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Following the Holy Spirit’s Lead in Biblical Counseling: A Triperspectival Approach


[Our blogger for May is Mike Wilkerson. Mike is a pastor and director of Biblical Counseling at Mars Hill Church. He leads the Redemption Groups ministry, wrote Redemption: Freed by Jesus from the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry, and co-authored a chapter on the ministry of the Holy Spirit in counseling in Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling. (The chapter is available as  free download.)]

What does it mean to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in counseling? As a pastor, I spend a good deal of time training biblical counselors in the local church. I want them to be Spirit-led in their counseling, but what does that mean? If I were to simply say that phrase, “be Spirit-led in your counseling,” what would they think that means?

Recently, we held a training for biblical counselors from various churches around the country. As I supervised the counseling labs, I listened for talk of the Holy Spirit’s leading.

My hunch is that what people mainly have in mind when they mention their perception of the Spirit’s activity is an experience of feeling or intuition. I think that’s basically right—we can “sense” the Spirit’s movement.

But surely, if the Holy Spirit is the divine presence doing something powerful in this moment, then what he is doing is more than what we feel. I expect there are times when he’s up to something that we might perceive—for those who have ears to hear—though our feelings may not be the primary way to perceive it. There may even be times when our feelings lead us astray, such that our emotional experiences are more indicative of some other factors at play other than the Spirit’s work.

Thus, there is a danger of unreflectively identifying our emotional states as sure signs of the Holy Spirit’s work. I am reminded of Jonathan Edwards’ humbling assessment of how easily affections—necessary though they are—can be misguided.⁠(1) Their fervor is no certain sign that the Holy Spirit is the one at work.

My objective is not to debunk the idea of following the leading of the Holy Spirit in biblical counseling, nor is it to undermine the part our emotions play in that. Rather, it is to get a broader view of it so that we might better keep in step with the Spirit.

After all, I’m not so much into the idea of “getting out of God’s way” in counseling. I prefer getting in God’s way; that is, finding out his way, and then getting there.

In this series of blog posts, I’ll explore one approach to shedding light on this question, applying triperspectivalism. You can read up on this epistemological toolset from John Frame in his brief “Primer on Perspectivalism.”

Frame makes the point that we only ever see things from one limited perspective at a time. God alone sees and knows everything from all perspectives at once, which is the only way to know perfectly.

We humans know in part, and we should just get used to that, accepting the humility that comes with it. However, we shouldn’t therefore be “lazy knowers,” only thinking about things from whatever perspective happens to come easiest. The servant who buried his talent did not please his master; so let’s be good stewards of our knowing. Frame elsewhere calls this “servant-thinking.” (2)

So it’s good stewardship to see things triperspectivally, from three perspectives: the normative, which has to do with God’s revelation, his standard of truth, his authority to define reality; the situational, which has to do with the facts and circumstances of the world; and the existential, which has to do with human experience. Here’s how they come together, according to Frame: “Every item of true human knowledge is the application of God’s authoritative norm [normative] to a fact of creation [situational], by a person in God’s image [existential]” (Frame, “Primer”).

With those perspectives in mind, it should come as no surprise that the existential perspective is the most natural frame of reference for understanding the leading of the Holy Spirit in counseling. The existential has to do with our perception, our feelings, our experience of God. Yet, Frame also says that you can’t have one perspective without the others; they depend upon each other.

My concern is that when it comes to understanding the leading of the Holy Spirit in counseling too much emphasis on the existential, without being “calibrated” by the normative and situational, will lead to error. Emotionalism is not the only error that we want to avoid. There’s also the possibility of being out of step with the Spirit as a result of spiritual myopia, having a nearsighted view of what the Spirit is up to.

My working hypothesis is that being led by the Holy Spirit in biblical counseling has to do with an orienting and an overflowing of our human capacities. The overflowing aspect has to do with an empowerment that takes us beyond merely human capacities. My focus in this blog series will be on the orienting part. I propose that we’ll be better oriented to the Spirit’s work when we look at it from all three perspectives. For the remainder of the series, we’ll do just that, one perspective at a time.

1 Jonathan Edwards (2011-01-23). The Religious Affections. Kindle Edition.

2 John M. Frame. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (A Theology of Lordship) (Kindle Location 336). Kindle Edition.


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