You know how magicians are implicitly but unequivocally covenanted in an unwritten “magician’s code” to never reveal their tricks? And if they ever were to expose the secrets of “magic” they would become anathema to the magician’s guild? (I don’t know if such a guild exists but it should.) Well, I feel somewhat similarly with what I am about to divulge — like I’m breaching some sort of “pastoral code” or something. But I will be honest with you: I have a “love-hate” relationship with the sundry of colloquial notions and presuppositions concerning “pastoral counseling.”
There is a bevy of expectations whenever anyone is desirous of counseling from their pastor. The sort at which I bristle is the sort that approaches counseling sessions as cure-alls for the struggles or issues with which they are dealing. I get the sense that some folks still operate under the conception that a pastor has somehow tapped into the “secret of the Christian life” and is, therefore, able to apply ample dosages of God’s elixir that will alleviate life’s difficulties. The fact of the matter is that there are no silver bullet fixes for life’s problems. A pastor cannot “sprinkle a little Jesus” onto marital strife, lustful thoughts, coarse language, self-concerned spouses, etc. in the course of a counseling session and abate all the wreckage caused by sin. Thinking otherwise will undoubtedly lead to feelings of unmet expectations and even disillusionment with the faith if “things don’t get better.” What happens if after 6 or even 18 months of counseling, the conflict between a husband and wife isn’t receding? Does that mean the pastor’s counsel is wrong? Does that mean that the gospel isn’t real, isn’t effectual? Not at all. Instead, I think that merely reveals that the collateral brokenness of life “East of Eden” is as rampant as ever.
A pastor’s counsel is not a formula by which sin, sorrow, suffering, and strife can go away. And I would go so far to say that any pastor who says that “doing these 6 things” or “following this 5-week plan” or what have you will make your struggles dissipate is not functioning as a pastor. He’s a “life coach.” And a coach is different than a shepherd. There is coming a day when sin, sorrow, suffering, and strife will be no more — when all of that will be subsumed in the incandescence of King Jesus’s presence. But that day is not yet, not now. The key, then, for pastors (and those being counseled by them) is to become increasingly arrested by the “right-now-power” of that bright future promised by the Savior.
Thus, in contradistinction to the auspices of “life coaching” that masquerades as “pastoral counseling” is the sort of counseling with which I do agree and strive to engage and emulate within my own ministry context. It’s the sort of pastoral counseling that is embodied in intense, individualized discipleship, the primary function of which is to get the counselee(s) to see Jesus. It necessarily involves “helping bewildered, wounded, weak, neglected, discouraged, and wandering sheep locate their individual life stories within the trajectory of God’s overarching story of redemptive history,” writes Dr. Robert Evans.1 Imperative to pastoral counseling is getting people to see and understand how the gospel permeates and powers their life in every way, in every relationship.
In the chapter on “Pastoral Counseling” in The Pastor’s Book, Dr. Evans posits that counseling endeavors that are carried out by pastors differ from similar psychotherapy sessions because they seek to “understand the present in ways that will affect the future.”2 On this point, I disagree. I actually think it is the pastor’s job to help the counselee understand the present in light of the future. Or, better yet, because of the future. The gist of pastoral counseling is bringing to bear the concrete certainty of the future Jesus has bought and paid for with his own blood into the present day. It is suffusing and saturating every session and conversation with the hope that dripped from Golgotha’s cross into the mud of Calvary’s mount. It is letting the immutability of Jesus’s eschatological kingdom inform all the doubts, decisions, and distressing situations we are experiencing in the here and now.
Accordingly, pastoral counseling is a ministry of the pastorate that I don’t think can have a hard or rigid timeline by which to abide. The naked reality of post-Genesis 3 existence necessitates that the structure of pastoral counseling be somewhat amorphous, even if the content is resolute, fixed, and sure. Determining the “right” or “appropriate” duration for pastoral counseling is, I think, something that only the pastor can discern. I do not think there is a definitive line that can be drawn or determined without apprehending the contextual wisdom of the specific situation that is being counseled. Either those being counseled are open to confronting their sin and accepting the gospel’s influence over their lives or they are not — at which time the counsel has in all likelihood run its course. Oddly enough, I think pastoral counseling should take a few more cues from hospital visitation.
Making a hospital visit can be an incredibly ominous task. There is something about the way hospitals feel and smell that almost immediately raises the tension, lending to a gathering of uncomfortable, anxious emotions that ball themselves up in the pit of your gut. Yet, by the same token, the sterility and suspense of the hospital room is prime ground for gospel conversation precisely because there is no ground which is more leveling than the floor of a hospital. It brings the fragility and finality of humanity to the fore and precludes any pretense of strength and self-sufficiency. In those moments, the ones on the hospital bed are forced to confront the finiteness of their own existence. Which is exactly that with which the gospel has come to contend. For the (physically or spiritually) healthy and sick, the gospel’s pronouncement is that for as tight as you might grip your life, life isn’t in your control. There’s a better Ruler who overrules any control you think you have, and his name is Jesus. And whether you’re (physically or spiritually) healthy or sick, he has come to evidence himself as one true Lord of your life. (Mk 1:14–15; Eze 34:1–31) He has come to remedy sin’s suffering by suffering himself.
In that way, then, “a hospital room is where you see theology at its finest,” asserts Dr. Obbie Todd, “not in polemical treatises or in catchy acronyms or in Facebook articles, but in fervent prayer and worship.” Hospital visits don’t require long, drawn-out stays. Sermons need not follow you into the ICU. You aren’t there to pontificate, you’re there to tender grace to the needy. The best course of action when visiting anyone in a hospital is to listen, pray, and reaffirm the good news of Jesus Christ which is the remission of sins to those who believe. Such is why visiting the ill or dying in the hospital is central to pastoral ministry. It is, perhaps, the best snapshot of your role as a shepherd. (Jn 10:1–14) And what good is a shepherd that doesn’t smell like sheep? In On Being a Pastor, Derek Prime and Alistair Begg concur:
Visiting enhances our preaching in that it helps us appreciate how our fellow believers think, their problems, and their temptations. When we preach to those we know well, and whose situations we understand, we apply God’s truth more relevantly.3
At the end of the day, pastoral counseling and visiting comes down to one thing: the gospel. It’s a matter of declaring and demonstrating the gospel and its omnipotent pervasiveness in the Christian life. There isn’t a situation or relationship imaginable that cannot be touched with the gospel’s healing balm. “Regardless of how bleak or desperate things may appear,” Dr. Evans writes, “no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace.”4 And if I don’t believe that, if that isn’t my conviction, then I, too, am an anathema — I’m worthless concerning the faith. (2 Tm 3:8) But such is the point of counseling and visiting. It is being where your people are, learning their context, putting yourself in their shoes, and showing them that Jesus has never left their side. And he never will.
Robert W. Evans, “Pastoral Counseling,” in R. Kent Hughes and Douglas Sean O’Donnell, The Pastor’s Book: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide to Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 471–72.
Derek J. Prime and Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work (Chicago: Moody, 2004), 143.