The following article was written by Sarmishta "Shammi" Venkatesh, a former RPTS student who is serving with her husband in India in church planting. It is written in honor of Dr. George Scipione, founder of the Biblical Counseling Institute of RPTS, who passed away on January 22nd. To learn more about BCI, go here.
A few years ago, I was in the US going through my biblical counseling certification. A
friend opened up a question to me at that time, “So, what have been your observations counseling folks from our country? Have you found anything different?”
I had mixed feelings answering such a question. My analytical mind was eager to rush in and give my 2 cents, but my Indian-ness was very wary of throwing stones at someone else’s window, especially when my country’s cultural windows were clearly broken to be seen by all. But there I was, pressed to answer.
I remember illustrating to my friend the differences between the two cultures with the analogy of houses in the two countries.
If I’m looking at a neighbor’s house in the US from the vantage point of the road I’m walking on, there’ s at least a few feet distance between the road and the neighbor’s front yard. And if I'm wanting to befriend this neighbor, I would need to cross a huge patch of grass, probably 10 meters wide, then go on to the front porch, and then knock on their doors. And often times, you can’t just make a friend unless you have prior appointment (Americans schedule everything!), and possibly no one’s at home.
Transpose the same scene to India. There may be no road on which the house stands, and if so, no walkway, no yards, no fences. Sometimes, my neighbor may be on her front porch or gate and looking out for a friend. Often times, my next door neighbor is literally, next door. I sport a friendly smile, ask a question or two and usually I’m invited in, sometimes to a platter of savory snacks and a cup of chai.
People in these countries are somewhat like these houses. Sometimes there are several boundaries which a counselor needs to hop over to build trust and finally enter into a counseling process which will benefit the other. As I told my friend that day in the US, in India, which is a co-dependent culture however, people are ready to open up when they know there’s someone around to help. I was ready to help people on my side of the world with my counseling experience.
That picture shattered when I returned to India in 2016. Suddenly, I felt older but not wiser. The world in communal India had changed in the last few years when we were gone. People have become more individualistic. Walls called personal spaces and boundaries were erected ironically around the same time private information was parceled far and wide to just about anyone on Instagram and Facebook. Few if any wanted to seek counsel or advice from an older or mature person in their lives. The locus of authority shifted from one outside of themselves to one within. Personal wisdom was traded for information from social media, celebs and blogs. If one had a problem, all they had to do was browse their phones and allow soul-gurus to give them therapeutic, pious suggestions without ever transcending their personal boundaries, but just enough to make them feel good about themselves, boost a deflated ego and allow the Me to be the sole authority of one’s life.
At such a juncture as this, I felt useless. My training in directive counseling flung in the face of a Millennial generation full of ‘dare you tell me what to do?’ sorts. In 2016, I was counseling nearly ten women and went through a season of depression. Apart from my own inexperience in dealing with the struggles of women, I was carrying the burden of hurt and sin of some of my dearest friends. Added to that was resistance to godly counsel from some who wanted to go their way. Somewhere along the way, I snapped.
But I wasn't alone. I spent close to 60 hours counseling with a mentor-friend. He was
there, sitting on the other side of the world, miles apart but often only a call away, listening patiently to my recordings and teaching me how to better counsel hurting women in a changing world. Dr. “Skip” as I affectionately called him, was there to hold my hand and take me through one of the roughest seasons of my life.
One of the remarkable things about studying biblical counseling under Dr. Skip was that he taught me to respect the power and authority of Scripture over someone’s life. He often used to comment, “People say, ‘God said it, I believe it, that settles it.’ But that’s not true. God said it, that settles it.” I learnt that someone or something always had power over people’s lives and that during the course of counseling, I had to seek to bring the authority of Scriptures to bear on the souls of struggling people. Because at the end of the day, there is no better Comforter than the One who wrote the Scriptures for our benefit.
Often people misunderstand this emphasis in counseling and care-giving circles.
Historically, counseling wars have confused the lines between being authoritarian
(exerting ones authority conditionally and often threateningly) and being authoritative (bringing the Scriptures to question, shape and even change someone). Some would say that counseling ought to be indicative rather than imperative (talking about the Person and work of Christ instead of what this Person demands from a sinner/disciple), and that telling anyone to do anything that Scripture commands would be tantamount to legalism.
But that is not the method I have learnt from Dr. Skip. During classes, Skip would try to role-play the indicative only counseling sessions by freezing for a while in the
middle of the classroom, and posturing a sort of “trance” like state, caricaturing those who wait for grace to fall on counselees instead of teaching them to act, trusting that grace would flow. Jokes apart though, he often used to balance the imperative with the indicative in good measure, and model truth and grace whenever he counselled me. At the end of the day, he made sure that I was not bringing myself but Jesus and His word as the sole authority of the counselee’s life. To this extent, a counseling session always began with Scripture, was dotted with Scripture all through and ended with prayer. No wonder biblical counseling ain’t popular!
People can resist this kind of counseling. But what is counseling after all? Isn't counseling giving sound counsel/advice which the other person confesses to be lacking? Or are we as counselors merely to dart pious suggestions and personal stories across to the other side, hoping they’ll get “picked up” or “cued”? That would not be counseling, that would be suggest-ing. Or is counseling merely quizzing people about their feelings and thoughts and asking them to solve their own problems through intelligent questions we frame for them? That would not be counseling, that was be probing (and a rip off!)
Let’s suppose that I’m a skilled surgeon and you come to me, having been shot in your belly with a bullet. You and I know that the process of opening up the belly and removing the bullet is going to be painful, and in an age where there were no morphines, you would have to choose between getting the bullet removed with much pain and death. But say, I the skilled surgeon, cry with you as you lie dying on the table, ask you how you feel, pour some morphine on the wound to alleviate your pain, bandage your wounds, make you feel symptomatically better and tell you, “Everything’s going to be ok” knowing fully well that the bullet inside you is
going to kill you, then what name would you give me?
Biblical counseling is akin to removing the bullet through the Word of God, sharper than a two-edged sword, albeit with a lot of pain in the transformation process. But the counselor does not leave a man in the dark but walks with him through this painful but transformative healing. One would say, the bullet is a man's sin. But I’d say, the bullet is a man’s problem, whatever it may be (sin, abuse, hurt, etc.). And walking with people in pain is not easy.
Skip used to say, “Sheep are sheep. They ‘baah’ at one end and poop at the other!” I’ve experienced both these ends of sheep during counseling. So, during my last lap of my ACBC counseling certification, I threw in the towel. I quit. I wasn't ready for this ministry. At the time Skip told me, “Shammi, you can’t quit loving people!” Oh, those words! They pierce my heart even today.
My beloved doctor passed away into glory on January 22, 2020. That same week, God brought some deeply wounded victims of possible abuse at my doorstep. Another young lady was mourning the loss of her youth spent on the cause of caring for one struggling with Schizophrenia. All the while, I kept wondering, “What would Skip say? How would he deal with this?” But he wasn’t there at the other end. During that time, the Lord Jesus reminded me from John 14 about the ministry of the Holy Spirit. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (Jn 14:26). What Skip had and I needed dearly wasn't more of Skip. I needed more of the Soul-Doctor, the Blessed Holy Spirit, who was going to do a powerful work on ailing souls. In his death, we are multiplied, as a pastor-friend reminded me.
Yet in the death of my doc, I was grieving the dying of the art of biblical counseling. Skip gave his life for the cause of biblical counseling. I wrestle with its validity and use in an age of moralistic-therapeutic-deism. But unlike my response to my ACBC certification, I'm not going to quit. More than words, a worthy tribute to my beloved Dr. Skip would be to take his baton and continue his cause here in India. To honor Scripture, to honor the power of the Spirit, to honor precious image-bearers of God labeled as patients, and to honor men who have died counseling - even to his children and unbelieving hospital staff on his death bed - would be a worthy cause to live and die for.
Some do not suffer much, though, for they do not love much.
Suffering is for the loving. ~Nicholas Wolterstorff