Book Review: Counseling the Hard Cases

Title:  Counseling the Hard Cases:  True Stories Illustrating the Sufficiency of God’s Resources in Scripture

Editors:  Stuart Scott and Heath Lambert

Publisher:  B&H, 2012; 318 pp. $32.99

Recommendation (4-star scale):  4-stars

I’ve been pastoring for over two decades.  I have a deep appreciation for my seminary training and the churches in which I was raised, both of which prepared me well to serve my church.  Yet one thing my seminary training did not do was prepare me to counsel well.  In my first years of ministry, I found myself increasingly frustrated with my counseling failures.  I sometimes lamented to another pastor friend that it seemed that when people came to me for marriage counseling it seemed certain that they would soon be in divorce court because of my inadequate counseling.

In seminary I had been taught the truths of the Bible well.  But I was not taught how to take those truths and apply them to the difficult life circumstances that came to my office for help.  I was taught Rogerian counseling theories, and so I learned the dynamics of listening well and mirroring comments back to my counselees, but I was not taught how to actually help guide them through the twisted problems of their lives.

Then I came to a liberating realization.  It was not my job to “save” my counselees.  My only task was to be faithful to unfold and teach the relevant truths of Scripture to the counselees and then entrust the results to the Lord.  The defining question of my “success” before the Lord became “Did I teach truthfully, clearly, and wisely?” instead of “did they change?”

I had become convinced that the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit were sufficient to accomplish God’s purposes in the lives of our church members and my counselees.  And this is the message of the recent and most helpful book Counseling the Hard Cases (edited by Stuart Scott and Heath Lambert).

This book is particularly valuable in two ways.  First, in one chapter, Heath Lambert establishes a biblical foundation for the sufficiency of Scripture.  Now many authors have asserted a confidence in Scripture while at the same time appealing to secular methods in the counseling office.  Lambert wisely demonstrates the ways in which secularism is embraced, and how Scripture is infinitely more able to address the issues of the heart.  For example, he writes:

God knew exactly what he was doing in communicating his truth through his chosen styles.  The dynamic forms of Scripture make the Bible much more interesting to read.  Why is it that more people sit in their living rooms and read the Bible than will ever read The Journal of Psychology?  God’s style of communication in Scripture speaks to people in ways that are deeply powerful, emotional, wise, and compelling.  His words are accessible to a broad spectrum of people.  No matter how insightful a scientific text may be, it will never have the power to affect the soul in the way God’s more colloquial manner of speech does.  In addition to these powerful characteristics, the form and style of the Bible in no way undermine its power to communicate authoritatively.  Texts do not need to be scientific to be authoritative, profound, precise, and relevant for counseling.  Such a sense of authority, profundity, precision, and relevance is only lost to those who come to the text with an a priori belief that unscientific forms of discourse are inherently less valuable.  We must embrace it as an article of faith, trusting in our God of steadfast love, that his way of communicating with us is superior to other modes we might prefer. [p. 18]

Secondly, ten seasoned biblical counselors wrote case studies of some of the most difficult cases they encountered in their ministries and demonstrated the sufficiency of the Word of God to address the needs presented and to change the hearts and lives of the individuals.  The cases are indeed difficult, covering topics like sexual abuse, post-partum depression, anorexia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, homosexuality, dissociative identity disorder, and more.

Throughout these chapters there are multiple encouragements about counseling hard cases.  There is encouragement to perseverance.  When Laura Hendriksen writes about meeting with “Mariana” 58 times [p. 30], I am reminded that the processes of transformation and sanctification are often slow.  It is not the task of the counselor to produce change, but to persevere in faithfully and gently teaching the Scriptures so that the counselee might hear the truth many times in many different ways, and be lured to repentance (cf. 2 Tim. 2:24-26).

These chapters also provide encouragement with specific counseling advice.  The pages of my book are doted with the letters “HW” — an indicator to me of homework assignments that might be relevant to my own counselees that might be struggling with similar problems.  So I have gained helpful reading assignments and Bible studies to do with many of these problems.

And these chapters remind me that even the most persistent counseling problems are often rooted in basic sanctification principles.  So even a case as complicated and unusual as something as Dissociative Identity Disorder might emanate from things as basic as pride & humility, guilt & shame, and false refuges & worship. [pp. 214-22]

I’ve been pastoring and counseling for 22 years.  God’s grace has seen me through these years of ministry, but this book is not only a welcome addition now; it also would have been an even greater welcome two decades ago.

Read this book if you need to see demonstrations of the manifold ways the Scriptures are all-sufficient for all the problems of life.

One thought on “Book Review: Counseling the Hard Cases

  1. As someone new to Biblical Counseling this book was extremely helpful. The case studies give lots of great ideas about how to approach a counselee and their problems, work through the problem, and (as said above) homework ideas. The book gave me confidence in the sufficiency of the word in the most challenging problems people face while also giving specifics about how to go about that work.

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