If I may start by venting my spleen. The chief frustration in counseling* is being ignored. You listen, ask all the relevant questions, and then apply scripture to the situation as the basis for your counsel. And nine times out of ten, you know the person sitting there has just wasted both your time. They came to you not for insight or advice, but for a rubber stamp on the stupid thing they want to do. Or in the hope that you would give justification for their new “Trauma,” as Screwtape would say, “Beelzebub, what a useful word!” And when you don’t do that, they try and weasel around it, and then just lie, saying they listened.
Actually the biggest frustration is knowing you will be repeating this process ad infinitum.
People Don’t Change
It is ironic that frequently the people who need counsel inevitably want other people to change but they don’t want to make any adjustments about themselves.The number one problem I run into when discipling young men is idiot friends. From there you can move to romantic relationships. Everyone wants other people to be more Godly but they don’t want to become more Godly themselves.
I remember reading about one college pastor who would meet with students who had returned from their first semester at University and not surprisingly they would admit to wanting to leave the faith. His first question was always, “So what’s his/her name?” No part of a Christian life comes easy. It is like rowing upstream. With fellow believers you have a team and the job is easier. With unbelievers there is dead weight and distraction. One group helps every one move further up and further in. Another gets you out to being lost at sea.
Many Christians who come to be counseled really want permission to load down their boat with more weight than they can carry and then advice on how to convince those people to suddenly have a form of Godliness, or at least how to cope with being stuck in the strong currents. Left to their own devices no one in that boat will change, they are all doomed, together they will sail into the outer darkness. That Christian will be in a living hell with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
That Christian has neglected two of the major gifts God has given to keep them from getting into that situation. The Body of believers, which is the church, and the infallible instruction and wisdom of God, the Scriptures. The believer that devotes themselves to these things finds themselves rarely in need of a counselor. Frequently those who require counseling are already so far gone what is really happening is triage. Sadly I find most don’t make it.
People do not change, they are incapable of doing so. As a matter of fact they only have the potential to, “go down to the bad all through the ages.” As Tolkien would describe. Something outside of them must do all the work**. God changes people, he puts their old sinful self to death, and raises them into new life. From there he shapes and molds them into his image before in one final glorious eucatastrophe he perfects them fully and with his right hand ushers them into his presence and pleasures forevermore. As in the story of Lazarus He has told us the end, but not the middle. Yet through it all he is with us and guides us, and has generously given us two guides. These are the tools every counselor should leverage, Scripture and fellowship with the church body.
Scripture should go without saying. However, I have lost track of the number of “Biblical Counselors” I have heard who try and estimate how “Christian” a client is and then use corresponding amounts of Scripture (less for the nominal, more for the avid fan) so as not no offend. This is simple spiritual malpractice.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:16-17
I know more people who are quicker to quote their therapist than Scripture, and at some point it should be asked if our emotional slavery is directly linked to our Biblical illiteracy. as well as being the inerrant Word, Scripture is also living and active, it is a sharp sword that is wielded in the spiritual realm. It cuts through our issues and objections, it slices and dices away at our sins. It shows us the way to and of salvation. It brings us to Christ the great healer. It shapes and molds the believer into the image of Christ. It is a sanctifying force, and the filter though which all of life goes.
If this were not enough God has given the additional aid of fellowship with the church. I am fascinated how many friendless christians there are in local churches, and those tend to be the people who keep regular appointments with their counselors. It would appear that real “life together” as Bonhoeffer would advocate for, has been outsourced to paid persons who have the Scriptural knowledge of an elder but lack their authority. They have the listening skills of a friend, but are unobtrusive otherwise. They always say “hard things” the right way in the right tones, which means they can be ignored when the desire to sin or be foolish arises. And they can’t require repentance for sin, but are quick to give assurance of pardon.
Friends, and elders are gifts from God who know you. They deeply know you. They call you out, they rebuke you, they point you to Jesus. They are interested in your spiritual growth out of love not professionalism. They don’t wait for you to realize, “you need help” they come to you head on and do everything to drag you back to the cross. It is done imperfectly because they love you like the brother or sister you are in Christ. Their great desire is for your sanctification, they spur you on, and the hope is that you will do the same. The relationship is by design both ways.
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” – Hebrews 10:23-25
The Greatest Service
The goal of any counseling is discipleship, and seeing as that is the great command given by Christ, not the great suggestion, it is what every Christian should be about. Any counseling that is done should be done in such a way that the person seeking counsel leaves more capable of being a reproducing follower of Christ, not simply possessing better self esteem. This is done best in the context of believers, not behind closed doors of an office with licenses on the wall. It is done best by those saturated with Scripture who simply marinate the disciple in the commands of God. If i may awkwardly take the image from David. It should be like a honey glaze.
What this builds to is not then the brilliant insights of the counselor, but the Scripture he expounds, and then the prayers he prays. At the top I related the most frustrating thing about giving counsel is being lied to. They nod along, then go off and continue in sin or foolishness. Therefore they must be placed in the hands of God. And those prayers must not always be of the sweet edifying kind. My own mother used to pray that if I or my sisters sinned we would be caught. David prayed that God would send his enemies to hell. It is good to pray for conviction of sin, for repentance, for God to do his will in bringing his wayward child back into fellowship with him and the eternal family. Prayers should be made for the person and in front of them.
The true work of a Christian who gives counsel is to disciple and to pray unceasingly. playing therapist is self defeating and ultimately frustrating. People need Christ and Him Crucified, they must be conformed to his image. To do this takes a spine and a well known Bible. Love sometimes means not allowing the person to get away with lying to you, and or wasting both your time. You can not change a person, only Christ can. People don’t change, Christians do, hold them to that confession and if they are true, the transformation will take place.
*A longish footnote on counseling. Consider it like the Appendices to Lord of the Rings. Not necessary to the post but informative anyway.
- I. I dislike the idea of professional “Biblical” counselors. Hiring a counselor is like hiring a lawyer, they are only representing you and and have a financial incentive to do so. A Pastor is required Biblically to interview all parties involved in an emotional kerfuffle and is not on anyones side but Gods. A paid counselor is only required to get one side of the story and work from there. Frankly anyone with any experience with people knows there is this side, that side, and the truth. As well there is the obvious incentive to create a reliance on continued visits to the counselor for emotional, or worse, spiritual direction. Counselors have no spiritual authority they can only advise which, if there is a paycheck tied to sessions ad infinitum the lack of any ability to speak as one through whom God speaks is not really a problem. Commanding obedience to Scripture despite feelings leads to healing, massaging emotions with inspirational Bible quotes is self perpetuating naval gazing. As a result I refuse any payment for counseling and I operate from a pastoral model, if anyone was asking. My only allegiance is to Christ and Him Crucified.
- II. There is a genre of counseling that mostly deals with emotions or “trauma” (see quote from Screwtape above) I have a hard time with this one as well. A lot of emotional outbursts and perceived hurt is usually a rebellion of one or more Fruits of the Spirit. Real issues, such as a genuine psychological issue or chemical imbalance, should be dealt with by a medical physician.
- III. The ultimate goal of any counselor should be discipleship. It is to get a person together enough that they are best served by the Word, read and preached, and the body. Puritans were the first physicians of the soul and they did 90% of their counseling from the pulpit. The last ten percent was meeting objections raised by the minority. A Puritan minister filled his week between sermon preparation and visiting his parishioners to catechize them. The little amount of counseling required was because Scripture is sufficient, and the congregations knew how to apply it to all of life. The reason Christian counselors abound and pastors schedules are slammed is that the people do not live and die by the Word of God. They live and die by the authority of their feelings.
**If you didn’t see this coming then I require your Calvinist Card.