With many offering in-depth help in providing counseling, from wonderful sites such as CCEF devoted to the subject to David Murray’s regular posts on the topic to Rich Ganz’s rich resources to a needed reminder not to be like Job’s friends to a helpful analysis of the modern Biblical counseling movement started by Jay Adams, there is truly little I can add. But I would like to add just a little.
Last week I spoke to a group of college students on the subject of counseling stories. By this I did not mean sharing stories with them about counseling that I have done, though I did mention a situation or two. Rather, the theme was about using Biblical stories in counseling.
All of us have been in situations where a family member or friend dumps a heavy matter on us without warning. Regularly I find college students in that predicament, asking me what they should do to help their friend whose parents are divorcing, who is speaking of suicide, whose girlfriend is pregnant, etc. We cannot always tell those sharing with us that they just need to go talk to someone else. Often out of shame and in confidence, the person telling his or her story may trust only the listener at that point. Yet if we are not careful, as some of these resources cited above point out, we can quickly and inadequately come up with a few slap-on Bible verses and unwise counsel. That is why I often, after listening, simply seek initially to tell or refer the downcast to a story and encourage others to do the same.
Obviously the Scriptures are filled with stories. Our Lord employed them regularly and repeatedly throughout His ministry to people. Recently I have been reminded of the power of stories for all ages. In telling a story during a children’s sermon recently about a “mean ole man,” I realized the story was having an impact on one of my cute, four year-old congregants when a wide-eyed look of concern turned into fear as she drew back closer to her brother at the height of the story’s conflict. On another occasion, as I was telling the story of Abraham’s offering of Isaac up on Mt. Moriah and the parallels to the Father’s sacrifice of the Son, a woman who is a new Christian shivered visibly and blurted out “I’m getting chills!” as her eyes were opened further to Jesus. So too in counseling we can often speak humbly and yet dramatically by telling a fitting story.
In his book He Gave Us Stories, Richard Pratt reminds us stories are like a mirror, a window and a picture. The theme of a Biblical story is like a mirror in that it reflects back to the listener on how his own life measures up to the theme. The history of a story serves as a window into the past as we see how others dealt with similar situations. The manner in which the story is structured or told by the Biblical author becomes a picture of spiritual truth that God wants us to see. Thus, using a Biblical story when hearing a person’s story can be an effective way to help them. Sometimes I tell the story and seek to apply it. Other times I just simply encourage them to read it for themselves.
Of all the stories in the Bible I find myself turning to in counseling, perhaps there is none that I go to more often than the story of Joseph. For think of all that Joseph suffered that can relate to those around us. Mistreatment by family members. Difficult providential circumstances. Sexual temptation. Long periods of insignificance and loneliness. Struggles with forgiveness. I have seen the Lord use in dramatic ways the telling of a portion of Joseph’s story.
Friday evening I spent time with the young people going through Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers described in Genesis 37:12-36, particularly pointing out the storyteller’s (Moses) attention to the detail of the character’s clothing. Let me conclude by just pointing out what this story’s reference to the clothing can remind us about regarding the power of stories in helping people.
We can use stories to remind people that God uses hard providential situations to break hearts and change lives – Joseph’s brothers stripped him and tore up his multicolored robe (Genesis 37:23), threw him into a pit, sold him into slavery, then soaked it with blood to deceive their father into thinking he had died. These despicable and vicious acts by his brothers sent Joseph into years of isolation from family, enslavement, and even imprisonment. Yet we know ultimately that hearts were changed and lives were saved, causing Joseph at the end of the story to say to His brother, “You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). We have to remind people they are only in the middle of their own story when they are hurting, and point them by faith to trust the “author and finisher” of their faith’s journey to bring their life story to its proper ending.
We need to use stories to remind our own selves of how callous we can be in relating to the suffering of others – When Reuben, the oldest brother who kept the others from killing Joseph, discovered they still had sold him into slavery, we are told he tore his garment (Genesis 37:29). This appears initially to be an act of remorse. Yet as the prophet Joel reminds us, we are to “rend our hearts and not our garments.” For Reuben clearly was only half-hearted in his compassion toward Joseph. As the oldest brother, he had left a dangerous, murderous situation, presumably simply to check on sheep. He did not set out to rescue Joseph. He went along with the lie to deceive his father, and lived that lie for decades. Reuben reminds us there is another reason to tell stories. The story is not only for the listener, but for us as well as we tell it. We must be reminded that we are not to be callous and semi-detached from those who are suffering. We need to be truly compassionate.
We should use stories as a reminder of the heart-rending love of our heavenly Father – When Joseph’s father Jacob hears the news, he too tears his garments (Genesis 37:34) but, unlike Reuben, his action matches his heart. In sending Joseph to check on his brothers, he had sent him to his (apparent) death. This broke Jacob’s heart as the ongoing story reveals. Is this not an Old Testament picture of our Father in heaven, who sent His Son to His own but they did not receive Him? Rather, they crucified Him and, with His last cry, our Father’s heart was torn in two, signified by the veil in the temple being torn from top to bottom. Story after story in the Bible reminds us of the love of God for His Son and, amazingly, for those for whom His Son died.
Telling them of this love is truly the ultimate counseling story.