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David Powlison

What Questions Does a Biblical Counselor Suggest We Ask?

By David Powlison

All vital ministry of Word and Spirit arises at an intersection: Truth meets truth. Divine Redeemer meets honest human need. So when two (or more) people meet in discipleship or pastoral counseling, they must get on the table the key elements of that more profound meeting that changes lives today and for all time. There is a ‘real time’ relationship between God and every one of His creatures. Something is at stake today, however consciously faithful or blindly disobedient we are. If this is so, then two key questions must weave throughout all that is said and done in discipleship.

First, what is this person facing in life? To put it more pointedly, what is your greatest struggle and need right now? Where will you face today’s crucial choices? In that moment, in that situation, what will you do? How will you treat people? What will you believe? Where will you place (or misplace) your trust? What will you want? How will you react in that circumstance? These questions look for the significant, decisive choice points in a person’s everyday life: “When you face that situation, which way will you turn?”

Second, what does the Lord say that speaks directly into what you are facing? Who is He? What is He doing? What does He promise? What does He will? And what does He call you to believe, need, trust, hope, and obey? These questions explore a person’s current perceptions of the God who is there and is not silent. Is what God says and does immediately relevant or basically irrelevant?

Both questions enable us to work together on what counts. Ministry is always in the business of helping people make connections they haven’t been making. It’s always reinterpreting what’s going on, in order to identify the redemptive opportunities in what seem like the same old ruts. It traces out previously unseen practical implications of life in Christ. It’s always remaking minds, hearts, and lifestyles that are still misshapen. These questions will help you to say the timely, significant, and appropriate words that help bring to pass such a discipling of lives.

The first question helps us grasp the “stage” (providentially arranged by the Vinedresser) on which growth (or hardening) takes place every day. It makes discipleship relevant. Occasionally there is a “big” issue, a huge u-turn, a major choice of life direction. But usually the watershed moments occur in the tiny choices of life: the words we say or don’t say, the attitudes we adopt or resist, the tasks we pick up or shirk, the ways we love or ignore another, our reaction to some typical trouble. If love is the Spirit’s fruit, we need Him right then and there.

The second question helps us grasp what this person does (or does not) understand about God and how He meets us. It enables discipleship to build on and to reinforce what someone already knows (But, oh how easily we forget, get distracted, or turn willfully away!).  You can then judiciously add what someone doesn’t yet know that makes a difference. Often people we disciple already “know” significant truth, but they don’t know it in a way that changes their lives. Discipleship does the hard work of kneading what is true into how we actually live.

You will ask these two questions in a hundred different ways. They are things that you the discipler must continually ask of everything you see and hear, whether or not you actually pose these questions out loud. You are looking for the significant real-time choice points – today, this week, during this season of this person’s life. You are looking for the places where you can say to another, “Here is where you need this grace and truth.” I’ll often say to someone, “The Vinedresser uses pruning shears, not a chain saw. He’s not going to work on everything all at once. He’s not going to make you face every kind of trouble right now. He’s not going to change everything in you or teach you everything about Himself. But something about who He is and what He says to you can make a decisive difference in some challenge you are facing right now.” In discipling another, I am doing nothing more than pursuing the same line of questioning and reasoning that I myself need, and that I find the Discipler takes with me. God meets you exactly where you are. That’s all these questions are about.

I suspect that most of our discipleship efforts do better at teaching people basic theology, Bible knowledge, principles of Christian ethics, God’s promises, ministry techniques, and the disciplines of grace than they do at asking the good questions that make all those good teachings sparkle with relevance. I’ve found such probing to be hugely fruitful. It helps me to better understand the people God has called me to serve (even as it helps me to understand myself). It helps others to better understand how God meets them in real life (even as it helps me).

It is also significant that these two questions help you to understand Scripture. Think about that one for a minute. You should ask the same things of the Bible that you ask of people. Of course, and why not? The Bible is about people, and troubles, and mercies, and choices, and struggles, and hope. So ask of Scripture, What were those people over there back then facing? What did God choose to show and tell in meeting them? Today’s specific situations and choices are never exactly the same, but there are always common themes. And though our saving God never works in exactly the same way twice, He is always the same yesterday, today, and forever.

These two questions help you to get a feel for how Scripture operates. The Word is not a textbook of normative and propositional truths. It does not operate like a systematic theology text, dense with abstracted propositions logically arranged. And it is not a treasury of verse-sized proof-texts. A topical study using a concordance is often not the best way to understand something biblically. The Bible is not a how-to book, a self-help book, or inspirational reading. Scripture does not work like some handbook chock full of abstracted principles, advice, steps, sayings, and cheering anecdotes. Instead, the Word of God reveals God’s person, promises, ways, and will in action onto the “stage” and into the “story” of real human lives. Our two questions attune us to that; they arise from becoming attuned to that. In our discipling ministry, we should seek to work in much the same way that Scripture works. We are discipling the same kinds of people who originally received any particular chunk of the Word. So let’s get the living God into the daily watershed moments! Let me summarize, and then illustrate.

At every turn the Word of God shows people facing particular challenges and choice points. Amid the troubles and opportunities of their lives, they are tempted to believe particular lies, to choose particular wrongs, and to live in ways that are ugly, perverse, and complicated (this is our Question 1).

And Scripture shows forth the bright Lord of life, the true and living God who enters the human condition redemptively, making wrongs right, speaking wisdom that we need (this is our Question 2).

And, amid all the troubles and opportunities, Scripture shows forth some people believing what is true, choosing what is good, and living in ways that are simply beautiful – people after God’s own heart. They need, seek, and turn to the Lord. Supremely, we witness the true man after God’s own heart, that bright Lord, Word made flesh, living with us, touched by our weakness, full of grace, truth and glory, loving God and neighbor (this is the goal of our discipleship).

Consider a simple example of how Scripture disciples us amid what we face. Has anyone ever faced a threat situation more wonderfully and honestly than this?

Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me, for my soul takes refuge in You, and in the shadow of Your wings I will take refuge until destruction passes by. I will cry to God Most High, to God who accomplishes all things for me. He will send from heaven and save me. He reproaches him who tramples upon me. God will send forth His lovingkindness and His truth (Ps 57:1-3).

Notice all those active verbs. They describe the God that I honestly need (our Question 2 again). Are those you disciple learning such a straight-on relationship with this God?

Notice how the psalm then proceeds. A man vividly portrays his experience of facing threat – and he intends to evoke that experience in you, connecting to what you face. Imagine yourself feeling keenly threatened by people with destructive intentions… trampled and run over… surrounded and stalked by a pride of lions… lying helpless on the ground amid fire-breathing predators… assaulted by violent killers whose mouths are spears, arrows, and swords… trapped by people out to get you, who spread a net and dig a pit in order to catch you (57:3, 4, 6). In the words of Jurassic Park, “The velociraptors are out.” Terrorists are in your town. But that’s just the extreme version of everyday life in the human jungle. Gossips and backbiters talk it up in your workplace. Factions spring up in your church. Family members manipulate, nag, lie, scheme, and gang up on you in order to get their way. That other driver, gripped by road rage, mouths and gestures obscenities at you. So what are you facing today? Anything that threatens you? (our Question 1 again) The psalm makes the experience of threat chillingly specific, but it leaves specific circumstances undefined. That invites disciples to insert their own personalizing details.

Notice further, right amid this disturbing and difficult experience, the astonishing centerpiece of the psalm: “Be exalted above the heavens, O God. Let Your glory be above all the earth” (57:5). It is a wonder. Here is the living faith towards which true discipleship aims. Pointedly placed right in the midst of troubles, this is a whole different way of seeing things and responding. These sentences are the pivot around which everything in the psalm turns. I guarantee you, the people you disciple don’t yet think this way very often. You and I don’t think this way very often. People who feel threatened usually react with fear, retaliation, or escapism. They forget the exalted One. Discipleship aims to help such people remember.

And finally, has anyone ever expressed the essence of joy more wonderfully and honestly than this?

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast. I will sing, yes, I will sing praises! Awake, my glory! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the peoples. I will sing praises to You among the nation, for Your lovingkindness is great to the heavens and Your truth to the clouds. Be exalted above the heavens, O God. Let Your glory be above all the earth (Psalm 57:7-11).

Here on the stage of real time troubles and choice points, we have heard and seen in operation the two chief modes of faith: need and gladness. We have witnessed a disciple, an image bearer, a man after God’s heart in the midst of his thinking, feeling, and acting.

Such living faith is the fountainhead of the final goal of our discipleship: all the practicalities and necessities of obedience to God, love, service, courage, holy resistance to evil, and mercy. Our discipleship aims for these beautiful and practical actions on the stage of real life. Psalm 57 doesn’t go there. It’s only a short video clip of the vertical dimension operating amid life’s troubles. But it sets up the horizontal dimension: Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 12, 1 Peter, Luke 6:21-49… and the rest of the Lord’s ethic of practical love operating amid hardships. This is the payoff; these small, constructive, and otherwise inexplicable obediences are the payoff. Faith works through love. These are the how-to’s of forgiveness transacted, of making constructive choices, of good communication, of vigorous peacemaking, of wise decision-making, of financial stewardship, and all the rest. This is ‘the image of Christ’ working into a disciple’s heart and working out into a disciple’s walk.

These two simple questions – What are you facing? How does the Lord connect? – express the core agenda of our discipleship. They set up the call to explicit faith and explicit love.

David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D. edits The Journal of Biblical Counseling, counsels and teaches in CCEF's School of Biblical Counseling, and teaches Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He has written Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare, Competent to Counsel?: The History of a Conservative Protestant Anti-Psychiatry Movement, Seeing with new Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture and numerous articles on counseling.