by Marie Notcheva
Have you ever suffered from theological burnout? I have – notably when studying for my biblical counseling certification. One hundred eighty-five hours of video lectures were tremendously helpful and informational; so were the many books I had to read. By the end, saturated in hermeneutics and systematic theology, I didn’t feel like opening the Bible anymore. I felt like God was an algorithm to be approached through diagrams, charts, and verses committed to memory. He seemed as distant as my college chemistry professor (who I haven’t seen since 1990).
There was nothing wrong with the training, of course. A correct understanding of God, human nature, and the Bible is critical in order to understand the issues we deal with in the counseling room (as well as life in general, for that matter). All of the books and training materials I was assigned were produced by Calvinistic authors, as biblical counseling tends to be very heavily Reformed. Reformed literature, by and large, tends to be heavy. Richly doctrinal but not a quick read. There is less emphasis on God’s love and relationship with us than on His other attributes, and to be honest, many times the continual emphasis on exegetical skill (not to mention total depravity) left me cold.
Christ Might Have Died for my Sins?
Don’t get me wrong; the Reformers were the heroes of the faith who rescued Christianity from the mysticism and superstition of the Dark Ages. The Reformed camp, on the whole, produces the highest quality Christian literature there is; particularly in the Christian counseling genre. Sometimes it has seemed to me, however, that in the quest for doctrinal precision and endless parsing, the relational aspect of Christ’s love is lost. Taking an extreme position on the Doctrines of Grace can leave one scratching one’s head.
For example, in one course I was taught that when sharing the Gospel with a potential convert, one should never tell him that “Christ died for [his] sins because you have no way of knowing if that individual is one of the elect or not.” Umm…alrighty then. So…what exactly should we tell him? “Hey! I have great news! Christ might have died for your sins!”
Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
Jesus looked at the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:20-22), loved him, and bid him come and follow Him. And the guy still walked away (which I find staggering). Repeatedly, we see that the invitation is open to all…we all have a chance to be one of “the elect”. We need to hold onto this truth, and not confuse counselees into thinking they can be arbitrarily ‘locked out’ of heaven by a misunderstanding of predestination. We need to give hope, not seek to be more Calvinistic than Calvin.
Overwhelmed by Theology, or Overwhelmed by Love?
Having a high view of God precludes focusing on our own “felt needs.” It is unbiblical (some would say blasphemous) to think in terms of our own value. I understand and agree that we are totally depraved, and the Atonement speaks of HIS infinite worth, glory and value, but there are several places in Scripture where God’s Word indicates that we are precious to Him. If we were truly worthless to God, He never would have sent His Son. I can see where there’s a danger to making the cross all about us, rather than about God (and people do); but even the Puritans recognized Christ’s love for the individual.
I agree God does not exist to meet our emotional needs, but what do you do when you have a tough day? What do you teach your counselee to do? Or do Reformed folks never have a tough day, because of God’s majesty and sovereignty? Do we pour our hearts out to God, or do we text a friend, who seems more approachable?
Sometimes, after reading about the proper view of God, I actually would have a tough time praying. I find it intimidating and don’t really know what to talk about. The Reformers themselves were passionate, emotional, introspective people. Sometimes in today’s literary Reformed camp, one can learn much but feel nothing. One believer I know wrote: “I love Reformed people, but I loathe their “We are the Christian Intellectual Elite” complex. When Christianity is all head and no heart… yep, the balance is lost.”
Getting Back to Basics – with the Puritans
This might be an over-correction made by the modern biblical counseling movement, in response to the touchy-feely theological fluffiness that graces the shelves of today’s Christian bookstores. In stark contrast to the modern “Jesus is My Homeboy” attitude, the correct relationship with God that Reformed writers historically have tried to convey is one of awe-struck intimacy. Consider the following passage, penned by Frances Ridley Havergal in the 19th century:
Some of us think and say a good deal about a sense of Christ’s presence – sometimes rejoicing in it, sometimes going mourning all the day long because we have it not; praying for it and not always seeming to receive what we ask; measuring our own position, and sometimes even that of others, by it; now on the heights, now in the depths about it….It comes practically to this: Are you a disciple of the Lord Jesus at all? If so, He says to you, “I am with you always.” That overflows all the regrets of the past and all the possibilities of the future and most certainly includes the present. Therefore, at this very moment, as surely as your eyes rest on this page, so surely is the Lord Jesus with you. “I am” is neither “I was” nor “I will be.” It is always abreast of our lives, always encompassing us with salvation. It is a splendid, perpetual now. [i]
Does this read as if it were written by someone who saw God as distant, obscure, or harsh? Far from it. The beauty of some of the classical writing of the Puritans (and other early Reformed writers, such as Spurgeon) is that they maintained that balance between holding a high view of God’s majesty, and enjoying an intimate relationship with Him. Humbled by His interest in their lives, the desire to know Him in spirit and in truth fueled their deep study of His Word. Far from seeing theology as dry or irrelevant, we may think of these early Reformed writers as the original biblical counselors.
Learning to Enjoy God all Over Again
It took me a long time to get back to reading devotionals after completing my certification. I got the impression from my courses that devotionals are considered “fluffy” and generally promote bad theology. The answer is to find truly good devotionals – writing that spurs one on to seek God more, and to go deeper in our walk with Him. We needn’t suffer from ‘theological burnout’ or view Reformed/biblical counseling literature as dry or overly heavy-handed.
The answer, for me anyway, was to drop the intellectually-induced guilt over not always having a desire to peruse concordances, categorize passages on index cards, or learn koinos Greek. Of course, if one has the time and desire to do this, by all means she should! Proper interpretation of the Scriptures is not optional; and I have taught on this very subject many times. But there comes a point where the human heart wants to put down the books, and just spend time with the Father. We biblical counselors can easily get out of balance when the very thing we use to know God – doctrinal study – can stand in the way of desiring fellowship with Him. Simply being on guard against this trap (and being honest with ourselves about how we wish to spend devotional time with God) is crucial to our spiritual health, which in turn makes us able to minister to others.
[i] “Seasons of the Heart”, compiled by Donna Kelderman, Reformation Heritage Books, 2013.