a Christian at all, he will be able to say with John Newton, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.” What would the apostle say about you? Are you born again?
Overcoming the World
Fifth, John wrote: “Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world” (1 John 5:4). A man who is born again does not use the world’s opinion as his standard of right and wrong. He does not mind going against the world’s ways, ideas and customs. What men think or say no longer concerns him. He overcomes the love of the world. He finds no pleasure in things which seem to bring happiness to most people. To him they seem foolish and unworthy of an immortal being. He loves God’s praise more than man’s praise. He fears offending God more than offending man. It is unimportant to him whether he is blamed or praised; his first aim is to please God. What would the apostle say about you? Are you born again?
Keeping Oneself Pure
Sixth, John wrote: “He that is begotten of God keepeth himself” (1 John 5:18). A man who is born again is careful of his own soul. He tries not only to avoid sin but also to avoid everything which may lead to it. He is careful about the company he keeps. He knows that evil communications corrupt the heart and that evil is more catching than good, just as disease is more infectious than health. He is careful about the use of his time; his chief desire is to spend it profitable. He desires to live like a soldier in an enemy country—to wear his armor continually and to be prepared for temptation. He is diligent to be watchful, humble, prayerful man. What would the apostle say about you? Are you born again?
These are the six great marks of a born-again Christian. There is a vast difference in the depth and distinctness of these marks in different people. In some they are faint and hardly noticeable. In others they are bold, plain and unmistakable, so anyone may read them. Some of these marks are more visible than others in each individual. Seldom are all equally evident in any one person. But still, after every allowance, here we find boldly painted six marks of being born of God.
How should we react to these things? We can logically come to only one conclusion—only those who are born again have these six characteristics, and those who do not have these marks are not born again. This seems to be the conclusion to which the apostle intended us to come. Do you have these characteristics?
In the next article we will discuss a simple method of presenting the gospel. Begin praying that God will make you desirous to share the gospel.
1. Portions of the following three paragraphs come from concepts presented in Reformed Evangelism: A Challenge to Faithfulness by Paul T. Murphy on the website entitled The Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology; D. James Kennedy, Evangelism Explosion (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1975), 89; William Fay, Share Jesus Without Fear (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1999), 33.
Dr. Jeff L. Doll is director at The Institute for Reformed Biblical Counseling, director at The Shepherd’s Way Biblical Counseling Center in Holland, MI, and pastor of biblical counseling at Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI.