Seeing with New Eyes

For those of you who last checked in with biblical counseling when Jay Adams was in his psychology-skewering heyday, you need to come have another look. The present generation of spokesmen for biblical counseling offers a more well-rounded, richer grasp of Scripture and a much more sober-minded tone. While there certainly was some justification for Adams’ jeremiads, the present generation seems to have rediscovered the value and utility of brotherly kindness, a mode of interaction sadly lacking in the early writings of the movement.

Of the present voices, one of the clearest and most articulate is David Powlison.

Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition through the Lens of Scripture is not a “counseling model” as such. It is to a counseling model what a list of mountaintop elevations is to a topographic map of the entire mountain range: it touches on the high points, and leaves the rest alone. But this seemingly incomplete way of teaching turns out to be surprisingly instructive.

There are two basic approaches to generating insight into life from Scripture:

1. Start with a given passage of Scripture, and explore its depths. See where it takes you, and what areas of life it will reinterpret for you. In a lot of ways, this is the more rewarding, because it quickly leads to surprises you might never otherwise have uncovered.

2. Start with a given practical problem, and ask, “What does the Bible say that might bear on this?” This usually draws more from what you already know, but it helps to keep the question broad. For example, suppose a young single man is seeking God’s guidance in his dealings with young women, and so his question is, “What does the Bible have to say about picking up chicks?” As it turns out, not much. But if he will broaden the question to “How should I behave toward women?” or “How does God view women?” or even, “How should I conduct myself as a young man?”, he will not only discover a wealth of insight, he will also learn why the Bible didn’t answer his first question.

In the first six chapters of Seeing with New Eyes, Powlison takes the first approach and applies it in a series of different passages. In part two, Powlison takes the second approach. The result is far more well-rounded than it would at first appear; if you pay attention, you’ll not only learn the subjects Powlison directly addresses, but you’ll also get enough exposure to his overall approach that you’ll be able to consider other subjects on your own, at least at a rudimentary level.

The first chapter, “Counsel Ephesians,” showcases a fine sentiment: rather than trying to master the whole Bible at once, believers should take a small bit, like Ephesians, and master it, and minister it to other believers, not only using the content of Ephesians, but also taking Paul’s practice in Ephesians as a pattern for their own use of Scripture. I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately that is where the agreement ends; the rest of the article is a hermeneutical monstrosity. A detailed refutation of the liberties Powlison takes will have to await another article, as will a discussion of how he can get his theory so utterly wrong and still come out right in his practical teaching (which he does, and there are definite reasons for this). However, I will mention one point here. Powlison’s appraisal of how Paul uses Scripture could scarcely be more wrong. It is flatly unbiblical to assert that God reinterprets His own Word to mean something different from what it meant when He first gave it. “God is not a man that He should lie, nor the son of man that He should repent,” yet when a Bible scholar asserts that God reinterprets His Word, this is in fact what he is accusing God of.

It is one of the high ironies of church history that the Reformed scholars, who so adamantly characterize God as the covenant-keeping God, should also assert that He redefines the terms of His covenant while it’s in force. As Charlie Clough has pointed out in this article and its sequel (fair warning: these are hard reading), this is the logical equivalent of reinterpreting a buy-on-installment contract so that the word “month” means “90 days.” (As in, “payments of $2056 per month” now means “payments of $2056 every 90 days.” And when the creditor complains, you tell them “Hey — I wrote the contract; I can interpret it any way I want to.”) Needless to say, someone who does this is not keeping the contract, but breaking it.

Chapters 3-6 are fortunately characterized by much better handling of Scripture. “Godly Roles and Relationships” explores Ephesians 5:21-6:9. Some of the errors that cropped up in “Counsel Ephesians” show up here, too, but in a mild form that doesn’t really detract from the practical import of the chapter. “Peace, Be Still” is an outstanding explanation of how to have peace in your soul, from Psalm 131. “Why Me? Comfort from Psalm 10” is exactly what it sounds like, and a good lesson also in how to pray a psalm. “Don’t Worry” brilliantly expounds the nature of worry and how to fight it biblically.

The latter nine chapters of the book address specific practical ideas and concerns, and here, too, the book really shines. By way of example, the chapter titled “What if Your Father Didn’t Love You?” addresses the common idea that a person can’t really appreciate God as Father if he had a poor relationship with his human father. Powlison first looks at how people often present this idea, offering a few common statements and corollaries: “If you have had parent problems in your personal history, you need some sort of re-parenting or corrective emotional experience. You need the love of some father substitute, therapist, mentor, or support group before you can experience God as a loving Father” or “It really made a difference to meet a person I could trust, and my relationship with God grew.” Powlison responds:

Our response to these two statements should first note that none of the words God uses to describe himself have wonderful experiential correlates….Consider, for example, God is King….To whom do you look for examples of what God the King is like: Queen Elizabeth? Bill Clinton? Saddam Hussein? The judges in traffic court? God-imaging rulers have always been rare. Yet your experience — however bad — needn’t cripple you from knowing God as King and Judge. God himself informs you about good, bad and mediocre kings, so you can learn to tell the difference. The Bible also shows and tells what sort of king God is. Do you allow the Word or experience to dictate your perception of God? You project your human experience onto God at your peril. But to those who have ears, the Holy Spirit speaks through the Word to reinterpret life experience.

Powlison goes on to explore the corrupt worldly correlates of other words God uses to represent Himself: “Shepherd,” “Master,” “Savior,” and even “God.” In every case, if we paint God in terms of our experience, we will limit and sabotage our relationship with Him, but if we will let God define the terms in Scripture, then we will grow as we should. So why should it be any different, Powlison wants to know, with “Father”? Where did this idea come from?

The intellectual source for the notion that your experience of your father determines your view of the heavenly Father is psychodynamic psychology, not the Bible….[Psychologists] rightly observed that people often fabricate their own gods. Psychodynamic theory made this “from the bottom up” pattern into a normative explanation for ideas of God. It denied that the real God revealed himself “from the top down.”

Given that assumption, it is only too reasonable that a person’s view of God must come from his father. When a Christian seeks to use this fundamentally atheistic model, the result is rather troubling: the therapist steps in and re-parents, becoming a secure, loving father figure, in order that the counselee will begin to see God as like the therapist, rather than like his human father. This merely replaces one flawed and idolatrous model with another. Citing 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12 as a model of godly counsel, Powlison writes:

Paul was vigorous, caring, and authoritative as a parent-counselor who carried the Father’s message….Knowing divine love, he gave love, a love that was both the fruit and the vehicle of the message he pressed on his hearers. God is primary; the human agent is significant but secondary. The modern re-parent/therapist reverses this….The issue at stake is not whether counselors should be patient, kind, and so forth. First Corinthians 13 settles that. But in God’s drama of redemption, who will be the lead, and who will be the supporting actor?

Given that angle of approach to the problem, the complaint, “I can’t relate to God as my Father, because my human father was evil and abusive,” stands exposed as nothing more than an excuse. It is a way of avoiding God’s overtures as a loving Father, an attempt to preserve the status quo, a self-love that clings to the way things are now at the expense of spiritual growth.

Other chapters offer similarly penetrating insight on a range of frequently unexamined categories: needs, unconditional love, defense mechanisms, causes of sin, feelings, love languages, and psychiatric drugs. All these are categories that come up every day in our profoundly psychologized culture, and we desperately need to frame these issues biblically.

To that end, Powlison’s work presents useful tools for any believer, and it’s even more important for those with formal training in counseling — or even for believers who’ve watched a few episodes of Dr. Phil. If you’re imbibing the pagan version, you need to hear the Christian corrective too. Seeing with New Eyes is a great book, and I highly recommend it.

Just not for its hermeneutics.

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