My intention is not to write either a thorough explanation or an exhaustive analysis of nouthetic counseling. One should, of course, turn especially to the works of Jay Adams for that. I only intend to explain some of its distinctive, salient features, touching especially on those aspects which seem to be most misunderstood and misrepresented.
What is nouthetic counseling? It is counseling in which the means of sanctification are applied in a very practical way, by both the counselor and counselees, so that the Holy Spirit powerfully changes people, solving personal (often called emotional or mental), marital and/or family problems, bringing peace, joy, love, harmony and unity — and above all glory to God. It is counseling in which the counselor:
proceeds on the principle that there is a biblical, God-glorifying solution to every problem;
helps to identify the problems correctly;
directs the counselees to the biblical solutions and works intensively with them in making the necessary changes in order to solve the problems, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
A Biblical, God-glorifying Solution to Every Problem
Nouthetic counselors, then, proceed on the principle that there is a biblical, God-glorifying solution to every problem. My experience has been that this is one of the factors that contributes greatly to the success of nouthetic counseling. It is so utterly important because it immediately gives the basic direction to and sets the tone for every counseling case. At the very outset the counselor arouses hope in the counselees by making it clear to them that God has a way out for them and that it need not take long for their problems to be solved. He motivates them to work toward biblical solutions. It often happens that people are directed to a nouthetic counselor after failing to receive help from psychiatrists, social workers, pastors and other counselors. They come with seemingly hopeless personal, marital and/or family problems, often of long duration. But no matter how severe or deep-seated, and apparently hopeless, the problems may be, the counselor has good news for them: There is a solution! There is a way out! No one has to continue living with depression, functioning poorly on tranquilizers or mood-lifting pills. No one has to be "down and out" because of unsolved financial or other personal troubles. No one has to go on living in bondage to sin of any kind (Cf. Romans 6; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). No married couple has to either continue having marital war or take the unbiblical route of divorce in a vain effort to solve problems, or to escape a bad situation. No family needs to continue living with conflicts or broken relationships. The Lord says,
No temptation (trial) has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.1 Corinthians 10:13 NW
Hope for the Hopeless
Proceeding on the principle that there is a biblical solution, the counselor is not like a ship lost at sea without a rudder or a compass. He knows the course to follow and shows it to the counselees. As he takes this approach, people are almost always ready to go to work on their problems — even though they had seemed hopeless. Let me give some examples: (To avoid any possibility of embarrassment to persons I have counseled, most of the cases referred to are outside of my own congregation; also, I have used pseudonyms.) First, there is Jane, who was depressed and had attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. While she was in the hospital she was counseled by a psychiatrist (and charged $75.00 for each short visit). But after returning home she still felt hopeless. Her problems seemed insurmountable. In our first counseling session she, a professing Christian, was assured, "There is hope; there is a way out for you. God never gives us more than we can bear. By God's grace you can work your way through this ... You can yet have a good life. And it need not take long for this to happen." As we took a close look together at God's promises Jane at first hardly dared to hope because of her past failures and disappointing experiences with non-directive counseling. I said to her, "But we are going to work in a different way ... I want to help you find God's solution to your problems. If you take God's way out you will soon change. But you will have to work at it. And I will work with you." Her response was, "That looks good to me. No one has ever put it like that before ... I need direction." Before she left my study her countenance had changed. Spurred on by the assurances from God's Word, she went to work on her problems in a biblical way. Within four weeks her depression was gone. A dramatic change!
Another example is that of Bob and Susan, who had been married for fifteen years. It had been almost fifteen years of marital war. They too had seen several counselors, apparently all non- directive. These were so many problems in their marriage (the second for both of them) that it was a wonder they managed to stay together that long. I said to them, "I can see why it looks hopeless to you. You have an awful lot of problems that have been building up for years. The situation is bad. I don't minimize that. From what you have told me, I can see that many changes have to be made. But you can and must make these changes. I will help you ... You can yet have a good marriage. There is a way out. You can rebuild your marriage relationship."
This game them hope and encouragement to work on their problems. What happened? They came twenty-five miles weekly for counseling and made rapid progress in clearing up their difficulties. In fact, after six weeks Susan, with tear filled eyes, said, "I can hardly believe it's happening. Our relationship is better than it has ever been in all of our married life." Again it was the assurance that God has a way out of every situation that motivated the counselees to work for biblical change in order to solve their problems.
A Biblical Solution
Nouthetic counselors also keep on insisting that there is always a biblical solution to every problem. In fact, they insist that the biblical way is the only way, never advocating another. In this they differ sharply with those counselors (some of whom are professing Christians) who say that problems can be solved by learning to accept your bondage to some sin, by learning to live with a sinful situation, or taking action which God clearly forbids. Instead, hope is aroused by demonstrating that God's way, and only God's way, will work. The case of Davie and Betty is a good example of this. They had been married for almost twenty-five years. Theirs too had been a very rocky marriage for many years. They had sought help from various pastors and counselors, but the situation in their home continued to deteriorate. Before coming for counseling they had been advised, by both their former pastor (CRC) and a Christian psychiatrist, to get a divorce. Betty had decided too that this was the only way out of their misery. It was only to satisfy a relative that she consented to come for counseling (over five years ago). But she had no intention of staying with her husband. In the first counseling session Betty very vehemently insisted that there was absolutely no hope of saving their marriage. Dave, of course, would "never change". They had been told that their marriage was "dead". Betty insisted, "I could never love Dave again ... I'm getting a divorce." I kept on insisting just as vehemently, "Divorce is not an option. It is not God's way out. But there is a way out. You can yet have a happy marriage. You can both change."
I spent several hours with Dave and Betty that Saturday evening, explaining that we would be taking a distinctively different approach than their previous counselors had taken. When they left my study that evening Dave wanted to work at saving their marriage but Betty wanted to have time to think it over. The next day she called to let me know that she would give it a try.
They went to work on biblical change (and both had a lot of changing to do). The road was rough — exceedingly rough at times. On two or three occasions Betty again said that she was getting a divorce. But I kept on insisting, "God doesn't allow that (except in the case of adultery)." Today Dave and Betty have a happy marriage. Again, the demonstration of and the continual insistence on the fact that God has a way out, that His way will work, was of crucial importance.
Helping to correctly identify problems
Nouthetic counselors also help to correctly identify problems, which are usually sinful attitudes, sinful patterns of behavior or life-style, sinful reactions to life's difficulties and sinful reactions to the attitudes and behavior of others.
A Common Caricature
Now, please do not accept a caricature of nouthetic counseling at this point. Some have pictured a nouthetic counselor as operating something like this:
He gets counselees into his study or office and lets them tell their story. He then interrogates them (as someone has written, "...conducts a witch hunt"). Hastily he identifies the sin problem(s) and lets the counselees know in no uncertain terms that it is sin. The counselor picks up his Bible and gives them a heavy dose of Bible texts as a cure-all. He promptly tells them exactly what they now ought to do..."
"Simplistic! Biblicistic! Naive!" they cry. Nonsense! Ridiculous! This ought to be recognized for what it is: a caricature of the nouthetic method of counseling. Such people are either uninformed, ill-informed or governed by prejudice.
Need of Careful Diagnosis
How does a nouthetic counselor go about helping to identify problems? He gathers data in each weekly counseling session — very carefully and thoroughly. 1 He gathers data extensively, covering the various areas of life, and intensively, covering in depth those areas in which he discovers a problem. From the counselees he obtains data on the present situation, present attitudes, habits, life style and response patterns. He works hard at getting a clear and accurate picture of how the counselees are functioning in their relationships in the home, the church, among their neighbors, etc. He obtains data weekly on how they are handling life's problems and the progress they are making in solving them. The areas of concentration depend, of course, on the problems which are discovered.
As the data is gathered about the present, the counselor also goes back into the past. He does so, not only in the initial counseling session, but also whenever it will help to get a clearer picture of a problem being worked on or a new one that comes to light in the counseling process. This is essential for getting at the root causes of unsolved problems.
Dr. Adams explains it this way, It is important to review the past thoroughly enough to establish the fact that non-biblical response patterns are at the root of one's immediate problems. It is necessary to get a general picture of the shape of the response patterns which the client has developed to meet life's difficulties. He needs to be shown the preconditioning problem at the root of the particular problem which he has presented. The weeds will grow again unless they are unrooted.2
Helping a Family with Problems
The effectiveness of using this method to help identify problems is well demonstrated in Donna's case. Donna called one morning to ask if I would "please come over as soon as possible." The presentation problem? Her husband (nominal Roman Catholic) had been insisting for several days that, after eight years of ups and downs in their marriage, he had enough. He was throwing in the towel. Either she had to move out or he would do so. That morning he had informed her that since she had refused to move he would soon be leaving. There would be no more discussion on the matter. The decision was final.
Since Ben was not at home that morning the data gathering was limited to Donna's sins in their marriage, seeking to determine wherein she had contributed to the breakdown of their marriage. Data was gathered extensively on such matters as her faithfulness as a marriage partner and homemaker, her manner of communication, her way of handling problems in their marriage and her relationship to the Lord. In this way we were able to identify some of the problems already in the first counseling session. It was clear that her attitude and behavior had much to do with the marriage breakdown. We began that day to work for change on Donna's part. The result was that Ben did not leave the home as he had threatened to do.
Donna continued with counseling. As we worked on change in each specific problem area of her life. More data was gathered weekly on her current attitudes and behavior and the progress she was making. But, also as problem areas were brought to light we would go into her past history in relationship to these matters. In this way we were able to identify her destructive preconditioning problems. For example, it became clear that Donna was an unforgiving person. She habitually got revenge on her husband when he displeased her in any way. She was a habitual nagger and complainer, one who seldom expressed appreciation or gave a compliment. A self-centered person. Obviously Donna had much changing to do. And she really worked on it! Already in the fourth counseling session she said, "The week went great; I can hardly believe it ... I don't know if this will continue. He seems baffled." She added, "I feel better about myself too. How long did you say it would take for this to become habit?" It was the thorough data gathering on the past, as well as the present, that enabled us to correctly identify the problems. This, coupled with weekly counsel (and homework assignments — to be explained later), brought speedy results.
Escape from Depression
Take also the case of Jim Smith. Jim sought help because of severe "depression." He was so depressed that he had begun to miss work occasionally. And neither he nor his wife could see any good reason for his depression. In the first counseling session I began to probe systematically into various areas of his life — tapped on the walls for studs. He was in good physical health. His marriage relationship was good. They were having no special problems with their children. The relationship with other relatives, neighbors and church members was favorable. What about his job? That was going alright too. But he did say, "What really gets me is those guys who get sick and then get paid for doing nothing ... I have to work hard for all I get." The halo data 3, along with what he said, indicated that I had perhaps hit the stud. So, after extensive data gathering, I returned to this matter. I asked, "What about those people on welfare?" "Yeah, that eats me up too. It really gets to me." With much emotion Jim went on to tell of several other parties who were on welfare, while they have nice houses, cars, boats, etc. "They have it a lot better than we do, but I have to work for my money," he added. This indicated some of his performance problems: dwelling on what other people have and how many people apparently get free hand-outs while he has to work for his money. More data gathering on the past made it clear that the root causes of his depression, the preconditioning problems, were a severe case of envy and covetousness, coupled with a non-Christian view of work. As we worked on these problems in succeeding counseling sessions the change was dramatic. By the end of three weeks his depression was gone. However, I continued to work with him for several weeks, helping him to put off the sins of envy and covetousness and to develop a Christian view of work. Again, it was the thorough data gathering each week on both the present and the past that played an important role in the accurate identification of his problems and led to the solutions.
It sometimes happens that perplexing problems remain unidentified, and consequently unsolved for several weeks because the needed data has not been brought to light. That can happen because the counselor fails to be as thorough as he should and/or because the counselees carefully keep certain data under cover. This happened in the case of George and Pam. They (recent converts to the Christian faith) had come for help because Dan, her fifteen-year-old son, was almost continually belligerent and was planning to go to Denver to live with his father. (This was the second marriage for both George and Pam.) Extensive data gathering revealed that unsolved problems had been piling up in their marriage, creating an unhappy home atmosphere. This was largely responsible for Dan's belligerent attitude. Good progress was made in problem solving in the first four weeks of counseling as we worked on the total home situation. But severe problems remained in the sex life of the parents, creating havoc in their marriage relationship. As I reflected on this I began to realize that I had failed to get sufficient data on and to deal thoroughly with one important matter. They had lived together for over two years before getting married (prior to their conversion) because George's divorce had not come through. More intensive data gathering revealed that Pam was still feeling "dirty" and was resenting the way George had continued to insist on the sinful living arrangements prior to their marriage. They were counseled to get all that rubbish cleared away. This had to be confessed before God. They also had to confess to each other and forgive each other. An amazing change soon took place! Once again thorough, intensive data gathering in the one specific area was the key factor in identifying a troublesome problem and led to a speedy solution.
Hurting to Help
"But," you ask, "Don't some people, at least, object to such data gathering, that kind of probing into their personal, marital and family life?" Perhaps some people do. But so far I've had no one object to this. One party did begin to show some uneasiness. But she was soon put at ease as its purpose and value were explained to her.
What happens when counselors identify the problem as sinful attitudes, sinful behavior, sinful reaction to difficult situations or sinful ways of handling life's problems? Doesn't this turn people off? Turn them away? Doesn't this discourage them? No! My experience has confirmed that Jay Adams, and others with him, are right — instead of turning them away, this almost always encourages them. In fact, I have had only one party that did not return for weekly counseling after the first session. 4
Of course, counselees are also shown from the Scriptures that when they repent of their sin and seek God's forgiveness through Jesus Christ they will be free of their guilt. They are also shown that they can change, and that will lead to a solution of their problems.
Working Intensively toward Biblical Change
As nouthetic counselors help identify unsolved problems they also direct the counselees and work intensively with them on scriptural change. They do not assume that they will understand what is required of them. Nor do they accept the idea of the Rogerian and other non-directive counselors that it is not their business to tell counselees what they must believe and what they ought to do. Rather, they give very explicit instruction, confronting them especially with the Word of God. Do we not confess that Word to be the infallible rule for faith and life? It is ideally suited for every counseling case.
For, All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:16, 17
And so it is that we seek to bring the light of the Word to shine on every problem, to guide and direct each counselee. We give detailed instruction in the Scriptures as they have bearing on each specific problem. This is true also when it comes right down to the nitty gritty things of life. For example, recently I spent the greater part of two counseling sessions instructing a father (who had physically abused his sons) on how to properly guide and discipline his children. Very practical instruction is also given on how to apply the principles set forth in the Word of God. 5
This is made effective through the work of the Holy Spirit!
At the same time nouthetic counselors give homework assignments as they work with the counselees. To this one hears such objections as:
"That's really being naive."
"What an unsophisticated approach to counseling."
"You can't deal effectively with complex problems in such a simplistic way ... Treat people like that? That will really turn them off."
This aspect of nouthetic counseling perhaps receives the most severe criticism. I must admit that when I first read Competent to Counsel, when Jay Adams talked about giving homework assignments, this did not appeal to me. Not at all! It seemed to me too that I would certainly turn people off by trying such a thing. Wouldn't they be insulted — being treated like juveniles, or high school students at best? For about a year I used other aspects of nouthetic counseling, although falteringly, but rejected the idea of giving homework assignments. Finally, after reading The Christian Counselor's Manual (pp. 294-343) where Adams thoroughly explains the rationale for the mechanics of homework assignments, I was ready to give it a try. I soon learned by experience (and by observation as I took the Pastor's Training Course under Dr. Adams) that giving homework assignments is one of the key factors in the success of nouthetic counseling. When counselees do their homework faithfully they usually make rapid progress in solving their problems. In fact, it can be said that usually the progress counselees make is in direct proportion to the faithfulness with which they carry out their homework assignments.
What are these assignments like? They are very specific instructions on how to work at change in the areas in which problems have developed. What do they include? They include such things as: reading and studying specified Bible passages that have bearing on their problems; reading what certain Christian authors have written on these matters; keeping record of the problems that arise between counseling sessions, indicating how they were handled and how they should have been handled; keeping a record of failures to overcome a particular sin. They include specific directions to take action, such as breaking off a wrong relationship; going to a person to effect a reconciliation; looking for employment; spending time with the family; establishing regular family devotions; setting up a family budget. 6
Here are some samples of homework assignments given in actual counseling cases. In the case of Dave and Betty (mentioned previously):
"Read Ephesians 5:21-33 and each of you write down in your own words what God is saying to you in this passage of Scripture." (On the one hand Dave had woefully neglected to take leadership in the home and had failed in very many ways to manifest love. On the other hand Betty was not submissive to her husband.)
"Each make a list of your sins in your marriage so that we can go to work on change in those areas."
"Keep a record of the problems that arise this week. Indicate how you handled them and how you should have handled them" (using the PROBLEM-SOLUTION SHEET). 7
"Have four family conferences this week, following the instructions given to you."
"Read chapters 1 to 4 in Christian Living In The Home."8
For Dave Only:
"To help overcome the sins against the seventh commandment, read the assigned Scripture passages and write down in your own words what bearing this has on your problem."
"Change your working hours so that you can spend more time with your wife and family (he had agreed that this should and could be done)."
"Make a list of things you should do around the home and begin this week to do them."
For Betty Alone:
"To help overcome the sin of pride, read the assigned passages of Scripture and write down at least seven things the Lord is saying to you about pride."
"Read Chapter 6, 'A Word to Wives,' in Christian Living In The Home."
"To break the habit of nagging and criticizing your husband, keep a record this week of the times you criticize and/or nag him, indicating what occasioned it." (To break such habits this kind of assignment is given for several weeks, until the habit is broken.)
"Look for opportunities to compliment Dave and express gratitude for the things he does." (You see, it is not sufficient to no longer do the wrong things, one must develop the habit of doing the right things. Put off and put on.)
Dealing with Anger
Take also Bill's case. He, a sophomore, had just been suspended from high school for the second time because he had started a fist-fight with another student. The data gathered in the first counseling session indicated that Bill habitually gave violent expression to his anger. This was true at school, at home or wherever a conflict arose. He was a hot-tempered person. These are some of the assignments he was given as he worked at overcoming the sin of handling anger in the wrong way:
"Apologize to the teachers and others you have wronged and ask them to forgive you." (This he did, and returned the next week with very evident joy because broken relationships were restored in the right way; a new experience in his life.)
"Read the assigned Bible passages dealing with anger and write down at least 10 things God is saying to you about anger."
"Pray daily that you may overcome this sin."
"Read the pamphlet by Dr. Adams on 'What Do You Do When Anger Gets The Upper Hand.'"
"Make a list of at least eight things you can do to show kindness to your parents, brother and sisters, and do them this week." (An angry person is usually very self-centered. He must become one who thinks of the needs of others, become self-giving instead of self-seeking. Put off and put on.)
Bill did this assignment with special interest and repeated it two or three times. Each week he could hardly wait to tell me about the things he had done to please others. By carrying out his homework assignments Bill changed fantastically in a short time. We did, of course, also work with the total home situation, clearing up other problems that had contributed to his trouble.
To make this method effective, nouthetic counselors schedule weekly counseling. Although this is perhaps quite apparent from what has already been said, I make a special point of it now for a very good reason. I have spoken to colleagues who have partially accepted the nouthetic principles and method of counseling, but have not yet scheduled regular weekly counseling. And, many parishioners do not expect busy pastors to do so. 9 They would expect this of a professional counselor. Yet it is very essential. It is quite ineffective for a counselor to give all the counsel he can in two or three sessions, and then say something like this, "If you keep this advice well in mind and carry it out, I'm sure your problems will be cleared up. I trust that you will go to work on it. Let's see how it goes." That would be like a basketball coach giving all the instruction he can in one or two weeks to the players and then saying, "Now remember all that I have told you — and practice it." You recognize that this just would not work. Right? So it is with counseling. Soon after counselees begin to work for biblical change in order to solve their problems, there is change. There's movement in the right direction. This momentum must be maintained. To maintain it the coach, the counselor, must be in there working with them each week. The counselees need stimulation, prodding, repeated admonition, correction, encouragement and additional counsel (along with the weekly homework assignments) as they continue to work on change and become involved in the changing situation. Without this, most people would flounder and/or give up.
Furthermore, problems usually have many strands. Seldom can all of the strands be discovered and dealt with adequately in two or three weeks. In fact, often, as we work our way through the problems, the most essential data comes out after the first or second counseling session. As we go over the homework and discuss that which happened between counseling sessions, counselees help to clarify their problems and reveal how they are handling them. This gives the counselor the opportunity to give further counsel in the light of the new data and the changing situation.
What happens through this kind of weekly counseling? Through the sustained efforts of the counselees as they do their homework faithfully. The Holy Spirit works change in their hearts and lives. You see, this is really working at sanctification, zeroing in on those areas of life in which there is special, urgent need, usually the areas in which distressing problems have come. It is putting off the old man and putting on the new (Ephesians 4:22-24). It is working out one's salvation (Philippians 2:12, 13) in specific problem areas; actively putting to death "whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry" (Colossians 3:5); also ridding oneself of "all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language" (Colossians 3:8). It is also clothing oneself "with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" (Colossians 3:12). So then the ugly obstacles that have been so destructive in one's personal, marital and/or family life are removed. New and godly attitudes, habits, ways of acting and reacting are developed. Consequently, personal problems are cleared up. Marriages are saved, rebuilt and made solid. Relationships are restored. Homes are transformed. What have been regarded as psychiatric and/or emotional problems are solved. Feelings are changed. Life takes on a new outlook and frequently a new direction. God is glorified. That which no mere counselor could ever do the Holy Spirit powerfully accomplishes through this means.
In the Lord's Work
This is neither to say, nor to imply, that all cases work out the way we would desire. Counselors sometimes fail. Some people proudly and stubbornly refuse to recognize their real problem and/or refuse to change. However, nouthetic counselors can rejoice in seeing a high rate of success.
Let me emphasize once more, though, that to God alone belongs all the glory. For it is He who changes and transforms lives through His Word. In nouthetic counseling we are always prayerfully working with His Word. It is so wonderfully true that,
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:16