The Glory of God and the Goal of Biblical Counseling

If you had to sum up the goal of biblical counseling in one word, which would you choose? You might say, “change,” or “Christlikeness,” or “transformation.” These answers are correct as far as they go, but I would like to suggest the word “glory.”

The glory of the Lord is a thread that runs through every genre of Scripture. From creation to consummation, this theme is front and center. As such, glory serves as a helpful category in defining the goal of biblical counseling. However, glory is one of those words we use often but may find ourselves at a loss when pressed for a definition. 

Some theological terms are difficult to define because a concise definition is not agreed upon by theologians—think union with Christ or impassibility. Others are difficult because the word is used in various ways, in different contexts, to convey numerous meanings. Glory would fall into that second category. In attempting to capture the different nuances of this loaded theological term, Christopher Morgan writes:

The God who is intrinsically glorious (glory possessed) graciously and joyfully displays his glory (glory displayed), largely through his creation, image-bearers, providence, and redemptive acts. God’s people respond by glorifying him (glory ascribed). God receives glory (glory received) and, through uniting them to the glorious Christ, shares his glory with them (glory shared)—all to his glory (glory purposed, displayed, ascribed, received, and graciously shared throughout eternity.)

In this post, I would like to trace the theme of glory in Scripture from eternity past to eternity future highlighting the idea of God’s shared glory and applying it to our counseling. In other words, I’d like to attempt an answer to the question: What does it mean for believers to be transformed from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18)? Or to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4)? Or to have glory “revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18)?

Glory Possessed in Eternity Past

Before anything was, God was, and God was glorious. He remains glorious as the eternal, unchanging Lord of all that is. The Lord alone possesses intrinsic glory. In other words, He is infinitely valuable in and of Himself. He is not dependent on anyone else for his position, power, or prestige. His character and nature place him in an entirely different category than creation. The Apostle Paul erupted in praise when considering the Lord’s wisdom and wealth of riches: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36). David exclaimed, “He is the King of glory!” (Psalm 24:10). Stephen referred to the Lord as “the God of glory” (Acts 7:2). 

Glory Shared with Man

In his kindness, God created to display his glory and allowed his creation (specifically, man) to see and enjoy the public display of his wisdom, power, and nature (Ps. 19:1). However, God goes beyond displaying his glory by allowing his image-bearers, in some sense, to partake of his glory. 

At the climax of God’s creative work, He made a creature unlike any other—a being in his image. As persons made in His likeness, God bestowed upon Adam and Eve a sort of glory. We see this in Psalm 8 where David uses royal language in describing man’s unique position before God. Man is “crowned with glory and honor” (v. 5) as an image-bearer of God. God designed man to serve as his representatives by carrying out his will in creation. Therefore, Adam and Eve possessed a sort of derived glory. The glory of Adam and Eve was their capacity as image bearers to engage in the activity of displaying God’s glory by fulfilling His will in creation and thereby reflecting His nature and character. This link between glory and image becomes an important theme of redemption.

Though all creation testifies to the glory of God, mankind is uniquely equipped for the task. What a position! What a privilege! Yet, as we know, much of this glory was squandered for an empty promise from a sneaky serpent. 

Glory Lost in Sin

Though every person retains his or her status as an image-bearer, an essential aspect of this glory was lost at the fall. Paul sums up his teaching on sin by declaring, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The common assumption is that this oft-quoted verse means little more than we have failed to glorify God. Though true, this does not seem to be the Apostle’s direction of thought. To fall short means to lack something or to be in want. It seems Paul is arguing that in our sinful state, we lack the original glory that Adam and Eve possessed before the fall. Sin is so pervasive that it not only led to sinful actions, but the very ability and desire to reflect God’s character were destroyed at the fall. Thus, the glory Adam and Eve possessed—the capacity and willingness to fulfill God’s will by imaging him in creation—was lost. The image remains, yet the glory of actively reflecting God faded as sin ravaged creation. 

Sin is so pervasive that it distorted every aspect of our humanity. Our minds were darkened and became futile in their understanding (Eph. 4:17-18). Our wills were bound by sin and selfishness (Rom. 3:11-12). Our emotions were misdirected and wrongly expressed (Jer. 17:9). Our bodies delighted in sin (Rom. 7:24). Part of what makes sin so revolting is that we used many of the benefits of being an image-bearer (Our mind, will, emotion, and body) to rebel against the creator. Again, we see the emphasis and link between imaging God and glory. John Murray summarizes the effect of the fall as it pertains to glory, “We are destitute of that perfection which is the reflection of the divine perfection and therefore of the glory of God.” 

Glory Incarnated in Christ

In the incarnation, we see the glory of the image of God. Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and “the radiance of the glory of God… the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). As the God-Man, Jesus uniquely demonstrates the glory of God as he impeccably lived in joyful submission to the will of the Father. 

Of course, Jesus’ mission goes far beyond being an example. Jesus passed where Adam and Eve failed. Jesus alone perfectly fulfilled the purpose of humanity. He is truly crowned with glory and honor. But the path to the crown went through the cross. The author of Hebrews makes explicit the connection between Christ and Psalm 8:

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.

Hebrews 2:9-10

In his death and resurrection, Christ paved the way for us to be reconciled to God and subsequently be brought “to glory.”

Glory Renewed in Union with Christ

The glory lost at the fall is being renewed in those found in Christ. From justification onward, the Spirit begins in us the process of being conformed to Christ. Paul argues that as this happens we are moving into greater glory, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). This movement towards glory is what we often call progressive sanctification. 

Notice again the link between glory and image—we are being transformed from one degree of glory to another as we are fashioned into the image of Christ who is the perfect image of God. Part of what makes salvation so incredible is that we are being renewed into the image of Christ. Our minds are renewed by his word (Rom. 12:2). Our wills are brought into alignment with God’s will (Phil. 2:13). Our emotions are progressively being properly expressed (Phil. 4:4, 6). Our bodies can be brought into submission by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 6:12-13). Beholding the Lord’s intrinsic glory, we are being conformed to the glorious image of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Glory Restored Forever

One day this original glory will be fully restored. Indeed, it will be greater than the glory Adam and Eve enjoyed because we shall be like Christ. The Apostle John wrote: “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). From heaven will come our “Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:20-21). We will not become God; we will not be little gods. We will remain embodied humans for all eternity. Both body and soul are eternally redeemed through the gospel of Christ. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus ensures the future glorification of those given to him by the Father.

Implications for Counseling

What does this mean for biblical counselors? 

First, God sets the agenda for counseling and his agenda is glory. That is, his goal is to glorify himself as his people behold his glory and are conformed to the glorious image of Christ. Through the means of God’s Word, biblical counselors have the opportunity to help others behold the glory of the Lord. And this act of beholding is transformative. Lord willing, counselees move from one degree of glory to another. Life change and godly habits are necessary, but we must place them under the more important goal of glorifying God. 

Second, remember the hope of eternal glory as a motivation for growth today. In my experience, it is easier to point people back to the cross than it is to point them forward to eternity. However, both are means of motivating believers towards conformity to Christ. The glory that will be revealed in us ought to be held out clearly as we implore others to become like Christ because “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

We long for that day when we shall see God face to face. Until then, may we “ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name” (Psalm 29:2).

Sources

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Proverbs 4:23 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

John Murray. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960.

Counseling with Psalm 19

Psalm 19 is all about divine revelation, which is to say that it is all about how God has communicated Himself to us. In terms of divine revelation there are two types: general/natural revelation and special revelation. General revelation is a “term used to declare that God reveals something about the divine nature through the created order.” (Grenz, Guretzki, & Nordling, p.54). Special revelation is “God’s manifestation of himself to particular persons at definite times and places, enabling those persons to enter into a redemptive relationship with him.” (Erickson, p.201).

The beauty of Psalm 19 is that it speaks to the benefit of general revelation (v.1-6), while showing the superiority of special revelation as encountered in the Word of God (v.7-11). As we think through Psalm 19 there are three applications I want to consider in regards to biblical counseling: (1) God desires to communicate Himself to us through both the created world and the Word; (2) What we learn about God from His Word takes priority over what we learn about God from the world He created; (3) God intends for the revealing of Himself in His Word to produce holiness in us.

  1. God desires to communicate Himself to us through the world He created (v.1-6). 

As we read the opening lines of Psalm 19 we begin to sense that perhaps David is gazing into the skies and breathing in the vastness of God. He sees the stars, Moon, Sun and he assesses that the “heavens declare the glory of God” (v.1). David recognizes that although these created things do not have a literal voice (v.3), there is a sense in which their voice is heard throughout all the Earth (v.4). Along with Paul, David takes notice that creation is designed to communicate God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20, ESV). 

What David teaches us as counselors about general revelation is that we need to recognize the spiritual benefit of God revealing Himself to us and our counselees through creation. This is not a call to take expensive trips to remote locations but it is a call to step outside and become a student of God’s creation and consider the lilies (Matthew 6:28). 

On my desktop computer there is an incredible picture of the towering granite walls of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. I would love to visit Yosemite but logistically this is difficult. However, God’s very good creation is all around me. Even as I walk down the cracking sidewalks of my Midwest neighborhood and hear the hum of cicadas (loud bugs), the power and beauty of God are being revealed to me. It’s not quite Yosemite, but it will have to suffice because I was designed as a human to learn about God in these moments. Psalm 19:1-6 teaches us that God’s creation is useful for teaching us and our counselees about God and therefore should be engaged. 

As biblical counselors we are right to uphold the Word of God (special revelation) as essential to spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical wellness. Without the Word of God there is no hope because there is no other way of being in relationship with God. As a result, our first instinct in assigning homework is often to get counselees into God’s Word. This is right and good. That being said, we should not be uncomfortable with assigning the kinds of homework which pushes the objective of revealing The spiritual benefits of engaging the created world. This could look like encouraging a counselee to take a daily walk and account for how God is good in creation. This type of assignment is certainly helpful in someone gaining a greater sense of God’s power and majesty. Perhaps, in glimpsing God’s glory in creation, our counselees will be more eager to hear and obey God’s revealed will.

  1. What we learn about God from His Word takes priority over what we learn about God from the world He created (v.7-11). 

As Psalm 19 unfolds David continues to speak of divine revelation but we notice a shift in subject starting in verse 7. As good and necessary as general revelation is, the focus of David’s attention becomes the Word of God (which is special revelation). David is not attempting to diminish the value of general revelation but is instead highlighting the superior value of God’s Word when both are considered. This value is articulated as David makes six bold statements concerning the benefits of God’s Word. These statements deserve careful attention but unfortunately the restraints of this blog post will not allow us the space to do so. That being said, there are a few broad observations about what David says which help us not to miss the big point:  

First, Allen Ross explains that David “uses all the major terms for the stipulations of the covenant [law, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear, rules] to call attention to the mercy and love of God.” (Ross, 469) What Ross is getting at here is the key difference between general revelation and special revelation. This difference is that the content of God’s Word is about the covenant faithful God and the salvation He provides. This is not the case with general revelation. Bavinck correctly points out that general revelation is “insufficient for human beings as sinners; it knows nothing of grace and forgiveness.” (313) We can look at the world around us and learn a lot about God but it can never bring us to the point of knowing God. 

Second, Ross goes on to say that “Because of these clear references to the covenant, the covenant name of Yahweh is used seven times.” (Ross, 469). In the first section of Psalm 19 (vv.1-6), David uses the name El for God (v.1). Whereas El is a more general name for God in the Hebrew, Yahweh is the more personal name for God (Exodus 34:6). It is no surprise that David chooses this more personal name for God when discussing the Word of God Again because it is the Word of God which makes it possible for us to be in relationship with God. 

Third, David’s statements about the spiritual benefits of God’s Word are exclusively true of God’s Word. There is nothing else in this world which can revive our souls, make us wise, cause true rejoicing in our hearts, or enlighten our eyes. The Psalmist views the Word of God as something uniquely precious and rightly so. The benefits of Scripture are unparalleled. 

The application that the Psalmist’s high regard of God’s Word has in the counseling room is straightforward. If we want to be people who feel and experience God as He is then we must be people who are engaging with the Word of God and people who are doers of the Word. Likewise, we cannot consider ourselves to be doing the work of biblical counseling until we busy ourselves with helping people engage God’s Word and the life giving hope of God’s Word. In the counseling room we want to be men and women who speak the Bible, demonstrate a life changed by the Bible, and call those who are hurting to be helped by the Bible. Again, this is not David calling us to abandon the value of general revelation but is rather an emphasis on the absolute necessity of God’s Word. 

  1. God intends for the revealing of Himself in His Word to produce holiness in us (v.10-14). 

The psalmist concludes by teaching that God’s Word is to be more desired “than gold” and is “sweeter also than honey” (v.10). This bold claim flows from the truth that God’s Word guides the believer into holiness for the glory of God, which is God’s goal in revealing Himself. God reveals Himself uniquely and exclusively in the Word because He desires for struggling sinners to be “blameless” (v.13) and “acceptable” (v.14) in His sight. There is nothing more satisfying than being transformed into the people that god has designed us to be. 

The question which Psalm 19 leads us to reasonably ask ourselves as counselors is: what do I hope to see accomplished in the life of my counselee? If the answer is something other than holiness we have veered from the straight-forward teaching of Psalm 19 and we should reassess our goals in counseling. What makes biblical counseling ‘biblical’ is not only that we use the Bible as our source for instruction but that the God of the Bible sets the agenda for counseling. 

Works Cited & Credit

Photo by Ryan Hutton on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 19 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Grenz, S., Guretzki, D., & Nordling, C. F. . In Pocket dictionary of theological terms (p. 54). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Erickson Millard J. Christian Theology; 2nd Edition (p.201) Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998.

Ross, Allen. A Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 1 (1-41) (p.469) Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011.

Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Vol. 1, Prolegomena (p. 313) Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.

When You Are Overcome With Guilt

“Guilty!”

So cries our consciences, our hearts, and most importantly, God’s Law. We have all felt the painful reminder of our guilt. Thoughts of regrettable words and actions can keep us awake at night as we recall the past. Despair grows with each painful replay. How do we respond? How do we think biblically about guilt so that we might honor the Lord?

We might be tempted to settle for surface-level answers that distract us from feeling guilty. We might assume the answer is to convince ourselves that we are not quite as guilty as we thought. Not surprisingly, God’s Word has a fuller and, ultimately, a more satisfying answer. 

Before we look at guilt as a feeling, we need to first consider it as an objective reality. If you sat on the jury of a murder trial, you would not concern yourself primarily with the feelings, guilty or otherwise, of the defendant. You would examine the evidence and discern whether he had committed the crime of which he has been accused. Likewise, we should first concern ourselves with the forensic aspect of guilt before considering feelings of guilt.

The Objective Reality of Guilt

Guilt is a state of being before it is a state of feeling. Our understanding of guilt should begin with recognizing the universality of sin: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). The first man, Adam, served as the representative of every person. When he sinned, all of mankind was cast into iniquity. Consequently, every person is condemned and deserves to bear the just penalty for sin.

In our sin, we stand guilty before a holy God. This is our greatest problem. The only solution is the good news of Jesus’ coming to rescue sinners from their condemnation. Christ dealt decisively with guilt on the cross by taking the judgment for sin in himself. Now, those who turn from sin and rely on Christ’s substitutionary work are united with him and credited with his righteousness. In other words, if you are in Christ you receive something better than a “not guilty” verdict. You even receive a greater verdict than “Innocent of all charges.” In Christ, you are declared “positively righteous.” This is made clear in 2 Cor. 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Feelings of Guilt

Feelings arise from our thinking, so, our feelings, like our minds, can be deceptive. Feelings of guilt are no exception. For instance, it is possible to be guilty of breaking God’s commands yet experience no feelings of guilt (See Leviticus 5:17 as an example of being guilty of sin while having no knowledge, and therefore, no feelings of guilt). It is also possible, through a weak or misinformed conscience, to feel guilty for some act that was not truly sinful. Therefore, feelings of guilt cannot be accepted without suspicion. We ought to consider, perhaps with the help of a wise friend, whether our feelings are a result of wrong thinking or a conscience gone awry. 

Though feelings of guilt can certainly be amiss, they can also serve as the first step in genuine repentance. If we correctly discern that we have sinned and acknowledge our sin in light of God’s holiness, we will experience guilty feelings.

Even when we perceive our guilty feelings to accurately reflect our actions, we often do not know what to do with these feelings. We regularly deceive ourselves into thinking that God would have us wallow in the misery of our guilt—after all, this is what we deserve. Nevertheless, feelings of guilt are not God’s mechanism of punishing his children for sin. We can be confident of this truth since Christ took on himself the full punishment for every sin. Instead, these feelings are meant to drive us back to his kind embrace.

Repentance

After discerning our feelings of guilt are according to the truth, we are left with one appropriate response: repentance. Charles Wesley summarized well what repentance looks like:

Now incline me to repent
Let me now my sins lament
Now my foul revolt deplore
Weep, believe, and sin no more

Charles Wesley, Depth of Mercy

Weep. Consider Paul’s teaching on godly sorrow over our sin: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to a salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Both Judas and Peter wept upon betraying their Lord. Only one truly repented. There is worldly sorrow, exemplified in Judas, that is self-centered and focuses only on what is lost or denied as a result of being caught in sin. It results in despair, bitterness, and self-pity. However, there is godly sorrow, seen in Peter, that leads to genuine repentance. This is brokenness before God over sin. Peter’s tears proved to be genuine as he turned again to the Lord and served him faithfully.

Believe. Specifically, we believe in the truth of the gospel. We call to mind the work of Christ on the cross and are assured that his love for us is unassailable. He truly delights in our running to him because he died for that very purpose. Dane Ortlund reminds us that Christ “does not get frustrated when we come to him for fresh forgiveness, for renewed pardon, with distress and need and emptiness. That’s the whole point. It’s what he came to heal.” (Ortlund, 34). The Good Shepherd delights in bringing back the wayward, in binding up the wounded, and in strengthening the weak (See Ezekiel 34:15-16). 

Sin No More. True repentance is a change of mind that leads to a change of action. By the power of the Spirit, we put to death the desires of the flesh and are conformed to the image of Christ. This is the end goal of acknowledging the reality of guilt and feeling its weight. When feelings of guilt arise from a proper acknowledgment of our objective guilt, they are a divine mercy that leads us to repentance and change.

Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Proverbs 4:23 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane C. Ortlund.

You Can Please God

Often in counseling, when asked specifically about how a counselee pleased God in a given week, he or she will say something like, “Well, I read my Bible every day, but I’m sure I just did it to be smart and impress my friends.” Or, “I shared the gospel with my neighbor, but after reflecting on it, I think I just did it out of duty, not out of a delight in God.” As a pastor and biblical counselor I appreciate the emphasis on the heart, and certainly don’t want to encourage outward obedience from a heart not directed towards God’s glory. My concern, however, with these types of responses is that they are often coming from an overemphasis on depravity and a corresponding underemphasis on our union with Christ. 

As believers, we want to hold biblical truths together and not allow one to trump the other. If we overemphasize depravity to the neglect of what Christ has accomplished for us, it results in a false humility that presents Christ as a weak savior. In our carelessness, we can begin to think of Christ only as the one who justified us legally (Rom 3:21-26) but not as the one who has overthrown the ruling power of indwelling sin (Romans 6:1-14).

In Christ, it is possible to please God

It is far better to hold to the totality of Scripture and affirm that, sinful though we are, we can please God in Christ. This is exactly what we’ve been commanded to do. Paul affirms in 2 Corinthians 5:9, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please [Christ].” In context, the mention of “home or away” by Paul is a reference to his being in heaven with Christ or remaining on this earth. Paul asserts then that whether he is on earth or dies and enters the presence of the Lord, he exists for the good pleasure of God. Like the Apostle Paul, even as we await our future glorification, we can please Christ. 

We do readily admit, however, that we cannot do this in our strength, but only in the power which God supplies. The author of Hebrews takes up this theme in his benediction: “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Heb 13:20-21 emphasis mine). It is not hard to spot the active work of “the God of peace” in our works pleasing unto him. It is God who “equip(s) you with everything good” to do his will. It is God “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight.” Further, our doing of God’s will is “through Jesus Christ” to his glory. In Christ, we can live, think, and act in ways that accord with God’s will and therefore please him. So what about the sinful desires of the flesh? 

Beware the Flesh

We don’t want to get out of balance in the other direction and disregard the maze of desires that is a sinful heart. We are warned in Scripture about the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13) as well as our inability to decipher the intentions of our hearts (Jer. 17:9). Even the Apostle Paul laments in Romans 7 that he does the very sinful acts he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t do the righteous acts he wants to do. We should certainly heed these warnings and be suspicious of our motives. However, the Bible does not assume that we can never please God even if we can usually point to a hidden motive lurking in our hearts.

What Do We Make of Mixed Motives?

How then are we to reconcile the truth that we are empowered to please God and that our motives are often amiss when we do the very things God is calling us to do? Not surprisingly, the answer is found in the work of Christ as our perfect representative and substitute. Our good works are acceptable and pleasing to God not because they are without mixed motive, but because Christ obeyed as our representative with nothing less than perfect motives. The Apostle Peter makes this point: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). The spiritual sacrifices that Peter mentions are good works offered up to God. Notice that these spiritual sacrifices, or good works, are a delight to God because they come through Christ. It is Christ that makes our God-pleasing efforts acceptable, not the fact they are without any admixture of weakness, frailty, or impure motive. The English Puritan John Owen states it well:

“Believers obey Christ as the one whom our obedience is accepted by God. Believers know all their duties are weak, imperfect, and unable to abide in God’s presence. Therefore they look to Christ as the one who bears the iniquity of their holy things, who adds incense to their prayers, gathers out all the weeds from their duties and makes them acceptable to God.” 

Ultimately, we can please God because Christ takes our imperfect efforts and makes them acceptable to God. Holding these truths in tension we are free to exercise real humility. We will neither denigrate the Savior by being so introspective that we deny his sanctifying work in us, nor will we take credit for our good works or be afraid to admit that our striving after godliness is often mixed with weakness and imperfection. Instead, we make it our aim to please Christ and insofar as we do that, we recognize that it is only due to God’s grace, the work of Christ, and the sanctification of the Spirit (Philippians 2:12-13).

Works Cited

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Corinthians 5:9 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.


John Owen, Communion with God (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991).

Counseling Psalm 88

Psalm 88 records some of the darkest and most depressing words in all of Scripture. Not only does the word “darkness” appear three times in the psalm, it is also the last word in the Hebrew. Also, unlike other cries of lament there is never a point where the author changes his tune and remembers God’s goodness and faithfulness. 

This Psalm is written by a man named Heman whom very little is known about. It seems that Heman’s problem is something external, such as a disease, and that this burden is something he has carried since his “youth” (v.15). Also, we notice that the weight of this burden over the course of time has become a crushing emotional and spiritual weight for Heman to carry. It is as if Heman is dying by being slowly crushed.

This psalm is a helpful place to turn when you, or a counselee, are experienced suffering that has gone on for a long time. What Psalm 88 reveals to us is how to relate to and minister to those living under this unique kind of pressure.  

1) You can be a Christian and still experience long seasons of darkness.

I owe this observation to Tim Keller who preached a very helpful sermon on Psalm 88 (you can listen to here). Keller states that what this psalm teaches us is that, “[…] you can be trusting God for your salvation. You can be praying and doing what you think you should be doing and yet it doesn’t get any better for a long time.” We know that Heman has been suffering since his “youth” (v.15) and we know that Heman is a believer (v.1).

In seasons of endless suffering we tend to entertain a couple of unhelpful thoughts. Either we begin to conclude that our suffering is the result of some undiscovered sin in our life or we begin to consider that our suffering is proof that we have never been saved in the first place. Both of these lines of thinking result from the idea that suffering is always evidence that God is displeased or distant. This is not true. 

One of the blessings of Psalm 88 is that it demonstrates for us that a believer, like Heman, can experience long seasons of suffering. This suffering is not a hidden message from God. Believers do not have to call into question the status of their relationship with God as a result of suffering. Psalm 88 breathes spiritual reassurance to the one who is suffering.

2) In seasons of darkness pray persistently to God (v.1-2; 13).

Heman doesn’t get everything right but he gets the most important thing right. Heman says, “I cry out to you day and night. Let my prayer come before you” (v.1-2) and then again, “in the morning my prayer comes before you” (v.13). Heman should be commended for the fact that he does not cut off communication with God.

Another one of the temptations we face in the midst of extended suffering is that when we initially cry out to God and He does not immediately answer we change our approach. Often we grow bitter towards God or indifferent and our prayers become non-existent. 

God delights in persistent prayers because it reveals a heart that is continually dependent on Him. Persistent prayer also reveals that a believer understands that God has a good plan and that He delights in answering prayers. 

3) Your prayers to God should be honest about how you feel (v.3-5; 8-9).

There is a thought that has crept into modern American Christianity and it is that in order to be spiritually mature one must hold back the tears before God and be strong before God. This is not biblical Christianity. This is a false sense of strength. In fact, this is spiritual immaturity. Biblical Christianity knows what it is to fully disclose to God what it feels like to suffer. We are not talking about venting to God, we are talking about raw and unrestrained disclosure to God what is going on inside of your head and life.

If you track what Heman is saying in 88:3-5 you see Heman recounting to God the downward spiral of his thoughts. He starts off rather innocent as he expresses that his “soul is full of trouble” (v.3) but then we read that Heman felt as though his life was “near” (v.3) to the grave and that he eventually felt as though he was “counted” (v.4) among the dead. Finally, we read Heman express that he feels God no longer even remembered him (v.5).

What we see in Psalm 88 is the practice of lament. These honest cries out to God reveal that part of God’s restoring work in Heman’s life involved Heman disclosing to God the depths of his pain. Psalm 88 teaches us how to speak to God in the midst of our pain in a way that is honest.

4) Your prayers to God should be driven by what you know to be true about God (v.6-12).

Heman’s prayer is theologically driven and this is a wonderful thing. There are a couple pieces of Heman’s theology which shine through the darkness of his prayer and guide us in our prayers to God. 

As Heman cries out to God, he is not ignorant or misinformed as to who is in control of his suffering. Heman says to God, “you have put me in the depths of the pit” (v.6) and “you overwhelm me with all your waves” (v.7). He understands that his suffering is by within God’s control. Heman understands that God is either causing or allowing his suffering. Much like Job, Heman sees God in the chaos of his suffering. 

Another aspect of Heman’s theology which shines through and guides us is his theology of God’s glory. Heman reasons with God in 88:10-12 as to why God should answer his prayer. His rationale is that if he were to die then he would no longer be able to praise God’s name. Heman, knowing that God desires to be glorified, appeals to God on behalf of this glory. 

Like Heman our prayers should reflect that we understand God is in control over the details of our suffering and that God does all that He does for the sake of His glory.

5) Because darkness disorients, not everything you feel is true (v.7, 15, 16, 18).

While it is true that Heman’s prayer is theologically driven it should also be observed that Heman’s prayer is not always theologically accurate. In verse 7, 15, 16 he speaks of God’s wrath and terror being against him. These words show that Heman has made the assumption that God’s purpose in his suffering is to pour out wrath and to terrorize him. Theologically, we know that Heman is not experiencing God’s wrath. This is not how God treats His children. Wrath is reserved for the wicked.

One of the dangers we face in dealing with long seasons of darkness is that our thoughts begin to misfire and a false narrative can begin to corrode our thinking. When we counsel ourselves or others we have to be aware of this tendency and be willing to confront the lies we tell ourselves.

6) Yes, the dead do actually rise up to praise God because of Jesus’ resurrection (v.10). 

Again, I owe this insight to Tim Keller (sermon found here). He accurately points out that Heman assumes the wrong answer to the question, “do the departed rise up to praise you?” (v.10) Heman thinks the answer to this question is ‘no’ and he is using this line of thinking to reason with God as to why God should protect his life. 

The reality is that the dead actually do rise up to praise God if they are united to Jesus in His death and resurrection. Keller points out that Matthew 27:45-52 beautifully shows us that Jesus has defeated both darkness and death and neither is final for the believer. Regardless of whether or not God causes our darkness to cease in this life we look forward to the hope of life with Christ for eternity. 

In Conclusion

This beautiful Psalm was written 3,000 years ago by a man named Heman who was in a very dark place and didn’t know if he would ever experience joy again. Some of the most beautiful words I’ve read about Psalm 88 came from W.S. Plumer, who made this hope-filled observation, “for nearly three thousand years [Heman] has been singing a very different song before the throne of the Eternal; and his eternity is but just begun.” 

The one you are counseling may feel like your darkness will never end but the day is coming when he/she will also have been singing a very different song for 3,000 years because of what Jesus did on the cross. We cling to and wait for eternity!

Credits

Photo by Tobias Keller on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 88 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Tim Keller. How to deal with dark times (a sermon on Psalm 88). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulmaUtbayGY

W.S. Plumer. Geneva Series of Commentaries: Psalms (2016) Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust. 823.