As a biblical counselor, do you ever feel that you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth? I mean that in the best way possible, by the way! Let me give you an example:
- To one counselee you’re trying to encourage them and motivate them to get moving and do something, and then the next counselee comes in and you’re trying to slow him down and help him make purposeful, wise decisions.
- Or one counselee comes in who does not want to open up emotionally and you’re encouraging him that Jesus was full of emotions and showed joy, sadness, anger, etc. at the right time in the proper way. And then the next counselee gets help from Scripture on not being controlled by emotions and not sharing every feeling they have with everyone.
Why is this a normal experience for a biblical counselor? Because the Bible is full of tension, and as counselor and follower of Jesus we need to be very comfortable living in the tension.
What is biblical tension?
When I use the word ‘tension’, here’s what I mean: there are two truths that are both equally true but on the surface they seem opposite and opposed to each other. Some of the biblical tensions we’ll feel and understand right away. Other biblical tensions we might not see or feel the tension because they fit better in our understanding and even the way we’ve lived.
What I want to do is give you some of the biblical tensions that I find are some of the most important and also some of the most misunderstood biblical tensions.
1 – God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
Usually, one of the earliest verses that comes up counseling is Romans 8:28–29 (ESV)
“28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” This passage is very plain about God’s control over all things, and all things being worked together for the good of those who love God. This brings up the age-old question, “if God is in control of everything and he’ll work out everything for my good, then why do I need to deny myself or try to please him? He’ll work it out no matter what I do.” On the surface that’s seems like a logical answer, but the rest of Scripture provides a much different answer.
Take for instance Philippians 2:12–13 (ESV), “12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Apparently, in Paul’s brain and theology, God’s sovereignty is what should motivate me to work out my salvation—to put effort into living for the Lord and obeying his commands. God’s sovereignty is not a reason not to try, but the reason for trying!
This is probably a silly example, but hopefully it will help you see how this plays out in real life. If you grew up playing sports, if you knew you had a good team and you were playing against another really good team, but it was well within the possibility of winning did that motivate you to play hard or to give up out of the gate? What about if we change the scenario. Let’s say your high school team, which is good by high school standards, is going to play the professional team in your state. There’s absolutely no shot of winning. They are going to cream you with one arm tied behind their backs and both eyes closed. Is that going to motivate you to play hard or give up? I think the answer is fairly obvious. Most people will play hard if they believe there is a good possibility of winning. But if there is no shot at winning, most teams will throw in the towel right away.
That’s essentially how God’s sovereignty and our responsibility is supposed to go together. God has told us that we can win against sin, and we can grow and become more like Christ. It’s possible because of God’s sovereignty. That should motivate us to go after growth and pursue the Lord with gusto knowing it will happen.
2 – Consequences of Sin and Forgiveness
Counseling often deals with forgiveness, repentance, and the consequences of sin. One of the tensions that people must wrestle with on both sides—the one who has sinned against someone and the person who has been sinned against—is how does forgiveness and suffering consequences go together?
We are taught thoroughly in the gospel that as soon as we repent and seek the Lord’s forgiveness he grants it to us. His death pays the consequences of our sin, and we receive the righteousness of Christ. And so the thinking goes, if I sin against someone, as soon as I ask their forgiveness then my consequences should also go away.
Understanding this tension in Scripture is extremely important, especially the more serious the sin is. Take for instance, adultery and addiction. Both of those involve serious deceit and a major break in trust. Is the spouse who is caught in adultery right to think that their spouse should drop it and should trust them again simply because they asked forgiveness? Is the harmed spouse to believe that it would honoring to God to fully trust right away? Is the harmed spouse right to believe that they should never trust that person again? I think when it’s put that way, we probably can tell that neither extreme is really the answer. There isn’t space to delve deeply into this issue this blog post, but suffice it to say, a genuinely repentant person accepts the consequences of their sin (cf. Dan. 9:13–14, 2 Sam. 12:13–23, Heb. 12:5–6) and a genuinely forgiving person is willing to allow someone to regain trust (cf. 2 Tim. 4:11 and Acts 15:37–40). There is tension. Important tension, that as a counselor we need to help people rightly understand the tension or we’ll encourage people to forgive when their isn’t genuine repentance and we’ll encourage bitterness in the guise of “tough love” when there should be forgiveness and reconciliation.
3 – Biblical Confrontation and Overlooking Sin
People come to counseling because of problems. Often those problems have to do with their own sin or someone else’s sin against them. And more often than not it’s a combination of both.
The Bible has very clear direction that we should move quickly to solve problems (Matt. 18:15–17, Eph. 4:26–27). When someone sins against us, we should lovingly confront their sin (the Bible has a lot to say on when, how, tone, etc.). And yet, the Bible also says, “…love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8b) and “good sense makes one slow to anger and it is to his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). How are we to make sense of this tension?
As with most questions, I think looking to Jesus is very helpful. When did Jesus confront sin? Who did he confront? And what tone did he confront them with? If we don’t carefully tether our counseling to helping people grow more like Christ then we might encourage people towards cleansing the temple anger and confrontation, when what is actually Christlike would be turning the other cheek.
4 – God is Transcendent and Incomprehensible and He is Our Close Intimate Friend
If we flatten the Bible we will see contradictions as opposed to different perspectives that are vitally important to helping us grow. At times we need to see the awesome, all-powerful, transcendent God who creates without evening breaking a sweat just by speaking (Genesis 1). But at other times we need to know the close, intimate, personal God who breathes life into our lungs and walks with us as our friend (Genesis 2). Depending on the specific counselee and their situation and their struggle you might be trying to help them gain a real fear of the Lord by understanding how big and powerful God is (cf. Isaiah 40:12–31). With another counselee you might be helping them understand the God who walked this earth and touched the sick and let the children sit on his lap. Both perspectives are important. They are both God. God isn’t a balance of huge and omnipotent and close, personal and gentle. He is all of those. We must hold them in tension and help our counselees know how to cling to true God which is all of those.
In counseling I’ll work with people who are angry at God and don’t think that God cares about them. He is powerful and big, but they see themselves as forgotten by God or that God has bigger things on his plate than their issues. That leads towards a lack of prayer and intimacy with God which can bring about a hardness and bitterness towards God. If the opposite is true, that they see God as close and as a friend, but not big and all powerful. They may feel close to God but there might not be much fear of the Lord which means there might not be much turning away from evil (cf. Prov. 3:7).
There are many other tensions in Scripture. We need the whole counsel of God to help people grow and become more like Christ. As a counselor, you’ll need to grow comfortable with Biblical tension and with speaking out of both sides of your mouth…again, I mean that in the best and most Christlike way I possibly can.
Do you feel the tension in the Bible and in counseling? What tensions in Scripture do you see dealt with the most in the counselees you work with?