Really Practical Theology
by David Murray
Pastors, teachers, parents, and employers are daily deluged with people’s problems. Often, we resort to simplistic and formulaic practical counsel that has short-term benefits at best. Our advice is spurned, our help is rejected, our prayers go unanswered, and situations go from bad to worse. We try one counseling strategy after another, we turn from one step-by-step guide to another, from one disciplinary measure to another, and thus we go round and round in circles.At times, we are tempted to ignore the problems, to deny them, to run from them, or just to give up.
The solution is to stop and study the attributes of God.
“What?” you might reply. “The last thing I need at the moment is systematic theology. I need solutions, and I need them fast. Be practical, man.”
Actually, God’s attributes are what you most need, and they are eminently practical for sinners and sufferers alike. Consider the practical value of God’s attributes for those you are counseling.
Let’s plant our feet on this rock-solid foundation before we offer a word of counsel or advice to anyone. God is in sole, purposeful control of the past, present, and future, both on a macro and on a micro scale, at the inter-planetary level and the our-little-life level. God rules over time and space. He has a plan that He is working out perfectly day to day, year to year. This plan extends from creation to consummation. It includes all the good and all the bad, the pleasant and the painful.
Belief in God’s sovereignty changes the way we look at the world, at people, and at their problems. What looks like a mess is actually part of a meticulous divine plan that is being worked out for the good of those who love God.
God’s holiness is our model and motivation in counseling others. It is our model in that the aim of counseling is to bring people’s character and conduct into conformity with the perfectly beautiful image of God, especially that holy image as manifested in Jesus Christ.
God’s holiness is our motivation because it teaches us how much God hates sin, fights against it, and will punish it. Thus, we do not treat sin lightly, we do not cover it up, and we do not excuse it; rather, we seek to have it confessed, forgiven, and forsaken.
The all-wise God has all the answers, and He has revealed all the ones we need directly or indirectly in His Word and in His world. An answer in God’s Word may take the form of a verse, doctrine, or deduction from a passage. It may be a story, commandment, promise, proverb, psalm, or summary of truth from various places. Sometimes the answer is obvious; sometimes it is found only through study.
God also communicates His wisdom to us through His world. Although He has placed all we need to know for salvation and sanctification in His Word, He has also placed much helpful wisdom in the world, which we locate, read, and interpret through the lens of His Word.
As we look at the brokenness and complexity of people’s personalities, bodies, minds, hearts, relationships, and so on, we collapse in impotent helplessness. But looking up, we see God’s infinite power and willingness to help the helpless, toughen the tried, and empower the powerless via His almighty Spirit.
The love of God is why we counsel and what we counsel. The love of Christ compels us to counsel, and the love of Christ is the content of our counsel. We are not in the business of condemning people but of pointing them to salvation and the Savior. The love of God in Christ is at the center of every counseling session — whether it is extending forgiveness through Christ’s blood or sympathy through Christ’s sufferings.
God’s justice — is that not a rather threatening attribute? Well, it may be, and maybe it ought to be. We deal with souls who are heading to judgment and an eternal destiny of blessing or cursing. We will have to account for how we direct such souls. And we should remind those we are trying to help that they too will have to account for how they respond to God’s guidance through us.
But I included this attribute primarily as a comfort. Many of the injustices we face will not be resolved here. It is such a wonderful hope that Christ will return and put everything right. He will perfect His people, deliver them from all their oppressors, and punish all who have wronged them. The Judge of all the earth will do right. He will renew His people and this world, and make everything new. He has promised us this, and He will keep His promise.