January 14, 2013

Gospel Counseling (Part Two)

In my last post, Val Vance from The Austin Stone Community Church described what gospel counseling is and how all believers can practice it. Today, my interview with her continues as she shares practical tools for gospel counseling and how to deal with unheeded counsel.

Q: What are some practical ways I can be a good, biblical counselor? 

A: The most practical way to be a good gospel counselor is to never let yourself forget your own personal need for the gospel. The moment you forget you require as much grace as the worst of sinners you become ineffective at administering the gospel to others and have no need for it yourself. No matter what story you hear from another person – regardless of how dark or messy it may be – you must be able to see yourself in the story. You need to listen as someone that shares their need for grace/compassion/mercy/etc. There are times when this is almost universally easier than others. For instance, most of us can easily sympathize and extend comfort to others that experience loss or grief that is not a result of their own actions – things like miscarriages or abuse. However there seems to be more difficulty to see yourself in someone else’s story when they do things you think you would never do – things like commit adultery or practice homosexuality. While it may be true that you won’t struggle with the same things as the person sitting across from you, you have the same sinful flesh in your own heart that manifests in different ways. Sin is the great equalizer of man; there are no superiors. We all are in desperate need for God to give us grace to persevere. Never let yourself forget that.

Don’t think that you know everything; ask questions. This is another great reminder for growth in gospel counseling. Do not assume that you know someone’s story because you know the issue they struggle with or the circumstance they are encountering. Shared experiences with others that you are counseling can be helpful, but they can also be crippling because of the tendency to project your own emotions onto the person we want to help. Questions are a good way to let the person tell you how they feel about something and slow you down from making assumptions that may be biased or unfounded.

Don’t drop truth bombs. We mentioned earlier that studying the deep things of God is essential to growing as a gospel counselor. As your understanding of the gospel and the God of the Scriptures deepens you strengthen your own spiritual mooring for when personal tragedy may come your way. A common pitfall can be using the knowledge you have gained in study to be a comfort to someone that is in the valley of deep sorrow and grief.  As an example, there may be someone grieving the loss of someone very close to them – they are weeping and distraught. This would not be a good time for someone to come in and remind the hurting person that God is sovereign and that this is happening for their good. Those things are true. Those things are right. And at some point, those things are likely going to help comfort the grieving person. But the most felt need for the hurting person is likely not a good theology reminder – it is someone that will weep with them – someone that will crawl into the dark parts of their pain and experience it with them. A great biblical example of this can be found in the gospel of John. Jesus encounters two women that are deeply grieved by the loss of their brother, Lazarus. Not only are they immensely sad that their brother is gone, they are also angry with God for not doing anything about his waning health sooner. This story sounds like a great deal of scenarios that a gospel counselor may encounter today, doesn’t it? In the Scriptures we see Jesus do something interesting. Once these women display their pain and agony it says that He was ‘deeply moved in His spirit’ and he weeps. Think about that for a moment. Isn’t that crazy? Especially for the ones of us that know the rest of the story. In a few minutes Lazarus is going to walk out of the grave and be fine. Jesus knows that. He knows that He is about to flex His divine muscles and demonstrate His authority over death. He knows that Mary and Martha’s tears are going to be irrelevant in just a few short minutes. He knows that. But instead of shutting down their pain or trying to make them feel better, He weeps. Why in the world do you think that is? I think Jesus knew exactly what those women needed in that moment. They didn’t just need a God that was sovereign; they needed a God that cared about them and would enter their pain with them.

The reality is that truth doesn’t stop being true just because you don’t say it. You don’t have to feel the pressure to make sure everyone you counsel has perfect theology when they are experiencing major suffering. Theology is often strengthened when it follows the deep pain of suffering that allows it access to the heart. Enter their pain before you do anything else.

Understand that people don’t always say what they mean when they are suffering. We call these Words for the Wind. Many of us are not composed and articulate in the heat of great pain and discouragement; because of that, we often say things that are amiss about God when we hurt. Job mentions this (Job 6:26) in the midst of his suffering. In other words, don’t believe every word of a despairing man is an accurate reflection of his heart. There will be ample time later to discern the deeper conviction at root in the heart. For now, let these words blow away – they are Words for the Wind.

Don’t be the hero. One tricky thing about counseling relationships is that counselors can be mistaken as the heroes in the story of the hurting. Be mindful of this. Reinforce the constant presence of God in the life of a believer and His promises to spend Himself full to bring about their ultimate good. Constantly reinforce the supremacy of Christ in the lives of those you meet with. Your relationship with them will eventually come to an end – help them to see the work God is doing in their lives more than anything so they don’t feel like they are losing their primary Helper when you stop meeting with them.
Q: From a reader: How do you handle it when your counsel is not heeded? How do you continue to watch someone repeat mistakes and patterns, then extend grace but have to offer the same counsel over and again? 
A: These circumstances are great opportunities for the counselor. You have heard that counseling is as much for the counselor as it is for the person being counseled. There is as much to learn and as equal a need for the Holy Spirit on both sides that the counselor gains as much as the client from the practice of counseling. This scenario is no exception.

I see these as opportunities for the counselor to see themselves in the story. Instead of becoming frustrated or indignant that someone is not responding to the counsel of the Bible, there is a chance to see this person as a mirror into your own life. There are plenty of ways that you and I know the teachings and the promises of Scripture, yet we do not live in light of them. Time and time again we can hear the counsel of God and yet we rely on ourselves, our spouses, our jobs, our perceived control, etc. to get through life. As you see someone not heed the words of God, do not take personal offense. It is probably not all that much about you – it is about a heart that doesn’t always incline itself towards the things of God. If they are His, He will bend them. Do not be frustrated with them, pray for them. Use this time to ask God if there are ways that you are doing the very same thing without even taking notice. Odds are – you are.

I am encouraged by the story of Jesus in Mark 3:1-5. The Pharisees were trying to find fault in Him and were accusing Him for healing on the Sabbath. Jesus had been telling them over and over again exactly who He was and what He came to do. Still they did not believe Him. It says in the text that He was grieved over their hardness of heart. Even God Himself was able to experience sorrow over the state of the Pharisees, a state that He did not share with them. How much more ought we, who share in obstinacy and pride before the Lord, be moved to grieve when we see someone ignore the counsel of God and go their own way?

Q: How do you offer counsel when it is needed but not asked for? 
A: The answer for this will vary depending on the level of relationship that you hold with the person. There are different tiers within our Relationships of Responsibility. For instance, I would respond differently to someone with whom I have no existing relationship versus someone that is a member of my church or in my immediate community. That being said, it is important to know when you have a relationship where there is an expectation to speak into their lives regarding areas connected to sin, sanctification, wisdom, etc.

If there is a member of our church that I know as an acquaintance and observe may benefit from an exhortation (and I have a heart that primarily wants to tell them because I care for them and want good for them) then I will approach them and ask them to have coffee. I will  get to know them better and then ask for permission to share something with them that I think may be helpful. The mindset in this situation is more focused on revealing something they may not be aware of and giving them space to deal with that with their community – which will likely be more comfortable for them and effective in helping them fight for change. If they are not interested in hearing anything specific from me then that is okay – it doesn’t have to be taken as personally offensive. If anything it can allow you to turn them over to Christ and trust Him to work within them.

If the same situation happens with someone that is in my existing community then I will already have been given permission to speak with them about matters that I believe could be significant to their lives. The thing about community is that those are the people that should be able to say anything to you at any time. They know you. They have seen you at your best and worst. They know your blind spots. They know where to push on and press you. So if they see something you don’t – then it is likely God is using them to help you fight sin and persevere. 

Q: From a reader: How should I handle a situation when advice is sought by a group of women and some women, though well meaning, give wrong advice?
A: I think the dynamic of the group is important to gauge when you are dealing with things like this. Is this a group where everyone knows one another and trust between members is high? Are these women that would be willing to hear other perspectives that challenge their own if it means they will grow and learn? Are these women that would respond to challenge in a public setting well and not see it as an attack? If the answers to those questions are all ‘Yes’ then this is easy – you have a safe environment to pushback and have a healthy discussion among friends where you can use the Bible as the authority. Or if the advice is not directly contested in the Bible and is more a wisdom issue – then you can share your differing perspective and allow the person whom the advice is for to pray about both suggestions before God and let the Spirit lead them. It is important to know whether you believe someone is wrong because what they are saying is not biblical – or if they just have a different opinion. If it is wrong and dangerous the Bible will make that clear. If, however, the issue is a matter of wisdom then you have a responsibility to share your perspective but also to know that the decision is for another person, not you. An example of a wisdom issue that I see often among women in my church is appropriate boundaries for single women and single men. There are people that love God and land passionately about this issue on different sides. At the end of the day, we say our peace and entrust the final decision to the one whom God has placed the burden.

Thank you so much, Val, for your insights and wisdom you've shared with us. Readers, what specifically resonates with you from her interview?

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