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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Counseling and devotion

I posted the following on my Myspace blog about a week and a half ago, intending to post it here as well. I didn't think it would take me so long, but...well, here it is. In some places, I am simply repeating things I've said here in the past, so I hope the reader will pardon me for that. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy it.

I have been listening on and off for the past couple of months to the audio version of a book entitled Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave (also subtitled Finding Hope in the Power of the Gospel), written by Edward T. Welch. I have also been listening to the same material as presented by Dr. Welch in seminar form. While the two follow basically the same pattern, with the seminars being more compacted in their presentation, I have found listening to both to be very helpful. For those not familiar with Dr. Welch, he is associated with the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, a parachurch organization that serves to aid the church in its effort to effectively counsel those under its care. Dr. Welch has written several books, of which this is one of the more recent ones.

The book is written mainly for those seeking to help those trapped in a cycle of addiction, particularly those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, though it is useful for those dealing with people dealing with other addictions as well. Those who are interested in a Christian response to Alcoholics Anonymous will find Dr. Welch's comments in relation to A.A. at least thought provoking if not helpful. The book is also helpful to those actually dealing with addictions, which, if we were all honest enough about our sin, we would all acknowledge to include ourselves.

At one point earlier in my life, I thought that the field of Christian counseling was one I wanted to pursue, though I have since abandoned that wish. I have also, through the years, developed an antipathy to anything communicated in the language of psychology/psychiatry. Though I still find myself resorting to them from time to time, words like "baggage", "issues", and "codependency" tend to turn my stomach. I'm not entirely sure why this is. Nonetheless, my "issues" with these words have been a bit of a hindrance while listening to Dr. Welch. I often think that clinical psychological terminology serves to masquerade the truth about a person, or to divert the guilt of sin from the addict (or, more accurately, the habitual sinner). One of the bright sides of Dr. Welch's teaching is that he tries to redirect the person who tends to think and speak this way such that they began to view the addict's situation from a more Biblical perspective – a perspective that speaks in terms of sin rather than disease, the latter term being one that communicates the idea of a passive, helpless victim, as opposed to the former term, which communicates the idea of responsibility for one's behaviour.

I don't doubt that someone reading this will immediately begin to question the validity of this distinction, and I readily admit that the reality of sin's working in individuals as well as in the history of the world is far more complicated than this. We are born guilty and corrupt, and this was decided for us before we were born. Nonetheless, for the Christian there is opportunity to conquer sin, and when we fail to do that we are guilty. Therefore, understanding where Dr. Welch is coming from on this, I would agree with him. I won't attempt any deeper explanation of the condition of the individual than that right now.

One of the more helpful insights that Dr. Welch offers comes from his desire to ground his teaching firmly on the Gospel. He expresses this insight this way – "For every one look that the addict takes at himself, he needs to take ten looks at Jesus Christ." Welch teaches very clearly that the addict, just like anyone else, can never be acceptable before God on the basis of his own works, but on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ alone. And because of this, it is in looking to Jesus Christ alone that one finds hope. If the addict isn't a Christian, then the first task (in terms of importance) is to lead the person to place their faith in Christ. But when dealing with a Christian who is an addict, the way for them to deal with their addiction isn't to focus excessively on themselves and what they do. The hope for the addict is in the work of Christ, and that hope includes any amount of victory over their sin they might achieve. Incomparable freedom comes in recognizing that they don't have to earn God's favour by their behaviour, and that God doesn't cast them out when they sin. We all need to be repeatedly reminded that God is far more merciful than we at any moment might tend to be ourselves.

At this point I'd like to depart from talking about Dr. Welch's book, however. So often the way this is handled in counseling or discipling situations is in encouraging the counselee/disciplee to pray, read Scripture, and worship God every day in private – what has been variously called "private worship", "private devotions", or "quiet time". I will admit that this can be a wise thing to do. I try to read at least a Psalm every day, if not more Scripture, and I try to find at least a little bit of time for prayer, though the attention I'm able to give to these things varies from day to day. However, I don't find a single verse in Scripture that requires that these things be done on a daily basis, and so I personally think that to bind anyone to that is legalism. Not only has the average believer throughout the history of the world (including both Old Testament and New Testament believers) not had a personal copy of the Scriptures to read whenever he wanted to (even once a day), the average believer hasn't even been able to read. One might immediately run (as the average Evangelical believer has been taught) to certain verses in I & II Timothy to counter this statement. The first verse that usually comes up is II Timothy 2:15 (from the English Standard Version): "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." But to take this and to apply this to every believer is to misunderstand the nature of Paul's two letters to Timothy. These are, along with Paul's Epistle to Titus, classically called "Pastoral Epistles", because the men they are written to, being Timothy and Titus, were pastors. While there are things in these letters that apply more broadly to every believer, much in these three letters uniquely apply to the ordained Christian minister. This being understood, one can see that Timothy is a minister (indicated by the word "worker"), and his right handling of the Scripture relates to his rightly teaching and preaching the Scripture to the Christian congregation. This is further verified when one doesn't rip the verse out of its context, but rather reads vs. 14 through at least the end of vs. 15 (if not further).

I think that a Christian will, generally speaking, want to pray. But I don't think Scripture requires a certain period of time set apart every day for prayer. One example in defense of this practice that is often pointed to is Daniel, who we are told prayed three times a day facing Jerusalem (Daniel 6:10). But while this can certainly be a good practice, Scripture nowhere requires it. And we once again need to understand the context of Daniel's practice. Living in captivity in Babylon, the Israelites were unable to practice the temple worship commanded by God. Daniel's action was a substitute for the corporate worship that God commanded and which wasn't available to him. Also, his action was appropriate to what was expected of the Israelite who longed for the repentance of his fellow Israelites, who sought God's returned favour to Israel, and who longed for the restoration of Israel to the land God had given and therefore the worship He commanded (I Kings 8:46-53; II Chronicles 7:12-16). There are appropriate New Testament applications of this (which I don't have time to get into now), but to lift this wholesale from Daniel's situation and to apply it broadly to the believer today is improper.

This tendency to center the believer's piety on his own personal devotional practices has a long and varied heritage, it seems to me. It ranges from Medieval mysticism (St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, etc.) to monasticism in general (reaching back to the Desert Fathers) to the atomism of the Late Medieval Nominalists to the abuse of the idea of the Priesthood of All Believers attributed to Martin Luther to the individualistic rationalism of Rene Descartes. Descartes' ideas have been what has most affected us in regard to individualistic piety in recent centuries, though I hope the above sentence demonstrates the complexity of the history of "ideas" (for lack of a better term).

Let me address some things I'm not saying by what I've written above. I'm not saying that it's a bad thing for a person who isn't a minister to read the Bible for themselves. I think one proper outworking of the Biblical doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers is that the non-ordained may approach God on their own with the aid of the Scriptures. Of course, this will mean "interpretation", since interpretation simply means the act of coming to a correct understanding of a text. But the person reading the Scriptures needs to do their best to come to the Scriptures with some understanding of the history of Biblical interpretation so as to prevent misunderstanding. I see it as the role of the pastor to properly educate his congregation on the right method of interpretation, whether that be only through teaching and preaching, or through providing books that will aid the individual in the process. Ultimately, then, the responsibility falls back on the pastors. The important thing here, especially in our age, is that the layperson approaches the Scripture with humility and in consideration of all the great teachers that have come and gone before us. We have two thousand years of Biblical interpretation behind us. We need to not only take advantage of the wisdom there available to us, but to give credit to those who have left us such a great treasure of knowledge. At the same time, no man is infallible (no apologies to my Catholic friends), and so we need to recognize the possibility of longstanding false interpretations.

As I mentioned above, I believe that a Christian will generally have a natural desire to talk to God. But if there's one area that I think we all have a tendency to fall apart doctrinally, it's in the area of prayer. Growing up in an Evangelical church, I heard all sorts of prayers – some not so bad, many not so good. In attempting to be "authentic", Evangelical churches reject any notion of written prayer or liturgical prayer. The result of this has been a heritage (over the past century or so) of the most banal prayers one can imagine. Part of the problem here, I think, is that Evangelicals tend to approach Scripture with the belief that all Scripture can do is deliver information to them. If this is the case, though, why did God give us His word not only in the form of straight teaching, but also, at times, in the form of prayers, poetry, and songs? When I take, for instance, the prayers of the Apostle Paul and compare them to the prayers I heard growing up, they pale in comparison. I look at the Psalms as well and find the same. In large part, I think herein lies the solution. I think if we approach the Scriptures with a mind to allow it to shape us not only intellectually, but also aesthetically, we will find (over time) a transformation in the way we not only pray, but also in the way we view the world overall. In the Presbyterian tradition I have found this to be the case. In those ministers who I admired as having a deep understanding of the Scripture, I have often found prayers far grander than anything I ever heard growing up.

Also, we have a grand tradition of prayer in the history of the church that we should take advantage of. There are prayer books, liturgies, and books of compiled prayers from many great Christians that are available to us if we will only look for them. Just as it is wise to look to these godly men to teach us how to understand God's word, it is also wise to look to them to teach us how to pray. This is part of the reason that I am currently a member of an Anglican parish. The Anglican tradition has done a great job in maintaining and making use of these prayers.

While this approach will inevitably improve the prayers of those who pray publicly, it will also improve the prayers of the Christian who prays in private. Now certainly, private prayer can be quite different than public prayer. Private prayer is more personal. There are things we will say to God in private that we should never say in a group setting. Too often, though, without any sort of structure to an individual's private prayer, their prayer can degenerate to the same banal level as the public prayers I was talking about above. "But," someone may ask, "do you think God really minds?" My immediate answer is, "Yes! I do think He minds." Too often we approach these kinds of questions in too static a fashion. God loves the prayer of a five year old when she prays for Grandma and Grandpa and her babydoll. But if the girl were still praying for the babydoll when she was twelve, we would take this as an indicator that something wasn't right. God desires us to grow, to mature. If an immature Christian is praying in a more immature fashion, God loves and honors that prayer. But we should aim to grow in our prayer lives, just as we seek to grow in other areas of our lives.

Nothing I've written here is intended to give the impression that I'm someone to be emulated in this. I have a long way to go when it comes to both prayer and reading Scripture. Nonetheless, I've found these things to be helpful, and I consider them to be wise.

I say all these things, however, by way of addressing the idea of the absolute necessity of daily private worship. And I still maintain that, while it may be a wise thing to do (if a person is able to do it), it isn't required by Scripture and, therefore, I would say, not absolutely necessary for one to rightly follow Christ.

What is necessary, then? Well, this post is extremely long already, so I'll have to save that for another time. For now, let me simply say that the answer lies in the corporate worship of the local church.

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