Three goals to keep in mind
Remembering these goals throughout the process of pastoral counseling will prevent you from going astray or lacking direction. To use a building metaphor, they are like the construction drawings that show what needs to be accomplished. There are three simple goals in offering pastoral counsel.
1. Address the Presenting Problem.
First, and perhaps most obvious, we want to address the problem. Counseling is by nature problem-oriented. Like all other ministries, it is Christ-centered and word-driven, but counseling typically comes about as a response to some area of trouble. The regular ministries of the word are like gas stations and oil-change centers—they fuel and maintain your vehicle.
Written as a step-by-step guide for pastors, this practical book provides an overview of the pastoral counseling process and offers suggestions for cultivating a culture of discipleship in a church.
But when the Ford breaks down, you take it to the shop. So also Christians who sit under the preaching of the Word week to week do not usually visit the pastor’s office until something is wrong in their lives. Pastors get to help struggling people respond wisely to their problems: anger needs control (Eph. 4:26); sorrow needs comfort (2 Cor. 1); fear needs rest (Ps. 56:3–4). Couples in debt need budget goals and financial restraint; teenagers who cut themselves need behavioral strategies to stop; professionals addicted to pain pills need medical attention. Pastors have to tackle problems practically. People need thoughtful advice for real-life struggles.
But practical strategies by themselves are not enough. Counseling that is truly Christian will have much more: The person and work of Christ will be its theological and practical center. Christ and his gospel must be the foundation, means and end of our counseling. If by the end of your time together you have not helped this person look more like Christ, then what you’ve done is not Christian counseling.
2. Display the Relevance of the Gospel.
Second, we want the person to see the relevance of the gospel. People live right only when they are made right through Christ. Their deepest values, their hidden longings and their understanding of the world, when not aligned with God’s, will result in continual frustration and dysfunction. Their perspective on the problem will likely be flat-out earthly.
But the gospel is relevant because it reframes all earthly trouble with an eternal perspective. The Word of God exposes the heart in ways nothing else can, surgically bringing to light what is unhealthy (Heb. 4:12–13) so that what is out of order may be put right (Heb. 12:12–14). Faith is the means by which a person receives the righteousness of Christ, such that the quality and character of one’s heart and life are transformed (Rom. 1:16–17; 6:22–23). Even when faith in the word of Christ is difficult, a person will always find Christ more than trustworthy with his or her life (Mark 9:24).
We need to rely on the gospel like this throughout our lives. The gospel is always relevant, and one of your goals as a counselor is to make this fact as apparent as possible. You do this by exposing the self-reliant lies we all tell ourselves: “I can fix this on my own.” “Maybe this gospel stuff is helpful at church, but it won’t make a real difference where I need it most in life.” “If Christ loved me, he’d make this problem go away.” “This is just too hard. I give up and don’t care anymore.”
The pastor should toss a grenade into the middle of such thinking. He must insist that problems in life are occasions for troubled persons to hear the beckoning voice of Christ, neither insisting on their own solutions nor giving up in hopelessness. None of these things will accomplish the greater gospel reliance that God desires in the hearts of those he loves.
3. Help People to Grow in Christlikeness.
Third, and most important, we want to help people to grow to be more like Christ (Eph. 4:22–24; 5:1). Human beings were created to image God. The more we are conformed to his image, the closer we reflect God’s ideal for human life (Rom. 8:29–30). As a person is sanctified, he will put off soul-withering pursuits and put on those that aim at Christlikeness. Remember, Christ is both the means and the goal of counseling.
We realize that this third goal may not initially sound all that helpful to someone in the throes of depression or trying to recover from the death of her child. Your challenge as a pastor is to show others in compelling ways why this goal—a life conforming to Christ—is much better than their immediate desire for happiness or release from grief. While we certainly labor for the depressed to have lightened spirits and the grieved to find relief, we don’t stop there. We want them to see the glories of pursuing and becoming more like Christ. For believer and unbeliever alike, a pastor’s counsel is simple: To be like Christ is to be most alive (John 10:10).
Honestly, this makes the effectiveness of counseling harder to gauge. How do you precisely measure conformity to Christ? Certainly there are indicators in changed desires and behaviors, in different thought patterns and purified concerns. But it’s not like painting a fence, where you can see the color of your progress and know exactly how much further you have to go. The main confidence of the pastor is that if a person belongs to Christ, God has pledged himself to the task of renewing him or her. This was the apostle Paul’s reason for continuing his labors: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). It is our reason as well.