Stuart Scott, and Heath Lambert, eds., Counseling the Hard Cases, Digital Ed (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2012)
Review written for external studies coursework I am doing as a student at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY.
Within evangelical circles one of the more divisive issues discussed is the role of secular psychology in counseling and the care of souls. There are various camps with claims and positions arrayed along a wide spectrum of belief and practice. Dr. Stuart Scott and Dr. Heath Lambert, two leaders in the modern biblical counseling movement, have put together a unique volume designed to demonstrate the sufficiency of their methods for cases typically seen as two difficult for those relying on Scripture and its resources. Their work, Counseling the Hard Cases, is a compilation of stories from actual practitioners and their experiences with cases deemed by many as beyond the resources of biblical counseling. In this review I will summarize the content of the book, offer some analysis of the work and the examples therein, and then close with some concluding thoughts about the helpfulness of this book to contemporary life and mission.
The purpose of the book is set forth in a very helpful introductory chapter by Dr. Heath Lambert. Lambert describes the purpose and ethos of the book is to demonstrate through stories that biblical counseling is indeed up to the task of the most difficult counseling cases. The introduction also orients the reader to the debates within the evangelical community. By “hard cases” the authors mean those which are typically referred out to “mental health professionals” and beyond the scope of gospel ministry. Lambert describes the purpose for the book in this way:
The reason for this book, however, is to avoid making that argument in the abstract. Anyone who teaches biblical counseling knows what it is like to be discussing the sufficiency of Scripture and to see a hand go up: “But what about the hard cases? What about schizophrenia, sexual abuse, eating disorders, bipolar? When you say that the Bible is sufficient, do you really mean that it’s sufficient for those problems? (Kindle, Loc 547, emphasis in original)
The answer of the authors in this compilation of essays is a resounding “Yes, it is sufficient for those as well!” The counselors presenting their cases in the volume all believe that helping people is a worldview laden enterprise and the gospel, showing forth the true view of humanity’s problems, is more than equal to the task. So this work is an apologetic of sorts for those who doubt that biblical approach can tackle the most difficult types of problems that counselors and therapists are faced with today. The stories in the book are to be a counter-argument to those who may look with scorn at the practical helpfulness of the gospel to those facing deep issues of the soul in our time.
After reading this work I found it to have mostly made a very strong case for the wise use of the means and methods of biblical counseling in the most difficult of cases. I found the book to contain some profound strengths as well as a few areas I found lacking. I will handle each of these in turn.
The main strength of the book is the wide variety of stories that are presented. A quick perusal through the table of contents will reveal sexual abuse, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), postpartum depression, paralyzing fear, anorexia nervosa, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, as well as various addictions and sexual sins. Having such a variety gives a strong perspective for how the tools of biblical counseling are applied in such diverse cases. Yet within this diversity there also emerged a consistent methodology. Each of the counselors followed a similar pattern and I found this to be a strength of the work. It was quite illustrative of what biblical counselors actually do. The methodology observed contained some if not all of the following in each of the cases. First, the counselor would patiently listen well, take notes, and hear the person’s story. This was response to the exhortation to listen well given to us in Proverbs 18:13. Second, an affirmation was given to the counselee that they were not alone in their struggle and that their temptation was “common to all” and that God could help them (1 Corinthians 10:13). Third, hope in the gospel was offered on the front end as encouragement to trust God to help as they moved forward. Fourth, together the counselor/counselee would look deeply into issues of the heart where desire and sin corrupt and twist us into various forms of depravity. James 1:14,15 was cited to locate temptation in our hearts that are indeed in need of transformation. This investigation into the soul was usually done with various types of homework given. Reading of books, reading and memorization of scripture as well as the keeping journals related to temptation and struggle. This was all done in order to locate the patterns of sin in the heart. Finally the practice of confession, repentance and perseverance with a progressive understanding of sanctification (life change, progressively over time) was present in nearly every case. This diversity of cases along with this unified methodology showed that the counselor was indeed relying on the gospel and the Word of God even as each case and its nuances were addressed. One further observed strength was the importance of the church community in helping one another. This was a beautiful addition to counseling which in the modern world has become so individualized. In chapter 4 on postpartum depression a beautiful vision of the church loving and serving one another was on display. Finally, the book showed a strong view of human persons as psychosomatic unities (bodies and souls). As such there was a robust emphasis on medical science and wisdom from doctors. A particularly helpful chapter highlighting this was from Dan Wickert who is a practicing MD as well as a biblical counselor. The chapters on fear, postpartum, and anorexia all gave wise attention to the effects of the body upon the soul and of the soul upon the body. With these strengths noticed I did see a few small drawbacks to the book.
If I had to locate any weakness in the volume it might have been in the tone that was demonstrated at times. As this was a work of apologetics, you could hear that the biblical counselors wanted to show clearly the strength of their view. My question was would Christian psychologists or integrationists be won over by the tone of the book. If I were coming from another evangelical counseling position, my question might be “is there any give/take with others” or is this just an exercise of made up minds showing us that their system works best. A second critique I might have for the work overall is that there was much emphasis on the Word of God (see strength above) but not as much discussion of the dynamic work of the Spirit in sanctification. “Apply the Word” seemed to be the center of most of the counseling cases whereas the dynamic, relational aspect of the Christian journey was not highlighted as much. I think this may be the reason why, unfairly I might add, the biblical counseling movement is accused of “prescribing bible verses.” A stronger emphasis on wisdom, the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and a bit more flexibility or honesty about the messiness of the process might be helpful if made clearer. A series of steps and biblical applications is helpful and very good to learn as one doing biblical counseling. Walking among the missteps of life trusting the Spirit’s power is a way disciples are made as well. The book was quite strong on the former and a little weaker on the latter.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Counseling Hard Cases and will refer back to it in my own ministry. The clarity of method, mastery of Scripture, love for people and perseverance of the counselors was inspiring and inspired in me significant hope. Their care, patience, concern and biblical knowledge brought to bear within hard cases makes me desire to continue to grow in my capabilities as a counselor. Yet more than anything the book encouraged me to trust the Lord, his Word and his Spirit to lead us in the process of being made whole by the gospel. Those who make the time to read Counseling Hard Cases will be blessed by the wisdom found in these pages and perhaps a few Christian counselors and integrationists will be convinced that the tools found in Scripture are indeed profitable and sufficient for the treatment of souls.