8 things you need to know about counseling
Everyone is called to personal ministry of the Word. An essential element of every calling is to know people and to help them process their lives before the Lord.
Public ministry is easy. Personal ministry is hard.
I admit that’s a bit of an overstatement. But I’m trying to kill off as early as I can a widespread presumption about ministry that eventually dies anyway. That presumption is that the real work of ministry is primarily public in nature — what you see on the platform in a public gathering. Don’t get me wrong, receiving the Word of God in preaching, praying, and song is the primary purpose for which the church gathers. But those soul-shaping practices have a purpose beyond themselves: to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, which happens in the daily pace of life as the people of God speak the truth in love to one another (Eph 4:1–16).
Daily life is where personal ministry occurs. It is also where people’s problems occur. This is no coincidence. In fact, I’d like to submit to you a line of thinking — a succession of truths — that show the link between the problems your people will experience and your ministry to them.
1. The people in your life have problems that take effort to figure out.
We are somehow surprised that the people we minister to have problems in their lives. Even folks who have walked with Christ for decades and look great on Sundays may live much of their lives twisted up with anxiety or weighed down with depression. This shouldn’t surprise us. The people of God have always languished in this time in–between, this waiting period for all things to be made new (Ps 89:46; 2 Cor 4:7–11). Read Paul’s letters to troubled churches or Jesus’ messages to his people longing for him to usher in the happy ending.
The fact that we are surprised by problems shows, at least in part, how enculturated our expectations of life can be. Many of us have grown up in a culture that prizes personal progress and individual excellence, so personal problems are seen as the sad fate of the few folks who can’t hold it together. Idealism dies hard. And it leads us not only to be surprised at the presence of problems, but to move as quickly as we can to the easiest solutions.
But every human being who breathes oxygen will have problems. Some are fairly straightforward, many are not. The reason for this is simple: Each person’s problems are made up of a combination of factors unique to that person. And it takes effort to figure these factors out.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Every plumber answers an emergency call knowing that he will likely have to open up a wall to find out what the problem is. Every ophthalmologist knows that an emergency surgery is rarely textbook. When a problem occurs in any profession, an individual has to make a knowledgeable assessment of the factors contributing to problems. The same principle is true for personal ministry.
2. The people in your life see their problems rightly and wrongly.
The folks who come to you for help with their problems have already done some of this assessment on their own. They are trying to make sense out of their problems. This also should not be surprising, given their design as the image of God. We are born interpreters — discerning and attributing meaning to the world around us as spiritual beings designed with the capacity to know and the hunger to understand (Ecc 3:11).
Thus, people will want to understand the difficulties they find themselves in and will spend a lot of effort trying to figure it all out. In their figuring, they’ll have many solid insights into their situations, their relationships, and even themselves. These are important to acknowledge in helping them.
But just as important is where their perspectives may be wrong. Each person perceives his life from the limited perspective of a heart that only knows so much. And even more problematic, people’s perspectives are skewed by their sinful condition — preference for self shapes the ideas and desires that drive them. Every person to some degree sees the world through distorted lenses (Eph 4:17–24). Insofar as a person’s perspective is wrong, his responses will be too.
3. You are called to personal ministry of the Word.
You may not be called to a ministry of extensive counseling. You may never have the word “counselor”in your job title. You may never have a formalized counseling ministry in the church you serve in. But none of those things mean you are unable to help people consider their problems from what God says in his Word.
Everyone is called to personal ministry of the Word. Whether you are a preaching pastor or a women’s ministry director, an essential element of every calling is to know people and to help them process their lives before the Lord.
You will do this with a greater or lesser degree of skill. As with preaching and teaching, the power is in the Word of God. But just like you nevertheless labor at honing the skill sets that make for strong preaching or compelling teaching, so you should labor to become more skilled in helping people follow God in the particularities of their trouble. Like preaching and teaching, this comes through self-aware practice, reading good books, and modeling yourself after people who do it better than you do.
4. Your job is not primarily to solve their problems, but rather to help them understand and often change their responses.
One of the primary reasons church leaders are intimidated by the idea of counseling is the incorrect assumption that counseling is about eliminating problems — as if the goal is to remove anxiety or take away depression. Of course we want people to be less burdened by such experiences, but we cannot claim goals that Scripture does not claim for human suffering. God does not delight in suffering (Ps 56:8), but he also does not eliminate it in the way we might prefer (Ps 13:1).
Personal ministry of the Word, including counseling, puts a premium on listening to how a person is processing what’s happening to him. While helping others, you are often affirming the aspects of their perspective that are right; and you are suggesting different ways of seeing things where they are wrong. Sometimes the difference between right and wrong in their perspective is immediately clear (e.g., this person’s rejection of his wife stems from his preference for this extra-marital relationship). But often it is not (e.g., this person’s depression is in part reinforced by self-centered thinking, and in part the genuine suffering of living in a broken situation).
The process of discerning such things is a Spirit-guided, Word-centered process. To put it simply, you look to Scripture together as you wade through the factors at play (Phil 1:9–11). This should be relieving news for you as you consider the heavy task of personal ministry and counseling. You as the helper don’t need to have immediate answers to every dilemma.
5. People need to view their problems from the renewed light of God’s perspective.
Faith is the center of change. Faith does not change a person’s context of suffering, but it will renew her response to it. As a person begins to see her trouble from God’s perspective — a perspective expressed in a colorful spectrum of themes in Scripture, in psalms and word pictures, stories and personal letters — she will act differently in her situation. Her anxiety or depression will not dissipate immediately, but it will take on a different quality. Instead of driving her toward overwhelming fear, anxiety will motivate her to pursue God as a relevant refuge for the threats she perceives. And her anxiety is disrupted by a peace that surpasses her understanding (Phil 4:4–7). Instead of driving her to paralyzing hopelessness, depression becomes a way she grieves the brokenness of this world before the Lord. And grief expressed to the all-compassionate God is met with a profound, private comfort (2 Cor 1:3–5).
The gospel is central to this process, since meeting Jesus Christ is how light shines into a heart burdened by confusion, weakness, and sin. We proclaim Jesus into the dark corners of human experience and find that knowing him powerfully changes us. It helps us to see our lives from the wide angle of eternity and not merely from the narrow view of our present concerns (1 Cor 4:5–18).
God sees our problems from a truer perspective, since it includes purposes invisible to our eyes. That’s why faith is so central. It means a person, through his pain, learns to trust that what God says about his life is truer than what he perceives about his life. This changes the way he sees everything — from his own circumstances, to the relationships in his life, even to his own identity.
6. You can accomplish a lot more than you may realize with both your ears and your Bible open.
You don’t have to be an expert on a particular problem to be helpful to the person struggling with it. Don’t get me wrong, expertise in the unique factors of a given problem is helpful. I’ll say more on that in the next point. However, church leaders who don’t consider themselves counselors can nevertheless be remarkably helpful to troubled people.
Being helpful involves at least two tasks. Given what I’ve laid out so far, neither one will surprise you. First, you need to be willing to listen carefully to the person’s perspective of the trouble. Second, you need to be confident that God’s Word can help them find the comfort or correction they need to respond well.
As you’ve ministered to others, you may have sensed in yourself a tendency to err on one side or the other. On one hand, you may be willing to listen and affirm the person, but be hesitant to direct him to consider what God says in his Word, lest you sound trite. On the other, you may be too quick to direct him to a biblical principle without really knowing the matter first, lest he continue some error in his outlook. Know your tendency and challenge yourself the other way. You’ll be surprised how the Lord guides you to hold off from speaking at times, then at other times to speak a word of comfort, instruction, inspiration, appeal, warning, or any number of things.
7. You can acknowledge when a person needs help beyond what you can offer.
As I trust is clear by now, heart change is one of the primary objectives in counseling, and Scripture is the sufficient force to convey the heart-transforming love of God. But Scripture being sufficient for its purposes does not necessarily mean your ministry is sufficient for the present need. You may not have an adequate base of knowledge to understand certain aspects of either the person’s heart or the person’s context.
A person’s experience is a complex interplay between the various aspects of their heart responses and the various aspects of their context. Usually, the more extreme the problem, the more complex those aspects are. Scripture acknowledges that human problems can sometimes be baffling in their complexity (Ecc 1:15–18).
Complex issues are why plumbers and ophthalmologists make good money. They have a greater degree of familiarity with the various aspects of the problem. Caring well for someone with more complex problems
may mean coordinating with people who are more familiar with the various factors at
play. I’m not talking about the kind of referral that passes spiritual care off to professionals. Rather, I’m suggesting that spiritual care may need to involve additional types of help, from various forms of medical professionals, to counselors with expertise in the factors involved with trauma, to lawyers who specialize in matters pertinent to the situation. Seeking out help from these sources does not undermine the centrality or sufficiency of Scripture; rather, it is a way of acknowledging the limitations of your own perspective in knowing what you’re applying Scripture to in their experience.
Determining if, when, and who to involve is no easy task. But perhaps this principle will be of practical help: the more overpowering a person’s experience of intrusive thoughts, consuming urges, or haphazard emotions is, the more likely you will need help discerning the factors at play in their responses.
8. God’s hidden purposes in your people’s lives will unfold over a lifetime, and not just in the short time you’re ministering to them.
You are not the beginning and the end of change in someone else’s life. This should be a deep encouragement to you. You are not responsible for certain results in a person’s life, but rather to speak faithfully of who Jesus is and why he matters in his or her life. You may only plant what another person waters, but it is God who causes growth (1 Cor 3:5–9). God’s plan to form them after Christ will involve many more victories and defeats, setbacks, and successes than you can help them through in the short term.
So take heart. The labor of personal ministry is worth it. It is how we express love for Jesus Christ (John 21:15–19). It is how we help others receive the Word of God for what it is (1 Thess 2:1–16). It is how we keep fellow believers on the journey to a better country (Heb 3:12–14).
In that country, we will finally see for ourselves the hidden purposes of God in the troubles we endured here below. And only there will we find that the promises we relied on to get us through those troubles were truer than we could have imagined.