Is your life one long, stable peace with God, or are there interruptions where peace with God is hard to come by? What gets in the way of the peace you experience as a believer from day to day? If you are anything like the psalmist, the casual day-to-day conclusions you make observing the world around you may disrupt an ongoing sense of peace with God. His observations led him to the conclusion that others around him were experiencing more flourishing (see Psalm 73:4-12).
To make it worse, these others were not following God. This increased the psalmist's alienation toward the Lord and contributed to his sense of dejection. Not only was his day-to-day existence difficult, but the God who promised him life seemed to be blessing others who gave no thought of God. The psalmist's plight is a common one for the believer. Satan tempted Eve with the thought that God did not have her best interests at heart, and he keeps following the same script. Because of this, it is common for the believer to experience alienation from God based on a misunderstanding of his intentions and character.
A simple way to understand pastoral counseling is to see it as helping others be reconciled to God. Every believer needs help navigating the lie that God does not care about them. This challenge is more intense when the believer faces situations that significantly disrupt every day living such as marital strife, mental health issues, loss of a loved one or sin patterns that won’t change. These, and other situations like them, intensify a believer's alienation from God and call for pastoral counseling.
As the psalmist ruminated on the blessings of those around him, he was taken away from God and his goodness. Alone, he became groundless and needed a renewed perspective. It was entering into richer communion with God and being renewed by his words and presence that helped the psalmist find life (Psalm 73:17). With an inside renewal, he was able to move forward with more hope.
Just like the psalmist, all believers get lost navigating a fallen world and need help remembering what is true. Sometimes, especially with situations that involve ongoing struggle, the believer can get so lost in deception he or she needs personal help untangling the lies. In pastoral counseling, a pastor offers a nuanced preaching of the same words delivered from the pulpit on Sunday.
Consider the person struggling with bi-polar disorder who is prompted to visit the pastor because his alienation from God has intensified. Such a person often dislikes taking medication and can feel guilt or anguish that he has to do it. He has heard the pastor preach on the fallen nature of the world but never considered it applied to his situation. In counseling, the pastor can unpack this truth with more nuance and help the congregant understand that a fallen world impacts the chemical processes of his body the same way it impacts the person’s eyesight who needs glasses. A person with bi-polar disorder is depending on medication the same way a person with hampered eyesight is depending on glasses. In each case medical science is healing and redemptive. This new understanding helps the congregant experience reconciliation with God and he walks away with a renewed sense of hope and vitality.
Pastoral counseling is a unique opportunity for the pastor to understand the culture of the congregant’s heart so he can more deftly speak into it. In addition, the pastor can offer more than nuanced words because he can care for the congregant in a way that "teaches."
Imagine a mother hearing the truth that God works all things together for good preached publicly after she has experienced the loss of her child. Although a sermon on that topic would undoubtedly speak to many people in the congregation, in the immediacy of loss those words would be hard to hear for the grieving mother. However, preaching takes on an intimate and unique form when it happens in the pastor’s office. If that same grieving mother experienced the pastor weeping with her as she unpacked her struggles, she would hear (and taste) a sermon on God’s mercy that would be hard to forget. She would hear the words, “Blessed are those who mourn” in new and profound ways (Matthew 5:4). The opportunity to have a more delicate and relational encounter helps the pastor preach in a way that is far more refreshing to the grieving woman's soul.
When a believer is enduring under the weight of worldly troubles, his or her sense of alienation from God will increase. Peace with God will be hard to come by. This is not something a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist is called to address. Although good care from a practitioner can be a strong part of experiencing redemption for the believer, such caregivers are not tasked with “watching over their flock" (1 Peter 5:2), and are not called to uniquely speak and embody God's words so the congregant is reconciled to God. Struggling believers need a full-bodied encounter that helps them to open up to the Lord and his goodness so they are renewed on their journey toward home. When a pastor offers this type of preaching in pastoral counseling, this pastor helps the believer understand the story they are in and find hope to stand up and move forward.
Dr. Gordon Bals teaches pastoral counseling at Beeson Divinity School. He is founder of Daymark Pastoral Counseling in Birmingham, Alabama and author of Common Ground: Discovering God's Redemption in Your Marriage.