Augustine on Biblical Counseling

Augustine_of_Hippo_Sandro_BotticelliI love it when Church history validates some of our contemporary concerns and issues. Biblical Counseling is a young movement. It’s also a controversial one, even among Christians. Yet the overarching concerns and principles guiding it are not young. They have a long history within the church. Recently, as I was reading a fascinating book on the great church father Augustine, I came across a section that outlined his views on change. What Augustine has to say here echoes the convictions of Biblical counseling. Augustine was a Biblical counselor before Biblical counseling was a movement.

In his book Augustine on the Christian Life Gerald Bray discusses the theologian’s view on change. In his most famous work, Confessions, he sought to answer the question: what makes people sin. His answers reveal an understanding of personal change that is rooted in the active mercy and power of God. I quote Bray in full.

…Seldom (if ever) do we really believe that we shall gain anything from [sin], and when we see people committing crimes like murder, we are quick to condemn them for their folly. But what appears obvious when we see it in others is much harder to detect in ourselves. The fact that wrongdoing makes no sense is easy to understand when we think about it objectively, but that does not stop us from doing it, because we are not motivated by carefully thought-out considerations of self-interest. Our minds have been turned toward evil by something deeper than pure reason, and if we do not understand that, we shall merely go on sinning and finding better excuses to justify it. This was the underlying trouble with the philosophers. Believing (as they did) that all problems were susceptible to rational analysis, they could not come to terms with the depths of human sinfulness and had no remedy for it. All they could do was find more sophisticated ways of fooling themselves into thinking that they could live a better life by their own efforts. Augustine realized that it was a natural response to a real problem, but he insisted it was totally inadequate. Only when we come to see that, however, and accept that we must cast ourselves entirely on the mercy of God for forgiveness and restoration, is real change possible, because only then are we getting to the root of the trouble. (55)

There are several key things from this quote that we can learn about Augustine’s views on change.

First, we observe that Augustine saw that change was not merely an issue of knowing the right thing to do. Plenty of people know what is right but refuse or struggle to stop doing the wrong thing. They know that drugs are bad, but they indulge anyway. They don’t want to be anxious, but they struggle to turn off their thoughts. They know that their anger is out of control, but they want to say those hurtful things. Knowledge of proper morality is not enough to motivate lasting change. Though we may rationally analyze our problems, and plenty of methods seek to scientifically understand emotional, psychological, and behavioral problems, we cannot simply posit the “proper” response and leave it at that. There is more to change than a diagnosis of the problem and information about the correct alternative.

Secondly, any diagnosis of the problem that fails to adequately consider the depths of human sinfulness will be insufficient. Human sinfulness helps us to see just how deep down our problems go. It helps us to see that the solution must involve something that is outside of me. We can only see the need for a new, transformed heart if we see the corruption that resides in the old. We are broken people, and our problems are not merely behavioral. They go much deeper. Apart from an understanding of human sinfulness we will also see to justify and explain are behaviors, attitudes, and desires. We have a slew of slogans: it’s not me, it’s my biology. It’s my parent’s fault that I am like this. I have a disorder or disease which makes me do this. There’s certainly some significant contributions that biology, culture, and chemistry can make, but this is often not the root of the problem.

Thirdly, man-made efforts, apart from the mercy of God will not prove fruitful. There are lots of great methods, strategies, and concepts that God has blessed us with through the study and thought of men. Yet, apart from God’s mercy we will not find real lasting change. We may trade problems, so my visible anger now becomes grumbling, or my alcoholism now becomes anxiety about staying sober. We may even find some level of victory, but lasting change is that which draws us closer to God, and this can only be accomplished through the finished work of Christ and the forgiveness of sin. We need more than just man-made help, we need divine assistance.

Augustine was obviously not thinking about Biblical counseling, and it is a bit anachronistic to read into what he has written. Yet, his philosophy of change echoes the concerns and principles of modern-day Biblical Counseling. While Biblical Counseling is a young movement, its principles are very old.

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