Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Issues in Biblical Counselling by Ed Welch

I've been listening to a fantastic talk series during the last couple of months: Ed Welch's Issues in Biblical Counselling. It's a 24 talk short course which he gave at the Melbourne PTC.

If you meet one-to-one with other Christians to disciple them, if you're in ministry or Christian leadership, or if you struggle with issues like suffering, anxiety, anger or guilt (don't we all?!) you'll find these talks encouraging and challenging.

Ed Welch talked about

  • the nature of biblical counselling and the person
  • the 4 staples of counselling - suffering, guilt, anger and fear
  • unusual problems - mania, schizophrenia, depression, addictions
Here's some things I learned:

  • Christ is the centre of the process of change. We often use the Bible like an encyclopedia of proof texts. If a word ("anorexia", "OCD") isn't there, we assume the Bible doesn't address it; and if a word ("anxiety", "anger") is there, we stick to the "relevant" verses. But the Bible is the story of Christ, and of how God saves and transforms us through the gospel. This bigger story shapes how we respond to every issue - even those the Bible doesn't name. If someone wants help with a problem, don't just look up verses which address or condemn the problem: read passages which reveal Christ and win our hearts. The ultimate solution to every problem is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • The Bible is sufficient to deal with all sinful behaviours and negative emotions. We often divide people into body, soul/psyche and spirit. The first is treated by doctors, the second by psychologists, and the third by the church. We hand people with issues like depression, addictions and anxiety over to professional counsellors. But if you trace any psychiatric illness back to its historical roots, you'll find that people once turned to the church for help. We can learn from secular counsellors, and medication can relieve symptoms. But God's word and gospel alone can change the heart. God's word is clear - it's not just for scholars - and we'll find our answers here.
  • Our behaviour and emotions come from our hearts (although our emotions are also affected by our bodies). With our hearts, our inner selves, we think and believe, and with our hearts, we worship and desire. We can't blame our actions on our circumstances, personality or upbringing: we choose how to respond. Christian counsellors often speak of the person as someone with needs for love and relationship. But our hearts are not so much empty vessels waiting to be filled, as rudders directing us towards what we desire. Our hearts are active not passive.
  • The horizontal reveals the vertical. If you see me get angry, or hear me complaining, you learn that I'm ultimately angry or resentful towards God. Our emotions and actions show who has our allegiance, God or Satan. Who do we worship? Who do we trust? Whom will we serve?
  • The four staples of counselling are suffering, guilt, anger and fear. We'll have lots to say to anyone who's struggling if we learn how the Bible responds to these four issues. Ed Welch spent hours talking about suffering, specifically about how he would respond to someone who was sexually abused as a child. His two talks on guilt and legalism shook my perfectionism to its core. He called the angry to become like Christ. His talks on anxiety encouraged me deeply.
  • Move towards those who are suffering. If there's one thing I took away from these talks, this is it! Those who are suffering are prime targets for Satan's attacks, so even if you feel completely helpless, move towards those who are suffering. Don't ignore them, don't say nothing, don't forget to call. At the very least, say "I'm so sorry." Don't just offer to help, give practical help. If you have nothing to say, listen, and pray with them from God's word. God pursues us, so we should pursue others.
  • Aim for self-forgetful love not self-esteem. The gospel is the story of the God who saves unworthy sinners not because there's anything good in us, but because he loves us for his own glory. The gospel doesn't so much encourage us to think better or worse of ourselves as less frequently about ourselves and more about Christ. True humanness is about loving others, not being loved; about glorifying God, not having my needs met.
  • Ask the next question. Often, the most useful thing you can do is to ask one more question: "Why do you ...? Did you know that you ...? Do you want to change?" If you seem to be missing the point - if they're looking blank, like you're not taking them with you - stop and ask again, "What am I missing? Is what I'm saying helpful? Help me to understand what you're feeling." Walk beside people, don't stand over them.
  • Find the normal in the abnormal. If someone is behaving bizarrely, or is making bizarre claims, treat them like anyone else. Ask ordinary questions: "What's going on here? Why are you doing that? Why do you feel scared?" Look for the person behind the behaviour. Listen for the issues we all struggle with: suffering, guilt, anger and fear. Ed Welch puts the Bible through its paces - is it sufficient to deal with addictions, mania and schizophrenia, and depression? - and shows how God's truth reaches ordinary people struggling with extraordinary problems.
  • Christians should have a high tolerance for eccentricity. Have you noticed the space around unusual people in social gatherings? Christians should be moving towards people, not away from them! Ignore the bizarre behaviour unless it stems from deeper issues like anxiety, or leads to sin, then deal with it as you would with any other Christian, by encouraging faith and repentance. If the Bible doesn't address the behaviour, you don't need to either. If it's just odd behaviour that's putting a barrier between the person and others, don't ignore it: give honest advice out of love.
  • There is hope for change. A great God is working in us through his powerful gospel by his indwelling Spirit, and he promises that we will one day be glorious creatures who perfectly reflect his glory. We should have boundless optimism for change in ourselves and others. When you see people change, take off your shoes: you are standing on holy ground.

images are from stock.xchng


    Anonymous said...

    Hi Jean,
    That sounds like a great series. I have been profoundly encouraged (and challenged) by the counselling papers I have done at CCEF. It is like a feast for the soul, listening to the practical theology of Powlison, Welch and Tripp. Oh, for such practical wisdom and discernment.
    Thanks for the reminder today about getting on with loving people!

    Jean said...

    Wow, Jo, are you doing a course with them?

    Michael said...

    Hi Jean,
    Sorry I am such an erratic poster!
    Yes, I am doing their counselling course by distance education. I have only done two papers so far, but they have been so good! Sounds like heaps of what you got in your series was what I have done so far. I am about to start the small group study written by them, called How People Change with my Bible Study group and then with the students at the seminary. It will be interesting to see how it goes.

    Anonymous said...

    Oops, that wasn't Michael, it was me! Jo

    mattnbec said...

    Hi Jean,

    I think there's some quite helpful stuff here. I do think there is much truth in the idea you mention that "The Bible is sufficient to deal with all sinful behaviours and negative emotions". However, I think that there comes a point where as fellow Christians or pastors need to recognise the limits of what they're able to help people address as people who aren't trained to deal with mania, schizophrenia, depression, addiction and many other issues. I've heard it said that as a general rule, as pastors etc, if you can't help someone to sort out the problem within 4-6 sessions, it's probably better to point them in the direction of more experienced/trained/professional help. That is, while the Bible does help us to address psychological issues and Jesus is the answer, it's also worth recognising what help we are able to offer but also that we're not necessarily equipped to deal with everything (or at least not alone), particularly ongoing or complex mental health issues. I'd be interested to hear if Ed Welch has any insight on this and/or where he thinks we should draw the line.



    Jean said...

    Fair enough, Bec, and I'm with you in that I'd refer someone on, definitely, if I thought a professional could help with complex issues I wasn't equipped to deal with.

    I think Ed Welch gave me confidence that, even then, I could go on loving that person and helping them to live in Christ's truth.

    He also helped me to know what would be helpful to say when someone is anxious, depressed or delusional - how to come alongside that person with the gospel and how to love them.

    The person I would love to refer them on to would be someone like Ed Welch, experienced both in issues like schizophrenia and in biblical counselling!

    But where this wasn't possible I would refer them to a secular counsellor if necessary but keep talking about the issues with them from the Bible too.

    He talks lots more about all these difficult issues in "Blame it on the brain" and his book on depression, "Depression: A stubborn darkness".

    mattnbec said...

    Hi again, Jean. Sorry to be slow in interchange - life seems to be getting in the way of blog reading quite a lot at the moment... ;-) - a good reality check! Anyway...

    Sorry - I didn't mean it to sound like professional help and Christian help should be discrete options! I guess really I was just thinking that it seems like sometimes people think a Christian counsellor can deal with anything and everything. Or that someone who has done one or two counselling units at Bible college is perfectly equipped to deal with the sorts of things that trained counsellors should be dealing with.

    However, I do think it's important to see professional help and Christians lovingly helping those who are experiencing mental health issues apply the Bible as working together. So it's interesting to read what you're saying about Ed Welch's thoughts. Sounds like he's got some good insights. Maybe one day I'll get around reading some of Welch's stuff, but at the moment, reading is slow going (see comment about life getting in the way!). In the meantime, thanks for sharing what he's teaching you.


    Wendy said...

    Jean, it takes me while to read through the posts I have tagged!! Wondering if one can get these talks or do you have to do it through PTC - do you know? I couldn't find it on their website. You could email me at