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).