When we hear the word counseling, we often think of a formal setting and professional atmosphere. Although the biblical counseling movement of the last few decades has done much to restore counseling to the local church, we can still negatively associate counseling with those who have really big problems. Often, we do not like to admit we need this level of help or believe we have something to offer others who are troubled. It all seems messy, personal, and complicated.

But life is messy, personal, and complicated. While there is certainly a place for formal counseling, there is also much to be said for casual interactions and normal conversations with friends to help us deal with our difficulties.* If we think about counseling as simply talking about and listening to problems, then it is not so intimidating. If we are committed to each other as friends to live out how the Bible teaches us to love each other, many of those really big problems are diffused before they become life-dominating.

Right Time and Place

To be sure, we need wisdom and time spent in prayer when we get involved with someone’s marriage conflicts or sexual addictions or overwhelming fears. We need humility to say, “I don’t know, maybe we should get someone else involved in this” or “I need to talk to you about my life.”

We need patience when it seems like we’re repeating the same conversation over and over or when we have shared something with a friend and now things feel awkward. We also need confidence in the Holy Spirit that he has equipped us with the words to say at the right time and the grace to ask for forgiveness when we do not love as we should.

Do we have people in our lives who we can be honest with when life is hard? More importantly, are we the sort of people our friends trust enough to be real? How can we make our friendships a place where life-giving counsel happens without things getting really weird? There are many ways it can go poorly and many ways people have been hurt when trying to open up with others.

Seven Principles

So to facilitate a positive counseling experience as a friend, apply these seven principles.

1. Pray. We have to pray that God would open our eyes to see the needs of those around us. But we are often so absorbed in our own lives that we miss what is happening with others, even those who are close to us. We also need to pray for the courage to be honest about ourselves.

2. Care. Real conversations will not happen if we do not actually care about people. When we are focused on ourselves, or getting out of church as soon as possible, or obsessively debating the latest theological issue, we will not see or hear the needs of those around us.

3. Listen. It is amazingly hard to really listen to people. It is increasingly harder as we’re more plugged into mobile devices. We must put them down and focus on the human in front of us. The discipline of listening requires patience and learning to ask questions so that people feel free to be honest without feeling condemned.

4. Speak. We need to remember that conversations should be dialogues, not sermons, and that not every conversation has to be serious. People will start avoiding us if we turn every casual encounter into an intense conversation about deep spiritual things. Every church has a few people who start to be avoided because no one wants to be interrogated next to the donut table.

5. Be Honest. Because friendships are less defined and structured than formal counseling, honesty must play a primary role in our relationships. We must ask direct questions and be willing to hear the truth, even when it hurts. For example: Are you irritated right now? Should we talk about this another time? How can I change?

6. Be Flexible. When conversations flow between serious and light, it can be hard to navigate the best way to speak about the issue. Everything is a little more messy, certainly more gray than a formal counseling relationship. There can be many interruptions and distractions, and many opportunities to ask for forgiveness or clear the air when we have not loved as well as we should.

7. Be Willing to Receive. None of us is infallible or perfectly wise, so we should never be the all-time counselor or minister, dispensing counsel to the masses without receiving any for ourselves. We all need some relationships where people are speaking into our lives. Not every relationship has to be exactly mutual, however.

When the church is functioning as it should, these relationships set it apart from any other institution. Here we see the kindness of God in giving us a body of believers and not leaving us alone to slog through this broken world. Here we see this beautiful process: “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15).

*As both a counselor and recipient of structured counseling, I believe much good comes from formal counseling and specific training in counseling. In some situations, informal counseling is not the wisest or most helpful course of action.