By Garrett Higbee
March 5, 2021
In an effort to help counselors bring biblical hope and help to the people they minister to, we have found 10 key mistakes that many of us make in counseling. As we point out these common mistakes, we will share Twelve Stones' ministry philosophy and demonstrate how we seek to avoid these errors:
Mistake #1: The past is a pothole to be avoided.
For fear of sounding Freudian or hoping not to give the counselee the idea that the past is determinative, many counselors give little credence to the counselee’s childhood, family dynamics or long term history. We have found that by listening carefully to the counselee’s history, and probing with heart exposing questions, we are able to get valuable heart shaping information. By reflecting on the shaping influences of the past and reframing the language of the counselees, we can speak the truth in love much more clearly and sensitively into their lives. Looking at the past is useful and important, not because we are looking to blame or excuse sin, but to hear heart themes as they emerge through multiple stories. They sense we now know them better and care more empathetically. It also gives us the distinct advantage of planting a pivot foot into their worldview, all the while keeping our other foot planted in a solid biblical worldview. Having an advocate (a concerned family member or friend) in the room is invaluable to provide intercession, help shape an accurate perspective, and take notes of key truths shared for later application. David Powlison does an excellent job of getting at some heart probing questions in his article on X-ray Questions (see below).
Mistake #2: Going after the obvious too soon.
"Ah ha! My acute discernment gift-- and the painfully obvious fear of man theme in the paperwork lead me to believe fear of man and perfectionism are the issues! I will asking leading questions about fear, give him great fear of man busting homework, and two verses on fear to memorize (to perfection) for next week." Although we may be on the right track, how we approach these issues and help counselees see the problem is going to be key. We could just set them up for telling us what we want to hear, instead of helping them see their need related to sin and its bondage.
Mistake #3: You’re problem is sin, dummy---stop it!
The “psychologized” counselee is often resistant to being told their disorder is really just sin. or that they (if they have bought into the label already) just need to repent of sinful behavior, stay renewed (more time in the Word), and stop worrying so much about gaining the approval of others. A much better approach is more like Christ with the women at the well (see John 4). The goal is to get the counselee to see themselves through the lens of scripture, to think of themselves as God views them and their problems, and to feel God’s conviction and comfort as they peer intensely in the mirror of His Word.
Mistake # 4: Only addressing “fruit issues and resulting consequences."
We sometimes are tempted to be the answer man by focusing on symptoms and common conflicts with our common problem solving techniques or we just find ourselves putting out the latest fire (their perceived crisis of the week) rather than performing invasive heart surgery (who is running this session anyway?). We might come up with two great proof texts to help that problem, but we are potentially straining gnats here. We need to go after the root issues of the heart.
Mistake #5: Making the homework more like jumping through hoops.
We can sometimes give the impression that homework is a competition. In the case of really hurting counselees, one size does not fit all. A great homework assignment for one person may fail for another…consider Proverbs 18:13 and Ephesians 4:29 as you assign “evening opportunities."
Mistake # 6: Keep your distance, it may be contagious.
When someone is really overwhelmed, it is easy to forget how to be around them. Do I act formal or try to cheer them up? Do I keep professional distance? We find that a good first step is to take the attitude that the ground is level at the cross. Next, we must remember that the Holy Spirit is present in the counseling room. So, we can be ourselves, share our family news and struggles, use humor, and even give a comforting arm around the shoulder to let them know we do not fear their or their “disorder.”
Mistake #7: Assigning “more of the same.”
“Mature Christians” can be told to read and memorize scripture all day long with little affect. It is not that the Word of God is not effective, it is that their hearts are dull, hardened, or dead. We need to find out why their hearts are wandering and always anchor them back into relationship with and identity in Christ.
An effective way to bring about a fresh perspective resulting in hope and change is to emphasize the abiding relationship with Christ when approaching prayer, the Bible, or spiritual disciplines. We talk a lot about “being” and assigning more mediation than memorization when folks are in crisis. Mediating on verses like Psalm 16:11 (joy in the presence of God/abiding and being close with Christ) or Proverbs 23:26a (“Give me your heart . . .” a father saying this to his son, like God says to us). The bridge between knowing and doing is meditation. Consider what Psalm 19:14 focuses on: my words = espoused theology or what I know; my meditations = lived theology or what I do). Assigning chapter one of Andrew Murray’s book on abiding, which is a masterful weaving of John 15 and Matthew 11:28-30, may be a good step towards not assigning more of the same.
Mistake #8: Much effort, little prayer.
It is easy to get stuck in counseling. We often remind each other that we cannot work any harder than the counselees or we will get frustrated and hopeless. We need to place them at the foot of the cross in prayer and in action during the sessions, not just before and after. That might mean taking a break and going on a prayer walk, asking the advocate or a spouse to pray, or giving them an assignment and calling it a day. We may also need to get a break ourselves and pray or get counsel from a trusted mentor to gain perspective before going back in. Do not tell them to trust God while you lean only on your own skills, efforts or Bible knowledge (John 5:39). More Bible knowledge only beads up on a hard heart, and prayers are often the only way to furrow the soil, so the Word can take root (see Matthew 13, the parable of the sower).
Mistake #9: Acting like you are above the counselee's sin or subtly patronizing them.
Counselees need to be able to get to the place of conviction by the Holy Spirit. But, I am afraid we often make that harder by quietly judging them in our hearts. This may come out very subtly in the way we advert our eyes, change the subject, or even how we ask questions. Most of us know of someone in our lives that has "played the Holy Spirit” with us, instead of placing us in the hands of God for that work. If appropriate, this is a great time to share your own testimony or even personal struggles in the session. We often site 1 Corinthians 10:13 as we share common struggles to build trust. You should take a good look at why any sin would seem too heinous for you to relate to. It's also possible that you are still tender from having been sinned against in a similar manner as your counselee, so you may need to refer the counselee to another counselor for a while to get help yourself.
Mistake #10: Sending your counselee back into the “loneliness” of the congregation.
We need to realize that our interactions with counselees are often deeper and more intimate than any they have ever experienced or, certainly, than is normal in their daily lives. We have asked them to get real and to walk more closely with Jesus. Most of their peers will not have had this experience and may be less inclined to be as serious about a biblical worldview or abiding in Christ daily. This is why an advocate, a small group, or a trusted friend should be invited in to the counseling for at least a bridge session, if at all possible. You need to hand off the person or family to the church in a very intentional way.
Powlison, David. X-ray questions: Drawing out the whys and wherefores of human behavior. The Journal of Biblical Counseling (Vol.18 Number 1, Fall 1999). Pages 2-9.