COUNSELING LIKE JESUS
A Counseling Encounter
Sitting on a hard plastic chair in a stuffy little room, I waited anxiously for my guidance counselor to arrive. To pass the time I traced the lines of the painted cinder-block walls. I was worried. “Why did she call me here? What had I done to deserve this?” The knob turned quickly, and in she came. Strangely dressed from head to foot, her dangling mismatched earrings jingled every time she moved her head; her skirt was so long it swept the floor as she walked.
“I’m here to talk to you about something very important,” she said.
I held my breath.
“Your teachers have recommended you to be one of the school’s ‘conflict managers’.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It means that from now on, it’s your job to talk with other students when they have a disagreement. You will help them make decisions to resolve their conflicts. You are a conflict manager.”
Twenty years later, I still think that’s an awful lot to expect of any fourth grader. (But then again, she was a very odd lady.)
Perhaps scenes like the one above pop into our minds when we hear the word counseling. Or perhaps we think of red couches, quirky psychologists, and psychotic parents. In the biblical sense of the word, however, to give counsel is simply to give direction, to give guidance, or to give a strong “push” of encouragement to do something (or not to do it). Christians give that kind of “counsel” all the time. In fact, you can hardly speak about what the gospel means for someone’s life without giving counsel.
Consider God’s commands to “love one another” (John 13:34), to “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13), to “teach and admonish one another” (Col. 3:16), to “encourage another and build each other up” (1 Thess. 5:11), and to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24). These things can’t be done without “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). So, in that sense, every Christian is a counselor by virtue of their calling. Surely not all Christians think of themselves in that way. (And surely not all of their friends think of them that way, either.) Perhaps some Christians don’t even want to be a counselor. But Christians are counselors every time they open their mouths to apply the gospel to their own lives or to the life of someone else. The question is not, therefore, whether a Christians is a counselor, but how good of a counselor is he or she? Thankfully, we don’t have to guess about the criteria for good counsel. Jesus himself tells us plainly.
The Problem of Our Heart
According to Jesus, who gets the last say, what’s going wrong in our behavior and relationships comes ‘out of the heart’ (Mark 7:20-23). In the Bible, the heart is not a reference to the blood-pumping organ in your chest, but a reference to the decision-making part of every person that is controlled by their desires or will. So what Jesus means is this: our behavior is a reflection of our heart’s desires. As James wrote, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight” (Jas 4:1-2).
To counsel like Jesus, therefore, means that we focus our attention on the cause of the problem (the heart) not just the results of the problem (the behavior). For example, suppose a person routinely succumbs to the temptation to get drunk. We could lock him up in a padded cell without any access to alcohol. Then he would never get drunk again. Problem solved, right? Not at all, according to Jesus. His heart hasn’t changed; you’ve just made it impossible for his heart to get what it wants. Suppose that another person feels depressed on a fairly regular basis. She feels like something new or exciting in her life might take away her feelings of depression, so she often overeats (but regrets it later), sleeps around with strange men (but hates herself for it), and dreams about moving away to another place (but knows she can’t afford it). The reason she keeps moving from one “solution” to another is because none of them have worked. What she and the alcoholic man both need is a change in their inner-being, a change of desires, a changed heart.
The Heart of Our Problem
Here’s the trouble with a lot of so-called “counseling” out there today: psychology—which means, “study of the soul”—has all but abandoned any belief in the existence of soul! According to most psychologists, your behavior is basically the result of biological stimuli that make you think, feel, and act the way you do. In other words, these psychologists fundamentally disagree with Jesus’ diagnosis of our problem. (As if they knew better than Jesus.) According to them, what we need is a change of perspective, or a change of circumstances, a change in our chemical balance, or simply a new goal to live for. Yet each of those “solutions” only treat the symptoms, leaving the root cause of our problem untouched. In effect we teach people a dozen coping mechanisms instead of teaching them how to address what’s actually wrong. (No wonder we spend so much on drugs and therapy every year!)
Here’s the good news: virtually every one of our missteps and misguided endeavors can be traced back to our desires or where we hope to have them fulfilled. The solution, as we shall see, is found in the gospel. (The few exceptions are comparatively rare disorders which have biological components. These sorts of things may require some medicine, in addition to the gospel, in order to bring healing and wholeness.)
Are you seeking in yourself what can only be found in Christ?
For example, are you looking to yourself for value? Psychologists call this “self-esteem,” but Jesus calls it sin. If you think well of yourself, you’ll give in to pride. If you think poorly of yourself, you’ll give in to despair. But if you look to Jesus for your value, then you can face the fact that you are more flawed and sinful than you’d ever dared to admit, but in Christ you are more loved and accepted than you ever dared to hope!
Are you seeking from this life what can only be enjoyed in the next?
The world as it is now is broken and backwards. What fools we would be to try to find our ultimate happiness in a place like this! Yet we do it all the time. And then we get disappointed when it doesn’t work, blaming just about everything—our circumstances, other people, even the world itself. The only thing we don’t blame is our desires. We never assume that maybe our desires (and where we look to have them fulfilled) are the real problem. But they are, and Jesus can change them. He calls us to find our joy in him, which is not just some kind of peace in the midst of hardship—though it’s at least that—it’s also the settled conviction that God will, in fact, set the world straight again. And on that day, the Scriptures remind us, there will be no more death, no more sickness, and no more sadness.
Equipped for Counseling
One pastor who believed Jesus’ teaching about our hearts had this to say after a life of ministering to people:
“The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is. Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it also does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner. The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth. The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness. The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God. The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.” (Dietrich Bonhoefer, Life Together, 118)
What good news! Christians armed with the truth of the gospel have been equipped to face most of the problems in life that they (and others around them) will encounter. To the degree that we have understood the gospel and have practiced applying it to our own lives, we’ll find that we can help others do the same. This means two things: go to the gospel when you encounter trouble in your soul, and, when necessary, go to your pastors for help (whether to receive counsel for yourself, or for help in giving counsel to someone else).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.