10 Things You Should Know about Pastoral Counseling

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. Counseling requires a three-dimensional Bible.

No one enjoys a flat, one-dimensional story with static characters, a predictable plot, and an unsatisfying conclusion. Why? Because it doesn’t ring true to human experience, which is deep and multifaceted. Many folks shy away from Bible-based counseling because they assume the Bible is like a bad story, flatly giving instruction about behavior instead of offering a rich, colorful picture of human life.

The best counseling uses Scripture as God intended: as a living perspective of a dynamic world that holds authority over our own. It is not one-dimensional, but three-dimensional, able to address the many factors of life—from relational dynamics to self-perception to circumstantial difficulties. The Bible delights us even as it instructs us; it challenges the core commitments of our hearts even as it lifts our perspective above our sorrows.

The Bible attests to itself three-dimensionally. Just read Psalm 119 if you want to see a long, lingering view of how Scripture functions in the swirling currents of life.

2. Counseling requires a three-dimensional view of human life.

Just as we honor the Bible by using it as God intended, so we honor human life when we recognize it as God intended. He designed us to dynamically respond to the situations around us, and that response is multifaceted.

In life, people do not just think, they also want and choose. They need their minds instructed, but also their hearts captured. They need to make new choices, but also need to be shown a vision of what those choices will do for them. They need help understanding how their private thoughts affect the way they relate to the important people in their lives, or how the events that happened to them in the past affect their assumptions about the future.

In sum, counseling helps connect the dots between various aspects of a person’s experience. It helps them understand themselves better in light of what Scripture says. Using the Bible three-dimensionally allows counselors to show Christ’s loving authority over every dimension of human life.

3. You are more capable than you realize.

A living Christian with a living Bible is a powerful tool for change. You may think there is a category of person out there who is able to hear people describe their problems and automatically understand what to say in response. No such super-listener exists. So relax. You can’t auto-fill a person’s trouble—but neither can anyone else. You should not assume a paid professional is needed for a struggling person’s problems.

Don’t get us wrong. Doctors and professional counselors are a wonderful source of help. We are simply pointing out that your first impulse should not be to shy away from addressing the complexities of another person’s troubles. Your first impulse should be to serve them in those troubles. Why not be willing to step into the mess yourself? Why not partner with your struggling friend as she walks through the process of getting help?

If God has given you his Word and his Spirit dwells within you, there is much more you can do than you probably realize. Do not shy away from speaking truth into the life of a troubled friend.

If God has given you his Word and his Spirit dwells within you, there is much more you can do than you probably realize.

4. You are less capable than you realize.

Yes, the relationship between the third and the fourth points is paradoxical. With the first, we want every Christian with a Bible and the Spirit of humility to be confident that he can help a troubled friend in some significant way. But with the second, we want every Christian to acknowledge the limits of his own wisdom.

You will come across problems you’ve never heard of, situations you know only some of the facts about, relationships you don’t have the capital to speak into yet. Humility is the best protection from hurting someone when getting involved in a delicate situation. Humility recognizes the limitations of your own perspective and experience.

Some Christians tend to think that knowing the Bible means they will automatically apply it wisely in complex situations. But this is not the case. We need the Spirit to grow us in both love and knowledge so that we can discern what is pleasing to God in the dynamic situations before us (Philippians 1:9-11). Sometimes, the right thing to do is to encourage a struggler to seek out someone else who is further along than you, particularly as it relates to specific troubles. This doesn’t mean you say nothing. It only means that you should be quick to listen and slow to speak.

5. Counseling is problem-initiated.

The nature of counseling is that people come in only when they are struggling with a problem. When your car breaks down, you take it to the shop to get it fixed; when a Christian is not doing well, she seeks out a pastor or a counselor for help. Counseling is arranged in response to perceived trouble in a person’s life.

This perceived trouble is important to address if you are going to love someone well. Many times, Christians want to get straight into familiar territory when having conversations with people in trouble. They don’t quite understand everything going on, so they quickly move to portions of Scripture that they do understand well. The result is often a faithful-but-not-very-pertinent application of the Bible.

We should respect the problems that people face by listening carefully and seeking understanding.

6. Counseling is not problem-focused, but Christ-focused.

Having acknowledged that counseling is problem-initiated, we need to point out that it is not problem-focused. The focus should be on Jesus Christ and how the person’s heart should respond to him amidst the sorrows they are facing. Counseling is not primarily about fixing problems, though we do a lot of that. It’s first about reorienting worship from created things to the Creator by means of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The most important question in counseling is not, “How do I get better?” but “What is my heart worshipping?”

If a single woman is fighting to free herself from patterns of promiscuity in her relationships, certainly lust is involved. But if you dig deeper, you’ll find that she may wrestle with a longing for safety and security, seeking it in the arms of men who take advantage of her. Or if a married couple is in constant conflict, on the surface it might seem like they are debating their finances. But if you plunge below the surface, you’ll often find that his fear of failure has a choke-hold on their home. His heart, designed to worship God, is using that functionality to seek his identity elsewhere.

7. Counseling is for everybody.

Because counseling is about the heart responding rightly to the complex problems of life, every Christian should acknowledge his need for help. Discerning how to respond faithfully to uninvited feelings of depression or intrusive fears often can’t be done alone.

Every Christian is living her life in a world marked with futility and difficulty; none of us should assume we can navigate through such a world without the honed skills of other Christians. Counselors are often those whose skills have been honed to discern the interplay between difficult circumstances and heart responses. A few conversations with a battle-tested counselor can sometimes do wonders.

The Pastor and Counseling

Jeremy Pierre, Deepak Reju

Written as a step-by-step guide for pastors, this practical book provides an overview of the pastoral counseling process and offers suggestions for cultivating a culture of discipleship in a church.

8. Counseling is not for everybody.

Another paradox for you. The last point was that counseling is for everybody, but this point is giving another layer of nuance. Counseling is not needed when a person has the basic ability to understand how he ought to be responding to the situation he finds himself in.

The regular Christian life is marked with difficulty, but it is also marked with the regular means of grace in the preaching and teaching ministries of the Word, in the fellowship and accountability of intentional friendships, and in the prayerful seeking of God as a body. These regular means of grace keep a person clear-headed and clear-hearted in their approach to life, enabling many Christians to go through long seasons when counseling is not necessary.

In the mystery of God’s providence, some Christians will be spared from the worst kinds of griefs or given the best kinds of church community and thus not need counseling for the most part. Others will have different routes. In light of this, Christians should think of counseling as neither the universal ideal for everyone nor as unpleasant rehab for the particularly unfortunate.

9. Counseling is time-limited.

Counseling is not a permanent state of being. Often, it’s not even all that long. Often, a struggling Christian establishes better patterns of response and starts to see his problems from the broader perspective of God. And as he gets better in these ways, he won’t need counseling anymore. He will not need to continuing coming in because the depression is lightened, the porn addiction is not overwhelming, he’s learned to sacrificially love in his marriage, she’s eating normally again, or she’s able to rest from her anxieties. The original problem that drove them to counseling has abated.

Good counselors try to work themselves out of a job, entrusting folks to the broader ministries of the Word in the context of the church.

10. Even the worst situations have hope.

Jesus Christ does not abandon anyone to the complexities of life. In the regular life of a church, the number of difficulties in the body can at times be overwhelming. But this is no surprise to Jesus, who told us that this world would be trouble. But he also told his people to take heart, for he has overcome the world (John 16:33).

The word Jesus speaks in the churning trouble of this world is peace. So even the worst situations have hope—though not because there is an easy way out. Jesus’s promise is that he is able to insert a foreign virtue into the suffering. The peace of knowing God as a worshipper changes the whole dynamic of a person’s life. The gospel of Jesus Christ has turned countless addicts, prostitutes, abusers, and arrogant fools into worshippers of the one true King. We’ve seen it, and it is amazing to behold.

There is nothing like a transformed life to make you think, “The gospel really works.”

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