Using Scripture Well in Pastoral Care
Brenda got up in the middle of the night and caught Tom, for the third time, looking at pornography. This time she drew a line and said this behavior needed to stop or she was leaving. Tom's first thought was to see Pastor Fred. Maybe he could help.
Tom stopped by the church and somewhat desperately told Pastor Fred what had happened. "What do I do now?" he asked. "I don't want Brenda to leave."
Knowing that Tom needed conviction of his sin and to repent from his pornography habit, Pastor Fred turned to Scriptures like Matthew 5:28-29, "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has committed adultery. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out," and Hebrews 13:4, "Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral."
As Pastor Fred spoke, Tom slunk deeper and deeper into his chair until finally he muttered a quiet "Thank you for seeing me, Pastor. I've gotta get to work now."
Tom left feeling helpless and ashamed. He didn't want to argue with Pastor Fred, but watching porn didn't seem like adultery to him. He wasn't sure why he kept returning to it, but he sure wasn't ready to pluck out an eye! His wife was still hurt and angry, and he knew if he told his buddies at work, they'd tell him it was perfectly normal to watch porn, and if she had a problem with that, she should get over it! Tom didn't know where to turn next.
Meanwhile, Pastor Fred sat in his office not sure what had just happened. He had really wanted to help Tom, but somehow he'd missed the opportunity. He had spoken truth, so what was the problem?
When doing pastoral care, we at some level represent God in a hurting person's life. We try to love them as Christ would love them. We represent God through his Word, his revelation, his unveiling. In pastoral conversations, we seek to share with hurting people the words God has for them. So why, at times, when we use Scripture do we not get the result we envisioned?
Yes, at times it can be the fault of the person we are counseling—they may not be open to hearing and following God in their situation. But other times the problem is us, or at least in how we are using Scripture in our counseling.
3 Ways We Can Misuse Scripture
In our anxiousness to give someone a word from God, we can sometimes get ahead of ourselves. We use Scripture prematurely, before we have understood the person deeply, before they are ready to hear from us. Even if we are accurate in handling the Scripture, by using it prematurely, it comes across as if we are offering a quick fix or spiritualizing … "All you need is more faith."
Either way, the Word falls on deaf ears. The timing was wrong. Using Scripture too quickly is a temptation for those of us who are quick to speak, slow to listen, and eager but impatient.
Second, we can misuse Scripture when we misdiagnose the problem. We may use a Scripture, but not for the real issue the person is facing.
At Marble Retreat, we have counseled many couples working through the aftermath of an affair. Often the offending spouse, in avoidance and denial, will find ways to accuse their spouse, as though his or her paranoia, jealousy, or "Jezebel" spirit is the cause of the affair. Unfortunately, we have heard stories of counselors who, jumping to conclusions, took the side of the adulterer, telling the non-adulterous spouse that it's their fault. Presenting issues are often not the real issue. It is essential to diagnose the problem correctly before looking to Scripture for help.
Third, we can use Scripture superficially. We tend to use Scripture to address behavioral sin, but not the underlying cause of the behavioral problem.
Pastor Fred could have sought to understand what deficit Tom was trying to fill by looking at porn. In all likelihood, Tom's struggles were deeply rooted in shame of one sort or another. Or loneliness or emptiness. He may not have been able to identify why he was drawn to porn. This was probably the first time he had confessed this particular sin to anyone. He needed someone to listen, to understand, to encourage his ongoing walk of faith. To quickly quote a verse about lust and to assume that's all it takes to address the deficit is sadly inadequate.
Pastor Fred missed the opportunity to talk with Tom about what Scripture says about forgiveness and wholeness, as well as what it says about sin.
Tom was already convicted and repentant as best he knew how. He was ashamed and embarrassed and already desired change. He wanted to be faithful to his wife, but he did not know what the real problem was nor how to move forward. Unless we take time to understand where a person is, we can also miss the heart of the problem.
3 Keys to Aptly Engage Scripture
How do we use Scripture more accurately and effectively in counseling?
First, listen. Carefully. Hear the person's story, where and how they are hurting, and how their sin, brokenness, and woundedness are distorting their image of God and of themselves. We need to avoid our client's (or our own) desire for quick answers. We need to ask the deeper questions before making determinations.
Second, understand. "What is really pushing this person to act this way?" We need to be sure we know what is going on. We need an accurate diagnosis. There is always a reason for the behavior, and more needs to be addressed than just the behavior. When dealing with alcoholism, for instance, it is not enough for the alcoholic to just stop drinking; otherwise you just end up with a "dry drunk." The road to healing is more than a "just stop it" approach to behavior.
Third, see. We need to see the person as God sees them, not letting our own issues distort our image of the child of God with whom we are working. We need to see the struggles they face. We need to pray, asking God what he wants revealed to the person.
Jack, like Tom, also was using pornography. Jack grew up with an alcoholic, angry, and distant father and a passive, enabling mother consumed with her husband, paying little attention to Jack. When Jack's wife caught him with porn and gave him an ultimatum, Jack also turned to Pastor Fred. Like Tom, Jack quickly and desperately unloaded his situation and turned to Pastor Fred for "the answer."
Not taking the bait this time, Pastor Fred asked Jack when the pornography use began, and what he was looking for by turning to pornography, and what situations triggered his use of pornography now. He asked Jack about his relationship with his wife, and about his faith.
Jack was lonely and insecure. He felt helpless in his marriage when his wife desired more "intimacy," and Jack didn't even know what that was. Jack was sure God didn't even like him, let alone love him. Pastor Fred sensed that Jack was losing hope, full of shame, and desperately wanting help.
After listening, Pastor Fred asked Jack if he could share a couple of Scriptures. First, he read Psalm 118:5, "In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free." Then Colossians 2:13, "When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ." And then Psalm 147:11, "the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love."
Pastor Fred explained what these verses meant for Jack and his situation—that God could set him free from his guilt and shame, and that God was on his side and desired to make him alive, and that Jack could trust in his unfailing love. Jack left that day with a renewed sense of hope and faith that God would help him.
At Marble Retreat we have an eight-day intensive model of counseling. We deal with a lot of pain, grief, lies, unhealthy patterns, burnout, and shame. On the final day we end with a group session. While much has been shared during the first seven days, it is often on this last day that we clearly have a word specifically for each person's heart, a word we believe is from God:
"Jim, God believes in you. He is going to help you finish strong" (Ps. 55:22).
"Belinda, God wants you to know you are wonderful, and he delights in you" (Ps. 139:14).
"Charles, you are entirely and completely forgiven. God has forgotten your sin, and Jesus not only loves you, he likes you" (1 John 1:9, John 15:15).
One pastor, experiencing Scripture spoken clearly and directly to the wounded place in his heart, said: "I realize that in my ministry I have used Scripture like spaghetti on a wall. I throw a bunch out there and hope something sticks. You have used it like a scalpel, with precision, in the exact place it's needed."
As Christian ministers, our goal is to apply God's healing words and presence into the deepest wounds, sin, and brokenness of those we meet. While God can redeem even our mistakes, it is our responsibility to use Scripture in the most loving and effective way possible.
Mike Mackenzie is co-director of Marble Retreat, a center for Christian workers in crisis, in Marble, Colorado.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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