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Counseling and Preaching

Category Articles
Date October 26, 2003

Much of my time is devoted to the endeavor of applying the Word of God to individuals, as well as to the gathered congregation. The public ministry of the Word is accomplished through preaching. The private application of the Word to individuals, or couples, or families is done through counseling. I have a single tool and sole power source at my disposal in such ministry, whether public or private. The Word is my tool and the Holy Spirit my power source. There are connections between preaching and counseling. One such connection is that the more faithfully, deeply, and vitally I preach, and the more faithfully, deeply, and vitally you attend to such preaching, the less need there is for counseling. However, preaching, even when it is perfect (and there have been perfect sermons preached-just not by me!) does not do away with all need for counseling. The public ministry of the Word can so penetrate the hearts of people and reveal such deep need to them that they must apply to the preacher for personal attention and counsel. Thus, for example, we find Nicodemus going to Jesus in private, after the Pharisee had been duly unsettled by the public preaching of our Lord (Jn. 3).

With counseling, there is not only more personal attention sought and given, but there is a give and take format not found in preaching. This personal give and take affords me more detailed understanding of the individual’s situation, and I am enabled to help make more precise application of the Word to him in that situation.

It is not only the individual who benefits from this private give and take. As individuals, couples, and families have come to see me over the years, I am enabled increasingly to detect common patterns in their problems. This enables me to make more quick and accurate diagnoses of needs and prescribe more effective solutions not only in future counseling situations, but also in the preaching of the Word. For, without disclosing persons or details, I find that my accumulating experience of close and personal application of the Word fits me with more penetrating and sympathetic understanding of the needs, fears, and failures of the whole congregation. Thus, I believe that whether the Word is being ministered publicly through preaching, or privately through counseling, we all eventually profit from the connection and interactions between these two modes of ministry.

I have said all of this to come to this point: If there is any single, recurring, and most bitterly experienced theme which has emerged through my nearly two decades of counseling it is that of people failing to seek true healing and that from the right source. By this I mean that it is quite common for folk to come to me with some deep and serious hurts. It is also common that many of them merely want relief from the pain of their hurt, not deep, lasting, total healing. Indeed, I often find that some of these hurt souls have played the physician with themselves, thinking that they have understood their hurt and know best how to relieve it, and they come to me simply seeking validation for an agenda they have already adopted.

It is never surprising for me to learn that people hurt people. But it seems to surprise most wounded souls who seek only relief, that someone would hurt them. We should expect to be hurt by others, given that they are sinners, not inclined to be perfectly considerate of us. We, too, are sinners, inclined to view our inconsiderations toward others as tolerable specks, while we regard others’ words and deeds which hurt us as monstrous logs. From such a wrong perspective, it is easy for us to fall to the temptation to think that our wounds are incurable, and that the only remedy available is our seeking compensation from those who hurt us. Wounded souls are thus tempted to seek their relief in the form of their exacting painful payment from those who have hurt them. This determination leads those who seek counsel to try and pervert the counsellor into the instrument through which they will extract their revenge. It’s all wrong. The diagnosis is wrong. The contemplated course of treatment is wrong.

It may seem just, and, to a degree, a relief, that those who hurt us should themselves repair the damage. The problem is that they cannot repair what they have broken. Sin is so terrible that it pierces through those against whom we sin until it finds its true target, namely, the living God. That is why David confesses that his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah were ultimately against God alone (Ps. 51:4). Our sin makes us experts at hurting each other to devastating degree. Our sin also makes us incapable to repair the damage we cause. Thus, when wounded ones look for those who have injured them to repair the damage, they set an impossible task for the offender, and, at the same time, confirm themselves in their hurt and consequent anger, for their expectations will never be met.

There is, however, a Great Physician. When others hurt us, we must turn to Him alone for our healing. Jesus will not give us mere relief, but He will effect deep, thorough, and lasting healing. Then, instead of our seeking revenge, we will be gracious td and forgiving of those who have offended us. Of course, Satan – the liar and murderer – tempts us not to seek our healing from Jesus. With infernal reasoning, the devil tells us that once our hurts are healed, the fires of our anger will be quenched, and our offenders will be let off free. When that temptation comes, we must rightly reckon how suicidal it is, and choose life over death, for ourselves and for those who have offended us. No one who has made that right choice has ever yet told a single counsellor that he regretted it.

William Harrell

Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia.

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