In response to the book review on Jay E Adams’ book Competent to Counsel (17/2/ 2016), I would like to make some comments.
It is indeed true that it happens too easily and too often that ministers and elders refer church members to professional psychiatrists in cases where they as shepherds of the flock should have taken the first responsibility in counselling members with the Word of God, and should not have left it to “the professionals” who do not use God’s Word as basis and who are not appointed by God for the spiritual needs of the congregation.
I also appreciate the way in which Adams uncovers the errors of modern psychology, especially in pointing out human responsibility and the need for repentance in cases where personal sin is involved. However, there is also an opposite danger: to count all spiritual problems and difficulties as the result of personal sin. Then it can happen, for example, that depression is automatically viewed as the result of personal sin. And if your diagnosis is wrong, your counselling will be misplaced. It is in this regard that I want to add a few comments.
It would of course not be correct, when someone is downcast, to conclude that he must have been sinning. That was the approach of Job’s friends, for example. Or think of John 9: 1–3. Sometimes personal sin can well be the cause, as Adams points out; but there are also other causes. We read in the Psalms, for example, that David was often downcast and weeping until his eyes were dull and his spirit exhausted, and it often seemed to him as if God had forgotten him. Sometimes he himself did link the cause to his own sin and ask forgiveness; but often there were other causes. Before I give examples, let me first say something about suffering in general.
All suffering is the consequence of sin, but all suffering is not caused by some specific sins of the individual. Let me mention a few causes for suffering:
- The curse that rests on this earth in general. The thorns and thistles. The believer also bumps his toe and it bleeds, not necessarily because he committed a specific sin. The believer also becomes ill. When you catch a cold or get the flu, there may be some personal responsibility – you ate too many sweets, or you were not careful enough to put a jacket on in the cold weather. But it can also be that someone just sneezed and passed on the bug, or that you were over-worked and your body’s resistance was down. Then, when you catch the flu, you do not suffer because of a personal sin, but simply share in the sufferings that are the result of the general curse that rests on this earth (Gen. 3).
- Persecution for Christ’s sake. Much of a believer’s suffering in this life is for Christ’s sake, for doing good. That is, for example, when people speak ill of you and hate you because you are determined to do what God says. This suffering is grace and a privilege. But it can be severe suffering and cause much grief, weeping and sorrow.
- The trials of faith. It is necessary that our faith is tested by trials. These trials can be very severe. Here Job is a good example. Job did not suffer because of a specific sin that he committed. His faith was simply tested by trials.
- Personal sin. Here Adams does a good job in pointing it out. Where personal sin is the cause for suffering, healing comes by acknowledging, repenting, and asking forgiveness.
- Often one cannot exactly be sure of the cause, and maybe some different causes may be mixed together at the same time. Sometimes we can do nothing else but simply trust God, ask for His grace, and entrust our lives to His fatherly care when we do not understand or know the cause for our suffering – as Job also had to do.
So, let me now come back to David and the Psalms. David’s spirit was often cast down and he was very much depressed. But will you then call it what we today call “depression” and say that it was caused by his own sin? I quickly pick a few Psalms randomly as they come to mind, and point out various aspects of David’s “mental state”:
- David often became weary of groaning and weeping and was very downcast:
- “I am weary with my groaning; all night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows old because of all my enemies” (Ps. 6: 6, 7).
- “…my life is spent with grief, and my years with sighing…” (Ps. 31: 10).
- “My heart is stricken and withered like grass, so that I forget to eat my bread. Because of the sound of my groaning my bones cling to my skin” (Ps. 102: 4, 5).
- And many other psalms.
Sometimes he does connect his suffering to personal sins and asks forgiveness, but often his faith is tested by trials, or he suffers under enemies for Christ’s sake. He always asks for grace and mercy because also when our suffering is not directly linked to personal sin we deserve nothing but death anyway.
- There was no quick solution. Sometimes a trial lasted for years. When deliverance was not in sight for a long time, it often felt to David that the Lord had forgotten him:
- “How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? How long will my enemy be exalted over me? (Ps. 13: 1, 2)
- “Why have You forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” (Ps. 42: 9)
- And many other psalms.
Many times this suffering was not directly linked to specific personal sins.
What would be good counselling in such cases? David always put his trust in the Lord, no matter what. The Lord is his sure help. That does not mean that there is a quick answer or solution to the problem – a trial may last for years. But in our suffering, and while we mourn and weep, we remain fully comforted in the Lord (think for example of Lord’s Day 1 and 10). We need to encourage one another by reminding each other of God’s sure promises, and encourage each other to persevere in the faith. Then we don’t offer a false hope of: if you serve the Lord all your troubles will disappear! And when no specific sin is involved, we do not offer a quick solution, or say: “It will go well with you if you repent”. But we will encourage each other to trust in the Lord, in His mercy and faithfulness, and cling to His promises, even when we have no idea of the exact cause or the exact purpose of our suffering. However, when sin is involved, then it needs to be addressed. Then repentance and confession will bring healing.
In refuting modern psychology, which tries to remove personal responsibility by shifting guilt, Adams was maybe too one sided in his approach. But I must admit that I read his book many years ago, and can’t remember whether he also emphasised what I wrote above.[i]
I thought I would just pass on these thoughts. It gives us a broader approach than saying: our problems and suffering is the result of sin, therefore if we suffer we must have sinned and need to repent (the approach of Job’s friends). We must also be careful to say that if someone is depressed it is likely caused by sin. Think of David who speaks of “years of sighing” and groaning until his body and spirit had no strength left, and he was wondering whether God had forgotten him. Our joy in the Lord is a joy by faith alone, and not because we have such a good time here on earth when we serve the Lord.
Of course we all know this. But maybe these comments do add something which is a bit missing in the article about Adams’ approach to counselling. One thing is sure: elders and ministers, appointed by the Lord as shepherds to watch out for the souls of the sheep, are competent to counsel (2 Tim. 3: 16, 17) and we should not leave it to psychiatrists and the “professional counsellors” outside the church.
[i] Editor’s (JN) note: Jay Adams does agree that not all sickness is the direct result of particular sins. He writes: “It is plain that the Scriptures never represent all sickness as the result of immediate sin or even sinful patterns of life. The book of Job protests against such a notion. The Bible teaches that the existence of all sickness, however, goes back to Adam’s sin, and in that sense all sickness may be said to be the result of sin. Yet the Bible does acknowledge an immediate relationship between sin and sickness in many instances” [e.g.in John 5:14] (pp. 108/9). However, Adams does seem to bypass those Psalms that show David being very downcast and depressed for understandable and legitimate reasons and to focus instead on the Psalms in which David acknowledges guilt.
[ii] Rev. Retief is Minister of the Word in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia