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Biblical Counseling and Proof-Texting
Question: What is “proof-texting” and a “proof text”? Are they positive or negative terms (i.e., using them in ministry)?
These terms have an underlying positive meaning, like the word “love,” which expresses the finest form of devotion to God and care for another human being. But, again like the word “love,” these terms are also used to bear a freight of negative meanings and negative connotations.
In class, I was using these terms with their negative meaning.
The positive meaning of “proof text” captures how both Christian truth and wise ministry orient to the details of Scripture. So, when our Lord says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your might, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he gives us a “proof text” for the goal of wise counseling. No other counseling model sets that goal, and this specific text helps you to remember where you stand. Similar passages make the same point in different ways: e.g., 1 Timothy 1:5, Galatians 5:6, and 1 John 3:23. These passages directly express one organizing theme of the entire Bible, no less.
The negative meaning of proof-texting describes when a passage is pulled out of its context, meaning, and purpose, and is used improperly. Grotesque examples are easy to come up with. The Bible is often used as a magic book of guidance (the equivalent of a deck of Christian tarot cards): “When I was deciding where to move, I flipped my Bible open and pointed, and my finger landed on Revelation 2:7, so I moved to Philadelphia.” Or Scripture is viewed as an exhaustive encyclopedia containing all knowledge: “In Psalm 102:4, the Bible teaches us about anorexia, and shows that anorexia is God’s judgment on a person.” Or a scriptural narrative is wrenched to presumably teach a normative message: “Just as Nehemiah first explored the broken-down walls of Jerusalem, so counselors should first explore the brokenness and pain of counselees.” (I’m not making up any of these examples!)
More significantly, there are countless subtler examples of improper proof-texting. For example, Genesis 1–2 describes God’s foundational call to fruitful, meaningful work and to fruitful oneness in marriage. But in the wider Christian counseling world, this passage has often been used to justify an “empty-self” theory of psychological needs: “Genesis 1–2 shows that we all have a psychological need for a sense of significance and for a sense of being loved. Jesus meets these needs.” In this case, a description of our active call is inverted into a theory of passive emptiness. The human heart is reinterpreted as an empty repository of needs to be filled, rather than an active verb heading either in the right direction or the wrong direction.
Often we hear of “throwing a Bible verse at a problem” in counseling. We discussed the example of how “Trust the Lord” can be misused. This deepest of all wise counsels can be used in a “proof-texting” way, as if “Just trust the Lord” is all that needs to be said or can be said. But this same call, command, and exhortation (Q6 from the 8 Qs)* can be used in the rich way that Proverbs 29:25 orients us to the heart’s instinctive disloyalty (“fear of man,” Q3), and to the negative consequences (“tangled up,” Q4), and to God’s safety (Q5, Q8), and (by extension) to a variety of other significant factors: to other people who can be difficult or intimidating (Q1), and the behaviors and emotions (Q2 and Q7) than flow from our core loyalties. The application of the call to trust the Lord can be meaningfully located in a person’s entire life context.
*Q1: Situation? What is happening to you that brings pressure, temptation, trouble, beguilement?
Q3: Motives? Why do you react as you do? What beliefs, desires, assumptions rule you? Right now, what is dividing your loyalty? What hijacks your heart, erasing and replacing God as chief object of your affections and focus of attention?
Q4: Consequences? What are the consequences and ripple effects? How does your situation change?
Q5: Who is God? What does he say relevant to this struggle?What does He promise? What does He do?
Q6: Interact in Faith. How will you respond to God from the heart? Stop Listen. Ponder. Turn. Come. Trust. Ask. Seek. Knock. Humble yourself. Take refuge. Transact with Him.
Q7: Act in Love. How will you respond constructively back into this situation? Speak up. Quiet yourself. Do what is right and helpful. Don’t do what is wrong and harmful. Choose. How will you show intelligent love for others (the opposite of every sin)?
Q8: Consequences? What are the consequences? How do God (#5), faith (#6) and love (#7) create ripple effects in this situation, in your relationships, work life, mood, finances, church, health—and for all eternity? How does your situation change?
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