Must-Read for Pastors, Lay Leaders, and Church Members High School & Up
Reviewed in the United States on November 9, 2014
Suffering is the universal language spoken by everyone living in a fallen world. Sometimes suffering is inflicted from without a person and at other times it originates from within him. In either case, what is the solution? Where does the sufferer turn to find the solution? In Counseling the Hard Cases, editors Stuart Scott and Heath Lambert join others to assemble a collection of true stories, each of which demonstrate not only how the Bible addresses, but also heals some of the most painful situations imaginable.
Though Counseling the Hard Cases is certainly an argument in favor of biblical counseling, it is most foundationally an argument for and demonstration of the sufficiency of Scripture. Anticipating opposition to his position, Heath Lambert traces the history of the development of counseling, identifying the three primary groups, which include both biblical and secular approaches. The first group is secular psychology, which views the Bible as entirely irrelevant to counseling. Proponents of secular psychology believe that man’s deepest needs have nothing to do with God. The second group, which functions as an in-between perspective between secular psychology and biblical counseling, views the Bible as “relevant to counseling but insufficient for it” (p. 5). The final group, which is represented by the authors of Counseling the Hard Cases, believes that man’s deepest need is spiritual. As result, biblical counselors affirm that the Bible includes “comprehensive resources for counseling rather than exhaustive ones,” and is the sufficient tool for counseling.
To demonstration the sufficiency of Scripture, the book spends the majority of its pages tracing ten of the most difficult issues facing humanity. As previously mentioned, each story told represents the actual story of man or woman and how God used His Word to transform their lives. The issues include (1) sexual abuse, (2) obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), (3) depression, (4) paralyzing fear, (5) anorexia, (6) bipolar disorder, (7) dissociative identity disorder, (8) homosexuality, (9) addictions and adultery, and (10) unresolved conflict in marriage.
Counseling the Hard Cases is a holistically excellent work, replete with strengths and lacking noteworthy weaknesses. There are several general strengths and also several specific strengths of the book. The primary general strengths of the book are the nature of its foundational premise and its effectiveness in demonstrating it. Regarding the former, despite arguments to the contrary or overt denials from both secular and professing Christian counselors, the Scripture speaks with clarity to its own sufficiency. Perhaps more clearly, Paul asserts that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Similarly, Jesus prays to the Father on behalf of His people, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (Jn. 17:17).
As for demonstrating the sufficiency of Scripture, Counseling the Hard Cases does so with remarkable effectiveness. Granted, no book can demonstrate the sufficiency of Scripture to speak to every possible circumstance. In fact, were there to be one weakness of the book, it is simply its inability to fulfill the impossible task of citing within a single volume every potential counseling situation. Additionally, doubters will almost certainly argue that these are special cases that do not represent what is possible in every situation. Again, a demonstration to the contrary would not be possible. Given these limitations, the authors do select counseling cases that live up to the title of the book. In each case, the counselee undergoes deeply rooted trauma that is functionally paralyzing to one degree or another. In each case, the truth of God’s Word brings legitimate healing to the lives of those suffering, which is difficult even for doubters to effectively refute.
The compassion with which the counselors approached each counselee is certainly remarkable. Although many counselors seem disinterested in their counselees, the practice of counseling demonstrated throughout Counseling the Hard Cases is interested, sensitive, and engaged. For example, Garrett Higbee, explaining why he approached his allegedly bipolar counselee in a particular way, writes, “While sin is clearly involved and at the core of any problem, legitimate suffering needs a compassionate ear” (182).
Beyond the nature of its foundational premise and its effectiveness in demonstrating it, the book serves as a wonderful help to the local church. In each story, the counselor simply uses God’s Word to provide counsel, which leaves the reader feeling as though he or she can do that. There is also, of course, an implicit challenge to the reader because effective biblical counseling requires the counselor to know and understand what God has revealed in the Bible.
A second way in which Counseling the Hard Cases benefits the local church is its use of accessible language. Books that use excessively academic language necessarily lose a portion of the church that would otherwise benefit from its contents. In fact, even the font size is helpful, enabling not only ease of reading, but also the feeling of reading quickly as pages turn more quickly than most books of its size.
A final general strength is the gospel-centeredness of the counsel given throughout the book. Whereas there exists within the church the strong tendency toward legalism (i.e., what I must or should be doing for God) rather than gospel (i.e., what Christ has done for me), every counseling story told displays the gospel as the centerpiece of counsel, thereby unleashing not only the justifying power of God, but also the sanctifying power of God in deeply painful and complex situations.
As for specific strengths, the counsel given to Ashley, who had been consumed by anorexia, was not only true, but incredibly insightful. The author of the chapter writes, “Ashley needed to believe—truly believe—that she wasn’t predestined to be conformed to the air-brushed image on the cover of Vanity Fair or the plasticized image of a Hollywood superstar or even the real-life image of her best friend. Her worth was not inversely proportional to a few lost pounds, a thinning wasteline, or a dropped size. The perfect image of Jesus the Son of God was her destiny, and that’s all that ultimately mattered” (148). The core issue with anorexia is, ultimately, a failure to understand where the person ought to be going in life. The temptation, of course, is to seek conformity into images found in the world, but God has revealed His plan in Romans 8 to conform His people into the image of Christ.
Next, the story of Tony, who was diagnosed bipolar, is particularly appropriate for the primary target audience of the book: pastors. Tony, too, was a pastor who worked far more than he should have worked. Meanwhile, he was failing to devote Himself to Christ in personal devotion and had neglected to worship with his wife in their home and personal lives. Tony struggled to identify the reason for his significant internal struggles (e.g. hyper-exhaustion, discouragement), but he busied himself in ministry all the more until he finally began demonstrated behavior that was so abnormal that a physician labeled him bipolar. This scenario, of course, could easily become the case of any pastor because the task of serving often feels like such a substantial task that there is simply no time to spend devotionally with God. Tony was caught in a performance trap, subtly believing that his acceptance with God was based upon his performance rather than Christ’s. Because of the number of men preaching in American pulpits every week who relate well to Tony, the inclusion of his story serves great purpose and fills a great need.
In conclusion, Counseling the Hard Cases is a must-read not only for licensed counselors, but also for pastors, lay leaders, and church members. Because of the sensitivity of some of the issues discussed, the book is not best for students younger than ninth grade, and the wise youth pastor will make the contents of the book known to the parents of his youth before introducing it even at that level. That said, the contents of the book not only demonstrate the sufficiency of God’s Word, but they also provide functional training in counseling, which, as is made evident throughout the book, is an aspect of discipleship.
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