What I told 7,000 counselors today

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Today I spoke at the American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference to 7,000 Christian Counselors in Opryland. It’s an honor to serve those who serve others. 

I was given 25 minutes to speak and finished on time, so you can officially add that to the list of Jesus’ miracles. Sitting on the plane flying in, as I was putting my talk together, I thought it might be helpful to write it out as an article, describing a major difference between common counseling and Christian counseling. Some of this content is based on my book, Who Do You Think You Are: Finding Your True Identity in Christ, which is based on the book of Ephesians.

Remember the old Road Runner cartoons? In most every episode, Wiley E. Coyote gets an anvil dropped on his head at some point. He never sees it coming, yet somehow he always survives—only to enjoy a dented head and a pounding headache.

Counseling is like that.

As a general rule, when someone sits across from us, it is to talk about their anvil (e.g., breakup, cancer, divorce, adultery, depression, addiction, family drama, abuse, poverty, etc.). After they explain what their anvil is, where it fell from, and how it damaged them, they then tend to ask one question: what should I do?

This is a sacred moment. This is a vital moment. This moment is our invitation, and we are at a proverbial fork in the road. We must decide which path we will walk them down. Since they are looking to us for wisdom and help, as we put an arm around them, we need to know where we will take them.

The two-fold path

Generally speaking, there are only two paths.

Path 1 is the path of good advice. This is a well-trodden path in common counseling: __________ (# of steps) to achieve ___________ (name your issue). Seemingly, every television talk show, advice column, magazine article, and self-help book ventures down this same path. Good advice tells us what we should do.

Path 2 is the path of good news. This is the path of Christian counseling. Christian counseling believes in the same thing as non-Christian counseling (i.e., good advice). We just believe in more of it. We also believe the order of advice given is important—that good advice comes after good news. Good news is what Jesus has done. Good advice is what you should do (and not do).

Path 1 assumes that if people change what they do, then they can change who they are. On Path 1, your activity changes your identity. To put it another way, what you do determines who you are.

Path 2 assumes that once people know that who they are is changed by Jesus, then they will be able to change what they do. On Path 2, Jesus changes your identity and helps you change your activity. To put it another way, who you are determines what you do.

Who you are determines what you do.

Made in God’s likeness

The issue of identity is a crucial one. In common cultural vernacular, this is called “self-image” or “self-esteem.” This issue is so foundational that it can be traced all the way back to the first sin and suffering in the Garden of Eden with our first parents.

For more than two decades, I read Genesis 1–2 over and over and over. I referenced it in hundreds—maybe thousands—of sermons. And it was not until maybe two years ago that I noticed something that I had overlooked over and over and over. It just goes to show that the Bible is a mine that you never excavate every nugget of gold from.

Here’s what we read about our identity, by virtue of being made by God, in Genesis 1:26–28: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them’” (emphasis added).

There is more to unpack here than I want to explore in this article, but for our purposes, let me point out one thing: our identity as men and women is not achieved by what we do but rather received by what God has done, making us in his “likeness.” As a mirror reflects our image, so we are a mirror made by God to reflect his truth, love, goodness, beauty, generosity, and justice to the world.

Good news is what Jesus has done. Good advice is what you should do (and not do).

And here’s the part I missed for nearly all of my Christian life since Jesus saved me at the age of 19: Genesis 3 records the first sin of our first parents. That is where the first anvil fell on our heads. Genesis 3:1 begins by introducing us to Satan, the “serpent,” who is “crafty.” Genesis 3 records his conversation with Eve as Adam sat idly by, saying and doing nothing—the sin of omission. The lie the serpent tells our first parents is in regard to their identity: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5, emphasis added).

The truth is that God made them—and us—in his likeness. The lie is that we need to do something to be “like God.” This is the fundamental problem with Path 1: common counseling. It tells us what to do rather than who we are.

When we forget who we are, we forget what to do. When we remember who we are, we know what to do.

Who do you think you are?

We need to ask this question rather than answer the question, “What should I do?”

Most people will answer the identity question by explaining what they have, what they do, who they know, or what has been done to them. And while these things may explain a person, they do not define them.

Then, we need to teach them who they are before we tell them what to do. This is because our activity proceeds from our identity.

‘In Adam’ or ‘in Christ’

According to the Bible, the two most important people who have ever walked the earth are Adam and Jesus Christ. They are so closely related that in 1 Corinthians 15:45, they are called the “first Adam” and the “last Adam.”

Continuing down Path 2, we have to help them discover which team they are on, which kingdom they belong to, and which leader they follow. This is because we do not want people merely helped but we want them saved. We do not want to merely aid them with their suffering but we want to see them delivered from eternal suffering. According to Scripture, all of humanity is in one of two categories. 1 Corinthians 15:21–22 says, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (emphases added).

The Bible is a mine that you never excavate every nugget of gold from 

Everyone is either “in Adam” or “in Christ.” This is what the Bible means when it speaks in terms of the “head.” In every covenant, there is a head. This is the person who is the leader of those who are associated with them. Think of it like a nation where in every decision the highest official affects every citizen in the nation for better or worse. We are all born in the first Adam, and some are born again in the last Adam.

The first Adam turned from the Father in a garden; the last Adam turned to the Father in a garden. The first Adam was naked and unashamed; the last Adam was naked and bore our shame. The first Adam’s sin brought us thorns; the last Adam wore a crown of thorns. The first Adam substituted himself for God; the last Adam was God substituting himself for sinners. The first Adam sinned at a tree; the last Adam bore our sin on a tree. The first Adam died as a sinner; the last Adam died for sinners. In Adam there is defeat, but in Christ there is victory. In Adam there is condemnation, but in Christ there is salvation. In Adam we receive a sin nature, but in Christ we receive a new nature. In Adam we’re cursed, but in Christ we’re blessed. In Adam there is wrath and death, but in Christ there is love and life.

Identity forever and radically altered ‘in Christ’

For Paul, the concept of being “in Christ” is central to all the good news and good advice the Holy Spirit inspires him to write. The phrase “in Christ” and others like it (e.g., “in him” and “in the beloved”) appear some 216 in Paul’s thirteen New Testament letters, whereas the title “Christian” is found only three times in the entire New Testament. These phrases, as well as those related to it, are not found prior to Paul and are rare outside of Paul. What this suggests is that, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the identity of God’s people was so forever and radically altered that new terms were needed to explain this new reality. By using this phrase, Paul is saying that positionally we are in Christ, and that practically Christ is in us by the Holy Spirit.

Now, turning to Ephesians, we see that the book is largely about our identity in Christ. Clinton Arnold says, “Paul wrote this letter . . . to affirm . . . their new identity in Christ as a means of strengthening them.” Klyne Snodgrass says the main purpose of Paul’s letter is “identity formation.” Catholic Peter Williamson explains, “Union with Christ gives human beings a radically new identity. We have put off the old self, the old humanity, and have put on the new.”

The lie is that we need to do something to be “like God.” 

Appearing over 30 times in various forms, this theme of our identity being “in Christ” is arguably the primary theme of Ephesians. It is connected to timeless counseling issues such as work, marriage, parenting, bitterness, and suffering. The book breaks down into chapters 1–3, which mainly tell us who we are, followed by chapters 4–6, which mainly tell us what we are to do in light of who we are. This is the pattern for Christian counseling. It’s no wonder Christian Counselor David Powlison says, “In a pinch you could do all your counseling from Ephesians. . . . [It] aims to teach you how to live.”

For us to really help people in that sacred moment where they invite us into their soul by asking, “What should I do?” we need to remember to first make sure they understand who they are. This is Path 2, the path of Christian counseling.

Good news, then good advice

By walking with our counselee down Path 2, we will have accomplished a few very important things. One, we will have helped them to think biblically. Two, we will have helped them to think about someone other than just themselves. Three, we will have helped them start to interpret the story of their life in light of the story of God.

But it is important that once they understand who they are in Christ (i.e., justified, forgiven, made new, clean, loved, adopted, blessed, righteous, etc.), we do not neglect to also give them good advice.

Good advice and good news are the two feet we use to walk with a hurting person. 

Frankly, I see a lot of Path 1 counseling in our world and in the church. I see a lot of bad Path 2 counseling in the church as well. As an overreaction to Path 1, some Path 2 counselors only talk about good news but refuse to ever give good advice. Those with this error tend to be from my theological camp, the broadly Reformed world. They are influenced—as I am—by great thinkers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther. There is a reason why neither of those men wrote a commentary on, preached much from, or even quoted much from biblical wisdom literature. They did not know what to do with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, as well as Job and James. Why? Those books have a lot of good advice and seemingly less good news. They tell people what to do a lot more than telling them what Jesus did. Admittedly, they are written to God’s covenant people already in relationship with him. They are written to people who already had the good news, and they needed some good advice about their pots and pans, genitals, debt-to-income ratio, nagging wife, perverted husband, and drunk college kid. People need good news and then good advice. It’s a good thing the Bible models this for us.

Think of it this way: good advice and good news are the two feet we use to walk with a hurting person. Good news is our lead foot, and then comes good advice. Hopping on either foot is a tough way to travel.


God is Faithful. He has called you. It's your move.