Our church currently has three certified NANC counselors on board, and a slew of us in various stages of training. The program of study in which I am enrolled, the Institute for Nouthetic Studies, is the most comprehensive and lengthy of different training options - 14 different distance courses are required, covering 185 hours of lectures, with a plethora of reading material (much of it by Jay Adams). A friend of mine completed this course of study several years ago, and found it extremely helpful. The next step is a two-part exam, wrapped up by having 50 hours of your counseling supervised (and scrutinized) by a NANC "fellow", or mentor. Dr. Thomas is one such mentor, and he spent 11 hours with us over the weekend lecturing on how to serve God by becoming more effective counselors.
Frankly, as a relative "newbie", I probably gained much more from this seminar than some of the more seasoned "veterans" of biblical counseling did. Dr. Thomas taught seven workshops, including topics such as "Gathering Data", "Determining if a Counselee is Saved", "Idols of the Heart", "Suicide" and "Parenting". All were relevant and timely topics.
One of the things that I most appreciated about this seminar was its practicality - Jay Adams' eschatology lectures are nice, and I need to brush up on the finer points of Reformed theology (so I can hold my own with my 5-pointer homies), but in my humble opinion such intellectual gymnastics will lead neither myself nor a counselee closer to Jesus. Never let it be said that sound doctrine doesn't matter; on the contrary! Correct theology informs biblical counsel. The two cannot be separated. In and of itself, however, all the theology in the world will not encourage a struggling believer who is under condemnation...or a professing believer repent of a life-dominating sin.
The afternoon before this workshop began, I had coffee with a young woman who reads my blog and was in Massachusetts over the week. While her Facebook profile maintains she "lives passionately for Jesus" and she had spent 6 months at Vision of Hope (a nouthetic residential facility), by the end of the conversation she told me point-blank that she "wasn't ready" to repent (of her eating disorder and nightly vodka habit). She is currently content to "keep God out" of that area of her life, and keeps re-filling her prescription for bi-polar meds to convince herself she is "sick". If I were ever formally counseling this gal, I would need every speck of advice we learned on Friday night - persistent, redundant questioning (to understand what she is thinking and what does she want); and secondly, to find out if a) she understands what salvation is and b) if she is, in fact, saved.
One of the biggest (perhaps THE biggest) error that can be made in biblical counseling is to inadvertantly counsel an unbeliever. While no biblical counselor would do so intentionally (a person who has not been born again is incapable of pleasing God), I have generally gone on the assumption that when a counselee claims to be a Christian, we should take his or her word for it. This, I learned, is a mistake - almost everyone will claim to be a Christian, but many cannot even articulate the Gospel (this is especially true here in New England). Dr. Thomas included the following definition for salvation in our notes:
"Salvation IS: A counselee becoming aware of his terrible spiritual condition, accepting the just and desereved penalty of eternal separation from God, hearing and believing the Good News of Christ's sole, substitutionary atonement and committing his or her life to Christ as Savior, Disciple, and Lord."
Sometimes the simplest things are the things you remember the most clearly, and during the ensuing discussion on sanctification I appreciated the observation that God prunes differently in brand-new believers than in maturing ones. Drawing on the expectation of fruit, more fruit, and much fruit to indicate one is a true disciple (John 15:1-8), Dr. Thomas pointed out that often outward actions change first after regeneration - "You don't smoke, swear, chew, or go with girls who do," he quipped. Then, however, the Holy Spirit moves on to convict and change the Christian's attitudes - from anger, deep bitterness, etc. This is how the believer continues to be fruitful, but I have noticed it is often the point at which discouragement sets in (including in my own heart!) Not noticing spiritual change, the believer will often conclude, "I quit smoking and drinking, but I still have the black heart - I still have unforgiveness, lust, anger. I must not really be a Christian after all!" He or she sometimes then slips into condemnation or depression, not realizing the slow, gradual pace of the pruning process. The worst thing the blood-bought child of God can do is to assume that because the "rate" of spiritual growth has slowed, the Holy Spirit is not present.
(Related to this doubt is another fallacy: that Romans 7 described Paul pre-conversion. Surprisingly, this interpretation has caught on among some Lordship preachers, and has caused unnecessary doubt and anguish among Christians who are genuinely struggling against their sin).
In a later post, I would like to discuss "How Can We Evaluate if We Have an Idol?", or a desire that displaces our satisfaction in God. This was a useful lecture for every disciple of Christ, not just those counseling people with life-dominating sins.
Dr. Thomas has a treasure-trove of helpful webinars and blog entries on various topics of interest to biblical counselors, Bible study leaders and others in ministry, at his Mt. Carmel Ministries website: http://www.mtcarmelmin.org/. Sooo grateful for the opportunity to study what Scripture teaches us on the importance of discipling others under his tutelege!