From the moment Craig walked into my office, his posture, demeanor, tone, and words all communicated that he didn’t want to be in counseling; he didn’t think he needed it.
Craig was also a serial adulterer, verbally and emotionally abusive toward his family. He’d recently been removed from his home because his anger was escalating, and his wife and kids felt threatened. In counseling, he ran the gamut from weeping over his sin to storming out in anger.
My first instinct when I met Craig was to think, “This guy is a jerk!” But truthfully, when Craig walked into my office, it wasn’t just him who needed to grow in grace. I (his counselor) needed to grow, too.
It takes divine wisdom to help someone like Craig. It takes a lot of time and discernment to dig into the particulars of his situation, uncover the heart behind his actions, and offer biblical wisdom. But amid the particulars of his case (and every counseling situation), there are some universal truths we should apply.
Some of those universals, in fact, are aimed more at shepherding my heart as the counselor than at helping the person coming for counsel.
Recognizing Universals and Particulars
In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul writes, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” When Paul says, “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted” he shows us there are certain ways we’re to approach others based on their particular sin or suffering. “Idle” (ESV) or “unruly” (NASB) people need to be approached as sinners. They need admonishment and loving correction. However, those who are fainthearted and weak need encouragement and help.
This isn’t to say there will be no correction for the fainthearted or that an idle sinner doesn’t need encouragement and help. But Paul recognizes the emphasis of care will lean in one direction or the other.
Paul doesn’t stop there, however. He gives these particular instructions in the context of a universal: “Be patient with them all.” In applying Paul’s instruction here, I’d give three universal encouragements for every biblical counseling situation.
1. Be patient.
When someone comes for counseling, their sin is often deeply rooted. People don’t seek care for a single episode of drunkenness. They come because they’ve tried and failed—again and again—to end a pattern of drunkenness. Turning from an old pattern of sin to a new pattern of righteousness takes time, so the counselor must be patient with the change process.
When someone comes for counseling, their sin is often deeply rooted. Turning from a pattern of sin to a pattern of righteousness takes time.
Care requires a second kind of patience as well. Not only does it take time for a person to change, it also takes time to know a person. It’s hard to discern if someone is idle, fainthearted, or weak from a single questionnaire or conversation. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of our propensities; we should not too quickly jump to conclusions about whether a person is sinning or suffering. Sometimes only time and an intentional knowing process will make the reality clear.
2. Show compassion.
Hebrews 4:14–5:3 calls us to love with Christ-like compassion. “Compassion” means to suffer together, and Hebrews tells how an Old Testament priest could “deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness” (Heb. 5:2). He could show compassion because he experienced the same suffering as those to whom he ministered.
As those who proclaim God’s grace to suffering sinners, we must see this example as parallel to our own. We must deal gently with our brothers and sisters because we also know what it’s like to suffer and to sin. Whether we’re applying God’s law or bringing grace, our shared experience of suffering and sin should make us gentle, humble, and compassionate.
3. Point to Jesus.
The author of Hebrews also sets forth the example of Jesus, our great high priest. Christ suffered great temptation and human weakness, but his experience runs perpendicular, not parallel, to ours, because Jesus never sinned (Heb. 4:15).
We must deal gently with our brothers and sisters because we also know what it’s like to suffer and to sin.
Thankfully, Jesus’s sinlessness doesn’t harden his heart toward us. No, Jesus is said to “sympathize with our weaknesses,” and he invites us to “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15–16). As counselors, we must mimic Christ’s compassionate, patient love. Whether a person’s primary presenting problem is sin or suffering, her greatest need is Jesus. And his promise is to extend grace, mercy, and help to those who come to him.
No matter who you’re counseling, no matter the particulars of his situation, you can and should be patient, show compassion, and point him to Christ. Applying these universals will guard you from becoming a jerk and, more importantly, you’ll model Christ’s character in each particular situation.