Category Archives: Counselling

Top Three Marriage Books

Over my years in the ministry, I’ve taught many marriage preparation classes.  From time to time, I’ve also counselled couples with marriage problems.  In my preaching, I’ve had many opportunities to speak about marriage.  Besides all that, I’ve been married myself for what’s going on to 23 years.  All these things give me a vested interest in good books about marriage.  I’ve read a few.  Almost all of them have something worthwhile, but there are some that really stand out.  Here are my top three, in order of importance:

When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage, Dave Harvey.

This one tops the list because of the author’s relentless focus on the gospel.  Written in a warm, personal style, Dave Harvey helps couples come to terms with the biggest problem that all marriages face and the solution to this problem.  Along with some of the other topics one would expect in a marriage book, he also discusses one you don’t often encounter:  death.  If you’re going to read just one book about marriage, make it this one.

Strengthening Your Marriage, Wayne Mack.

Are you ready to get to work on your marriage?  Then this is the book you’re looking for.  It’s not just a review of biblical teaching about marriage, but a very practical workbook.  It contains a variety of exercises for husbands and wives to complete.  The idea is that they would be done with a pastor or counsellor, but certainly couples could benefit from doing them on their own too.  I use Wayne Mack’s book Preparing for Marriage God’s Way for my marriage preparation classes and I appreciate his biblical approach.

Each for the Other: Marriage As It’s Meant To Be, Bryan Chapell with Kathy Chapell

I really like this one for three reasons.  One is that it includes the perspective of a woman.  Another is that it has great stories and illustrations to drive home the points of the authors.  Finally, I value the clear explanations and applications of biblical submission and headship.  This book also includes discussion questions to go with each chapter.

Who Should Treat Depression?

Depression -- "The Black Dog."

Depression — “The Black Dog.”

Clinical depression has been described as the common cold of mental illnesses.  At times in my ministry I have wondered:  who doesn’t suffer with depression or hasn’t at some point or other?  The more open we are about discussing it, the less stigma we attach to it, the more we discover how common this ailment is.  Unfortunately, its prevalence does not mitigate its pain.

The pain is not eased by those who see the ailment in a simplistic way as merely a spiritual problem with a spiritual cure.  Even today there are Reformed believers who want to maintain the old view that a spiritual issue is the root cause of most (maybe even all) depression.  This view insists that depression is directly caused by the sufferer’s sin and then the solution to depression rests in repentance.  According to this perspective, pastors, elders, and regular believers, should call depression-sufferers to determine the sin which caused their anguish and turn from it.

Thankfully, other voices have been bringing a more balanced view.  Among them is Dr. David Murray.  His excellent book Christians Get Depressed Too (review here) proceeds on the basis that depression is a complex phenomenon often involving biological and medical realities.  One might think that this is a contemporary approach, something only developed in the last few years.  However, Murray points out that a nuanced view of clinical depression has been around for hundreds of years.  William Perkins (1558-1602) recognized that depression requires medical treatment, and so did Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).

Perkins and Edwards were not alone.  I was recently paging through Peter Lewis’ The Genius of Puritanism.  In chapter 3 (“The Puritan in Private”), Lewis has a discussion of mental depression.  He notes that the Puritans distinguished spiritual depression (obviously caused by sin) from mental depression.  They used the term “melancholy” for the latter.  Lewis notes that Richard Baxter (1615-1691) and Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) both recognized melancholy as a medical phenomenon.  I want to focus for a moment on Brooks and what he writes about this in The Crown and Glory of Christianity (found in volume 4 of The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks).

Brooks was addressing the question of why some Christians seem to be hard pressed with sadness, sorry, and grief.  After all, shouldn’t Christians be joyful?  Part of Brooks’ answer was to note that some of these issues arise from our bodies and the way we were constituted.  Some people are constitutionally more inclined towards melancholy.  He adds a vivid description of it:

Now there is no greater enemy to holy joy and gladness than melancholy, for this pestilent humour will raise such strange passions and imaginations, it will raise such groundless griefs, and fears, and frights, and such senseless surmises and jealousies, as will easily damp a Christian’s joy, and mightily vex, perplex, trouble, and turmoil, daunt, and discourage a Christian’s spirit (page 260).

He further says that this inclination towards melancholy can be used by Satan to his advantage.  Moreover, it is a condition which afflicts both soul and body.  There is definitely a spiritual aspect to the experience of depression, according to Thomas Brooks.  In another book, he writes that this malady “tries the physician, grieves the minister, wounds relations, and makes sport for the Devil.”  This surely sounds familiar!

Also familiar is the cure of which Brooks writes.  He writes, “The cure of melancholy belongs rather to the physician than to the divine, to Galen than to Paul” (page 260).  By “divine” here, Brooks means “theologian” or “pastor.”  Galen (129-200 or 216) was one of the ancient pioneers of medical science.  In our terms, Brooks was saying that depression needs to be treated by doctors, rather than by ministers.  Certainly he would agree that ministers must be involved and can provide spiritual guidance as treatment is sought and provided, but at its roots this is a medical problem to be addressed by medical science.  Did I mention that this was written in 1662?  Yes, in those times they had a far different understanding of medical science, yet they were not averse to pinning a mood disorder on a biological cause.

If you were to encounter a brother or sister suffering from a brain tumour, you would encourage them rather than admonish them to examine themselves for the sin which caused their condition.  Of course, we hold each other accountable for how we respond to medical ailments.  Every Christian is responsible for how they respond to adversity in whatever form.  Clinical depression should be dealt with in the same way.  Those suffering from it need medical treatment — and Christian encouragement from office bearers and regular church members.  In so doing, we reflect the heart and compassion of our Saviour Jesus.

Jay Adams and Colitis


I really do appreciate a lot of what Jay Adams has done for Christian counselling.  In fact, in 2010, I featured him in my series “Friends You Should Meet.”  I’ve read quite a number of his books and have gained something from almost all of them.  I especially appreciate his eagerness to have the Word of God as the foundation and guide for Christian counselling.

Over the last while, I was reading his 1972 collection of essays and addresses, The Big Umbrella.  This was published two years after his landmark volume, Competent to Counsel.  In these essays, one finds the same principled approach to the discipline:  “The Scriptures must be the basis for all that is said and done in counselling” (26).  Moreover, as elsewhere, he affirms that there is really such a thing as mental illness.  It can be due to “organic problems, brain damage, chemical damage or malfunction, toxic damage, or other organic causes” (47).  In a footnote later in the book, Adams adds that some mental health issues can be caused by glandular imbalances.  Then he also says this:  “There is also a gray area of problems that are of uncertain etiology” (161).  Etiology refers to the causes of diseases.  Uncertain etiology means that we don’t know what causes it.  Adams usually deals in black and white, but in this footnote he admitted a gray area.

The chapter “Is Society Sick?” includes a note about “Sickness in the Scriptures.”  This note mentions Adams’ idea of hamartiagenic illnesses.  Hamartiagenic illnesses are those that are brought on by sin.  A classic example would be how sexual promiscuity results in sexually transmitted diseases.  You would not have caught that disease if you had not been sexually immoral.  As a category per se, I don’t think there is any reason to object to this notion.

However, later in that note, Adams mentions colitis as a hamartiagenic illness.  (What is colitis?  Click here.) The underlying cause of colitis, says Adams, is resentment.  I looked to see if Adams discusses this anywhere else.  I found mention of it in The Christian Counselor’s Manual (1973).  There Adams is discussing a hypothetical marriage breakdown involving Bill and Jane.  Adams says to Jane, “Your colitis is not the result of Bill’s wrongs toward you, but evidently has been occasioned by the sinful way in which you have handled these wrongs.  After all, Jesus did not have a colitis attack on the cross” (268).  Adams bases this view on a 1963 book by Dr. S. I. McMillan, None of These Diseases (since republished many times, also in a revised edition).  McMillan cited research supposedly showing that “96 per cent of colitis patients admitted to one hospital were dominantly resentful persons” (Adams, The Big Umbrella, 61).  Bitterness and resentment cause colitis, and colitis is therefore a hamartiagenic illness — according to Adams in 1972/73.

I read this and went a little squinty-eyed.  I’ve been a pastor for a few years now and I’ve known several parishioners who suffer with colitis and its cousin, Crohn’s disease.  I don’t recall these parishioners being particularly resentful or bitter people.  Maybe they were and just hid it well — that can happen.  But what Adams was saying just does not seem to fit with what I have observed.  Could Adams have been wrong on this?  Notice that his case was not made on the basis of what Scripture says, but on the basis of a medical study done some years earlier.

I did some further research.  I asked friends on Facebook — a very scientific way to start, I know.  Of those who responded, some were colitis sufferers and said that emotional stress can definitely make the symptoms of their colitis worse.  However, can emotional stress (including intense bitterness, anger, resentment) cause colitis? According to Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, the cause of colitis is still unknown.  However, as also mentioned anecdotally by my Facebook friends, stress of all kinds can aggravate symptoms.  Interestingly, the Crohn’s and Colitis Canada website adds that the reverse is also true:  colitis can cause stress and emotional upset.  People might get angry, bitter, resentful because of their colitis.  Research done at the University of Calgary also suggests other possibilities.   But to categorically claim that colitis is a sin-engendered illness — that really seems to be a stretch in 2016.

Perhaps it was credible in the nouthetic counselling world in 1972, but today Adams’ claim is not only rather questionable, but also potentially dangerous.  I could imagine someone reading The Big Umbrella, not doing their own research into the state of the question today, encountering someone with colitis, and concluding that they must be bitter and resentful.   Addressing them on that basis could do a lot of harm, not only to the individual being suspected of sin, but especially to the relationship between the pastor/counsellor and the colitis sufferer.  At best, when it comes to the cause of colitis, one should fall back to “uncertain etiology.”  We don’t know what causes it.  That being true, pastors and other counsellors should focus their attention on helping people cope with their colitis in a biblical, God-honouring fashion.

Book Review: Rid of My Disgrace

Rid of My Disgrace

Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault, Justin S. Holcomb and Lindsey A. Holcomb,  Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2011.  Softcover, 268 pages, $16.99.

This is not a fun book to read.  It’s not an enjoyable topic to think about.  I have read far too many books on this subject and have encountered far too many people impacted by it.  I pray it would go away.  The first article I had published in Clarion dealt with sexual abuse.  That was over 20 years ago.  I want to believe that things have changed since then.  I want to believe that sexual abuse no longer happens much and, in the rare case that it does, we deal with it in a biblical way – with compassion and grace.  I want to believe that people who have been sexually abused get the help they need from the church in order to find healing and peace.  But does wanting to believe something make it true?  This lingering question is why I decided to read one more book on this horrible subject.

Some readers may be familiar with Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Seattle, Washington.  The authors, husband and wife, work with Driscoll at Mars Hill.  Justin Holcomb is a pastor at the church and his wife Lindsey is a deacon.  Justin also teaches theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.  As part of her work at Mars Hill, Lindsey provides counselling services to victims of sexual assault.  Both authors are therefore well-qualified to address this difficult topic.

Definitions are crucially important here.  The Holcombs are not interested only in addressing past or present childhood sexual abuse.  They also address rape, spousal sexual assault, and other forms of sexual violence.  Their definition of sexual assault:  “any type of sexual behavior of contact where consent is not freely given or obtained and is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority” (28).  The definition is comprehensive and the authors expand on each element.

The book has three parts.  The first speaks of the disgrace of sexual assault.  The authors define it and speak about its effects.  The second part goes into how grace can be applied to deal with the pain and trauma of sexual assault in the areas of denial, distorted self-image, shame, guilt, anger, and despair.  A personal story from a survivor of sexual assault is included between each of the chapters in this section.  The last part is entitled “Grace Accomplished.”  Here the authors trace themes of sin, violence, sexual assault, and grace through the pages of the Bible.

There are many commendable elements to Rid of My Disgrace.  The authors believe that the biblical gospel of grace is essential for healing.  They have a biblical understanding of the dynamics of human sinfulness.  Throughout the book, survivors of sexual assault are directed to the cross of Christ.  Their approach to forgiveness is sound.  They give a helpful analysis of why churches sometimes have a tendency to blame the victim, why we shoot our wounded.  While the authors often use the results of scientific research and observations, their foundation is the infallible and inerrant Word of God.  Moreover, the theological orientation of the authors is generally on the right track.  The authors that a book cites are often revealing and Rid of My Disgrace prominently features John Calvin, Martin Luther, R. C. Sproul, and even the Heidelberg Catechism.

Good Christian books about this topic are hard to find.  Many of them have more psychology than scriptural theology.  That’s not a problem with this book at all.  This is, in fact, one of the best Christian books available on sexual abuse.  However, very reluctantly I have to point out one problem in the theology of the book.  I do it reluctantly because I don’t want this problem to prevent people from reading it.  On the other hand, I do want people to read it with discernment.

The problem has to do with their understanding of the cross.  The Holcombs speak of God understanding abuse and assault, because Jesus was abused and assaulted.  Taken by itself that statement could be taken charitably to mean that Jesus (the God-man) understands abuse and assault.  However, the authors say far more.  For example, on page 113 they say that when Jesus laid down his life as our substitute, “God is submitting to God’s own wrath for the sake of forgiving sinners.”  This kind of language, often appearing with citations from less than orthodox theologians, appears especially in chapters 6 and 7.  In QA 17 of the Heidelberg Catechism, we confess that Christ bore in his human nature the burden of God’s wrath.  To state that God suffered on the cross may sound pastorally helpful and appealing, but it is theologically problematic.  It is far better to keep the attention on Christ our High Priest and Mediator.  Our Saviour Jesus understands abuse and assault – therefore, we can be comforted in our afflictions.  We have a sympathetic High Priest to whom we can go with our burdens.

We should not underestimate the hurt that this sin has caused, also in terms of one’s relationship with God.  The historic proliferation of this sin in some of our Canadian Reformed communities has damaged the faith life of many, both women and men.  It has produced depression, mistrust, shame, hypocrisy, anger, broken marriages and families, and much more.  Because it’s so damaging, we need to continue talking about it.  Sin is like fungus:  it grows best in the dark – it’s no different with the sin of sexual assault.  Books such as this are helpful to shine the light and bring gospel hope and healing to those broken by this evil.

Book Review: Little One Lost

Little One Lost

Little One Lost: Living with Early Infant Loss, Glenda Mathes, Grandville: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2012.  Softcover, 139 pages, $10.00.

I’ve encountered it many times as a pastor.  I’ve also experienced it personally together with my wife.  Miscarriage or “early infant loss” is a common enough phenomenon.  Though it is so common, we are hardly adept at dealing with it in a Christian way.  People don’t know what to say, they don’t how to act, and they don’t how to give comfort.  So, more often than not, people say nothing, pretend as if it didn’t happen, or undermine it.  Those who’ve experienced it may themselves be reluctant to tell others – many times a couple who have lost a baby early on won’t feel free to tell their pastor or elder either.  This book has a huge potential to change the way we view early infant loss and the way we deal with it in our Reformed churches and families.

Readers of Christian Renewal will be familiar with the author since her writing regularly appears there.  She’s a member of a United Reformed congregation in Iowa.  Little One Lost grew out of an article written for Christian Renewal some years ago.  Mathes was contacted by women who had experienced this kind of grief and their encouragement led her to write something more substantial.  In the book she draws on the experiences of others, and also that of her and her husband.

Little One Lost is written from the heart and it shows.  She writes at the end of how this book was difficult to write.  I believe it.  But just as the best sermons are those preached from the heart, so also the best and most powerful books are written by authors who care passionately about what they’re writing.

Mathes covers every aspect of this subject and does so with sensitivity.  This book is not only about miscarriage, but also about still births and sudden infant deaths.  She notes how early infant loss affects not only mothers, but also fathers, siblings, and grandparents.  She draws our attention to how abuse or abortion can complicate the grieving process.  There’s a helpful and compassionate discussion about funeral planning in these instances.  I also appreciated the way in which she identifies infertility also as a loss.  Towards the end of the book, Mathes includes a section on things that are and are not helpful to say to grieving parents (including the infamously uncompassionate “Get over it!”).

This is a very practical book.  Moreover, the author offers her practical advice and wisdom based on the teaching of Scripture and its summary in the Reformed confessions.  She has excellent chapters on biblical, covenantal, and confessional comfort.  There was only one concern that I noted.  Chapter 8 deals with the grief of fathers.  Mathes writes, “God the Father gave up his one and only Son.  He knows the pain that fathers as well as mothers feel in loss” (49).  While I’m sure that author does not subscribe to the heresy of patripassionism, these words could be misunderstood as pointing in that direction.

Little One Lost is the best book I’ve read this year – no exaggeration.  It’s highly recommended for pastors, elders, and anyone who wants to help those grieving the loss of a baby.  Those who are working their way through such a loss will also benefit.  It can sometimes be hard to work through a book of this nature, which is why I think grieving parents will really appreciate the short chapters – each one is only three or four pages.  You can work through it slowly if you have to.  This book needed to be written and I commend Glenda Mathes for writing it and Reformed Fellowship for publishing it.  I plan to keep several copies on hand.