Surely, at its heart, pastoral counseling is quite simple. It is nothing other than listening attentively, respectfully, and prayerfully to a person, and then "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15).
Yet the actual doing of these "simple" tasks is one of the most demanding and sometimes frustrating aspects of Christian ministry. And never is that more true than in counseling with someone who has had an abortion.
Abortion is often discussed and debated at a philosophical, ethical or political level. But in cases where actual abortions have occurred, the church has too often been silent or stuttering in its counsel. Pastors find themselves avoiding the subject, counselors become tongue-tied, and those seeking help often leave with nothing but shallow and unredemptive cliches to cling to. Jeremiah the prophet decried those who "dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious" (6:14). If we are to be found faithful in our time, it will only be by taking the spiritual wound of complicity in abortion with utmost seriousness, and by bringing for its healing nothing less than the balm of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
First, let us consider why the subject creates such avoidance and discomfort in those who otherwise may be confident in their counseling role.
There may be many reasons for that discomfort, but surely one that is that many counselors and pastors have not resolved in their own minds the "rightness," or the "wrongness," of abortion. Because issues of forgiveness are involved in the second case but not in the first, counselors who are unclear about the basic moral dimensions of this question are essentially paralyzed in their counseling task by the perceived ambiguities they have not resolved. The path of healing, the counseling process itself, is in fact aborted by our lack of moral discernment regarding this issue.
A second reason for the difficulties in post-abortion counseling is that we shepherds often carry into the discussion a measure of our own unresolved, unconfessed sexual guilt or shame. Perhaps we also have been involved with actual abortions or abortion advocacy. We may feel we have no honest moral ground to stand on from which to effectively counsel others in their grief and guilt.
A third reason for our hesitancy in this area is the extreme emotion and deep woundedness which often surrounds the issue in people's lives. In the face of such intense feeling and (often) moral confusion, we find ourselves not as confident in the usual resources and vocabulary of spiritual guidance and Christian counseling. We may simply lose our nerve.
The answers to these dilemmas are not obscure, but neither are they easy. We must
1) grow in our knowledge of the moral dimensions of abortion from a truly biblical and confessional perspective,
2) be forgiven and healed of our own sins, and
3) regain our trust in God's ability to use us and his uncomplicated word of grace to bring restoration and reconciliation to others.
A Truly Pastoral Approach
If we have clarified these moral and personal aspects of abortion, we as counselors can then prepare to bring truly pastoral care to those involved in abortions.
As we listen to them in an environment of personal acceptance and empathy for the difficult life circumstances which sometimes surround the choice to abort, we must at the same time keep in mind the essential spiritual nature of human beings who are created in God's own image.
This essential spiritual nature means that it is our relationship with God which is the defining question of our lives. It also means, according to John Calvin and countless other Christian thinkers, that our task as believers is to be forever engaged in two quests at once: the quest for the true knowledge of ourselves and the quest for the true knowledge of God. For us, these quests are inextricably interwoven: it is precisely as we come to know ourselves more honestly that we see the utter incompleteness and meaninglessness of our lives apart from our Creator Father. And it is just as we come to know the living God as he truly is that we can finally see the astonishing meaning of our existence in the great biblical and cosmic drama of redemption.
Yet, it is this very journey into truthful self-knowledge and God-knowledge which is itself aborted by abortion.
When the mother (or the father) of an unborn child decides to destroy that life within the womb, great mental efforts must then be exerted to deceive oneself about the nature of the act. Often, the conscience of a person is accused by an innate sense of God's moral requirements (Romans 1:20, 2:14-15), or by a familiarity with the biblical proclamation of a holy God (I Peter 1:15-16, Romans 3:19-20). However, this sense of guilt is often quickly smothered by what is now a standard regime of rationalizations: "It was not really a baby"; "I needed to act in my own best interests"; "God will understand and sympathize in this choice"; "just this one time and I will be more careful about getting pregnant (or getting someone pregnant) in the future."
If a person has come for counseling on this subject, they already may have a gnawing sense of how unsatisfactory these rationalizations are. What is most urgent for the Christian counselor or pastor at this moment is that he or she -- without ridiculing these reasons or showing disdain for them -- helps the person to see that these rationalizations, because they are based on a denial of moral reality, are impassable blocks to any growth in knowledge of God or self. Said more plainly, abortion doesn't just kill the unborn child, it kills the progress of the souls of those who choose it; and in a loving way this must be expressed.
Apart from a serious grappling with the guilt of breaking the sixth commandment, abortion inevitably alienates the mother and/or father from God, and this alienation must always be our primary concern in the care of souls.
King David, in the Bathsheba incident, committed sexual sin which eventually let to a murderous act (among other transgressions). In the 51st Psalm, David reveals that he knows what his real problem is and Who alone determines its resolution:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin (vs. 1-2).
It is most important, and strangely liberating, for the caring counselor to recognize that the things most desperately needed by the hurting sinner cannot be given by the counselor or any other human being. No man or woman, and no easy language of self-acceptance, can really "blot out" the guilt. No man or woman can wash and cleanse the soul. But God can, God does, and God will for anyone who seeks it in him. He who "desires truth in the inner parts" and "teach(es)…wisdom in the inmost place" (v.6) can do for us what he did for his servant David. Often, we find what we are seeking even as we cry out for it:
Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean;
Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow…
Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity…
Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me…(vs. 7,9,14)
God's forgiveness of sin through his atoning love is the great Miracle of the moral universe. This is what we deeply desire for ourselves and for those broken and guilty ones who come to us for counseling. We are not at all interested in merely helping them to "feel good about themselves again." Beyond being delusional, that would be too slight a blessing. David hoped for more, much more:
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not case me from your presence or take your holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me (vs.10-12).
If the person seeking our guidance and help is to find this kind of joyful restoration, it will not be through our mere personal affirmation of them. This kind of salvific joy and peace comes only through right relationship with God himself.
The best help we can give the participants in abortion is to remind them (or teach them for the first time) that their lives, and their choice to abort, have mainly to do with God. In one sense, the issue is not even their experience of remorse or their personal feelings for the slain unborn child. Like Jacob a the Jabbok, it is God we must wrestle with, and him alone, if we are to receive the blessing. King David also knew this. He knew that his sin had injured many others around him, yet he prayed to God,
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge (v.4)
When the issue of a disrupted relationship with God is seen as the real issue of abortion, indeed as the real danger and dilemma of all our lives, several things happen. It reminds us that we are the unique God-related creatures of the universe, the ones he calls "children," so that even in our depravity we are reminded of our dignity as men and women. We were once in the Garden with Him! But that is not all. Now the central question is no longer the recovery of personal happiness of self-esteem or personal growth. The question now is our guilt and its removal:
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me (v.3).
The place the secular counselor most fears to go, the place of known and expressed personal guilt, is just the place where the Christian pastor or counselor would lead a post-abortion parishioner or friend. For it is on this unflichingly honest ground that the seed of grace and forgiveness grows, it is here that the Gospel can be heard, and here only. For "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, and purify us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9).
God's faithfulness to forgive sins is both demonstrated and accomplished on the cross of Christ. The one who has killed his or her unborn child in abortion, like any other sinner, cannot be helped with the dilemma of their guilt before God with anything less than the shed blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God whose sacrificial death takes away the sins of all his people everywhere (Romans 3:22-26). The freedom from the self-punnishment of a grieved conscience can only be found in the freedom from divine punishment freely given to us in our Savior. The counselor should clearly tell those who have come for pastoral help that Jesus Christ died for them and for their sins. He anticipated their sinful choices and has already covered them with a perfect sacrifice before God the Father, who sent him for just that purpose (John 3:16-17).
Let us drive this point home: Christ's cross is absolutely and forever sufficient for everyone who seeks forgiveness and healing in him. He personally knows them and sees them in their distress and is now offering himself to them as the bridge of their return to God the Father. Through the merits of his Christ, God loves them still, and now calls them to himself.
Here we see the great opportunity of counseling those who have had abortions. The very sin which cuts us off from fellowship with our God can, and by Gods' grace at work through a Christian counselor or pastor, become the occasion of new self-knowledge and God-knowledge. An abortion which began as a "difficult personal choice" becomes now a window through which we see the true depravity of our souls and God's unfathomable rescue of us in redemption.
We see at once that the blood of our own children is on our hands, but also that the blood of Christ is shed for our souls. We see that all we can bring to God is our guiltiness and our neediness, but also that this is all that is required, for
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (v.17).
In the glorious economy of God's grace in the life of a believer, the guilt of abortion can lead to salvation; the road to hell can become the road to heaven.
And so we are no longer the same, nor will we ever be, for "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come: (2 Corinthians 5:17). Once the guilt of an abortion has been honestly confessed to God through the mercy of Jesus Christ, the guilt before God is gone, and the counselor must treat it as such.
Now our task is to be useful to God as he builds a new identity in the life of the person we counsel. Integration of the person into the regular life of the congregation and the practice of personal spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible study are essential. If there is further counseling, it is to be geared to this construction of a soul in God, not dealing with guilt that has already been forgiven by God (unless the person is struggling to believe what God has done for them).
The person is now not to be seen in some special category of saved sinner, above or below other forgiven rebels, but simply a sister or brother in the Lord, a servant and friend of Jesus Christ, a heaven-bound saint of God.
As one modern commentator has said, "Abortion is about more than abortion."
And so it is and forever will be, for God is in the mix, and what we thought of as our "choice" may become God's chosen occasion to speak to us. Our prayer in Presbyterians Pro-Life is that through the tragedy and bloodguilt of abortion, a sovereign and good God will bring about a rediscovery of the true purpose of spiritual counseling by pastors and church counselors, and the salvation of many men and women who have been involved in the destruction of unborn human life. For we know that God is able to do this and even "immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20).
A Message from Pastor Donald A. Elliott, PPL's President:
This [booklet] is the first of what we hope will become a series written especially for pastors by pastors. The series arises from our concern to respond to the spiritual needs associated with abortion. We believe that the needs of people in the church who are directly affected by abortion are being neglected as the Church carries on its discussion of this subject in its academic and political spheres.
It is our deep conviction that Jesus' admonition to "love my sheep" points to the necessity of loving care, including communication of the means of grace, to women especially, and to all who have been involved in making abortion decisions. We believe that the church's ministry of preaching and teaching has to include those sins to which people in any given age are particularly vulnerable. For that reason, we published a collection of sermons of life, called Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, in the hopes of encouraging pastors to address the spiritual concerns related to abortion from the pulpits of our denomination.
We also are aware that the sheer numbers of abortions that hve taken place in our country mean that it is unlikely that any congregation remains untouched. The purpose of God's intervention in history and in our lives is to change the way things are: to heal us, to save us, to restore us, to comfort and redeem us. There are many people in our congregations who -- because of an abortion experience -- need personal pastoral help to experience that change in their own lives.
The Westminster Catechism explains that when we pray "Thy kingdom come," we are asking that "the kingdom of grace may be advanced, ourselves and others brought into it and kept in it…" It is our prayer in PPL that this petition will be applied to those in our midst who need a ministry of grace because of abortion.
Pastor to Pastor: The Pastoral Counseling of Those Involved With Abortion is available in booklet form and may be ordered from the
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For more resources on ministry to those affected by abortion, click here.