Many of us were brought up with the influential book Competent to Counsel by Jay Adams.
In that book, and the companion book The Christian Counselor’s Manual, Adams sets forth his system that became known as Nouthetic Counseling, which became tremendously influential. Many, in fact, teach that Nouthetic Counseling is the only true Biblical counseling. I have heard many pastors and professors teach that anyone who seeks another kind of counseling should be disciplined by the church.
Harsh treatment, indeed.
The first book is now almost 50 years old, and I wonder if it has brought forth good fruit or bad fruit. Theology has consequences.
But even more than that, now that I am older I am starting to see some of the problems. I am wondering if it is biblical. It is my position that “Biblical Counseling” is neither biblical, nor is it counseling.
But that thesis is too great for one blog. I would like to simply look at one example: Adams treatment of Ephesians 4:26.
Be angry, and sin not; let not the sun go down upon your wrath.
Adams’ interpretation of this passage is found in Competent to Counsel beginning on page 220. He alludes to this interpretation throughout the book. Reconciliation is a big theme with Adams. In fact, I do not believe that it is over-simplifying his theory by saying that he contends that virtually every inter-personal conflict of every kind can be resolved by following the steps of Matthew 18. (See The Christian Counselor’s Manuel, page 52 and following).
His interpretation of Ephesians 4:26 fits into his thesis. He writes on this passage,
…Paul says that Christians must not allow one single day to pass with unresolved anger stored in their hearts. The principle is clearly set forth: “Do not let the sun go down upon your wrath.” In other words, every day Christians must handle the problems that have arisen. This does not mean that others must be confronted about every sin which they have committed. There are many matters that can be covered over by love…Yet there are some things that cannot be set to rest simply by covering them with love. They continue to rattle around down inside; they fester and eat away. Such problems need to be settled daily by personal confrontation. (Competent, 222)
At first glance, it seems practical and even Biblical. We all know those people who carry anger around with them and divide and destroy one another each day. The scripture is clear that we are to lay aside resentment and wrath and malice. Walking in love does indeed separate us from the world.
But at a closer glance, and now 50 years later, we see problems emerge. He does not define which problems are big enough to “confront” and which to “let go” except the ones that one cannot just let go must be confronted.
Suppose a woman has not gotten dinner on the table on time, and her husband, who loves to bully and threaten, decides that this is something that must be settled by personal confrontation. So he rails, reviles, threatens his wife, refusing to let her sleep until his anger is dissipated, only to start it again the next day – because they have to be reconciled daily.
Before you say, “That never happens”, just stop. It does. All the time. Until 2 or 3 in the morning, or all night. The favorite tactic of a son of the devil is to deprive his target of sleep, and Adams gives him the perfect excuse. He gets to define what sin must be confronted all night, and he must resolve it or she cannot go to bed.
To be sure, Adams would not condone abusive behavior. In fact, he might even confront it harshly. His disciples often do. But the heart of the issue remains, and the husband asserts his right to vomit his anger on his wife again the next time he feels like it.
Is this truly what this verse is telling us? Is the problem the practice, or is it the interpretation of the verse? It is saying that my anger is the fault of another who must be forced to bend to my will before I go to bed? This is how many tens of thousands of Adams disciples take it.
One of the problems with this interpretation is Psalm 4. Some, like Hendrickson, simply say that Paul quotes the Psalm and uses it for his own purposes. But there is no attempt to explain why Paul quotes this Psalm if his purpose is to teach about personal reconciliation.
Psalm 4 has nothing whatever to do with reconciling personal relationships. It has to do with worship. And Paul is using it the same way, being faithful to the text. The Ephesian Christians were also subject to injustice and wickedness and persecution. Here is Psalm 4:
Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have relieved me in my distress; Have mercy on me, and hear my prayer.
2 How long, O you sons of men, Will you turn my glory to shame? How long will you love worthlessness And seek falsehood?
3 But know that the LORD has set apart for Himself him who is godly; The LORD will hear when I call to Him.
4 Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still.
5 Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, And put your trust in the LORD.
6 There are many who say, “Who will show us any good?” LORD, lift up the light of Your countenance upon us.
7 You have put gladness in my heart, More than in the season that their grain and wine increased.
8 I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; For You alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.
This is a Psalm of David, ultimately fulfilled in Christ. David was hounded, persecuted, driven from home, slandered, and greatly abused.
Christ also, as our mediator, suffered greatly at the hands of wicked men. And it made him angry.
It is true that when he was reviled, he did not revile in return. It is true that he didn’t carry resentment around. But he was angry at hard hearts. He was angry at death, the old enemy. He was angry at the hatred and envy and lying and murder that the religious leaders stored up in their hearts.
But being without sin, Christ used that anger to worship God and to deepen his trust (according to his human nature and office of mediator), and that is what this Psalm is about.
The Lord sanctifies and sets apart. The Lord has not abandoned us to the rage and hatred of bullies and oppressors, but has promised redemption. He is coming in judgment.
And he allows us to sleep at night because he loves us. “I will lay down and sleep because the Lord makes me dwell safely.”
So at night, when your anger is bubbling over; when the blasphemy and oppression and injustice of the wicked one seems far too powerful, far too brutal, far to great for someone like you to handle, remember this: It isn’t too small for God. He puts gladness in the heart. Put your trust in his promises and sleep, dear ones, for God is faithful and true and just. And he sees.
He sees Hagar fleeing with her son. He sees Moses in the wilderness. He sees David in hiding in the cave. And he sees you.
Instead of anger at night, meditate on that and be still.
You see, Paul is not talking about personal confrontation. That makes your anger (whether it is just or unjust) someone else’s problem. Further, why are you so angry with your children or your spouse that you are trembling with rage (which is the word in Psalm 4) at them. Are they truly your enemies?
Enemies, though, can cause great fear and helpless, despairing anger. And the way to put it off is not to shut off your feelings. It is to turn to the Lord in worship.
Be angry. Injustice, reviling, blasphemy, crime, slander, destruction, senseless crime, abortion, immorality, is ugly and hateful.
Be angry at the things God is angry over. Don’t be angry that moths and rust destroyed what moths and rust destroys. That’s what happens in this cursed world.
Be angry, but sin not.
And when you are angry and what God is angry at, take heart that his anger is perfect. His justice is perfect. He will take care of it. “Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord.
So leave it in his hands. The injustice and wrongs of the day, the folly and slanders of the day, the attacks of the day – be angry. But when the sun goes down, go outside. Look at the stars. See if you can count them. Remember God’s promise to Abraham. He doesn’t lie.
And then take a deep breath. Open up a bottle of wine. Kiss your wife. Hug your children. Get out a board game.
Cut some pie. Put some whipped cream right on it.
Look back at the sky. He who created those stars hates injustice far more than you do.
He who spread out that black canvas to paint the galaxies on hates the slaughter of infants more than you do
He who feeds those coyotes that you hear howling and he gave the crickets their song hates theft and murder and greed and adultery more that you ever could.
So finish your pie. Kiss your wife again.
Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath. Don’t let your anger consume you. Don’t let it grow into that little ball of hatred that poisons everything.
Don’t let your anger consume you so much that you miss talking to a friend, you miss the smell of the night sky, the autumn night, the beauty of the creator, the calling of the dove and the hoot of the owl.
Be angry. But sin not.