A Biblical Counselor's Take on the Lord's Supper
The Lord's Supper is an occasion for significant hope and comfort to those who find themselves in a season of emotional or spiritual suffering. Regular observance of this sacrament may well multiply the benefits of this means of God's grace to struggling believers for the strengthening of faith, assurance, and perseverance.
These are just a few of my conclusions as a biblical counselor studying the eucharistic doctrine of John Calvin, the great sixteenth century Protestant reformer. As one involved in biblical soul care, I consider that counseling is chiefly a theological task, making sound application of God's word a matter of paramount importance.
As to the Lord's Supper, engagement with this sacrament may represent an undervalued matter of the faith in American evangelicalism at large, yet one that holds out great promise to the emotional and spiritual health of individual believers, and by extension, the church.
Upon considering what Calvin had to say about this command of our Lord, we might say in the end that the communion table is neglected to the church's great detriment.
What We Know
Life on this side of the fall comes packed with opportunities to suffer in innumerable ways. Jesus promised that in this life, we'd have trouble, and any reasonable exposition of his words would confirm this as reality (John 16:33). By example and instruction, Scripture informs us that through many trials and tribulations we enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).
One of the most common stressors people face involves grief associated with loss. Whether the loss of a loved one, or a job, for example, the range of emotions, and related physical symptoms have been well documented.
WebMD, a popular online medical outlet, lists a few potential "spiritual" effects of grief, to include "loss of purpose." Likewise, the University of Texas informs its student body of the risks associated with loss and grief.
What seems clear across treatment outlets is that human suffering due to profound loss is a legitimate category of concern, as are a number of resulting, predictable symptoms that may be experienced after a loss-related event.
As is typically the case with mental or spiritual health related issues, awareness is key to a proper response when suffering comes. As the church progressively, if not slowly, enters the discussion of mental health and its own caring role, it may come as a suprise to some that God has already provided tremendous means for ministering to the human heart in meaningful ways.
In the case of the Lord's Supper, the provision may be of greater substance than has been previously, if not recently, thought.
What We Need
In his book on Calvin's doctrine of the Lord's Supper, Dr. Keith Matthison writes that Calvin considered it a ". . . grave error to treat the sacraments as if they were optional elements to be observed or ignored at our discretion" (p.43).
This may push some toward the debate of how often the supper ought to be observed, but perhaps the better conversation for this post is to simply dialogue about how important communion may in fact be to those who mourn.
On any given Sunday, if we could actually know the number, range, and intensity of emotional and spiritual suffering issues that enter the church building, as well as the power of the grace recieved at the table, we may well be driven to reconsider our liturgies, where the Supper has often been forced to the margins.
Matthison writes that, for Calvin, "The primary benefit of the Lord's Supper is that it strengthens our faith and our union with Christ. The Supper was also intended to produce effects among believers themselves" (p.41).
This summary of Calvin's position is, of course, also found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which as to the Supper, says that the Lord Jesus instituted the Supper for, among other reasons, the " . . . perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of [Christ] in His death, the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers . . . spiritual nourishment and growth in Him . . . a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other" (WCF 29.1).
As to the work of biblical counseling, and ministry to those who suffer, what could be more important to their faith, assurance, and perseverance than to "seal" to their remembrance once more all that Christ is to them, even as their trial continues, and that via one of two vivid means of grace provided by Christ himself to the church?
For this reason alone, we might agree with Calvin, who desired (but did not ultimately prevail for matters beyond his control) for the church to observe the Supper weekly. As B.A. Gerrish has pointed out, the Lord's Supper is a divine gift, but it is not merely the reminder of a gift (quoted in Matthison, p.47).
How We Proceed
Across the church's landscape in America, it is common to find the Lord's Supper observed in a monthly or quarterly rotation. There are many understandable reasons why a local church might make this decision, but from a biblical counseling position, we might ask the church to reconsider this arrangement based on the actual needs of the flock to be in communion with the Lord Jesus in this indispensible sacrament. For those who are suffering, this point becomes all the more critical.
As biblical counselors, we very often assign homework to counselees, and require them to be in attendance at a weekly worship service. The need for church participation is heightened when we take Calvin's view of the Supper into consideration. We aren't simply asking a counselee to be in attendance at an event, but in communion with Christ and his body.
There is hardly a more profound manner of communing with Christ, and receiving God's grace than can be found in the Lord's Supper.
The more often the hurting have opportunity to be encouraged in their faith through the Supper, having the realities of the Covenant of Grace sealed to their hearts in this sign, the better their course will be as they journey onward to healing.
From my own perspective, I would ask church leaders to consider where concessions might be made in their regular church services, in order to more regularly offer this "bond of love," as Augustine called the Supper. I dare say the benefits would far outweigh any perceived inconveniences.
As Calvin himself wrote in his "Institutes," concerning the Supper, " . . . all, like hungry men, should flock to such bounteous repast" (Inst., 4.17.46). And, no one knows hunger for spiritual food better than those who mourn.
Let the church not make them wait.