Recently I had the opportunity to read and review the book Counseling the Hard Cases.1 This book places the biblical counseling movement on display as it reports the process and outcomes of real-life counseling cases. As a biblical creationist, I was continually encouraged to find the counselors’ dedication to the sufficiency of Scripture for helping real people with real problems. While preparing a review of this book as a graduate student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, I became even more aware of the consistency between the positions of biblical creation and biblical counseling concerning the authority of God’s Word and its sufficiency in the lives of all believers.
Biblical Authority and Medical Science
I noticed the strong correlations between biblical creationists and biblical counselors in the first chapter of Counseling the Hard Cases. Both positions face accusations revolving around the nature of authority and science. For example, many “Christian counselors” are convinced that the use of such treatments as hypnosis or psychotropic drugs are based on strong scientific research and analysis.2 Persuaded that this research comes from an authoritative source, they then integrate it into their counseling methodology.
Like most “Christian counselors,” trained biblical counselors typically take great care to refer counselees to doctors for necessary medical diagnosis and treatment of their physical ailments. However, for spiritual issues the biblical counselor seeks to ensure that Scripture is seen as the supreme authority and sufficient to help all believers deal with trials (suffering) or sin in their lives. Biblical counselors also should acquaint themselves with the research related to such things as medication, noting which recommendations are based upon repeatable, testable observations and which are based on assumptions influenced by a secular worldview. This is also why biblical counselors prefer to work in partnership with physicians who are Bible-believing Christians. In recognition of secular worldview influences in the medical community, many biblical counselors have armed counselees with questions to ask their practitioners who prescribe medications such as anti-depressants. Especially if a diagnosis is as broad as the term “chemical imbalance,” biblical counselors will encourage questions such as the following:
- What tests were performed to prove that the problem exists?
- What proof do you have that the problem you discovered is not merely a symptom of a deeper problem?
- What proof do you have that the medication you are prescribing truly corrects the problem?
Properly Diagnosing the Problem and Its Remedy
In today’s world it seems nearly every social or relational problem known to man is categorized by a descriptively named disorder and often treated by some psychotropic drug. In many cases, counselors and others re-label sinful responses to situations in a way that removes personal responsibility. For example, lashing out at your children in anger is now known as Intermittent Explosive Disorder, and “it’s not your fault” that you act the way you do. If your son consistently disobeys your authority as his parent, he will likely be diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. These disorders are often depicted as villains maliciously attacking their victims as if they were a force unto themselves. When seen in this light, these problems become the cause of debilitation for many people who find themselves lost in a hopeless dependence on secular psychological techniques and prescription medication.
This wrong perception of relational problems that are ultimately rooted in sinful thoughts and behaviors has sadly become commonplace even in the church. Many counseling practitioners have attempted to make a compatible partnership between Christian doctrine and worldly philosophies in the diagnosis and treatment of the human soul.3
Scripture Is Sufficient to Help with the Problems of Life
To address this issue, Counseling the Hard Cases reports on real-life case studies from eleven experienced biblical counselors. Compiled by editors Stuart Scott and Heath Lambert, the introduction clearly sets forth the theme for this collection of biblical counseling case studies.4 In the development of the modern biblical counseling movement over the last fifty years, persuasive evidence shows that “Scripture is comprehensively sufficient to do ministry with people experiencing profound difficulties in their lives” (p. 23).
While the sufficiency of Scripture in counseling is the basic thesis of the book, in each of the hard cases the editors have been careful to display this concept practically in the lives of real people. Even for those who are not skeptical about biblical counseling, the results of these hard cases were amazing and gave great cause for rejoicing in the redeeming grace found in the Cross of Christ.
The biblical counseling movement has been criticized by those who are skeptical of the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling. Secular psychology understandably views the Bible as irrelevant, but many “Christian counselors” acknowledge the Bible’s relevance yet deny its sufficiency in the way that they practically advise their counselees. We expect people with a purely naturalistic view of the human condition to dismiss biblical wisdom in counseling, and therefore this book primarily answers the criticisms of “Christian counseling.”
One of the primary criticisms of biblical counselors is that they use the Bible to somehow replace science and therefore ignore the consensus of secular research for dealing with psychological problems. But the proof of scriptural sufficiency for biblical counseling is convincingly “in the pudding.”5 This book helps put to rest the misconception that biblical counselors ignore science as the reader observes them partnering with trained physicians to treat real and identifiable physical problems. It is in the power of the Holy Spirit and the gospel of Christ, through the voice of the counselor, that the application of biblical truth guides a responsive counselee to healing and sanctification.
When discussing counseling methods, a key question to ask is this: does the authority to diagnose the many human dysfunctional behaviors come from man’s word or God’s Word? Heath Lambert is quick to point out that the counseling debate is profoundly centered in presuppositions. He refers to Jay Adams, who stated that his presupposition in counseling methodology is “the inerrant Bible as the standard of all faith and practice” (p. 8). It is clear that each of the contributing authors commences his or her counseling approach with the same presupposition as Adams. To some, this presupposition may seem like an intellectual debate about methodologies. But the ten extraordinary cases presented in the book consistently confirm the truth of this idea in real-life situations as the hope of Christ transforms lives and frees people from bondage to sinful thoughts and behaviors. So, a presuppositional approach to Scripture is not simply a debate about truth; it is also entirely practical.
Can the Bible Help with the Hard Cases?
Like biblical creationists, biblical counselors have never claimed that the Bible is a science textbook.
Other accusations against the biblical counseling movement have come from a misinterpretation of the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. Critics claim that the Bible is not a science textbook, and therefore it is ill-equipped to help with so-called psychological disorders. The answers to such claims are well stated in this book.
First, secular psychology fails to prove that many of the human problems “classified as mental illnesses” are related to any real “disease or illness at all” (p. 8). This ultimately means that the “science” of secular psychology has its own problems with regard to the definition of observational (i.e., testable, repeatable) science, by which a hypothesis is repeatedly tested and either proven or denied. As a prime example, no one really knows how certain neurotransmitters relate to conditions like depression and anxiety. Yet various medications are prescribed to correct imbalances that have not been accurately defined.
Second, critics from the Christian counseling movement suggest that biblical counselors are using the Bible in place of “science” or as a “science” textbook. But, like biblical creationists, biblical counselors have never claimed that the Bible is a science textbook. Within all the different genres that Scripture takes, the biblical counselor starts with a commitment to the authority of God’s Word. So, instead of viewing human problems in the light of a secular label such as a phobia or disorder, biblical counselors present human problems as Scripture does—in terms of the problem of human sin and suffering and the answer in the gospel.
Real Help and Change in Transformed Living
Reading through each of the hard cases, one soon comes to the realization that these scriptural truths are not just words on a page. Instead, the case studies show there truly is transformational power in the living Word of God (Hebrews 4:12). The same God who saves us from everlasting destruction also brings us into a life that exemplifies His grace. Even more enlightening is the fact that many of the people whose stories are told in this book found genuine healing after having first been disillusioned by the debilitating effects of anti-depressives, hypnosis, attempts to relive a better childhood, and various other secular treatments.
The list of documented cases contains “disorders” that many pastors have dispatched in the “too-hard” basket. They include an extreme example of sexual abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and more. A purely theoretical book cannot touch the impact of this book in retelling what these real-life experiences reveal about the sufficiency of Scripture in the counseling process.
One final thing that should be mentioned in respect to these cases is the book’s consistent theme highlighting the believer’s satisfaction in Christ, confidence in the gospel, the power of the Holy Spirit, a commitment for prayerful reading and application of Scripture, and the supportive care of the local church community. The counseling process is shown to engage not only one counselor but God working through His Word and the community of believers in the heart and mind of the counselee.
The Powerful Word of God
I heartily recommend this book to pastors and any believer needing to witness the powerful nature of the Word of God to gain confidence and steadfastness in the faith—and anyone with a desire to help others:
I myself am satisfied about you my brothers that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. (Romans 15:14, ESV)