January 31, 2022
An earlier article by Joshua Greiner stated that there is a significant difference between biblical counseling and what has traditionally been called conversion therapy. That may have raised the question, “What is biblical counseling?” This question could be answered many ways, but I will answer it from the perspective of what a person seeking help might experience.
We teach that the first step in a counseling relationship is to “build loving involvement.” It is hard to admit our pain. We want to provide a safe and loving environment because it is hard to tell another person the things few people know. We view every person’s story as a trust -- a stewardship. The apostle Paul wrote to a church and shared these words, “But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). Phrases like “as a nursing mother tenderly cares,” “having so fond an affection,” “impart…our own lives,” and “you had become very dear to us” describe the kind of relationship that biblical counselors seek to establish with their counselees.
We accomplish this by taking their words seriously, speaking graciously with them, seeking to understand what it would be like to experience their hardships, encouraging them whenever they do something right, being honest about our value system, and helping them in their suffering.
We also prove our care by making it clear that our counselees are free to leave anytime. They are not trapped, obligated, or forced to listen. They come voluntarily and they continue counseling voluntarily. I once had a case where I assigned the counselee one simple task: decide if we are the right place for you. We will tell you about other community services if you think they will fulfill your goals better. The power of the next session was (and always is) in the hands of our counselees. Some counselors even remind those they serve that all they must do is raise their hand and the counselor will stop mid-sentence. Counselees decide if they want to receive help from us. It is one way build loving involvement.
Counselees can expect to be heard and to have a counselor who genuinely cares about their hurts and what they are going through.
Many people seeking help want to know that there is still hope. Their life and experiences are hard. They want real and lasting change. Some counselees may have been to counseling before only to see the progress they made evaporate.
We share truth from the Bible that helps counselees embrace hope. For example, we know that sometimes life is full of despair. It just seems like one bad thing happens after another. The writer of Psalm 42 describes that experience, and says, “Why are you in despair, O my soul?... Hope in God.” This reminds us that hope and despair can exist in the same heart at the same time.
Other times we might share the story of Joseph found in the book of Genesis. He was sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused by his master’s wife, and forgotten in an Egyptian prison, only to ascend to second in command and be the tool God used to save his family from the famine. We may not be able to assure our counselees that their spouse will change, that a child or parent will change, but that there is hope in the Lord during the periods of hardship. At the same time, biblical counselors know that God changes people in radical ways.
We have seen people repent of their addictions, give up their sinful patterns, and live radically different lives. We have the privilege of reminding our counselees that God can change anyone at any time, and it might be today. And for that reason, we have hope.
Biblical counselors do not make assumptions; they listen. Proverbs 18:13 reminds us that it is folly and shameful to answer a matter before understanding it. Therefore, we ask questions to help us understand. It is normal for the counselee to speak as much or more than the counselor during a biblical counseling session.
We live in a society where few people feel heard. Although we make a distinction between listening and agreeing, we want every counselee to be heard. Their story is important. What they experience is important. How they think about their life is important. Those who seek biblical counseling will be heard.
Biblical counselors use their Bibles to inform how they counsel and the content of the counsel. Authority, from our perspective, lies in the truth of Scripture. Counselors listen and carefully evaluate what passage, narrative, or verse might help the counselee most that day. Then, the counselor leads a discussion on how the Bible addresses the needs of the counselee. When I speak of needs, I am not talking merely about behavior. We also have feelings, thoughts, values, desires, and motivations. We are complex beings, and we need a never changing and reliable source of authority and truth to help us at every level of our being. Biblical counselors seek to address all areas of our personhood.
In some cases, counselees need to grieve, learn to endure hardships, pray, address their emotions, change their values, desire different things, think more biblically, or repent for their offenses against God and others. And as a biblical counselor, we want to come alongside and walk with them through it all.
If we want to improve in sports, we need to practice more than one hour per week. Frankly, if we want to improve at anything, it takes more than one hour per week. We know that growth is a process that doesn’t happen just by meeting for a one-hour weekly counseling session. For that reason, at the end of each session, biblical counselors assign action steps. These action steps, or counseling assignments, help counselees put into practice what they are learning in counseling. The action steps assigned will help promote growth in the counselee between the counseling sessions.
We wanted to define biblical counseling by the experience of a recipient. It is a loving ministry to those struggling with suffering and sinfulness to help them take steps of growth. Let me close with the definition from a book that three professors published this year.
"It is the Christlike, caring, person-to-person ministry of God’s Word to people struggling with personal and interpersonal problems to help them know and follow Jesus Christ in heart and behavior amid their struggles." (Robert Jones, Kristen Kellen, & Rob Green, The Gospel for Disordered Lives [B&H Academic: Nashville, 2021], 20)
Unlicensed biblical counselor