22 April 2008

On Counseling and Councils

As Latter-day Saints, we encounter many forms of counsel and councils. The scriptures set some patterns and provide insight to these ideas while simultaneously opening questions to the inquiring mind regarding how best to apply the teaching we so frequently receive regarding counsel and councils. Certainly these thoughts are in no way meant to detract from the appropriate instruction handed down by divinely inspired and appointed leaders on how to effectively use councils or on how leaders may appropriately counsel church members approaching them in confidence; however, to restrict the notions of counsel and councils to only those contexts would obviate teachings of scripture. Hence, it is in the spirit of augmenting our conceptions of counsel and councils that I proceed.

Jacob 4:10 instructs "Wherefore, brethren, seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand." Matthew 7:1 likewise provides "Judge not, that ye be not judged," with Joseph Smith clarifying that the author intended the command to read "judge not unrighteously . . . but judge righteous judgment."

These passages, taken together, posit an instructive line of thinking and inquiry in that they leave open the idea of sitting in council with other saints while reserving judgment to specifically delegated situations of "righteous judgment."

The concept of counseling in a gospel context, as informed by Jacob 4:10, presents its own internal aporia. How can we counsel with the Lord without counseling the Lord? Some might regard such a question as fundamentally flawed. Jacob clearly contrasts counseling the Lord with taking His counsel. Thus, on at least that level, the dilemma dissolves.

In a different sense, however, we might question whether taking counsel from the Lord's hand involves more than complete passivity. Indeed, Lehi taught that we "have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for [our]selves and not to be acted upon." 2 Ne. 2:26. In that light, then, I proceed my inquiry as to how we take counsel from His hand without reverting to that state of being acted upon--a state upon which Lehi frowned.

To counsel seems to implicitly require interactivity. A person can give counsel without actual counseling taking place, a situation that many parents of teenage children may recognize. One-sided "counseling" would be characterized more appropriately as exhortation in such circumstances.

This returns us to the interactive aspect of counsel. Such counsel can be informed by the humility required to submit one's will to that of the Father; however, the interactivity cannot be eliminated therefrom. Despite our decision to submit, we must not merely resign ourselves. Even our Lord Jesus sought the interactive form of counsel in asking that "if it be possible, let this cup pass from me" before ultimately receiving the counsel of the Father and submitting, "nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. Matt. 26:39. Hence, the injunction to receive counsel at the Hand of the Master does not preclude our meaningful prayers and expressions of our own intents, preferences, and ideas.

Likewise, interactive counseling does not allow us the latitude to pray exclusively for our own wants or desires or to attempt at imposing our understanding on God. Instead, we must "seek not to counsel the Lord." This, again, requires interactivity. Attitudes reflected in prayer, meditation, study, or behavior that fails to acknowledge that our "one-sided counsel" falls short of true counsel destroy the interactivity of the counseling relationship. To offer a "prayer" that merely states or requests (or demands) what we want individually, without making time and creating space for the Lord's return counsel abuses the relationship of counseling just as violently as the passivity approach.

With this brief sketch of what it means to counsel, we turn naturally to the councils of the church, in which counseling constitutes a part of the sacred responsibility to "sit in council." D&C 107. In such councils, righteous judgment comprises a theme that ought to always inform appropriate council actions. Outside the context of disciplinary councils (wherein a specifically designated delegee of the Lord's authority acts as an inspired Judge), the councils of the Church address the topics, doctrines, policies, programs, and activities of the church (among other things). In this process, judgment is passed on those items. Thus, the theme of righteous judgment becomes an appropriate area for discussion among church members.

Just as the idea of how to counsel presents a paradox, the injunction to not judge unrighteously creates pause to its recipients. We might well ask ourselves how we determine whether our judgment is righteous without adding judgment upon judgment. When we pass judgment, whether it be upon an individual or upon the fit between a proposed policy, program or activity and its intended audience, the judgment must be undertaken seriously. For "with what judgment [w]e judge, [w]e shall be judged." Matt. 7:2.

How, then, should saints approach judgment. Here, the concepts of councils and counsel overlap. Councils must counsel together and with the Lord. Their decisions must align those two counseling relationships. The ultimate decision of such councils typically falls upon the presiding member of the council, who has been consecrated for this decision-making role.

In sum, the ultimate beginning and end of Church councils reverts back to the individuals constituting the council and their relationship of counsel with God. So our inquiry returns our thoughts to their outset and reaffirms the need to develop a truly interactive relationship of counsel with our Master.

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